In the minds of any experienced outdoorsman or woman is a simple tenet: Respect the weather.
We watch the skies, check reports, plan accordingly or – if needed – bail on plans altogether if things look too dicey.
So it’s with this mindset that I am attempting to tackle the subject of our fascination with severe weather. And in my part of the world, that means tornadoes.
Anyone who lives in Oklahoma has a strong fascination and layman’s knowledge of tornadoes. I’ve written about a number of tornadoes over the years and seen the damage they can do, whether it’s a small dustup damaging rooftops or a 320-mph monster scraping the ground clear of anything in its ¾-mile-wide path.
They’re all dangerous, they’re all unpredictable, and they’re all potentially deadly.
And for many of us, they’re all fascinating, so much so that whether it’s weather journalists, or scientists or thrill-seekers, the desire to see a tornado do its thing up close seems to be growing. So also is the variety of advice given to people who might be in a tornado’s path.
I’m not going to dance around either subject. So let’s get to the point.
First, let’s start with the storm chasers. Whatever their motivation, the push to get closer and closer to a tornado seems to have crossed a line. That line, in my view, is injury and death. In Friday’s storm near El Reno, Okla., we got this video from a storm chaser outfit:
The video is compelling and at times humorous. But it’s also a look at what it’s like just before you die while in a car caught in a tornado. Sheet metal, trees and a truck flew by the chasers. Their car was damaged.
They are lucky they didn’t get injured or killed. And for being in that situation, I’ll call it for what it is. They were being stupid. They’ll get a lot of publicity and a ton of Internet clicks on their videos, but being where they were was just plain dumb. My hope is they will learn from it.
This particular storm was different, in that it spun off multiple vortexes in surprising places. That caught many spotters off guard, so much so that in one case, three of them in one team were killed.
Others had close calls. Here’s another image, this one of a Weather Channel team’s truck after being caught up in the tornado:
So digest this: Three of the 10 people killed were storm chasers, and the three killed in this storm were not amateurs, but rather experienced researchers who just got too close.
Below is an image that shows where each storm chaser was in relation to the tornado, as posted in the Washington Post’s weather blog:
Each dot is a storm chaser. As you can see, many of them are right by the tornado, some appearing within the core of the vortex itself. Perhaps we’re lucky that the number of dead storm chasers is just three.
Now what of the other fatalities? Sadly, it appears all them were people caught on the highways in the path of the tornado.
We’ve long been told that a car is not a safe place to be during a tornado. Cars can be picked up, tossed and crushed by debris.
But there is a strain of thinking that if given enough lead time, people can flee a tornado by car.
Unfortunately, this ended up packing Interstate 40 and Interstate 35 during Friday’s tornado, trapping people on the roads as the storm passed. I can’t say for certain if everyone killed on the roads Friday were fleeing the storm or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But we do know that at least one Oklahoma City TV meteorologist was advising people to drive away from the storm, and that the highways were likened to “parking lots” because of the congestion. Had the tornado stayed on the ground or intensified as the storm passed through Oklahoma City, the death toll could have been much higher.
Here’s another video, showing television coverage of the storm. A couple of times, you’ll hear the advice to drive away from the storm.
To be fair, he also said people should get into an underground shelter, and mentioned that first. It should also be noted that we don’t know if anyone who was killed on I-40 was heeding similar advice to drive away from the storm. But I think we can agree that jumping in your car and taking your chances on the roads as a tornado approaches is a risky, last-resort thing to do, given what we saw happen to motorists in the El Reno area on Friday.
Some discussions need to take place about tornadoes. First, storm chasers need to rein it in. Spectacular video, mouse clicks and bragging rights are not worth your life, and the pack mentality that is settling in among their numbers is getting reckless.
Second, weather professionals need to clarify what they tell the public about what to do when a tornado approaches. It has been reported that in the May 3, 1999, tornado, people got enough advance warning that they were able to drive away to safety well before the storm arrived. But with that tornado, it had already been on the ground for some time before it entered the Oklahoma City area. People knew a half hour or more that it was coming. On Friday, that was not the case. And yet people were told to get in their cars and find safety out of the storm’s path. I think that’s bad advice.
Nature is wonderful, beautiful, unpredictable and dangerous. Spend enough time outside and you learn to give her the proper respect. I’m all for embracing the elements, even when they’re harsh. But there are lines I don’t cross, and it seems like some long-overdue conversations need to take place in this new era of adrenaline-laced storm chasing and weather broadcasting.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088