By Steve Olafson
NORMAN, Okla (Reuters) - Here in the heart of Tornado Alley, they give awards for the worst hail damage on vehicles driven by the motley collection of civilians known as "storm chasers."
It's a good-natured nod of respect from the National Weather Center professionals to the mostly amateur ranks of people who crisscross the land following the most violent weather in the country.
Fifty-one chasers showed up in Norman, Oklahoma, over the weekend to reminisce, swap weather war stories and take a deep breath in their "off-season" -- the cool, crisp fall when a tornado is unlikely to rear its head anywhere in North America.
The event was the National Weather Festival, an open-house style event at the 5-story, $69 million National Weather Center building at the University of Oklahoma, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) is the primary tenant.
The storm chasers and their vehicles were among the hottest attractions, partly because the year 2011 has been a horrid year filled with recurring media images of tornadoes and their aftermath.
With 549 killed by tornado-related weather, NOAA says it was the fourth deadliest tornado year in United States history (1925 was the worst, with 794 fatalities.)
The Joplin, Missouri, tornado on May 22 was the worst: 162 killed according to local authorities. It was the seventh-deadliest in U.S. history and the worst since modern record-keeping began in 1950, according to NOAA.
For the chasers who were there, the Joplin twister is not something that evokes an animated spate of story-telling. Instead, they get a bit quiet.
"Joplin was," said Brian DePriest, before pausing, "not good."
"You're never used to it," said the 39-year-old chaser from Springfield, Missouri.
As a group, the storm chasers fall into four subspecies: spotters, students/researchers, professionals and TV chasers.
Yes, it's exciting and at times thrilling, they all report.
There is a general consensus, though, that unless you have your own television show, like Reed Timmers of the "Storm Chasers" program on the Discovery Channel, there's not a great deal of money to be made.
"Most people don't break even," said Denton Sachs, 20, an electrical engineer from Texarkana, Texas, who caught a lot of attention at the Weather Festival with his storm-chasing vehicle: a sleek, black 2011 Dodge Challenger.
Most chasers drive SUVs or pickups, but with an HD camera in front and a remote-control camera on his trunk, Sachs said he can stream live storm video from his Challenger as effectively as someone in an hardier vehicle.
He tries to steer clear of hail damage by keeping a close eye on his radar display.
At the other end of the age and experience spectrum is Mike Weiss, 41, who has been chasing storms for 19 years -- "before it was cool," as he put it.
He doesn't take video or photos and does it simply as a public service with Central Oklahoma REACT Team 6023, he said.
As a storm spotter, he reports what he sees to the National Weather Service and other government agencies.
If there's a misconception about storm chasers, Weiss said, it's that storm chasers are all thrill-seeking daredevils. If you don't know what you're doing, he added, it's a good hobby in which "you can get yourself killed," he added, without a grin.
Janette Bontempo, a 41-year-old homemaker from Sherman, Texas, followed the supercell storm that turned into the tornado that flattened the tiny Oklahoma town of Tuska, killing two on April 14.
"We had to do search and recovery," she said. "Some people will pay to go storm chase and they don't realize there's a human factor to it."
Even so, there was a healthy showing of young people who are new members of the swelling storm-chasing ranks at the National Weather Festival. Many were out-of-state students pursuing meteorology degrees at OU.
Others, like Lawrence R. McEwen, are young people enjoying an expensive yet exciting hobby.
Standing next to his 2009 Ford Escape, McEwen conceded that the two big hail-stone circles in his windshield could be considered badges of honor for his weather passion.
He was more eager, though, to talk about the 30 cameras and seven laptop computers he employs in his chase vehicle, along with the 8,000 hours of storm video he has compiled since the age of 13.
But beyond all the gizmos and technology at his employ, McEwen, a 21-year-old who lives in Moore, Oklahoma, made clear he grasps the potential bottom line of storm-chasing: "So many people have died this year and that has really bothered me."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)
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