April 19, 2012

Growing crowds of storm chasers an increasing problem for law enforcement, emergency services

Arlington Road in rural Reno County had never seen traffic like this.

Arlington Road in rural Reno County had never seen traffic like this.

For more than half an hour on Saturday afternoon, there were 10 to 15 vehicles lined up at the stop sign next to K-96 near Haven.

“The traffic there was just unbelievable,” said Russell Bonine, pastor of nearby St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. “If we had had that line of cars turning in for Sunday morning services, I’d be delighted.”

But they were storm chasers, trying to position themselves for the massive tornado outbreak unfolding across Kansas.

Similar hordes of chasers were reported around the state, from Salina to Solomon to Kingman and points west.

“I would say it’s in the hundreds,” veteran storm chaser Jim Reed said. “It’s more chasers than I’ve ever seen on a single chase.”

Chasers and law enforcement officials alike compared the surge of traffic to lengthy high-speed funeral processions. And both concede something likely needs to be done to address the growing problem of traffic congestion on days when severe weather threatens.

Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman, who lives in Solomon – just west of Abilene on I-70 – said he found “bumper-to-bumper traffic from the Interstate Highway 70 interchange at Solomon Road to the north, and 60 to 70 percent of the cars bore out-of-state tags.”

“It was outrageously stupid. People were driving crazy. It was dangerous,” Homman said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 27 years of working in emergency service.”

Value of chasers

Weather officials say professional storm chasers provide a valuable service when storms threaten.

“We definitely rely on them,” said Robb Lawson, a meteorologist with the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service. “The ones that call in (reports), a lot of them are actually streaming live, so we can see what they see.

“The more real-time reports we can get … the better.”

The Wichita office typically reserves one of its computers to follow live streams of chasers tracking storms so they can see whether what radar indicates is actually happening at a particular location, he said.

But there were so many chasers out on Saturday it was difficult at times for emergency vehicles to get where they needed to be in storm-stricken areas, authorities have said.

Kingman County Sheriff Randy Hill said his attempts to track and report developments of an intensifying thunderstorm moving toward Reno County were thwarted by chasers who were blocking roads.

“Later on we heard tornadoes were hitting Reno County, and they came from that storm,” Hill said. “I’m real aggravated with the system of the storm chasers coming out here.

“This isn’t a new problem – it’s a problem that’s just growing and growing.”

When the Attica area in neighboring Harper County was hit by a tornado in 2004, Hill said, he tried to get there as soon as possible to render aid.

“One of the roads was totally blocked” by chasers, he said. “There were so many, I couldn’t get through. I had to go several miles out of the way on muddy roads to get to my destination.”

Growing popularity

The explosion in the popularity of storm chasing can be traced to the 1996 movie “Twister” and subsequent cable television shows such as the Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chaser.”

The emergence of new technology means it’s easier than ever to track storms via radar on laptop and have small video cameras – or simply a smartphone – to capture nature’s fury in motion.

The crowds of storm chasers were even larger than normal on Saturday because forecasters had warned of the outbreak for days in advance, Reed and others say, and because it took place on a weekend.

Weather researcher Jon Davies said perhaps half of the people he came across on the roads of McPherson and Rice counties as he tracked a large tornado between Hesston and Goessel on Saturday night were local residents who just decided to jump in their car or truck and go see a tornado.

Darkness was settling in when a man in a truck pulled up next to Davies’ vehicle at a stoplight. There were children in the back seat of the man’s vehicle.

“Where’s the storm? Are you guys streaming? We’re going to go take a look at it,” he said to Davies before driving away.

“I wanted to tell him, ‘Dude, you need to go home,’ ” Davies said. “There were lot of people out there in the dark. Do these people know what they’re doing?”

Davies and other veteran chasers concede something likely needs to be done to address the increasing number of storm chasers when severe weather threatens.

“How would you sort out the official storm chasers from the looky-loos?” Davies asked. “I don’t know how you do that in a practical sense.”

As Homman, the Dickinson County official, put it, “I’m sure there are good storm chasers and novices who are dangerous. I can’t tell the difference between the two.”

Growing frustration

Reed said he understands why many law enforcement officials are increasingly frustrated.

“If we have so many people coming in so aggressively that it interferes with them being able to do their job, there’s something wrong,” Reed said. “I think a lot of these law enforcement officers have actually been very patient in dealing with storm chasers.

“We’ve reached a point where a panel needs to address this before it gets any worse.”

Hill, the Kingman County sheriff, said the day may come when states in Tornado Alley require permits for storm chasing.

“Make them apply and go through some type of training course,” Hill said.

Law enforcement officials closed I-70 and U.S. 50 – and perhaps other major traffic routes – as tornadoes threatened Saturday night, and Reed said more such steps may be necessary during future outbreaks.

“Maybe they can close the gates” on interstates “like they do for a winter storm until the storm is over,” Reed said. “This is a tall order. There’s no simple answer.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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