If you want to walk down Main Street, in downtown America, you can do that, because it is America. This is a free country and public space is public. But if the Acme Office Building, on Main Street, is on fire, broken glass is blowing out of windows and fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are trying to gain access to the building and nearby fire hydrants, and ambulances are trying to get in to pick up injured, and out to bring them to hospitals, you can’t walk down Main Street. The police can close off that street and nearby streets and as annoying or inconvenient as that may be, they are not taking away your rights. They are acting in the interests of public safety.

We’ll get back to that in a moment.

After a large and violent tornado went through Moore Oklahoma a few days ago, several people in various media outlets including CNN mentioned that given the (seemingly enigmatic) lack of good shelter in homes and public buildings in Oklahoma, that a good option to protect yourself in case a tornado comes your way is to drive away. In some but not all cases, this advice was qualified; If you know several hours in advance that there is a high probability that a tornado will come through your area, then it is a good idea to just go away and be somewhere else. This advice sounds reasonable, but it really isn’t. During the United States tornado season, it seems that we experience repeated tornadoes and other severe storms in a given area over several days. That area might include three or four of the several states that make up “Tornado Alley.” However, within that area, the exact location of a killer tornado isn’t predictable at the scale of several hours. So, if you live in Oklahoma City and figure there may be tornadoes coming later in the day, there is nothing to guarantee that driving north to Aunt Millie’s house in Enid, OK will not put you in the path of one of the tornadoes that happen to form that day. A tornado could hit Oklahoma City, or it could hit Enid.

So, the driving away several hours in advance isn’t really smart, because you don’t know that far in advance where “away” might be. Perhaps, the day before tornado-warned storms are expected, you could fly to France, but that is not really an option for most people.

The unqualified version of that advice is “If there is a tornado coming your way now, get in your car and drive away fast.” That is also bad advice. The reason that is bad advice is very simple. If you are directly hit by a strong tornado, ending up in the vortex, and you are in the bathtub of your home on the lower floor, you’ve got a pretty good chance of survival. Despite the horrible fact that some two dozen people died in the Moore tornado last week, there were tens of thousands of people directly in that tornado’s path, hiding out in low interior rooms within their homes or other buildings, who survived. Alliteratively, if you are in a car and hit by the vortex of an F3 or stronger tornado, your chances of survival are much lower. Roughly speaking, this is the equivalent of driving down the highway at several tens of miles an hour and suddenly flipping, three or four times. Or, perhaps, you are driving down the highway at 40 mph along with a dozen other cars also driving down the highway and suddenly you are all flipped. Then, when the car is done flipping, it gets flipped again. And again. And for several minutes you car is shoved around on the surface like you were a puck in a game of air hockey, with the car slamming into other cars and other cars slamming into you, and each car being turned over now and then. To make this point, here are photographs from major media of a handful of examples of cars that got hit with the vortex, most but not all from this latest tornado:

From www.chicagotribune.com

From www.chicagotribune.com

From www.wctrib.com

From www.wctrib.com

The Weather Channel's car; the people in it are OK.

The Weather Channel’s car; the people in it are OK.

Tim Samaras's Twistex vehicle; all three occupants were killed.

Tim Samaras’s Twistex vehicle; all three occupants were killed.

I admit that a flattened house may look pretty bad, may even look worse than a mushed up car, but generally speaking the interior lower floor room in a house that is badly messed up by a tornado is a survivable shelter, while there is no such shelter in your car.

So, let’s go back to the advice again. Say you are sitting in your home and you know there is a tornado coming and you are watching TV and the following breathless reporting is happening. Pay special attention to what the weather forecaster says starting at 4:35:

“… if you can drive south, anywhere around Whitewater Bay, State Fair Park, the Ballpark, downtown Oklahoma City, southwest Integres, US Grant District, Rose State college, Midwest City regional medical center, Midwest City, and Parts of Del city, you need to drive south now….” (approximate transcript)

The Oklahoma City metro district has about 1.3 million people. Of those areas mentioned in this quote, “Downtown OK city” has about 7,600 people living in it. Del City has 21,000 people in it. What this weather forecaster just did was to advice a couple/few tens of thousands of people in the path of a tornado to get in their cars and drive in the same direction.

That wasn’t the only broadcaster telling people to evacuate instead of hunker down.

