The day that should change tornado actions and storm chasing forever

Update 9:30 a.m., June 2: We now hear that “veteran storm chaser Tim Samaras; his son, Paul Samaras; and chase partner Carl Young, are among those killed by Friday’s EF-3 tornado in El Reno, OK.” More details here at the Digital Meteorologist blog.

Overturned semitrailer from El Reno tornado, May 31, 2013. (Omaha World-Herald, Chris Machian/Associated Press)
Overturned semitrailer from El Reno tornado, May 31, 2013. (Omaha World-Herald, Chris Machian/Associated Press)

Original story: Despite or perhaps due to accurate forecasts for violent tornadoes near Oklahoma City Friday afternoon and evening, motorists and storm chasers found themselves in harms way and some of the outcomes were tragic.

Five people are confirmed dead including a mother and young child.

An Oklahoma news organization says these deaths occurred in vehicles. Numerous tractor trailers were overturned and multiple cars flipped in the destructive storms. And several storm chasers, including a crew from The Weather Channel, experienced vehicle damage while narrowly escaping serious injury or death.

Most likely, the vehicle deaths were preventable. Their occurrence should squash the idea that trying to flee a tornado in a car is a good idea. And storm chasers – who pursued the tornadic storms much too closely – set a poor example and need to re-examine their priorities.

Fleeing motorists

It’s unclear why the motorists killed by these tornadoes were on the road. But major routes like I-35 and I-40 were gridlocked, a recipe for disaster given the extraordinary hazards posed by the inbound storms.

 

There is reason to believe some of these motorists were intentionally trying to outrun these storms and weren’t just commuting home or running errands, unaware.

Recently, in the wake of the tragedy in Moore, Okla., some media outlets told the story of residents who successfully eluded the massive tornado by driving out of town. CNN even quoted an “expert” who encouraged this practice.

“With the good lead time, I’d tell people to get in their automobile and go 90 degrees from that perceived path,” Ed Bates, an architect who designs buildings that incorporate storm shelters told CNN. “It’s manageable and easy to do — even in a city environment.”

But it’s not easy to flee a storm if the tornado is not visible because it is wrapped in rain and/or traffic is at a standstill.

And in the case of the May 31, tornadoes weren’t the only dangerous weather phenomenon drivers faced.

There was widespread flash flooding that submerged roads and forced water rescues.

 

 

And there also was large hail (baseball to grapefruit size).

Not to mention straight line (non-tornadic) wind gusts to 80 mph.

The danger posed by these various hazards that converged on Oklahoma City leaves little doubt being on the roads in these conditions was not a sound strategy and should be strongly discouraged, particularly in urban areas.

Ironically, On Wednesday, Harold Brooks, a researcher at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, stressed exactly this point. In a guest American Meteorological Society blog post, he wrote:

Consider the person who has no underground option readily at hand. What should they do? Flee the path? This potentially puts large numbers of people into vehicles ahead of the tornado. Past experience, such as the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado, teaches us that this is potentially catastrophic. Traffic jams occurred near the path on 20 May 2013 and it is exceptionally fortunate that deaths did not occur in vehicles in that tornado

Brooks’ advice for staying safe in a tornado is short and simple: “Get as low as you can and put as many walls as you can between you and the tornado.”

UPDATE, 2 p.m. Saturday: Several readers have pointed me to a news clip from TV affiliate KFOR in which broadcast meteorologist Mike Morgan advised people to drive away from the tornado that struck southwest of Oklahoma City in El Reno. Not sound advice, in my opinion. Link to video (call to action begins around 8 minutes and 30 seconds into video): KFOR tornado coverage May 31, 2013

Reckless storm chasers

As for the storm chasers who found themselves in harm’s way, they have no one to blame but themselves as they took unnecessary risks.

Far too many chasers approached the destructive tornado southwest of Oklahoma City near El Reno too closely.

The Twitter posting below shows the circulation of the El Reno tornado on doppler radar, and the red dots indicate the position of the storm chasers. Several of them were within the tornado core, demonstrating highly questionable judgment.

Here’s a perfect example of getting too close. Look at the video below of chasers hysterically fleeing this same tornado and getting pelted by debris. Why were they there in the first place? They were lucky not to be killed. Ironically, The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes, whose storm chase vehicle was tossed like a toy 200 yards in the El Reno storm (with him in it), spoke out against trying to get too close to a tornado just two years ago in an on-air segment. He said:

An increasing trend I see happening is chasers try to get as close as possible to one-up their competition and cash in on dramatic video. And the one thing I always hear from professional chasers is how safety is their number one concern and warning the public is their number one priority. Me? I call BS on that one. While you’re being hit by debris and being flipped by your car by a tornado, you’re not very concerned about your safety or anyone else’s. You’re setting a bad example for a young generation of chasers who follow your lead.

Yet Bettes and his crew did the very thing he cautioned against. Granted, it’s possible they just misjudged the storm while trying to provide footage to inform viewers of the storm’s position. But given the storm tracking technology resources of The Weather Channel – there was no need to be so close. Here’s what Bettes’ vehicle looked like in the aftermath of the storm:

Bettes was fortunate to walk away with just bruises.

Here’s one more example of a professional encountering trouble: the armored vehicle featured in the Discovery Channel program Storm Chasers and operated by celebrity chaser Reed Timmer had its hood ripped off.

If anything, the events of Friday evening demonstrate storm chasers need to back off. For too long, too many chasers – both professional and amateur – have been crossing the line.

Legendary storm chaser and tornado expert Charles Doswell put it this way in a rant I shared last year:

I can’t say I have any wish whatsoever to seek to keep up with what chasing has become…

I look at the videos people claim are fantastic on FB [Facebook] but I see almost no quality video. Most of it is the “edgy” sort of “reality video” that’s all the rage these days. People cheering and having “stormgasms” while they bounce down some road on the way to a close encounter. In those close encounters, for the most part, the video sucks (by my standards)

Hopefully, the fact that a highly respected on-camera meteorologist for The Weather Channel had a near-death experience motivates chasers to pursue these storms at safer distances.

Storm chasing should be about appreciating nature and/or spotting storms to warn the public and provide visual confirmation. It should not be a contact sport that puts lives at stake.

UPDATE, 2 p.m.: The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes posted this commendable remark on his Facebook page: “Hopefully our mishap will teach us all to respect the weather & be responsible & safe at all costs. I thought I was doing the right thing, but obviously I wasn’t. Lesson learned the hard way.” See also, related video segment: Mike Bettes Reflects on Tornado Hunt Accident

Related reading:

Tornado chasing: On a downward spiral or providing public value?

Our Tornado Voyeurism Problem

Storm chasing goes mainstream: Is tornado voyeurism killing people?

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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Ian Livingston · June 1, 2013