Storm chasers’ deaths in Oklahoma tornado prompt questions, calls for regulation

Veteran storm chasers knew this day was coming.

With so many people now chasing severe weather in the hope of seeing a tornado — and getting closer and closer to the unpredictable beasts — it was only a matter of time before a chaser was killed by one.

What has stunned so many chasers, however, is that when it finally happened on Friday near Oklahoma City, the victims included two of the most seasoned and cautious chasers in the field, Tim Samaras and Carl Young.

“This took out the best,” said Jim Reed, a Wichita storm chaser and severe weather photographer. “If that happens to Tim, it can happen to any of us. I hope they do a thorough, thorough investigation.”

Samaras founded the company Twistex to research tornadoes and developed probes that could take photographs and gather data after they had been picked up by tornadoes.

“It looks like they were deploying probes,” weather researcher Jon Davies, who worked with Samaras on various projects, said of Young, Samaras and his son Paul Samaras, who also was killed. “I can’t come up with anything — they must have misjudged the distance.”

Deploying probes meant Samaras had to get close to a tornado, making him and his crew more vulnerable. But Reed said he can’t believe this was just a case of Samaras taking one risk too many.

“I’ve seen him get so close and know when to stop and when to take evasive action.”

Several other chasers were hit by the tornado. Among them was the Weather Channel’s “Tornado Hunt” vehicle, which was reportedly lifted and thrown an estimated 200 yards. All three people inside the vehicle, including meteorologist Mike Bettes, survived, but the driver suffered a broken neck, fractured vertebrae and several broken ribs.

The incident has prompted calls for regulation of storm chasing, including from the president of the Kansas Emergency Management Association. Brian Stone said that if someone chooses to chase tornadoes, there should be rules to ensure they know what they’re doing. But Stone concedes he’s not sure whether law officers could enforce such rules.

Said Davies: “We need less storm chasers on the road, but I don’t know how we manage that.”

Reed said the roads are much more crowded with chaser vehicles now than when he began pursuing storms more than 20 years ago. Chaser congestion may have played a role in how Samaras chose to track the tornado.

As more and more chasers vie to capture images or video that will generate revenue or public attention on YouTube or cable networks, the desire to stand apart can lead chasers to take greater risks.

“It does seem to be becoming exponentially more hazardous,” Reed said. “We just seem to keep raising the bar.”

AccuWeather senior vice president Mike Smith, who has been chasing storms for decades, warned against overreacting in the wake of what happened Friday. In the more than four decades since storm chasing began, he said, these are the first chasers killed by a tornado.

“It’s a noble instinct to want to try to do something to try to prevent future problems,” Smith said. “We don’t want other people to get hurt.

“But if you cut off storm chasing, you make some percent of storm warnings worse and you cut off a significant source of research to make future warnings better.”

The top priority in improving tornado warnings, he said, should be to reduce the number of false alarms — times when warnings are issued but no tornado develops. Storm chasers can play a vital role in confirming whether tornadoes indicated on radar have actually touched down.

One change Smith would support is to discourage chasers from entering the “bear’s cage” — that space between the large hail and heavy rain on the leading edge of a supercell thunderstorm and the tornado on the back side.

“Ten years ago, that was considered taboo — it was just too dangerous,” Smith said.

But that position offers a clear view of the tornado, making for good video and photographs.

”More and more chasers have been tempted to get into the bear’s cage,” Smith said. “That’s what a bunch of them were doing” Friday.

But there’s little margin for error if the tornado makes a sudden turn, which is just what the El Reno tornado did.