The storm was a behemoth: 2.6 miles wide, the largest tornado ever measured on Earth. It was also violent, a strong EF-3 on the 0-to-5 scale for ranking twisters, packing winds as high as 296 mph. But chasers swarmed around it anyway and some even ventured inside the storm. Four died, the first known chasing fatalities.
The El Reno, Okla., tornado of May 31, 2013, killed eight people, all of whom died in vehicles. Three of the chasers who died, Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and chase partner Carl Young, made up the highly respected TWISTEX team, which launched probes into tornadoes to collect study data. A fourth, less-experienced chaser, Richard Charles Henderson, was also killed.
Two other prominent chasers had close calls: The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes had his car thrown. The chase vehicle of Reed Timmer, who starred in the Discovery Channel’s series “Storm Chasers,” lost its hood.
The morning after the tragedy, I wrote a perspective titled, “The day that should change tornado actions and storm chasing forever.” It made the point that chasers were pursuing storms too closely and needed to back off. “Storm chasing should be about appreciating nature and/or spotting storms to warn the public and provide visual confirmation,” I wrote. “It should not be a contact sport that puts lives at stake.”
Five years later, I asked several storm chasers whether the El Reno tragedy changed how they and their colleagues approach storms. Their answer: not really. Chasers continue to pursue tornadoes, some aggressively, and simply accept the inherent risks.
“I don’t think much has changed since El Reno,” said Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University who leads students on chasing excursions. “I still see handfuls of chasers on any given event continue to slice through the ‘bear’s cage’ in search of the most dramatic footage.”
Chad Cowan, a photographer and filmmaker who pursues storms, also said he hasn’t seen much altered behavior. “The deaths may have changed the way a few individuals and teams chase, but there is always going to be someone willing to drive a little bit closer to get a better shot.”
Dick McGowan, who has chased storms for 15 years and worked on “Storm Chasers,” said the El Reno incident opened his eyes to what can happen under the worst circumstances. But known as a “master” at pursuing tornadoes at close range, McGowan said he hasn’t altered his craft. “I don’t know if I have altered my approach to chasing storms … but that event is always in the back of each of our heads,” he said. “I just try to pay attention more … because no tornado is worth a human life.”
Chuck Doswell, a pioneering chaser and meteorologist who is retired from the National Weather Service and University of Oklahoma, say that responsible chasers took something away from El Reno but that not all chasers are responsible. “Most responsible chasers likely were engaged in some soul searching after Tim et al. were killed, I believe, but they were already behaving responsibly,” he said.
“The chasers who should have been reconsidering their chase tactics likely haven’t done so,” he said and predicts “more deaths among chasers in the future.”
The reality, Cowan said, is that all chasers have their own style. Some like to appreciate storms from afar, while others like to get close. “Personally, I love to experience tornadoes from close range, because it’s an entirely immersive experience as opposed to watching a cone-shaped cloud in a viewfinder through a zoom lens from miles away,” he said.
Since El Reno, it’s become easier than ever to track down storms, thanks to improved technology and forecasting methods. This means more people can potentially access tornadoes and place themselves in harm’s way.
The issue of how close to get is thorny and unsettled. And it may never fully be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.
What’s too close for an amateur is different than it is for an experienced chaser. How close to get also depends on the level of risk any individual is willing to accept. There is also the ethical question of whether close-up tornado footage from veteran chasers inspires “copycat” actions from beginners that places them in danger.
Irrespective of how close someone gets to a storm, Cowan and McGowan agreed that the act of driving is probably more dangerous than the tornadoes themselves. “The hundreds and thousands of miles some will put on every year just increases one’s odds that something, potentially fatal, could happen,” McGowan said.
Tornado chasers are a passionate bunch and, for the most part, undeterred by the risks. For some, the draw is to be out in nature watching the sky do crazy and spectacular things. For others, it is the adrenaline rush of witnessing the violence of the fiercest storms on Earth at close range.
“There is certainly risk inherent in tornado chasing, as with every other hobby, but I’m not going to let that stop me from doing what I love to do,” Cowan said.