Thoughts on Oklahoma Tornado Tragedy; Would “Tornado Chase Permits” make research safer?

Tornado Tragedy

It’s hard to know where to begin after watching more tornadic events unfold near Oklahoma City again last weekend.

Another 13 killed Friday’s outbreak, including 3 dedicated and experienced storm researchers. A Weather Channel chase crew and car tossed around like a toy, 3 more storm chasers nearly killed as they dodge flying debris in a scene straight out of Twister as they are caught in the the tornado’s path.

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Weather Channel “Tornado Hunt” car caught by tornado

It’s one thing to be in the path of a tornado seeking shelter in your home. It’s quite another to go and seek the tornadoes out, and potentially put yourself and others in harm’s way.

How do we best keep researchers safe as they try to collect valuable data on tornadoes that may help save future lives? How do we keep the public safe as they are caught in “tornado traffic jams” that are partially created by the swarm of tornado chasers and researchers?

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El Reno EF-3 Twister

Image: Jeff Snyder courtesy Norman, OK NWS

Tornado Target: Oklahoma

It’s as if somebody painted a big tornado target centered on Oklahoma City this year.

Friday’s outbreak extended into Missouri and Illinois, but the most dramatic events occurred again just west of Oklahoma City, where another 13 people were killed.

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Among them was a dedicated lifelong storm researcher…Tim Samaras, his son Paul and Carl Young, caught in the tornado’s path as it made a sudden shift to the right.

Our hearts go out to the Samaras and Young families, and everyone else killed, injured and suddenly homeless in the incredible May “tornado swarm” in Oklahoma.

I’m not even sure where to begin on processing this tragic event, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But here are some thoughts on the tragic events in Oklahoma Friday evening.

NOAA/NWS saw it coming:

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As tragic as events have been in Oklahoma in May, you have to give NOAA/NWS a lot of credit for advance outlooks, warnings and saving hundreds of lives.

As with the devastating Moore, OK tornado on May 20th, Friday’s twisters had plenty of notice….from SPC outlooks of a “moderate risk” area days in advance…to the issuance of a rare “Particularly Dangerous Situation” (PDS) Tornado Watch well in advance of Friday’s storms.

As with the 16-30 minutes lead time on the devastating EF-5 Moore tornado on May 20th, Friday was another “meteorological success story.” NOAA/NWS saw this coming…and saved many lives.

Here’s the radar loop from the Norman, OK NWS showing the storms blowing up, and turning tornadic as tornado warning boxes are issued in advance of the storms.

Here’s a closer look at the El Reno tornado showing the “reflectivity hook” on doppler…the tornado’s signature.

What Happened?

The El Rio tornado that killed Tim Samaras and tossed around a Weather Channel crew including Mike Bettes is rated an EF-3 twister by the Norman, Oklahoma NWS.

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Sharp Right Turn:

The twister near El Reno took an erratic path, and took a sharp right turn right along I-40 near the end of it’s path. That may have been what caught so many off guard who were following the storm…and put them directly in harm’s way.

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An EF-3 tornado running right over a major interstate highway is one of our worst nightmares as meteorologists. There were few good options for getting out of the way, especially as traffic stacked up.

Few Good Options:

What do you do when caught in a car during rush hour as a tornado approaches? There is some evidence that you may be safer in weak EF-0 or EF-1 tornadoes in your car than lying in a ditch. But the El Reno was an EF-3 monster…capable of tossing around trucks like toys.

Here’s the best options from the NWS.

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Who was Tim Samaras?

Tim and his crew had decades of experience researching tornadic storms. They were not “tornado tourists” or thirll seekers.

Here’s a good look at Tim’s life passion for researching storms from The Weather Channel.

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Tim was well know in the Minnesota storm research community. Here’s more about Tim from a letter sent to me by John Wetter a local SKYWARN storm spotter and Coordinator of the Minnesota Skywarn Workshop.

Like many in the weather enterprise, the news today of the passing of scientist and storm chaser Tim Samaras, along with his son Paul Samaras and colleague Carl Young has shaken me to my core. I’ve known Tim personally since 2006, though have admired his work for years before that. In 2006, Tim was the keynote speaker for the first Minnesota Skywarn Workshop. His main research project for much of the past decade was TWISTEX, funded by NOAA, National Geographic and The Discovery Channel.

As a storm chaser, Tim was a constant professional. I personally thought of Tim as a great role model for what I wanted to be as a storm chaser: respecting the power of mother nature, appreciating her beauty, and helping to teach and warn others. I am inspired by Tim’s passion for severe weather research. Tim invented the HITPR (Hardened In-situ Temperature and Pressure Recorder) to take measurements from within a tornado. His engineering knowledge, instinct, and personality were infectious to those around him and to the public whenever he would present his research and findings.

