By now, many have heard or seen the toll on storm chasers from the El Reno, Oklahoma, tornado on May 31, 2013. Tim Samaras, a longtime veteran researcher and chaser, was killed along with his son, Paul, and his chase partner, Carl Young. Mike Bettes and the Weather Channel crew were rolled off the highway and lucky to escape with minor injuries. Brandon Sullivan was whacked with debris and barely escaped. Reed Timmer’s supposedly untouchable “Dominator” lost its hood. Veterans and rookies, cautious chasers and hot doggers, all in harm’s way. (There are links aplenty on some of those near misses, but I refuse to add to the YouTube hits by linking them here.)
Why do we chase at all? What is the benefit, and is it worth the cost?
I have a lot of emotions right now that range from disgust to rage to sadness to shock. I also still have the feelings of awe and inspiration, which I will reserve for another blog on another day. Right now, a lot of people are questioning those of us who seek out storms, and I want to take a moment to share my concerns as well as my defense of this strange hobby.
Not all chasers are alike. There are a few categories, with varying amounts of risk among those in each category. Research teams, like Samaras’s TWISTEX and the VORTEX2 campaign, spread out to collect data on storms from ranges of miles away to the deploying of instruments within the expected path. Pseudo-celebrity chasers like Reed Timmer and Sean Casey have made a career of bigger/faster/closer encounters that are made for TV drama and entertainment. Reed Timmer copycats stream toward the core of tornadic storms, cameras pointed inward toward their own faces as well as outward toward tornado destruction, looking for YouTube gold. Meteorologists stream in to capture development and structure, and a glimpse of a possible tornado, for the sake of reporting as well as understanding storms. Some chasers simply feel the call of nature, much like someone who scales rock faces or skis off trail, to get as close to nature’s beauty and power as possible.
Some chasers plaster their cars with logos and lights, their goals to see tornadoes evident in bright colors and in-your-face graphics. Others chase in nondescript cars, hoping to evade the appearance of a spectacle. Some are extraverts who love to engage locals who have questions, while others prefer to shy away from interaction and focus inward. Some of us hate the label “storm chaser”, while others embrace it. Chasers are no more of a homogenous group than rock climbers, skiers, or any other hobbyists/enthusiasts.
Some chasers take too many risks and get too close, to the derision of the chasers who prefer to keep their encounters more low-key. The consequences of such risks had not been truly felt by anyone among chasers. Until May 31, nobody had paid a price worse than minor injuries, car damage, and pride. On June 1, that world changed. And I am angry, and sad, and shocked.
It is indeed possible to pursue storms, photograph them, appreciate their majesty and power, and remain relatively safe – in the same way that it is possible to climb rocks and mountains relatively safely. But chasing a powerful storm is inherently risky, as are many encounters on the fringe of nature. It’s rare that the tornado itself is the biggest hazard. I worry as much or more about impediments like lightning, flooded roads, hail, strong non-tornadic winds, and other cars on the road (chasers and locals alike). In recent years, that last one has become a bigger concern than all the rest, as roads near storms are now often congested with a dangerous mix of chasers making illegal and unsafe maneuvers to get closer, locals puttering around with their dogs in the back of the truck and their kids hanging out the windows to see what the fuss is all about, and inexperienced chasers who stop on the road, stand on the road, leave their car doors open, and otherwise create obstacles.
Count me among those who turn a nose up at the bigger/better/faster chasers among us. I’ve seen dangerous behavior increasing with my own eyes over the last several years. I don’t know what, exactly, has caused it – perhaps people have lost their healthy fear of storms due to saturation of videos of close encounters. Perhaps too many kids and thrill-seekers are attempting to chase unguided, without experience or education to help them. All I know is that it was going to reach a breaking point someday. We all assumed it would be when one of those kids got killed. Who would have ever thought that the first chaser fatality would include one of the best?
Tim Samaras’s work was dangerous, but it was a calculated risk. His mission was to deploy instrument probes in the path of a tornado, then get out of the way while it hit the probes and collect them afterwards. If this sounds a little like Twister, then you’re actually not too far off. Getting in front of a tornado is always, always risky. It requires planning escape routes in all directions, and it requires anticipating the storm’s movement. Disruption to either of those could be, and was, deadly. His death is stunning and saddening because he has been in those positions before and did not pay such a price. What was it about this tornado that his experience could not escape?
The close encounters of Mike Bettes and Brandon Sullivan were less defensible, because they did not involve research. They were for the purposes of selling coverage to gain viewers and getting video for personal attention, respectively. (And if either of them argues they were there to spot storms or to take pictures or for public safety, I will argue right back that an in-vehicle inward pointed camera on their faces has nothing to do with public safety or storm photography.) They were in terrible positions even for a tornado whose path wasn’t as unusual as the El Reno tornado, and in both cases, it caught up to them. I’ll believe the apologies and mea culpa when I see changes in actions in subsequent chases this year and next year. Their highly visible recklessness makes me angry.
We were one of the dots on the map, one of the chaser teams around that storm. Why am I even there, with such a danger around me? How can I defend being a chaser?
Chasing began for me back in the late 1990s, when I spent a summer in Oklahoma and met a person who had experience chasing and could take me. (That person is now my husband and always my favorite chase partner.) The magic of seeing a storm from birth through maturity and to demise is humbling, breathtaking, and transcendental in the same way that many awesome experiences in nature can move the spirit. Additionally, seeing storms with my own eyes makes me understand them better. As a meteorologist and a forecaster, it makes me better at my job to understand storm behavior, to see a storm that is in a volatile environment but can’t get its act together enough to produce a tornado, while others drop tornadoes even when some ingredients seem to be lacking. I can understand and talk to storm spotters about what they’re seeing, because I’ve seen the same features with my own eyes. I can see a storm on radar and have a clear idea of what it probably looks like from the ground, and I can understand how the same storm can look very different to observers from different angles. We relay our reports to NWS, and we do our very best to stay out of harm’s way.
I’ve never been so close to a tornado that I found myself in its damage path, in a position to provide assistance rather than chase on. I’ve never had a tornado bearing down on me and not known where I would turn. But I’m also not error-free. We drove way too close to the back side of a rain-wrapped tornado just on this year’s chase trip, though the combination of what radar told us and what our eyes and gut told us were enough to turn us around before we drove into harm. We’ve had lightning hit within a mile of our car while still taking pictures, prompting a fast dive into the car for the rest of the chase. Our car has been rocked by strong rear-flank downdraft winds that wrap around behind and to the south of tornadoes and strong supercells. We’ve been pelted by up to tennis ball size hail when we drove into a storm that we thought was weakening at the end of a chase day.
In short, we take calculated risks, too. Our behavior during chasing is on the low end of the risk scale, with our worst offense probably some of the speeding we’ve done to get to a storm target, rather than anything near the storm itself. You won’t find insane video of houses being torn apart among our reels because we’re usually not close enough, and if we are, we’re driving too hard to get away. I’ve learned that Nature doesn’t care if I want to see a storm, or where… that storm will develop or not develop, a tornado will or won’t form and hit things, and it has nothing to do with me. All I can do is maybe be in a position to watch it and learn from it.
We will continue to chase, though perhaps not within a county of a major metro like Oklahoma City. The communion with Nature is not lessened, even now. If anything, I need to get back out there even more now. I want to see the majesty of supercell genesis and remember that it is still as humbling as ever.
Above: The El Reno tornado, May 31, 2013. Photo copyright Barbara Boustead.