When tornados are hitting the ground, most people are trying to take cover or drive in the opposite direction — but not everyone.
A few researchers believe they have good reason to head toward the funnel clouds to gather valuable data. Other spectators simply are looking for the thrill of seeing Mother Nature at her most violent.
They all at least think they can observe that violence from a safe distance, but the deaths of three storm chasers in an Oklahoma tornado last Friday are a reminder that it’s hard for anyone to make sure they can escape a tornado’s wrath.
The three chasers knew more about tornados than most people. Tim Samaras, who died along with his son, had founded a company to study tornados and develop probes that could take photographs and gather data on the storms. Fellow chasers said the three probably were trying to get close enough to deploy probes when the El Reno tornado caught them last Friday. They were surprised that Samaras, who always knew when to take evasive action, was caught by the storm. Samaras, his son and his longtime spotting partner must have been surprised by multiple vortices in the storm or a quick change in the storm’s direction.
The fact that such experienced storm chasers could become storm victims should serve as a warning to all the amateur gawkers who don’t want to give tornados the respect they deserve. Inspired by the 1996 movie “Twister” and more recent televisions shows about storm chasers, more and more people are willing to take unreasonable risks, assuming that they, like the people on TV, will be able to get away from a tornado when they need to.
Chasing tornados has become a tourist industry in the Plains. As silly and dangerous as that sounds, tourists traveling with an experienced guide probably are safer than the people who simply drive toward the storm in their own vehicles and reportedly line the highways with cameras and cell phones poised to photograph the storms.
They all are assuming they are keeping a safe distance and will be able to escape. They forget that storms change directions and even people who know much more about tornados than they do have misjudged or been surprised — with deadly results. The three storm chasers were among 18 confirmed deaths from the Friday storms in Oklahoma; 24 people died in Moore, Okla., just 10 days earlier.
There probably is no point in trying to pass or enforce laws about storm chasing. You might as well try to change human nature. Nonetheless, it’s important for us humans to realize we have even less control over Mother Nature.