A decade ago, Chuck Rittenburg was the most successful professional storm chaser in the business. The founder and president of Thunder Road Tours, he was a sought-after guest on “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “60 Minutes” and The Weather Channel. He was a frequent talking head on network newscasts. And he and his company were featured in articles in USA Today and People magazine.
But life turned on Chuck. Through no fault of his own—-well, perhaps he bore some small culpability—-he lost his business, his home and his family. He tumbled into an abyss of despair, ultimately subsisting on a job as a janitor and a part-time gig as an usher at a minor league ball park. For breakfast he’d down a beer; for dinner, a cheeseburger and a shot. In his apartment, cockroaches outnumbered dust bunnies.
Life had beaten him down. You could see it in his sad, green eyes; his receding, greying hair; his wistful smile. He was merely clinging to existence. “Clinging,” he told me once, “because I don’t have enough guts to blow my brains out.”
But, as if in a tale from Hollywood—-which, ironically, it turned out to be—-Chuck was tossed a lifeline by a guy named Jerry Metcalf. Metcalf—-yes, direct from Hollywood—-dangled a million dollars in front of Chuck. All Chuck had to do was lead a team of cinematographers to an EF-4 or -5 tornado within a two-week time frame.
But Chuck, believe it or not, refused. At least initially. His argument: “If atmospheric conditions aren’t right, there aren’t any tornadoes. Let alone an EF-4 or -5 which represent less then one percent of all twisters. That means out of every 100-plus tornadoes, only one is going to meet your criterion. Bottom line: There’s a 99 percent probability I don’t get shit. Actually, less than that, since you’re giving me only fourteen days.”
Eventually, however, Metcalf prevailed. A million bucks is a great counter-argument. In the end, however, there was no love lost between Chuck and Metcalf. Still, despite their smoldering animosity, they had one of the wildest two-week adventures in the annals of storm chasing; something entirely unexpected, unpredictable and unprecedented.
There was romance, reconciliation, duplicity and, of course, great danger. But not all of the danger—-actually, not even most of it, it turned out—-was from the chase team’s quarry, the great tornado-spawning thunderstorms known as supercells.
Even greater hazards, Chuck discovered, lay hidden in the vast grasslands of the Great Plains.
Supercell rumbles onto bookshelves in November.
born in Emporia, Kansas, 1963
BS in Meteorology, University of Oklahoma, 1984; MS, 1986
worked at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center (later the Storm Prediction Center) 1986-1996
started Thunder Road Tours, 1996
PHOTO: monitoring a supercell from a chase vehicle