The thing is, this tornado was heading roughly from west to east into a highly populated area. News casters were telling people in the direct line of the tornado do “drive south.” But then the tornado made a turn and headed straight for the “south” that people were being told to drive to. Here is a compilation of broadcasts and events documenting this:

I have no idea how many of the people in the viewing area of this station saw or heard this report and responded by driving into the path of the tornado. Of those who did I don’t know how many of them were primed to use “drive away” as a strategy by earlier chatter in major media outlets, and elsewhere such as twitter and other social media. I’m not sure how many people actually got in their cars and “drove south.” We do know, however, that the highways in the area became jammed with cars, and the vicinity around the intersection of I35 and I40 was described as a “parking lot.” One thing we do know is that many people who “drove south” to get away from the tornado in fact drove directly into its path, created a traffic jam, and most of the deaths associated with this tornado were among those people in those cars.

Three experienced tornado “chasers” … actual meteorological scientists … were killed when their truck (one of the vehicles depicted above, probably) was destroyed by the tornado. Other professional meteorologists, from The Weather Channel, were injured. As of this writing, the death toll stands at 13 with another 6 (though I’ve also heard 7) people still missing.

In his writeup of this event, meteorologist Paul Douglas made this point:

Every time I went down to Oklahoma [with storm chasers] I was struck by the number of people tagging along. Often scores, even hundreds of chasers would converge on the same cell by late afternoon. It’s a free country – you’re obviously free to drive when and where you want, and I certainly don’t want that to change, but something has to be done to avoid another tragedy like the one that killed 9 motorists Friday evening, including 3 professional tornado researchers Tim Samaras, his son, and intercept partner.

Paul is right. This is a free country, or at least we want it to be a free country, and being able to freely travel on public thoroughfares is part of that. If you want to walk down Main Street, in downtown America, you can do that, because it is America. But if the Acme Office Building, on Main Street, is on fire, broken glass is blowing out of windows and fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are trying to gain access to the building and nearby fire hydrants… you can’t walk down Main Street… you are not really free to walk or drive up and down Main Street to take pictures of the event. Public safety officials have the right and responsibility to restrict access to Main Street and areas nearby in order to save lives and property.

Until proven otherwise, I will assume that the special category of people known as “Professional Storm Chasers” like Tim Samaras and his crew as well as Reed Timmer, and others, are risking their own lives to make observations and collect data that help us understand tornadoes better, to make better predictions about storm behavior, and thus to make better predictions about unfolding storms. Also, their data helps us to better understand the dynamics of what happens in tornadoes which can help make safer structures. Reed Timmer and Sean Casey and their crews modified vehicles that successfully survived being in powerful tornados (for Mythbusters fans, you may have seen these two teams’ vehicles go head to head with a jet engine to see how they would survive tornado strength winds on the episode Storm Chasing Myths).

But the hundreds, or even thousands of non-professional “storm chasers” are probably not contributing to the science of tornadoes and tornado safety. Rather, they are jamming roads in the very places where a traffic jam can be deadly if a tornado happens to pass over the gaggle of cars stuck in place. If you watch the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers show, you will notice that as the seasons progress the professional storm chasers encounter more and more traffic as they try to move to the predicted path of oncoming tornadoes to drop data collecting probes or carry out direct intercepts (where the specially modified vehicles equipped with data collection devices are directly hit with a tornado).

There is a great irony to the deaths of the three storm chasers from Twistex. Tim Samaras’s strategy was never to get into the direct path of a tornado. Rather, his team would predict the path and drop machines on the ground designed to directly measure variables such as temperature, humidity, wind and so on, but with the team and their vehicles getting out of the way before the tornado comes. It is probably true that Samaras abandoned attempts at dropping probes more often then strictly necessary, cautiously avoiding rain-wrapped tornadoes where they would not have been able to see where the tornado was, in order to be extra safe. It is also true that the relatively cautious “drop and run” strategy meant that they missed getting their equipment in the direct path of a tornado more often than not. I can only assume that Tim Samaras had no intention of being in the path of the the tornado that killed him, his son, and his colleague, but was unable to get out of the way because of the traffic jam.

And that traffic jam was probably caused by the exodus of people following very bad advice, and possibly as well as non-professional storm chasers moving in on the likely path of the storm.

I suggest that law makers in tornado alley states consider legislation making it a violation to intentionally drive into or near the path of known or likely tornados. This is not an especially enforceable regulation but having such a thing on the books would probably encourage amateur storm chasers to think twice about putting others in danger by contributing to blocked roads. Such a law or regulation could be more general, specifying that police have the authority to direct people generally in relation to emergency disaster zones that have not happened yet. In other words, it is now probably legal and appropriate for police or fire departments to close off roads or direct traffic or tell people not to drive in a particular area where there is currently a major fire, explosion, storm devastation, and so on. A new law or regulation merely needs to specify that tornado-related disasters that have not happened yet (because the tornado hasn’t formed or has not yet arrived) can be considered in this public safety action. In fact, one could argue that a new law is not needed and this power is already available to police and emergency response agencies. That might be preferable because making a new law to address particularistic new circumstances that are already covered by existing law, regulation, and best practice is probably a bad thing. But a law or explicit regulation, or even a well publicized set of best practices in the interest of public safety, might make the point that needs to be made, thus discouraging people from making decisions that endanger others.