The severe storms research and storm chasing communities have lost a respected leader. Tim didn’t chase for short term fame or gain; he was concerned with research and scientific knowledge. Tim had a conservative style of chasing and always held safety as his number one priority. Whatever circumstances led to this terrible tragedy may never be fully understood, but have served as a reminder of the danger we accept by participating in this activity.

My thoughts and condolences go out to the Samaras and Young families.

John Wetter

-Coordinator, Minnesota Skywarn Workshop

-Minneapolis-based Storm Chaser

John has more on Tim and storm chasing with Cathy Wurzer on Morning Edition today.

More caught in the twister:

The Samaras crew was not the only one caught in the Twister. Oklahoma University meteorology student Brandon Sullivan and fellow storm chaser Brett Wright were caught directly in the tornado’s path and posted their video on You Tube. These three clearly know they are in trouble, and it is amazing they survived the flying debris, and a collision with the SUV that races around them on the left.

It’s a scene straight out of Twister with one exception. It’s alarmingly real.

Weather Channel Crew tossed around and injured:

Even The Weather Channel is not immune to becoming a tornado target. Mike Bettes and his crew were thrown 200 yards by the twister, and survived.

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Here’s the story.

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Deaths do raise questions:

The deaths Friday evening do raise some serious questions about a possible safety protocol for storm research vehicles.

I don’t have all the answers…but I do think there are some important questions that need to be answered to keep the researchers and the public they are trying to protect… safer.

-Does it make sense to separate out storm researchers, trained weather spotters (SKYWARN) and journalists from “chasers” (thrill seekers), and “tornado tourists” and “profit seekers” out to make a quick buck on the latest tornado video for CNN?

-Would some type of “permitting system” make sense to ease crowding on roads and major highways as tornadoes approach? (Yes, there are literally tornado chase “traffic jams” at times in Tornado Alley. Perhaps an odd-even day system…or a one week permit for those who are not “accredited” researchers/spotters?

-If a “permitting” system were adopted, what level of training would be required to “chase” tornadic storms? What would be the “rules of the road?” What would be the consequences for “unauthorized chasing?”

-Can we come up with better options for communicating effective options for seeking shelter for those caught in cars as a tornado approaches?

Food for thought as we travel further into the active tornado season of 2013.

What do you think?

Paul Huttner

  • Matt

    Strongly argue against a permit/licensing system for chasing. It would cause headaches for all (chasers, NWS depending on spotters, media, etc.), and it would be difficult to near impossible to enforce. Roads are roads. Unless you want to shut all roads down in certain weather situations, then it would be a failed proposition to try and enforce that sort of thing.

    What would help is if the media stopped glorifying the most extreme of chasers and that out-extreming the next guy stopped as well. Rather than asking them to recollect and share their extreme videos, use it as a lesson and teachable moment to remind people that these storms are chaotic, dangerous, and erratic. If we can create a culture where it’s frowned upon getting “too” close, perhaps then that can be left to researchers behind the scenes who are trying to accomplish a legitimate goal. The deaths of Tim and his team prove that even if you play by the rules and do things by the book, the weather can outsmart even the best and most respectful. That alone should be enough to discourage those who shouldn’t be out there chasing from doing so. But to slay the beast, so to speak, you have stop glorifying it as an extreme “sport.”

  • Jeanne

    Matt’s comments are well-stated and thoughtful, especially about the glorification of extreme chasing. By all accounts, if anyone would have qualified for a permit to chase these storms, it would have been Tim Samaras & his team. The longer lead times we now have for many tornado-warned storms are the result of research by a great many dedicated scientists both in the field and in the office. (I should know, I am the mother and mother-in-law of two of them.) Much of that research is done sitting at computers. Are we also going to protect them from the health consequences of that?

  • Bill

    I fully agree with Matt. Permits are a terrible idea. And as Jeanne said: “… if anyone would have qualified for a permit to chase these storms, it would have been Tim Samaras & his team.”

    We need to get out of the mindset that we can protect everyone from everything … that there are no risks in life and work … and that we should remove the personal decision making from others when any possible risk is involved.

    Now … should we close off roads in certain weather situations for safety sake as is done with freeways in the blizzard belt? … Absolutely. But with the suddenness and unpredictability of tornadoes that’s not practical either, plus others may need those same roads for evacuation around the event.

    Permitting? Bad idea.