Reflections on the Recent Tornadoes — Part 2: El Reno

There have been few tornado setups where I have been legitimately scared — May 31st 2013 was one of them.

The setup was similar to May 20th, the day of the infamous Moore tornado. A large pool of instability; a triple point intersection just to the west of OKC; a disturbance rounding a large upper trough situated to the north. It was obvious what potential the setup held, so eerily close to areas devastated just 11 days earlier. I would’ve argued it looked even more volatile than May 20th.

But alas, I was on vacation, getting ready to board a cruiseship, focusing more on having fun than watching tornadoes. I was lucky to have been able to check the weather at a Miami Starbucks in the morning, and saw what kind of a setup awaited Oklahoma on the fateful day. So I watched and waited (tracking through my phone) for the storms to form. Shortly after 4 pm, the ship set sail; shortly thereafter, the storms initiated west of Oklahoma City, and shortly after that, I lost reception. For several days, I would be asail in the Atlantic, away from outside communication with the world, not knowing the fate that could have befallen on Oklahoma City.

At the first crack of dawn when we returned, when the ship entered the Port of Miami once again, I opened up my phone and checked to see what happened. Oh good, OKC was not wiped out — but oh man, there was a violent tornado near El Reno, and 18 people were dead. The news next would shock me.

One of the stars from the Discovery Channel’s popular TV series Storm Chasers, Tim Samaras, was among the dead.

Over the past four years, I have told people that nobody has died from storm chasing, that it was relatively safe, no more dangerous than driving. (In fact, despite the events of 5/31, more people have died driving back home after a chase than during one.) I can’t do that anymore. The collective attitude towards storm chasing shared characteristics of that towards tornado fatalities prior to 2011 — one characterized by complacency and ignorance. Yet, just as it took a series of catastrophes to remind us how vulnerable we are Mother Nature, so El Reno awakened the chaser community to its own dangers. One, in retrospect, would have inevitably lead to tragedy.

So it was that Mother Nature took one of the safer, more scientifically minded, intelligent, well-known, and respected of the storm chasers that fateful Friday afternoon. The irony of it all, that it was him. The irony of it all, that his last tweet was this:

RIP Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and their storm chasing partner Carl Young.

(More info on Samaras’ accomplishments. Wikipedia article on the experiment that Samaras founded, which includes citations to many of the papers that he published. Samaras has also been featured on National Geographic.)

———

The dark undertones preceding this tragedy were readily visible. On April 14th, 2012, a few Kansas troopers took it upon themselves to lay down the law and stop the chaser hoards. The chaser-induced traffic jams on May 19th, 2010 were described as a “zoo”.

This video from Ellis County, OK on May 4th, 2007 (same day as the Greensburg event) was the first I remember being so close to a powerful tornado. Many fantastic videos from very near a tornado followed, but these tended to be from storm chasers. Then around 2010, with the proliferation of YouTube and an easy way to 10-seconds of fame, close amateur videos started popping up. Then all hell broke loose in 2011, and close angles of (just to cite some examples) Wilson (NC), Philadelphia (MS), Tuscaloosa, Cordova, Hackleburg (AL), Joplin (MO), Lookeba, Chickasha (OK) tornadoes from that year are readily available on YouTube from storm chasers and average joes alike. Again, see links. They are good, albeit unsafe, videos.

It was kind of like a brinkmanship going on. People kept going ever so closer to get ever so more of that 10 seconds of fame, but at the same time, ever so closer to death. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone — my point is when people see action-packed, screaming, footage, the collective public & chaser reaction to a tornado’s power morphs from respect to thrill/action. People start wanting to take the best, most famous footage, the one that gets the most views on YouTube. Hence some stopped taking cover from tornadoes, and started going towards them to videotape them. Chaser crowds exploded, and many members of those crowds may not have known what they were doing.

Tragedy as a consequence to this change in attitude struck the average joe first. March 2, 2012 — couple videotapes the tornado that kills the husband. It could very well be they waited too long to take shelter, or could’ve fled the path of the tornado. Who knows. But it was proof of the possibility that some of the dead could have been watching instead of covering.

Aside from that, we were lucky for an incredibly long time. May 31st was one of those unfortunate setups where everyone was on the same cell, and that cell produced a beastly, difficult to see, wobbly tornado. All 8 direct tornado fatalities were in vehicles. The traffic jam (due to a combined curiosity, chaser hoards, and panicked Oklahoma residents) prevented emergency vehicles from getting to a young, dying infant. Another chaser (who was in it purely for the thrills) was killed. While Tim’s group was a responsible one, it is easy to see how at the very least, chaser/onlooker traffic could have, at the very least, contributed to their downfall. Several other chasers (including The Weather Channels’ Mike Bettes) were caught in the tornado and ended up with vehicle damage and/or injuries. A worst-case setup, a difficult-to-see tornado, and a get-as-close-as-possible mentality, nearly doomed many more chasers on May 31st. But it was coming.

The news was nevertheless no less surprising, and I will never forget when I first heard that storm chasers were killed in the action. My view of it will never be the same again.

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