SALINA — So many people were chasing severe weather in parts of central Kansas during the weekend that roads were jammed and emergency responders were hindered from doing their work, some central Kansas safety officials said.
The criticism brought a strong reaction from professional storm chasers, who said they provide valuable information to public safety officials and The National Weather Service during severe weather, The Salina Journal reported.
Chancy Smith, director of Dickinson County Emergency Management, said some roads in the northwest section of the country were like “a funeral procession” Saturday and some storm chasers would not allow emergency vehicles to pass or drove over downed power lines.
And Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman, from Solomon, said he saw bumper-to-bumper traffic near Solomon.
“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.”
The criticism is not fair to professional storm chasers, said Lanny Dean, who operates a Tulsa, Okla.-based business called extremechasetours.com.
Professionals educate the public and provide information to law enforcement, emergency workers and the National Weather Service, Dean said.
“We give ground truth reports. Radar doesn’t reach all the way to the ground,” Dean said. “I wonder if none of us had been on that event, if there would have been any more deaths (six were killed in Oklahoma). Veteran chasers really participate in getting the warnings out.”
He acknowledged that traffic was so heavy north of Solomon on Saturday that he changed locations.
“If we had been caught in the convergence, it could have been a dangerous situation,” Dean said. “I personally did not witness any altercations or incidents where emergency vehicles were not allowed to pass. We pulled over to let them pass. That’s what we do.”
Smith said he would apologize to chasers who followed the rules, “the people who were truly out there doing a service. It’s not the professional storm spotters. I’m talking about the idiots chasing the storm.”
Tyler Henoch, who was working as a storm spotter Saturday for KSAL radio, said four Kansas Highway Patrol units passed him with sirens blaring “trying to get people out of the way,” Henoch said, and other drivers “would not move.”
Legitimate storm chasers were not misbehaving, he said. “But right behind those guys were a bunch of amateurs, teenagers, hanging out of windows with video cameras.”
Saline County Sheriff Glen Kochanowski said he saw lines of traffic in several areas Saturday night even as funnels were dropping out of the clouds.
“You had to wait to get around them. They were oblivious to what was going on, as dangerous as it was,” he said.
“They were parked on the sides of the road, on bridges. They were a pain. They’re gawkers out where they don’t need to be.”
Dean’s business books 6-, 10- and 15-day storm chasing tours from April 20 through mid-August. A 10-day excursion through “tornado alley” in the Midwest costs from $3,200 to $3,500, said Dean, who is in his 22nd season as a storm chaser.
“We’re guilty as anyone for trying to capitalize on this. It is income throughout the spring and summer months,” he said.
“We try to police as best we can. You pull over for (emergency) vehicles. That’s a given. This is a gentlemen’s agreement,” Dean said. “The problem is that storm chasing has become mainstream.”
Homman doesn’t see it that way.
“He’s out making a living off of other people’s demise,” Homman said. “Stay in Texas or Oklahoma, or at least use due regard for our safety. That certainly wasn’t maintained (Saturday) from my observation.”