“YOU AREN’T DOING THAT AGAIN”–SOME THOUGHTS ON CHASING TORNADOES

My wife Chris and I are watching coverage of the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado, the devastating EF-5. It’s gripping, gut-wrenching, heart-rending stuff. After while, we can’t watch any more and turn off the TV.

Chris grasps my arm. “You aren’t doing that again,” she says.

“Doing what?” I ask, not making an immediate connection to any recent transgressions . . . which I seem to be able to perform at regular intervals whether I’m aware of them or not.

“Going on a tornado chase.”

Oh, that. Last spring I’d gone on a chase to gather background for the novel I was working on, Supercell.

“Look,” I counter, “you’re a lot safer chasing than sitting in a house waiting for a storm to hit. You know where the thing is at all times and you know how to get away from it if you have to.”

“You’re not going again,” she repeats. There’s a firmness in her voice indicating the “discussion” is over.

I respond with a noncommittal nod. I probably had made a mistake telling her I wanted to go on another chase next spring in conjunction with the release of Supercell.

In a few days, I calculate, things will calm down, the violence will have been forgotten, and I’ll revisit my arguments.

That didn’t work out too well.

First, this past Friday, my Weather Channel colleague, Mike Bettes, went airborne in the channel’s chase vehicle while pursuing a tornado (or perhaps vice versa). Remarkably, Mike survived with only minor injuries. [Small prayer of thanks here.] And then I learned that three veteran chasers had been killed by the same twister that rolled (and rolled and rolled) Mike’s SUV.

You’ve heard the three names by now: TIm Samaras, his son Paul, and Carl Young. I didn’t know Tim, but I came across his name frequently while doing research for Supercell. I know he was well respected, well liked and not given to reckless pursuits of storms.

Tim was a renown researcher. His son, a meteorologist, seemed primed to follow in his steps. Carl was widely known for his dramatic storm videos, many of which appeared on the Discovery Channel. My condolences to the Samaras and Young families.

Ironically, and sadly, Tim was a good friend and nextdoor neighbor of Roger Hill, co-owner of Silver Lining Tours. Silver Lining Tours was the commercial storm chasing group I traveled with last spring. I chose SLT because Roger had been recommended to me as professional, responsible and safe.

All of those adjectives proved correct. I paid close attention to how Roger and the tour’s driver, Tom Howley, operated. I wanted my Supercell protagonist to act similarly. (He did until the end of the novel when factors other than storm chasing per se landed him in a dire situation.)

Roger told me he never wants to place his clients in harms way. “I always have an escape route planned,” he said. He knew how to approach storms and when to disengage from them.

Although we never saw a tornado on my trip, I remember one incident in which we tried to outrun a storm spitting out huge hail. When it became evident we were losing the race, Roger turned us around, we tucked our tail between our wheels and got the hell out of Dodge (actually, it was just east of Amarillo someplace). Hailstones from that same storm smashed out the windshield of a vehicle belonging to a chase team attempting to shoot video.

Here’s my point. I can’t speak for other tour operators, but I know Roger is conservative and careful when it comes to approaching supercells and tornadoes. By definition, if you’re a TV field reporter, such as Mike Bettes, or a tornado researcher, such as Tim Samaras, your job pushes you a little closer to those monsters.

Neither Mike nor Tim was acting irresponsibly. They were veterans, not yahoos. They’d done what they were doing dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. It’s just that supercells and EF-3s are inherently dangerous and, as Mike said, “We were about 30 seconds too late in making our escape.” A tiny misjudgment. Huge consequences.

As far as commercial operators go, most of them, I’m sure—-and certainly Roger Hill—-understand you don’t have to pet a rhino on his horn to sense the power, fierceness and danger embodied within the beast.

Will that argument hold water with my wife? I don’t know. It may be a case I can’t win. I do know I don’t feel deterred from going on another chase, despite the recent tragedies on the Oklahoma plains.

Whatever happens, I have no doubt that from here on out chasers will be extremely circumspect—-more so than ever—-about getting up close and personal with tornadic supercells.

IMAGE: me on the road with Silver Lining Tours, May 2012

Comments

  1. Tim Ballisty says

    Check out this video of a person on a Tempest Tour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNeLNoyGqVU

    Seems they were pretty darn close in my opinion. Not sure if Tempest Tours were responsible in this scenario. You can see what I mean beginning at the 1 min 7 sec mark.

  2. Like I said, I can’t speak for other tour operators, only for Roger and SLT.

    BTW, Tim–and I’m sure you’re aware this–we learned today the tornado that caught Tim Samaras and Mike Bettes was truly a beast. It’s now rated an EF-5 and is being called the widest tornado on record: 2.6 miles. Truly amazing. Exceptionally dangerous.

  3. I’m glad at least your colleague came out of it alive.

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