One might argue that if someone wants to drive their car into the path of a tornado they should be allowed to do so because it is a free country. But once your car is inside an F3 or F4 tornado, that is no longer your problem alone. Because of your action, your car has become a very large and dangerous projectile. You shouldn’t be allowed to do that.

Such a regulation or law would also require consideration of a certification of “professional” status for actual professional storm chasers. This, in turn, would require storm chasers to make their case that they are professionals that are doing something worthwhile, and that they take appropriate action related to their own safety and the safety of others. In fact, we probably need more professional storm chasers, and among storm chasers my feeling is that we need a better more comprehensive research design. For example, most storm chasers are individuals or small teams, and they benefit with direct contacts with actual tornadoes, and often fund their work this way as they sell their video to news outlets. But what about big storms that don’t drop tornadoes? It seems to me that we should be collecting equivalent data from storms that do and storms that do not drop tornadoes, because, after all, one of the things we want to know more about is the difference between those two types of storms.

What do you think?

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    June 3, 2013

    If you know several hours in advance that there is a high probability that a tornado will come through your area, then it is a good idea to just go away and be somewhere else. This advice sounds reasonable, but it really isn’t.

    Even if we could predict hours in advance that the storms would hit a particular county (and as you correctly point out, this is not true–there may be several distinct tornadoes in a single outbreak, so it’s quite possible that Oklahoma City and Enid could both be hit the same day), this would not help in a major metro area like Oklahoma City. Even with interstate highways out of town in six different directions, you wouldn’t be able to evacuate all those people in a few hours. Traffic will back up in the places rush hour traffic normally backs up, and some others that usually don’t see such backups. The last people out will be stuck in traffic.

    I’ve heard horror stories about the attempt to partially evacuate Houston in advance of Hurricane Ike. Yes, Houston is a bigger city than OKC, and one of the freeway routes out of town takes you to Galveston, which is exactly the wrong way to go. But forecasters could pinpoint a relatively compact geographical region that would feel the effects of the hurricane, and they could do so with 24-48 hours notice. Tornado watches tend to cover a larger area, and the lead time is much shorter.

  2. #2 Pete
    June 3, 2013

    Are they going to fire that weather reporter who told listeners to drive into the tornado?

  3. #3 Politicalguineapig
    June 3, 2013

    Also, hurricanes tend to follow predictable paths and show up on sattelite. Tornadoes do neither. I’m one state north from tornado alley, and I can’t imagine anyone from my state saying that it’s okay to drive during a tornado alert.

  4. #4 Born Again Bjorn
    June 3, 2013

    @Pete I was wondering the same thing.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    June 3, 2013

    Pete, Born: I think this is a difficult question. He said “you need to be below ground [pause] if you can drive south … bla bla bla”

    Does this mean “you need to be below ground, but if you are in you car in the path of the tornado you can drive south…”

    Or does this mean “you need to be below ground or if you can drive south, go and drive south”

    He did not say “don’t get in your car” and he did not say “a car is a bad place to be, and if you find yourself in a car do this and that” which is what he should have said.

    So, I think this particular weather caster did come up short in his responsibilities to provide good safety information but I’m not sure that his comments in and of themselves constituted explicit instructions to leave one’s house, get in a car, and drive.

    But, the idea of outrunning instead of staying home was on people’s minds because of things that had been said earlier in various media. Probably many thing contributed to what happened.

  6. #6 Northern.Lights
    ND
    June 3, 2013

    Getting into a ditch can apparently also be fatal. Hard to know what to do. It is not like the Tornadoes have a rule book that if we follow we are safe. But telling everyone to leave their homes and drive is not advised, if that is actually what the newscaster did.

  7. #7 Lyle
    June 3, 2013

    Actually there were other comments that could even make an above ground room safer. One simple idea was to have either a hard hat or some sort of hard shell helmet to wear. (Football, Lacross, Motorcycle, Bicycle etc). Basically the idea here is that if you can avoid a direct hit to the head by the helmet taking the beating your more likley to survive. They did not discuss the details but I would suspect you would want a helmet that comes down to the jaw line, which sort of eliminates a lot of bicycle helmets, although likely the bike helmet is better than a bare head. Interestingly motorcycle helmets are cheaper than football helmets due to liability reasons. However the generic advice makes a lot of sense.

