Maybe it’s time to back away from the tornadoes


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.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


14 thoughts on “Maybe it’s time to back away from the tornadoes

  1. When that many professional chasers known for safe, conservative chasing get caught in the storm, I think you have to chalk it up to a freak storm that took a right turn and hit an area that’s usually safe for chasers. From someone who’s been in the back of that Tornado Hunt car, I know that team is never chasing recklessly or with the intent to get as close as possible.

    • What I would say of them and the rest is to re-examine what a safe distance should be. And there also should be some thought to the fact that storms, on occasion, do take right turns. Take a look at the image that pinpointed where all the storm chasers were when the tornado was on the ground. A whole bunch of them are very close to the vortex. I can’t imagine that’s safe.

      But I agree that this was a freaky storm, more unpredictable than most, and people who ordinarily would have been in a safe spot got endangered. I’d like to think that should also be a factor in decision-making, or at least talked about in storm-chaser circles. More and more people are taking bigger risks.

  2. Maybe people need to flee Oklahoma. That’s crazy. It almost seems like the insanity of people building back where there are hurricanes, brush fires and so on. I know you can’t live in a place where nothing happens but some places are just insane to live in. That video footage was pretty funny though. I am surprised there were no cursing in the video. HAHA!

    • I hear that sentiment sometimes, and I can understand where some people might believe that. But like you said, there is no place free from possible disaster. Last year, the Southeast was nailed by tornadoes much deadlier than what we had here last month. California has earthquakes. Seattle/Tacoma is near the foot of a huge volcano that, if it blows, will be catastrophic. Everyone living on the Gulf Coast and up the East Coast is vulnerable to hurricanes. Everyone from south Texas to southern Alberta and from the Front Range to Appalachia is at risk of tornadoes. Folks along the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio rivers are at risk of flooding. People living in western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas and southern Missouri are at risk of a huge earthquake that could release any time. And the list goes on. The world is a dangerous place when it comes to weather and other natural phenomenon.

      As far as the video goes: Maybe they got too scared and freaked out to cuss!

  3. Having lived in “tornado alley” for the better part of my life, I understand the fascination. It’s turned in to almost like scandalous celebrity watching, you know you shouldn’t look but you can’t help yourself. I remember as a kid going outside on the porch when there was a warning or the sirens went off. We listened for the rain and watched the color of the sky. And then we got in our hidey holes like our momma taught us till the sirens quit. Mother Nature does not play favorites and I’m happy that there are professionals out there trying to gather data that will improve early warning systems and such that will continue to save lives but come on, some of it is just sensationalism for the sake of a few minutes of film footage.

    • That’s pretty much what I think about this. They are fascinating to watch. storms are awesome and powerful. But we know when it’s time to head for shelter. It’s a tragic irony that the three who were killed were researchers, while the video swarms of tornado watchers are the ones to were spared. It goes to show how this particular storm was so unpredictable, but then again, that is the nature of such storms. You don’t always know what they’re going to do, and there is a distance you have to keep to remain safe.

  4. From a life-long resident of Oklahoma who is normally very casual about tornado warnings, I was on the road. Here is why. I have a long memory and I have grown to trust our weathercasters, and apparently that is wrong. When the El Reno tornado touched down it was predicted to hit my house in North OKC in 30 minutes. The newscaster used the term “tornado emergency” which I can ONLY recall being used on May 20th (an EF-5), and told us that getting underground or getting away was the ONLY safe thing to do (something I can only recall being said on May 3rd) and reported winds of 200 plus mph – and I know the EF scale. 200 mph or higher is an EF-5. I recalled that both the May 3rd and May 20th tornadoes stayed on the ground for 30-45 minutes, and if indeed this was another of those, my house would in fact have been hit. And I, and none of the people I know, have an underground shelter. So with 30 minutes of spare time, I got on the road in a supercell knowing full well the risks we were taking, knowing there would be floods and downed power lines and crazy drivers and congestion and other tornadoes for us to dodge with hail and debris if we were not fast enough… and that El Reno tornado was not an EF-5.

    I will never trust anything they say again. I will mute them and look at the radar and then calmly go in my closet like I have for all the rest of my life.

    • When I think of the May 3, 1999, tornado, I look at that as such an anomaly. From the time it formed to when it lifted, it was on the ground for hours. I’ve never heard of something like that. It had 320 mph winds. Again, unprecedented in recorded history. A lot of people who saw this coming and saw its path indeed left their homes via car and found safety. But they did so with much more advance warning.

      Fleeing tornadoes by car seems like a last-ditch act of desperation, something to do only when there aren’t better alternatives. A car is a lousy place to be during a tornado. Eight people died in their cars last Friday. As weather technology has improved, we’ve gotten better, more accurate and earlier warnings. But we’ve let that somehow creep into the thought that fleeing a tornado by car is suddenly acceptable advice. I think we need to re-think that in light of what happened in El Reno and OKC last week.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, and I’m glad you are OK.

      • Thanks! I actually read your blog a lot. It’s very good. It’s on my feed.

        I have always thought of the May 3rd tornado as an anomaly as well (Heck, it broke the F-scale). A once or twice in a life time anomaly, even. But I remember listening to the news on May 3rd, and I remember as much as I can some of the things they said and how they said them, and how the situation differed from other storms. I remember being mortified hearing, for the very first time, that getting in a closet would not be good enough. And this past weekend matched up with what I remember… with what they said, how they said it, how they acted, except that there was lack of aerial footage during.

        It’s definitely not their fault I got on the road. That was my own fault and I should not have done it. But I got on the road knowing the car is the most dangerous place to be during a tornado, and believing that a once-in-a-life time Cthulu-esque tornado may have been heading towards my house. In short, it was an *imagined* last-ditch effort. Because as we know… if you wait until the thing is on you, it is too late for any decisions.

        I stress, not their fault, but I do think they need to put some serious thought into how their words affect people’s decision making, and what the best message might be, and to be careful about when to send the “get underground or die” message. It was obviously not just storm chasers clogging the roads last weekend. I think some communication guidelines for when to say “your closet will not save you” are certainly needed. And as a side, the El Reno tornado seems to have recently been upgraded to EF-5 so at least I no longer feel was being outright
        lied to. Which is nice. At least there is that.

        But I think all this talk I have heard about how the people on the road did not know how dangerous it would be, or about how the people on the road were just “still emotional from the May 20th tornado” needs to be re-examined. That may have been true for some people, but not for us. There is more to it than that.

      • Great insight. The last place I lived did not have an underground shelter, so the plan was to hit a closet in the southeast quadrant of the house, have boots on and wearing either climbing or ski helmets. It was the best we could do.

        As we learn more about the El Reno tornado, it was not on EF5, but also the widest tornado on record — 2.6 miles. Fortunately, it was at this size in a very rural part of Canadian County, I was still huge when it hit I-40, but then petered out shortly after that. I’m grateful for that, because if it would have stayed on the ground, a lot of people stuck on I-40 and I-35 would have been in a world of hurt. As bad as the May 31 storms were for OKC (18 dead), it could have been so much worse.

  5. There is something about human nature that just loves to get close to things that can kill us. In New England people go to the shore to watch the waves break over the sea wall when a hurricane approaches. Those same waves can toss boulders hundreds of feet and kill a person instantly.
    I guess it’s the adreneline rush. I love to watch lighting, but I don’t do stand under a tree or in the middle of a field.
    I hate to say it, but those videos are captivating.

    • They are, and there will always be a demand for them. So that means people will continue to push limits in terms of getting better photos, videos and research data. More people, as well. And invariably, I think that will lead to more deaths.

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