As storm chasing grows in popularity, so do the problems

Editor’s note: The location of Chasercon was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

Storm chasers and law enforcement officers have butted heads so often in recent years that they were described as “natural enemies” at a recent national convention for storm chasers in Wichita.

Authorities and chasers alike say that needs to change – not just for the sake of those involved but to improve public safety as well.

“When the storm chasers are out and storms are occurring, the roads look like a high-speed chase,” Wichita Police Chief Gordon Ramsay said.

Interest in storm chasing has exploded since the movie “Twister” came out in the 1990s.

The arrival of smartphones with ever-better photo and video capabilities means more and more people with little to no training in how to read storms are hopping in their cars and trucks and dashing after severe storms, “in hopes of seeing a monster tornado,” said Ben Alonzo, a Kansas native and longtime storm chaser who now works as an earth and atmospheric science professor in Florida.

“My meteorology students are often shocked when they ask me about the chances of getting killed by a tornado during storm chasing,” Alonzo said in an e-mail response to questions. “I’ve told them that you’re much more likely to be in a fatal traffic accident. It’s the traffic I’m worried about – not the tornado.”

Most of the confrontations between law enforcement and chasers happen when chasers “are disobeying speed limits and stop signs” said Butler County Emergency Management director Keri Korthals.

“Public safety is one of the biggest things that’s going to get law enforcement officers upset,” she said.

Chasers have been known to be so aggressive in trying to get dramatic video of tornadoes that they’ve driven across pastures, farm fields, oil battery roads and private access routes – causing damage and sometimes getting stuck, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Chad Crittenden said.

“We’ve gotten a lot of complaints” from farmers in rural areas of Kansas in recent years about damage caused by chasers, Crittenden said.

Having to retrieve stranded chasers and other motorists who are stuck in ditches or muddy fields is more than just a nuisance for law enforcement and first responders, Crittenden said. It’s potentially putting the lives of the responders at risk because they may be in the path of an approaching tornado or violent thunderstorm.

But chasers counter that law enforcement officers have caused problems and created dangerous situations by needlessly blocking roads or limiting where chasers can monitor the weather.

A recent example of that, a number of chasers said in social media posts, occurred outside of Dodge City in 2016, when several tornadoes touched down near the city.

“The police had a road blocked off which backed up traffic for miles during the event, which created a potentially dangerous situation,” said Collin Hooks, a Wichita-based storm chaser.

Had tornadoes shifted their track, chasers said, the people halted on that road would have been sitting ducks because of the traffic congestion created by the road block.

During the panel discussion at Chasercon at the Hyatt Regency last month, Sedgwick County Undersheriff Richard Powell said his department had not had issues with chasers and he was glad to see so many chasers at the conference.

“We truly do realize the value of you folks,” Powell said. “You are more sets of eyes, more sets of ears.”

The presence of so many chasers at the conference reflects “the level of passion, the level of professionalism” evident in what for some is a hobby and for others a profession.

Korthals told the gathered crowd she has a mixed reaction when she sees storm chasers converging on Butler County.

“No offense, but I’d really like not to see you in my county,” she told the crowd, which drew laughter. “If you find my county interesting, that usually means we’re going to have a bad weather day.”

At 1,400 square miles, however, Butler County is the largest geographically in the state. That’s a lot of territory to monitor, Korthals said.

“Any extra eyes on that storm is something we value immensely,” she said.

Law enforcement officials, Korthals said in a later interview, sometimes make the mistake of assuming all storm chasers are the same: They’ll do whatever it takes to get the video or photos they want, including breaking laws and putting themselves and others in danger.

“They get all lumped into one group: ‘Chasers are bad. All they want is the glory of the money shot,’” Korthals said. But some storm chasers are conducting scientific research. Others are chronicling the storms with agencies such as the National Weather Service or private forecasting services such as AccuWeather following their live reports. Television stations in Tornado Alley also contract with chasers to track severe weather and provide video and storm reports.

“It’s not just that one model” of storm chasing, Korthals said.

While getting up-to-date weather information is easier for troopers stationed in metropolitan areas such as Wichita, Crittenden said, chasers can be important sources of updates for troopers in rural sectors of Kansas.

“If you have valuable information, ‘This looks like this is going to happen,’ come tell me,” Crittenden said. “At the same time, don’t be mad if I tell you you can’t go down that road because it’s not safe.”

Reed Timmer, one of the best-known storm chasers in the nation, urged chasers in Wichita for the national convention last month to obey the speed limit and ‘accept the consequences’ of not identifying the right storm to track. “But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t sped a few times,” Timmer admitted. Korthals, Crittenden and others said the best way for law enforcement and storm chasers to move away from being “natural enemies” and forging a better understanding is increasing communication and understanding.

“I’d much rather spend time talking to people at a chaser convention than argue about it on the side of the road when a storm’s coming,” Crittenden said. “Nothing good’s going to come of that.”