When the Storm Chasers Became the Chased

Tornado season is suddenly out of hand. Tony blogs on the dangers of the chase.


Storm Chasers among Dead in Oklahoma
The death toll from Friday’s night of terror in America’s heartland is now more than 10 after a swarm of Midwest twisters and flash floods pummeled part of the famous tornado alley.
Scioto County native and weather enthusiast Greg Syroney was first to inform me that three veteran storm chasers, Tim and Paul Samaras (father and son) as well as Carl Young, had died in the El Reno Oklahoma Force 3 twister (http://www.crh.noaa.gov/arx/efscale.php).
If you have watched storm chasers on cable TV, chances are good you have watched the elder Samaras apply his craft.
While I am saddened by the loss of life, all storm chasers know injury or even death are occupational hazards of the business. Much like the danger that faces a NASCAR or INDY CAR driver racing around an oval at 150-200 mph, storm chasers know full well the lethal capabilities of the so-called “maxi-tornadoes”.
After the hyper-active 2004 hurricane season (we were hit back to back with the remnants of Ivan and Frances which flooded the Ohio River) and right before Katrina made landfall in 2005, I made a bold prediction to my colleagues at WSAZ that one of these storm reporters “is going to die while covering this storm”.
Well sadly that forecast was nearly a decade early but none the less accurate.
Like most meteorologists, when storm days occur, I am known to follow the national media coverage of these storms whether on NBC, ACCU WEATHER,  CNN, FOX or TWC. In fact, I had the privilege at Penn State of studying under Dr. Greg Forbes (Severe Storm expert at the TWC) and have quoted him on the air before. He is a true gentlemen and a giant in his field!
What annoyed me the other night was one Weather Channel meteorologist (the polished and knowledgeable Jim Cantore) complained on live TV that his vehicle could not get to where the storm was heading because there are “too many cars in our way”.
Jim had lost sight of the fact that his own personal desires to scoop the others and report first were secondary to the safety of all who were on the road including his team and others who were not out thrill seeking but instead trying to stay out of harm’s way.
KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City had continuous coverage of the event and at one point reported that major highways were in gridlock by the hundreds of stationary cars that were rendered useless by the bumper to bumper traffic of rush hour on a Friday evening.
In effect, these cars and their passengers were “sitting ducks” for the approach of the potentially killer tornadoes.
The gridlock caused by the panic in Houston in September 2008 ahead of Hurricane Ike comes to my mind. That year Houstonians by the thousands fled in the last hours before Ike’s landfall only to run of gas and create a monumental traffic jam. Again they were sitting ducks in the face of disaster.
That’s not to say I am innocent in my weather coverage! Yes, I am guilty of getting excited when snowstorms affect our region. My outdoor demonstrations in snow hopefully have substance and educate you on what to expect. Still at times my forecasts are overdone and predicted accumulations go down the drain in a sudden change to rain.
But I have never put myself or my photographers into a potentially life threatening situation.
Sad to say, but there will be more one ups-manship on the part of the national media to bring you/us the pictures and sound of these monster storms first. And that means likely more serious injuries and deaths of those who are covering the storms.
As for me, that is not going to happen. I am a lone wolf when I say the only way I want to see a tornado is at a theme park like Cedar Point on a roller coaster.
One final word to kids who want to study meteorology at the university level. Many tell me they want to storm chase for a career. Well, fact is most storm chasers do not make money on what they do. Their avocation (HOBBY), not vocation (CAREER), is weather. They take off early on storm days to experience the "thrill of the chase". In that regard, you can't make a living storm chasing.
So kids my advice is to study meteorology with a passion at the school of your choice. Invest yourself in math and science courses at the high school level to prepare for the rigors of studying meteorology at the university level.
That's the one constant among the meteorologists who are on TV and who are out storm chasing. We made weather our passion in life.
I will add my story on the Friday tornadoes to my blog when I get time.


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