I woke-up to this sad news today:
Tornado chaser Tim Samaras shows the probes he uses when trying to collect data from a tornado. This photo was taken May 26, 2006, in Ames, Iowa. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP
My sincere condolences to the families of Samaras and Young. Tim Samaras was as educated, informed and prepared to chase storms as anyone who has done so. That a tragedy like this could happen speaks to the violent unpredictability of severe weather.
The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettis, photographer Brad Reynolds and a storm chasing crew was also hit by one of Friday’s tornadoes and suffered mild injuries. Their large SUV was lifted and tossed 200 yards off the highway. “That was the scariest moment of my life,” Bettes told the Associated Press. “I had never been through anything like it before, and my life passed before my eyes.”
Before this tragedy struck
, and just after the Moore, Oklahoma
tornadoes hit last month, I discussed storm chasers with CoJMC
colleague Rick Alloway. We both marveled at the video and photos storm chasers captured of tornadoes. We also wondered how long it would be before a storm chaser died getting too close, or getting hit by a destructive storm.
The day before
Friday’s Oklahoma tornadoes that killed storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young, the National Weather Service warned
there would be more tornadoes and severe storms — and there were.
Large clouds are seen as a tornado passes south of El Reno, Oklahoma May 31, 2013. Photo: Reuters / Bill Waugh
This is my experience as a reporter who has chased and reported on many tornadoes and other powerful storms across Kansas and Missouri, Michigan and Ohio. I’ve seen first hand what they can do. No amount of experience can predict a powerful storm that is inherently unpredictable. There is the distinct thrill of the chase. It’s an incredible adrenaline rush to witness the destructive force of nature play itself out in unpredictable ways. It’s impossible to ignore one’s own mortality in the face of such raw, natural power. There is no assurance though that when a storm chaser says they know what they’re doing, that they won’t be maimed or killed when they chase a powerful, unpredictable storm. They can be killed or injured by the storm’s high winds, flying debris, lightning, hail and flash flooding.
When this happens, when a storm chaser is injured or killed, what do the storm chasers say? Will they take responsibility for their own faulty judgement, even if it’s in the name of saving other lives? What safety guidelines do news and weather organizations have for their own employees or subcontractors who chase potentially deadly storms?
“That was the scariest moment of my life,” the Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes said after he and his crew were hit and suffered minor injuries as they tried to outrun a tornado they spotted in El Reno, Okla.
This is the fourth year the Weather Channel has sent out crews to actively hunt tornadoes. Originally, the Weather Channel storm chasers were embedded with a government research team. In the past two years though, says the Associated Press, the Weather Channel has sent its own crews out alone to hunt storms. Bettes’ white vehicle is emblazoned with the phrase “tornado hunt” and the network’s logo.
It’s fair to ask- Is the Weather Channel chasing tornadoes or television ratings?
Weather Channel spokeswoman Shirley Powell said it was too too early to tell how the close call involving Mike Bettis and his storm chasing crew will affect the network’s tornado coverage, but it will be under review. “Tornadoes are violent and unpredictable, but covering them keeps the public at large informed and, as a result, safer,” she told the Associated Press.
I disagree. I believe weather forecasting has gotten to the point where people can be sufficiently warned about an approaching storm without storm chasers personally verifying the potential destructiveness of the storm. That was most certainly the case with the National Weather Service warnings that preceded last Friday’s Oklahoma tornadoes. In this era of drone aircraft
, is there any reason a human storm chaser should put themselves in harm’s way to chronicle a destructive storm, unless, that is, they have a hidden death wish? I know this may sound harsh to some, but that’s my belief based on my experience chasing storms.
Another sad part of this is the proliferation of so-called for-profit storm chasing enterprises over the past decade.
It’s become a potentially profitable tourist industry
, here too
. It only guarantees that more people will/have unnecessarily put themselves in harm’s way as they compete to get closer to storms that kill.