  8. #8 Lyle
    June 3, 2013

    Continuing on Helmets here is a link to a story on yahoo:
    http://news.yahoo.com/tornado-coming-grab-helmet-084500057.html. Note the comments that 22% of the fatalities at Tuscalousa were head injuries and in general a majority of tornado fatalities where head injuries. Note the story of the HS football team that was viewing videos when the storm approached and the coach said put on your helmet.

  9. #9 Doug Alder
    June 3, 2013

    When the amateur storm chasers descend upon the same area they create a real hazard for the professionals by blocking escape routes

  10. #10 Richard Chapman
    June 3, 2013

    One thing that makes tornadoes so dangerous is the speed at which they hit. It may be only a matter of seconds before you have time to find shelter. That’s why safety experts say you need a plan. Like diving into the bath tub with a mattress on top for cover.

    I can’t imagine the trauma of living through a tornado strike. One minute you’re sitting there watching TV, the next minute your whole neighborhood looks like it was jammed through a meat grinder.

  11. #11 Harold Brooks
    June 3, 2013

    Not sure what happened with Tim. Looking at where he was, I don’t think evacuation traffic would have had much of an impact, if any. Chaser traffic, maybe. The sudden acceleration to NE caught several folks by surprise.

    Laws are really challenging to enforce. Road closures exist now, but there are lots of roads. Tim was a couple of miles south of interstate. Closing all of them strains law enforcement.

    I don’t know what Reed has ever done for science with his stuff. Tim shared data and results. His video consisted of really high quality camera work of weather and the focus wasn’t on him. He will be missed.

  12. #12 Layne Ship
    Texas
    June 4, 2013

    With all due respect, Mr. Laden’s article suggesting outlawing or making storm chasing illegal and only permissible for the “authorities” is a typical misguided response after a emotional tragedy.

  13. [...] Died, And What To Do About It. Here’s an excerpt of a thoughtful post from Greg Laden at scienceblogs.com: “…I have no idea how many of the people in the viewing area of this station saw or [...]

  14. #14 Greg Laden
    June 4, 2013

    I have not suggested that storm chasing be illegal. I have stood up for professional storm chasers in this post.

    Actually, to get my point all you really have to do is read the post but to restate the idea: Jamming a county road or a state or federal highway during an emergency is a public danger. The apparent fact that individuals don’t take on the personal responsibility of doing the sensible thing is a tragedy. It is unfortunate that when such behavior becomes a problem society sometimes needs to make a rule of some kind.

    Your argument that talking about a way to address a situation in which people lose their lives is inappropriate because the situation is an emotional tragedy is actually the misguided reaction. I don’t think the scientists who died in this storm would agree with you on that. In fact, while writing this post I wondered what the three scientists were thinking as their car, and other cars, were hemmed in with a traffic jam that seems to have been caused by inappropriate reactions by a large number of people. They were probably thinking, “somebody should do something about this situation.”

  15. #15 Eric Lund
    June 4, 2013

    Greg is definitely right about the distinction between researchers who need to be close to the storm to do their research (people like Samaras) and people who are doing it just for fun. The latter group tend to get in the way. There are some similarities to people doing volcano research, in that people doing it know they have a high risk of death if they happen to be on duty when the eruption occurs. But volcanoes usually give fair warning that an eruption is likely to occur in the next several weeks, and in most cases (at least in First World countries) authorities can control the few access routes to the volcano. This was the case with Mt. St. Helens in 1980: some volcano researchers were killed in the eruption, but authorities were successful at keeping most civilians out of the danger zone.

    I have heard that some professional storm chasers offer package tours. On the one hand, researchers have to pay the bills somehow, and this is one way to do it. On the other hand, it means they are intentionally bringing civilians into the danger zone, and these civilians don’t always know how to react if the situation gets out of hand. The last time we had a tornado warning where I live (July 2008), several people who work in my building actually went outside to look; luckily, the tornado never came close to us, because it was the worst one in state history (it was an EF-3 that had a 50 mile ground track). People who are paying for the storm chasing experience are expecting to do pretty much the same thing. It’s even worse if you are an amateur tornado chasing on your own–at least the tour groups have an experienced person to warn them that the tornado is coming straight at them and they need to hit the dirt NOW! Storm chasing is definitely in the “Don’t try this at home, kids!” category.

