A radar image on the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on 31 May; the convergence of red and green shows the location of the twister; the small, pink dots represent the GPS locations of storm chasers pursuing the storm. Three of those killed by the tornado were experienced chasers (Twitter image @JustinHobson85, via The Capital Weather Gang)
As a native of tornado alley (southern branch), I was riveted by last night's images from Oklahoma City. In some respects, they represented a nightmare scenario for meteorologists, law enforcement, rescue teams and emergency managers: powerful, long-track tornadoes taking direct aim at a major metropolitan area, during the evening rush hour. So far, at least ten individuals are confirmed dead in the region's second major tornado outbreak in as many weeks. Three of the victims were veteran storm chasers, once featured on a Discovery Channel reality show.
While that loss of life is tragic, it could have been much worse. The Friday night tornadoes moved through some of the most heavily populated communities in central Oklahoma, including the city of Moore, which is still recovering from last month's deadly twister that killed 24 residents. Watching those deadly funnels plow through suburban and urban neighborhoods served as a stark reminder of nature's fury and the fact that some tornadoes will exact a human toll, particularly if you're caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Last night, the "wrong place" were the interstate highways that bi-sect Oklahoma City. The evening's first deadly twister literally followed I-40 across the region, while other tornadoes moved along I-35, which runs north and south through the state. On a late Friday afternoon, both freeways were crowed with commuters, truckers, vacationers, storm chasers and local residents trying to flee the storm.
Which brings us to a rather interesting post in today's "Capital Weather Gang" blog in the Washington Post. Based on what happened in OKC, they have (rightly) described Friday as the "day that should change tornado actions and storm chasing forever," noting that some of the storm's victims were motorists caught on local interstates when the tornadoes arrived. And the storm chasing community wasn't immune, either. A GMC Yukon that was part of the Weather Channel's chase team was caught in a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma, sending the vehicle tumbling more than 200 yards. Meteorologist Mike Bettes and two videographers in the SUV were injured. An vehicle driven by another chaser lost its hood when it ventured too close to the same funnel.
Mr. Bettes later stated that his "life flashed before his eyes" during those horrifying moments. And he counts himself lucky. According to state officials, five of the nine people killed in the Friday tornadoes died in their cars. Now, authorities are trying to figure out why so many individuals were on the road as life-threatening storms approached.
One reason was timing; super-cell thunderstorms developed rapidly on Friday afternoon and began generating tornadoes as thousands of motorists were heading home. The interstates became parking lots; traffic slowed to a crawl as the twisters arrived, tossing cars into the air and tipping 36-ton tractor-trailer rigs on their sides. Portions of I-35 and I-40 were closed for several hours during the height of the storms, as first responders tried to reach stranded and injured motorists.
But there is also evidence that some residents took to the roads in an effort to escape the approaching twisters. At one point, TV meteorologist Mike Morgan of KFOR-TV suggested that viewers might be able to drive away from the El Reno storm (the Post has a link to that portion of the station's coverage, around the 8:30 mark in that segment). Other media outlets have published or broadcast accounts of individuals who evaded the Moore tornado in their cars. Collectively, that coverage may have encouraged more people to take to the roads, and "drive to safety."
Obviously, that "approach" is fraught with peril. Motorists trying to flee the storm only create more congestion on the roads. Making matters worse, they are often driving into conditions that are already dangerous--even when you exclude the tornado threat. Heavy rains, street flooding, inoperable traffic signals and high winds are just some of the hazards faced by drivers attempting to flee the storm. And in some cases, residents actually abandon safe locations and wind up in the middle of a tornado.
One of the best examples of this mistake occurred on "Terrible Tuesday," the storms that struck Wichita Falls, Texas and surrounding areas on April 11, 1979. Forty-two people died in the twister that struck the Texas city, and researchers who studied the storm made a startling discovery: 25 of the victims perished in their cars, and many left homes that were undamaged by the storm. Attempting to flee the tornado, many residents actually drove into danger and some paid for that mistake with their lives.
More than 30 years later, it's hard to believe that people in the heart of tornado country are still trying to outrun storms. It also a bit puzzling that some media outlets may be encouraging individuals to take to the roads when they may be safer at home. In fairness, some people do need to bug out before a tornado, most notably those who live in mobile homes. There is also a school of thought that residents who don't have an underground shelter should evacuate when facing an "unsurvivable" storm, like the one that struck Moore last month, or the 1997 F-5 tornado that devastated Jarrell, Texas, leveling homes and sucking asphalt from local roads.
But it's almost impossible for a casual observer--or frightened resident--to make that determination in the moments before a tornado arrives. That's reason enough for most people to stay put and stay off the roads. At the height of Friday's tornado emergency, the NWS in Norman tweeted that I-35 looked like a "parking lot," jammed with motorists who--literally and figuratively--had no place to go. As bad as it was, it could have been much worse.
As for the storm chasers, they know the danger and accept the risks that come with their occupation. You can also make a case that their observations aid meteorologists in understanding tornadoes. But there may be limits to their contributions. The Capital Weather Gang reposted an item from Dr. Charles Doswell, a veteran storm chaser and severe weather expert who bemoaned the devolution of chasing:
I can’t say I have any wish whatsoever to seek to keep up with what chasing has become…
And that brings us to one of the real culprits behind all of this: the media. While TV coverage of severe weather provides a valuable public service, it's no secret that the "wall-to-wall" attracts more eyeballs. By some estimates, non-stop coverage of weather events boosts a station's audience by 15-20%, the same viewers who may come back for the local news, featuring the same reporters, anchors and meteorologists who were covering the storm. So it's little wonder that many local stations spend hours tracking severe weather, touting their contributions to public safety, while quietly watching their audience share.
The same holds true for cable outlets like Discovery and The Weather Channel. Both have found ratings gold in storm chasing, and events like the annual "Tornado Hunt" on TWC are heavily promoted and publicized. Attracting--and keeping--an audience, depends (in part) on getting the most spectacular video, giving some chasers more reason to push the envelope. TV executives should examine their own motives in airing that footage and putting such programs on the air. Unfortunately, that group is the least likely to engage in any degree of introspection.
It is worth noting that the three chasers who died Friday, Tim Samaras, his son Paul and Carl Young had decades of experience and had a reputation for being cautious. Both Tim Samaras and Young were meteorologists and Paul Samaras provided photographic support for their expeditions. Much of their work focused on developing instruments that could be placed in the path of a tornado and provide better measurements of its fury. But nature has no respect for scientific curiosity and on a street in El Reno, Oklahoma, the three men ran out of room. And time.