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Storm Central
More People Flirt with Danger to Chase Tornadoes
April 19, 2012
By Eric Adler, The Kansas City Star

Given life-threatening wind, hail, lightning and flying debris, chasing tornadoes would seem harrowing enough. Now add to that what many agree is a new and growing danger on the edge of the violent vortices: People -- hundreds and hundreds of regular people.

People risking their lives, gawkers clogging roadways, some with kids in the backseats of their cars or in the beds of their pickups. They sit poised with cellphone cameras, stop dead in the middle of lanes beneath roadway bridges, travel at breakneck speeds for the chance to get up-close-and-personal with one of nature`s most awesome and awful displays.

Kansas` Chancy Smith, the director of emergency medical services for Dickinson County -- raked by a series of tornadoes on Saturday -- caused a minor storm of his own when, after the tornadoes, he publicly called the throng of chasers who flooded his county "morons" for risking their lives and possibly the lives of others by impeding emergency services.

Raked by quick rebuke, Smith has since said he did not mean to malign legitimate storm spotters and chasers or scientists who do much to help the National Weather Service predict and track major storms.

Which is OK, because experienced, long-term storm chasers have expressed similar worries.

What they`re talking about is the others, the hundreds of rubberneckers, gawkers and severe-storm sightseers and shutterbugs who clogged the exit off Interstate 70 as the tornado swept past Solomon, Kan., parked as if they were at a drive-in movie.

Meantime, his firefighters, he said, clocked others tearing 60 mph and more through the tiny town in pursuit of the twister like they were kids after a lost balloon. He said some drove, rumbling past fire trucks and over downed, live power lines where a damaged-natural gas facility was spewing the explosive gas.

"There were morons out there. There were plenty," Smith reiterated on Wednesday. "I was a police officer for 17 years and a director of emergency services for seven, and I have never, ever seen that many people converge on a storm. There were hundreds and hundreds...

It has certainly hit a nerve among emergency services people and longtime storm chasers who concede that, in recent years, it seems that witnessing tornadoes up-close has turned from a risky endeavor attempted by adrenalin addicts to a family spectator sport. Local high school kids looking for tornadoes using apps and websites on their smartphones have become common.

"I really couldn`t tell you why it`s occurring," said S. Joe Koch II, the emergency management director in Saline County, Kan. "It is becoming more common for people to go out and see these tornadoes."

So common, in fact, that when the National Weather Service issued its early warning for last weekend, alerting the public that scores of tornadoes were likely to sweep through tornado alley, Koch sent out an alert of his own to emergency personnel: Expect an influx of people.

Meteorologists and others said the reason is clear: technology, TV news and entertainment.

Whereas tracking storms used to require an intimate knowledge of tornado formation and, often, thousands of dollars of specialized equipment, one can easily find and track them now with a laptop, Wi-Fi or a smartphone.

Websites can allow anyone to locate tornado-spawning systems in an instant. You can follow radar sweeps and live video streaming from chasers. Smartphone navigation apps lead you there. Some believe that the glut of shaky tornado images shot by telephone cameras on YouTube and the Discovery channel`s show "Storm Chasers" has made live-tornado watching seem safer and friendlier than it actually is.

"When we first started chasing 12 years ago, we might see another person or two out there, and we probably knew them," said North Carolina meteorologist Peggy Willenberg. She and her cohort, Melanie Metz of Minnesota, follow and photograph tornadoes as a duo known as the Twister Sisters.

Now: "The troops have descended," she said.

Willenberg and Metz were in Kansas on Saturday to capture pictures of black, violent swirling twisters.

"What I saw is people out there that didn`t have any sort of equipment," Willenberg said. "I saw cars full of kids on the road. Families is what I`m talking about."

John Hale, 21, began going to the tornado spotting school held by the National Weather Service at age 13 and has been chasing tornadoes and spotting for years.

Because Saturday`s outbreak was so well-publicized in advance, he said, he believed it brought out more people than ever.

"When the National Weather Service tells the public there is going to be a good chance of tornadoes," Hale said, "there is going to be a lot of people out there who are not experienced to see something nature only puts out only so often."

Willenberg said her concern is safety -- first for families:

"These are beautiful and wonderful phenomenon," she said, "and I can understand everyone wanting to get a look at it. But to put yourself in danger like that, and to put others in danger, is just bad."

Certainly, most people don`t.

Aaron Bruce, the 28-year-old manager of the Hog Wild BBQ in Salina, Kan., said there was no reason for him or anyone in his restaurant to run out to hunt down a tornado.

"We didn`t have to," he said. "We could see two funnel clouds form pretty clearly just looking out the window."

Willenberg said her concern also extends to the welfare of experienced storm chasers. Driving in storms -- with wind and hydroplaning and debris and other drivers speeding about -- is one of their most fretful tasks. Now, with more people on the road, it has become even more hazardous.

Just as frightening, she said, is the prospect of heading 70 miles per hour down the interstate and encountering something she is seeing more and more of: beaver dams of cars stopped in the middle of the road beneath county bridges.

"I would come up the interstate and there would be cars four or five deep projected out into the road, just sitting there," she said.

Warren Faidley, a Tucson, Ariz., photojournalist who has been chasing tornadoes and capturing their images since 1987, called what he is seeing now "completely out of control."

"The danger of driving is the number one hazard these days," he said. "It`s more people out there driving, texting, running off the road, crossing the center line.

"The problem is these reality TV shows make people think they can just go out there and do this."

Jeff Piotrowski of Tulsa, Okla., was in Wichita last weekend as the tornado raked areas outside the city.

"Ten years ago, there would have been a dozen people out there," he said. "Today it would be me and 30 or 40 others. You have these people who want to see their video on TV."

"There are more cameras out there," he said. "We`re getting much more based on cellphone content."

The irony, Willenberg of the Twister Sisters said, is that forces of nature have also created odd market forces.

Whereas Willenberg used to get $100 or more per second of prime video footage shot on a tripod, she said, the flood of available YouTube and other video now has stations paying half or far less.

"Back in the day," she said, "they wanted beautiful tripod shots. Now what they look for is the cinema verite, shaky cellphone images. I don`t even try to sell it anymore."

Of most concern to those like Smith of Dickinson County is the day that they fear will be inevitable when one of those shaky cellphone cameras captures the death or injury of tornado gawkers in a place they should not be.

"There are so many bad situations that could have happened," Smith said.

___

(c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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