Storm chasers’ deaths in Okla. tornado prompt questions, calls for regulation

For the past several years, Tim Samaras has led TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes EXperiment), one of three pursuit teams on Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. (2012)
For the past several years, Tim Samaras has led TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in Tornadoes EXperiment), one of three pursuit teams on Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers. (2012)

Veteran storm chasers knew this day was coming.

With so many people now chasing severe weather in the hope of seeing a tornado – and getting closer and closer to the unpredictable beasts in the process – it was only a matter of time before a chaser was killed by one.

What has stunned so many chasers, however, is that when it finally happened on Friday near Oklahoma City, the victims included two of the most seasoned and cautious chasers in the field: Tim Samaras and Carl Young.

“This took out the best,” Wichita storm chaser and severe weather photographer Jim Reed said. “If that happens to Tim, it can happen to any of us. I hope they do a thorough, thorough investigation.”

Valley Center storm chaser Brandon Ivey described Samaras as storm chasing’s version of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt – a veteran who was almost universally admired and respected by his peers.

Samaras founded the company Twistex to research tornadoes and developed probes that could take photographs and gather data after they’d been picked up by tornadoes.

“It looks like they were deploying probes,” weather researcher Jon Davies, who worked with Samaras on various projects, said of Young, Samaras and his son Paul Samaras, who also was killed. “I can’t come up with anything – they must have misjudged the distance.”

Deploying probes meant Samaras had to get close to a tornado, making him and his crew more vulnerable. But Reed said he still can’t believe this was just a case of Samaras taking one risk too many.

“Tim was used to close calls,” Reed said. “I’ve seen him get so close and know when to stop and when to take evasive action. I find it difficult to believe that something was this sudden.”

Closer inspection of some video of the El Reno tornado – given a preliminary rating of EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, meaning it had winds of up to 165 mph – showed multiple vortices on the leading edge, Davies said. It’s possible a rogue vortice struck Samaras’ vehicle.

Several other chasers were hit by the tornado. Among them was the Weather Channel’s “Tornado Hunt” vehicle, which was reported to have been lifted and thrown an estimated 200 yards. All three people inside the vehicle, including meteorologist Mike Bettes, survived, but the driver suffered a broken neck, fractured vertebrae and several broken ribs.

The incident has prompted calls for regulation of storm chasing, including from the president of the Kansas Emergency Management Association in the heart of Tornado Alley. Brian Stone said if someone chooses to chase tornadoes, there should be rules to ensure they know what they’re doing. But Stone concedes he’s not sure whether law officers could enforce such rules.

“We need less storm chasers on the road, but I don’t know how we manage that,” Davies said.

Reed said roads are much more crowded with chaser vehicles now than when he began pursuing storms more than 20 years ago. Chaser congestion may have played a role in how Samaras chose to track the tornado.

“Did they have to go down a different road” than they wanted to, Reed asked, limiting their escape options? “That I can see influencing an outcome. Even on the best days ... this phenomenon can change so quickly, you have to be ready to go to Plan B. You may only have a few seconds to react.”

As more and more chasers vie to capture images or video that will generate revenue or public attention on YouTube or cable networks, the desire to stand apart can lead chasers to take greater risks.

“It does seem to be becoming exponentially more hazardous,” Reed said. “We just seem to keep raising the bar.”

AccuWeather Senior Vice President Mike Smith, who has been chasing storms for decades, warned against overreacting in the wake of what happened Friday in Oklahoma. In the more than four decades since storm chasing began, he said, these are the first chasers killed by a tornado.

“It’s a noble instinct to want to try to do something to try to prevent future problems,” Smith said. “We don’t want other people to get hurt.

“But if you cut off storm chasing, you make some percent of storm warnings worse and you cut off a significant source of research to make future warnings better.”

One change Smith said he would support is to discourage chasers from entering the “bear’s cage” – that space between the large hail and heavy rain on the leading edge of a supercell thunderstorm and the tornado itself on the back side.

“Ten years ago, that was considered taboo – it was just too dangerous,” Smith said.

Getting into the bear’s cage offers chasers a clear view of the tornado, making for good video and photographs.

“More and more chasers have been tempted to get into the bear’s cage” to get better images than their competitors, Smith said. “That’s what a bunch of them were doing” Friday.

But there’s little margin for error if the tornado makes a sudden turn to the north or northeast, which is just what the El Reno tornado did.

The Norman branch of the National Weather Service is conducting more detailed research of the tornado’s track and meteorology.

Davies, who was tracking the storm Friday with his wife, Shawna, said the tornado quickly became shrouded in rain shortly after it touched down. It also moved erratically, coming east, then shifting slightly southeast before taking a hard northeast turn that caught many chasers off-guard.

“It was very hard to see,” he said. “I was having a heck of a time tracking it.”

Davies decided to dash south so they could stay clear of the tornado’s most likely path.

“When we were dropping south of the tornado, I remember Shawna saying, ‘I think some chaser’s going to die today,’ ” because so many were on the north side of the storm and wouldn’t be able to see the tornado until it was on them, Davies said.

Her words proved prophetic.

Smith said he’s worried that well-meaning people may react to Friday’s tragedy by enacting regulations that actually lead to more fatalities.

The top priority in improving tornado warnings, he said, should be to reduce the number of false alarms – times when warnings are issued but no tornado develops. Storm chasers can play a vital role in confirming whether tornadoes indicated on radar have actually touched down.

Davies, for one, said he plans to chase less and choose his chase days more carefully.

“Storm chasing is dangerous, serious business,” he said, “and once again we saw that on Friday.”

Contributing: Associated Press

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