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Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Koteskey, of Avalon Missionary Church, takes off in the spring each year for a “chase-cation” to hunt for tornadoes.

Chasing acts of God

Local pastor spends spring vacations hunting tornadoes

This storm formation was photographed by Pastor Keith Koteskey in Texas on a recent storm-chasing trip.

– those casually-dressed worshipers who arrive for the 10:45 Sunday morning service at Avalon Missionary Church – it is their first opportunity to hear Keith Koteskey’s sermon on resisting temptation.

But for the Kentucky preacher who has lost his drawl, and others at the church on the corner of Lower Huntington Road and Baer Field Thruway who assist in both services, this is the second go-round for the talk, more than two hours after the first gathering at 8:30 a.m.

With his neatly-trimmed goatee and business casual attire – that means no suit and no tie – Pastor Keith, as he’s called by much of his congregation, offers a warm, inviting rapport from the front of the room.

A youthful-looking 46, he has been the husband of LeAnne for half his age, and is the father of Tyler, 18, and Kristen, 15, a senior- and sophomore-to-be at Homestead High School. Koteskey is an avid runner, works out and adores University of Kentucky basketball, which has been the occasional point of friendly contention with some of his Indiana University-loyal friends and fellow worshipers. He also freely drops the word “dude” in conversation.

In this relaxed Sunday morning message about resisting temptation, he recites 1 Corinthians 10:13: “… And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

Somewhere in the sermon, he talks about finding his own way out. And after you get to know Pastor Keith, this part is vital: the dude’s an expert on that subject.

Koteskey has served eight years at Avalon, where he can be found most days and, as the saying goes, twice on Sundays. But here’s the exception: By the time early May arrives, when the first Saturday of the month is all but a state holiday as his old Kentucky home hosts the Derby in Louisville, Keith Koteskey is deep within the planning stages of his own annual rite of spring.

“I call it my chase-cation,” he says from a long, wooden table in the church office. Today he wears a blue, Hawaiian-print shirt.

It was last May, with LeAnne, Tyler and Kristen all remaining home, when he flew to Denver, where longtime friend Eric Kelly recently relocated. From there, they set out on their own yearly adventure of chasing tornadoes.

In previous Mays, when violent Midwestern storms spring up in abundance, they had hopped across Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, plains states that are all but the beating pulse of Tornado Alley. It was in El Reno, Okla., a small town 25 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, where an EF3 tornado with speeds measured at 165 mph killed three storm chasers May 31.

The destination nearly two months ago for Koteskey and Kelly would be central Texas, not far from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

For as long as Koteskey can recall, weather – particularly the nasty kind – has fascinated him. He vividly remembers that first taste of storm cell adrenaline. As a 7-year-old growing up in Wilmore, Ky., outside Lexington, his mom and dad herded little Keith and his younger brother and sister into the finished basement because tornadoes had been spotted all around the area. Just in case things got really bad, his dad had shouldered a big table into a corner of the room so they could all huddle beneath it.

“I can remember my dad gathering up photo albums and that sort of thing,” Koteskey says.

The day, Koteskey says from memory, was April 3, 1974.

More than 100 miles to the north and 16 years away from marrying her future husband, LeAnne Koteskey had her own brush with a tornado.

“I lived between Marion and Kokomo when I was a kid, until I was 12, and a tornado hit my town (Swayzee) and we lived through it,” she says. “I have no desire to get close to one again.”

The year, she says, was 1974. Early April.

“It was the same group of tornadoes; two different experiences,” LeAnne says. “Isn’t that weird? We both have different opinions about the whole tornado thing. … We had people in our town – good friends of ours – were in a closet, and that was literally the only thing standing. It’s amazing.”

May adventures

Yet despite his wife’s concerns for him, her terror of the unknown, her little girl memories and the story of her friends staying out of danger as they huddled inside a closet, Pastor Keith leaves his wife and kids and church and rows of believers for one week of a May adventure. He and his pal Eric will pile their laptops with their storm chasing software and their radar and their maps and GPS device into a vehicle to literally hunt the wind; to chase a whirling fluke of nature that cannot be caught.

Sitting at that big wooden conference table at the church’s offices Koteskey grins, then says, “I don’t mind people thinking I’m kind of crazy. I probably am kind of crazy, in terms of my hobby. But I just want to make sure people understand that the fun is in the chase.”

A couple times Koteskey makes sure to emphasize that the thrill is not in the destruction of property, and certainly not in the deaths that too often occur where a tornado touches down on a violent whimsy. There is the scientific side that is also a benefit, Koteskey says; the ability to track the tornado’s movement and predict where it will be 10, 15 minutes from where he stands at this very moment, and to make that information available to the nearest weather service, which can, in turn, alert the public so they, too, can scurry into their own basements.

There is that justifiable method to the madness, as well.

But when the shifting, swirling skies turn the color of ink and the wind soars across the fields and plains so badly that you have to lean into it to stay upright, and those two sounds you swear you hear are the howl of the tornado and your own heartbeat, well, it’s a rush.

“There’s just an awe in the power of nature,” says Koteskey, his eyes projecting his excitement. “I tell people, ‘To stand under – or near – a sky that has a rotating wall cloud and seeing just the churning of that, and the raw power that is there, is an awesome kind of experience.’ ”

The knack of the experienced chaser, he says, is not to get too close to that churning, raw power.

This May, near the middle of Texas, Koteskey and Kelly had placed their toes near that imaginary line.

“There was one time where we realized we were a little closer than we needed to be to something that was forming up, and we had to jump in the car really fast and head back to a safer distance,” Koteskey says. “The winds were pretty strong, to the point where I couldn’t pull the car door shut without putting the window down.

“Just (two months) ago we were about three miles from an EF3 tornado that was about a mile wide, in the dark. It was hard to see, but you could see the power flashes from the transformers that it was hitting on the utility poles.”

It was time to get the heck out.

Koteskey and Kelly, and the thousands like them, have a Plan B in case Plan A bares its teeth and takes a turn in their direction.

And so Pastor Keith, not in Kansas anymore, reminds his worshipers of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “… But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”

Not much danger

Koteskey insists there isn’t that much danger in watching a tornado from a safe distance, especially if you know what you’re doing. And he says he knows what he’s doing.

At least, that’s what LeAnne used to tell her friends who asked if she was afraid. She would tell them that he was prepared; that he had been doing this for years, and that he knew what he was doing. She knew the lines by heart, because that’s what he had told her for years.

“I would have said he’s always got a way out when he’s looking,” she says. “But then, you have the recent event with the storm chasers that were killed, and it just goes to show that storms are incredibly unpredictable. You can have guys who have done this for years; well-respected; all this kind of stuff, and they’re the ones that got killed.

“My whole logic is blown out the window of what it was. How I cope with it now is, I don’t know. Let’s see.”

It is, after all, a long time between now and next May.