June 3, 2013 1:45 pm
Updated: June 3, 2013 1:47 pm

Storm chasing: Worth the risk?

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TORONTO – The deadly tornado that swept across El Reno on June 1 will go down in history not as one of the deadliest, but as the first that claimed the lives of tornado chasers.

The death of Tim Samaras, his son Paul and chaser Carl Young, has been a shock to those in the tight circle of storm chasing.

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“Tim Samaras is one of the most respected storm chasers out there,” said George Kourounis, a renowned Canadian storm chaser who has been chasing storms around the world for 15 years and now stars in a television show called Angry Planet. “Extremely knowledgeable…just an all-out great guy. He knew what he was doing, and whenever I’d be out there on a chase and saw Tim out there, I knew that I was in the right place. Total shock. Total shock today.”

According to Tim Samaras’s website, www.thunderchase.com, Tim had been chasing tornadoes for 30 years. He was actively involved in chasing not for the thrill of it, but for the scientific research. He formed TWISTEX (Tactical Weather Instrumented Sampling in/near Tornadoes EXperiment), a research group that sought to better understand the formation and evolution of tornadoes. He starred in the Discovery Channel reality show Storm Chasers and was often featured by National Geographic for his research into tornadoes.

Carl Young (left) and Tim Samaras (right) were both killed along with Tim’s son, Paul, in the June 1 tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma.

AP Photo/Discovery Channel

So what went wrong? How did a seasoned storm chaser, who participated in high-profile research, get killed by something he understood better than anyone else?

“I was on the same tornado that unfortunately killed Tim Samaras and the other two [chasers],” Kourounis said. “I was literally probably just a couple hundred metres from those guys…

“What I think happened was that there were several small things that ended up combining together to make a tragic situation. The tornado formed very quickly and went by very, very quickly. It was wrapped up in rain. It was Friday afternoon during rush hour. So there were a lot of people already on the road. There were a lot of storm chasers on the road. There was a strange motion of the tornado, curving back up around. So all those little things came together, and even if you had decades of experience, it was very easy to find yourself in a bad spot on Friday.”

Mark Robinson was also chasing that day.

“We were on the 81 just south of the I-40, and the storm hooked up and we could see the tornado to the west,” he said. “It was buried in the rain, but we could see it in the power flashes. We thought it was going to go through just to our north, but then we realized it was wedging and coming right at us.”

Robinson and his team pulled to the south and were fortunate enough to get away from the looming tornado.

Aside from the fact that the twister took an unexpected turn, there were other factors that storm chasers had to take into account. One of the most dangerous was the traffic.

Earlier that day, the National Weather Service had warned that there was a good chance of a tornado striking the Oklahoma City area between the hours of 4 and 8 p.m. — the height of rush hour. This is every storm chasers nightmare: being trapped in traffic with no way out.

“It just so happens that if you get the perfect storm…that’s a perfect recipe for getting trapped because of the number of people on the road. Because there are going to be a lot of people chasing who wouldn’t normally be there, people who may or may not know what they’re doing, blocking people who do know what they’re doing and they’re trying to escape, but jammed. There’ve been many times there’s been nothing but a line of tail lights ahead of me and with a storm bearing down on me. You just have to cross your fingers and hope for the best because you can’t move forward or can’t move backward.”

Kourounis believes that with the increase of amateur chasers, a scene like that will become more common.

And with today’s technology, it’s a lot easier for the amateur to get out and storm chase. Fans of the movie Twister can now arm themselves with numerous computer weather programs that weren’t available a few years ago.

Although, a chaser may have radar at his or her fingertips, they may not have the understanding that is necessary to determine where it is safe to chase and where they are putting themselves in harm’s way. As well, the radar updates about every 5 minutes.

“And there is a lot that can happen in 5 minutes,” Kourounis said.

Chasers get caught

The El Reno tornado spawned videos across the internet of near-misses by storm chasers, both amateur and professional.

The footage that has upset some chasers comes from the American Weather Channel. Their three-car chase team got caught in the El Reno tornado.

Watch Weather Channel crew gets caught in tornado

“I looked at the video and to me it looked like they didn’t really make a lot of effort to get out of there. They seemed to be going straight towards it and then seemed surprised that it was on top of them and then the car started rolling,” said Kourounis.

“The thing that gets me is that people have been bragging, some storm chasers have been bragging about how they’ve almost got killed or how they were almost hit by a tornado and things like that…and I have a real problem with that.”

Robinson agreed.

On Saturday morning he tweeted, “And not being celebrated about ‘how cool it was that you were so close and it was so EXTREME!’ This BS about being the closest has to stop.”

Many serious storm chasers weren’t surprised at the deaths of their fellow chasers.

“It’s a tragic situation,” Robinson said. “But one that we’ve seen coming for a while.”

Kourounis agreed.

“We knew for sure that this day was going to come. This is the first time that any storm chaser has ever killed by the storm they were chasing. We just didn’t know when it was gong to be and we certainly did not think it was going to be Tim because he was so very well respected and knew his stuff. And there are a lot of young people who don’t know what they’re doing and they want to get as close as they can and get the most extraordinary video because…for whatever their own personal reasons are, but when you’re in the bear’s cage and that’s literally what we call that area of the storm, and the rain curtains that wrap around the tornado are like the bars on the cage where the bear is, and if you’re in bear’s the cage, you’re going to meet the bear.”

Will the recent deaths of Tim and Paul Samaras and Carl Young change storm chasing?

Kourounis stopped to consider that.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I really don’t. I think that the people who are experienced chasers understand the risks. They realize that you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time even if you do everything right. We accept the risk. We understand that. And we respect the storm.”

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