Note–due to knee replacement surgery this spring I have been stuck at home during the peak of this year’s storm season, living vicariously through my son Jeff’s experiences. The picture posted is from a storm he was on north of Wagner, OK, on US 412 in May. Great job, Jeff!
I’ve been chasing storms for over 35 years. I began when the only tools I had were a 2-way radio and hours upon hours of training from men like storm chase pioneer Gene Moore, formerly at the NSSL in Norman. At the time I began chasing I was managing the only radio station in the world to have been struck by tornado four times!
Now when I chase I have near real-time radar overlaid with road maps and my gps position, direct contact with the NWS office in Tulsa, more weather data online than I could possibly use, wall-to-wall broadcasts from the different tv stations I work for, my son, Mike (who reads radar as well as anyone) keeping an eye out for me, ham radio contact with spotter groups throughout the region, communication with other chasers including my other son, Jeff, who may be on the same storm as I but seeing it from a different angle. Then, I have frequent communication with some of the best weather guys on tv– men like Travis Meyer and his team at KOTV in Tulsa, and Drew Michaels and his team at 40/29 here at home.
Unlike what you see in the storm chase tv shows, most chasing can be long, boring hours of hoping you are in the right place at the right time. And, statistically, tornadic storms happen about once every ten chases. I’ve been right in the middle of major outbreaks–tornadoes were touching down on an hour either side of my position while I remained storm-free. On the other hand, I’ve seen tornadoes form almost on top of me.
So, what have I learned through all of this? First, it is dangerous, as we saw so clearly on May 31. Above all, safety has always been my prime concern. I do my best to position myself so that I’m chasing the storms and not the other way around. Second, I’ve learned to trust my instincts — my “gut” — based on my years of experience, and not just the sophisticated tools I have at my disposal. Third, my motive is not the thrill of the chase (most chases are very boring, actually) but life safety, helping keep my friends and family, and the public at large, safe from the storm.
I have own ideas about what happened that put the Bettes team or, tragically, the Samara team in harm’s way on May 31. The bottom line, though, is that the El Reno tornado was one of those “perfect storm” scenarios that just happened to put veteran chasers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had it been a different time of day rather than evening rush hour things would likely have been different. And, without going into a lot of detail that would be difficult to explain, other unusual and extenuating circumstances happened as well. Plus, my thoughts are only speculation, anyway.
So, if you want to be a storm chaser, one NWS spotter seminar does not qualify you. Learning to understand what you are seeing in the clouds and interpreting that takes years of study. Second, it is boring more often than not. Third, you are not an authorized emergency services unit; lights and siren are illegal. Fourth, it can be expensive, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Windshields and hail damage–and possibly, injuries and death-can cost a lot of money. And there’s the expense of just operating your vehicle at upwards to $4.00/gallon of gas. Fifth, (and these are in no particular order) it can be very dangerous, even deadly, even for the experienced chaser.
My advice is, if you just have to do it, find an experienced chaser who is willing to let you ride with him. And don’t just watch storm chase tv shows, thinking they are training videos. Study the weather on your own, and learn to read and interpret the information available to you. And, above all, stay safe. In fact, the safest thing you can do is STAY HOME!