When selecting a vehicle capable of driving through brutally inclement weather and gathering information about tornadoes, it's easy to envision some massive armored truck that you’d normally see in a war zone. However, this specific duty also demands agility and being small enough to get around obstacles left in a tornado’s wake. So, why not a humble Mazda 2?
Aaron Harris runs Team W700 Weather Solutions, an organization in Western Kentucky that proudly calls this modest Japanese hatchback its responsive vehicle. Harris uses his Mazda to quickly hop into action, relay critical weather information to the National Weather Service, and even help render aid to affected areas. He's been wheeling his 2 for eight years now and has dealt with endless storms in this region of America’s heartland. Heck, it's even been inside six tornadoes.
Here's how he does it:
There's a Job To Be Done
Harris says his job is more about storm monitoring than chasing. When it comes to relaying data, he’s worked closely with the National Weather Service in Louisville and Jackson, Kentucky to provide infrasound detections in the field to help get warnings out.
He has many years of experience as an EMT and has eight FEMA certifications revolving around disaster planning, preparedness, and response. Combined with extensive study of meteorology, it’s been very rewarding work, he says.
Direct outreach is a component of the job, too. Harris says that when he’s in areas where they're predicted to get hit hard, he’s actively warning people. The vehicle is equipped with an air raid siren in the engine compartment, which can be activated while stationary when a tornado has been observed—and before official warnings are issued.
A Mazda 2 Committed To Emergency Response
Harris isn’t actually the first to enlist this particular 2 for specialized emergency duty. “Before this vehicle was used for weather, it was used as an emergency vehicle,” Harris told me. “When someone called 911, this thing would show up dressed in Fire Department colors and was stocked with an automated external defibrillator, oxygen, and just about everything an ambulance carried. It was just faster and could get through traffic where the ambulance could not.”
Under his ownership, the little Mazda has stood up to the task quite well. Currently, it has around 200,000 miles on the clock, and overall maintenance and ownership have been a breeze. He’s gone through six alternators due to the power draw that his equipment demands but has an auxiliary battery mounted in the trunk.
There's also a power inverter for supplying juice to tools and charging devices and has a 360-degree lighting system mounted on its exterior. Plus, it’s a mobile weather station featuring equipment that measures wind speeds, temperatures, humidity, and atmospheric pressure. He says it possesses infrasound sensors that are capable of detecting tornadoes before they form within about a 30-40 mile radius of the vehicle, depending on terrain and line of sight. Finally, it’s equipped with radio communication equipment that can communicate directly with National Weather Service offices.
I’m a proud former Mazda 2 owner, and thoroughly agree that the 2 is great for all this and more. Harris carries a chainsaw, a host of emergency medical supplies, rescue equipment, and all the tools needed to make emergency roadside repairs, as well as clear any debris from roadways. “You can’t always wait for a road crew to remove a tree when you’re avoiding a tornadic storm heading your way,” Harris said. “So being able to clear these things not only helps other rescue workers but heightens my own safety.”
What’s more, it’s been outfitted to withstand contact with tornadoes themselves. Harris says his 2 can handle an EF0 tornado without anchors and when properly positioned, and can even handle EF1-2 when anchored. It’s got chains mounted to its frame that he can quickly spike into the ground with a sledgehammer. His loadout also includes Lexan shielding that he can mount up to the windshield in the event of having to drive through a ferocious hail storm.
“It’s a rare occurrence, but if I can figure out the assumed wind speeds of a tornado and it’s within the threshold for what the vehicle can handle, then I may sit directly in its path, but again this is typically avoided heavily,” Harris said.
Maneuverability Is Key
Harris has found himself in many quick-reaction scenarios where the 2’s inherently good handling has come into play. He says he’s done some quick maneuvering off the interstate and down unpaved gravel roads doing around 55 mph, with heavy rainfall amplifying the tricky conditions.
Moving swiftly is no easy task in extreme weather situations, and the 2’s size and handling have enabled him to easily maneuver around debris and almost anything that’s been in his way. While he’d like to invest in kevlar tires and more armoring—and all-wheel drive would be ideal—he says that being smart about positioning (both on the road and in relation to where the weather’s moving) and having backups of backups of critical gear has made getting around easy.
The work that Harris does is commendable and just plain cool. It’s so fascinating that the small Mazda 2 has proven to be an excellent vehicle for the job. More armoring and the ability to mount bigger tires would be great, but agility and bomb-proof reliability are major upsides.
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