  16. #16 Hamish Lucas
    Melbourne, Australia
    June 4, 2013

    In this country, if a cyclone alert is issued, all roads are closed. People found driving on closed roads are fined over $1000.00 per wheel. Thus the bigger the projectile you will make, the worse the fine.
    I know cyclones are slightly more predictable than tornados (but much less predictable than hurricanes) they also have the habit of suddenly randomly changing direction.
    So in a free country, it is possible to do as you suggest.
    I hope that newscasters are better informed about the advice they should give and that this tragedy is never repeated.

  17. #17 Eric Lund
    June 4, 2013

    @Hamish: One reason that can work in Australia is because most of the region that is vulnerable to tropical cyclones (a hurricane is a tropical cyclone with sustained winds of at least 64 kts/74 mph/118 km/h) is sparsely populated. So when an alert is issued the authorities only have a few roads to close, and not much population to evacuate. It gets logistically harder to do this if the affected area includes Cairns or Brisbane, because if you are evacuating people from low-lying areas you have to leave the roads open long enough for them to get out. Oklahoma City has a similar population level to Cairns and Brisbane. The US has several cities along hurricane prone coasts which are larger (including Houston, Miami, and New York).

    Most of the difference in predictability of tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic and the waters around Australia is that the North Atlantic has both a longer climatology base and a higher density of surface observations. North Atlantic hurricanes sometimes do unexpected things as well, such as acquire a forward speed of nearly 100 km/h (the 1938 “Long Island Express” hurricane) or cross Florida twice (I’m forgetting which of the hurricanes in the last ten years did this). With better data, we could get better forecasts of Southern Hemisphere storms. The forecast quality will always be better than for small-scale phenomena like tornadoes.

  18. #18 Xanax
    SW
    June 4, 2013

    Too many people clogging the roads in a chase situation makes it difficult for anyone to get away when a storm turns on them. An outright ban is prolly a bad idear too. So maybe take the time to authorize a few specialists that take recreational tours storm chasing, and keep the rest of them off of the roads. There is only so much space to get away and so many roads to use, many in poor repair. The roads need to be kept open and clear for the REAL scientists out there gathering data and for the safety folks to do their job. Your freedom ends at my nose if your presence endangers me. Same is true for Safety officials and storm chasers and officil spotters doing their jobs.

  19. #19 Connie
    CO
    June 4, 2013

    I would like to see some repercussions for the idiotic weather personalities who suggested running away. It is known to be BAD advice and they directly contributed to the deaths that occurred. I don’t think anyone’s rights need to be taken away…

  20. #20 Christopher McCoy
    United States
    June 4, 2013

    Specious arguments at best. Let’s create MORE laws to regulate something we really do not know if it is a problem. And, how exactly is an officer supposed to know the area to keep any car (stormchaser or not) out of? As the author admits early on, tornadoes change course and skip.

    Saying “Stay out of moore” wold just turn the would-be chasers in another direction that a storm or twister could emerge from.

    Certainly broadcast public service announcements discussing the danger of chasing storms. Absolutely educate people on the safest way to ride out a storm. Don’t create a law just to feel better because people died. Yes, they died, but there is ZERO evidence this law, if passed, would have prevented even one of them. The traffic could have been created for any number of reasons. The storm path could have gone many other directions. The people could be driving for many unattributed reasons.

    At the end of the day this is just a silly notion.

  21. #21 OL
    North OKC
    June 4, 2013

    I was streaming the weather warnings at work throughout that afternoon, and the KOCO weather forecasters distinctly advised driving home if you could make it by 4pm and if you had a sturdy shelter at home. They said to stay at work if you had better shelter there. I made the decision to go home since I have a shelter, and i was able to leave work and be home close to 4pm. Some of my colleagues stayed, where there is a basement. I am stunned that that any forecaster indicated people should drive anywhere after 5pm that day. I’m Sooner born and Sooner bred and I learned early that a car is one of the most dangerous places to be in a tornado. I don’t know what they were thinking in a state packed with cars and almost no other transportation options and few shelters.

    For the record, an “enigmatic” lack of shelter in Oklahoma has to do with cost. Shelters up the price of homes, making homes much less affordable for many people. Also, there are nearly no public shelters anymore, due to liability issues. I’m not saying these circumstances are sensible or humane, but they are the case nonetheless.

  22. #22 Christopher McCoy
    Los Angeles, CA
    June 4, 2013

    ” I don’t think the scientists who died in this storm would agree with you on that. In fact, while writing this post I wondered what the three scientists were thinking as their car, and other cars, were hemmed in with a traffic jam that seems to have been caused by inappropriate reactions by a large number of people. They were probably thinking, “somebody should do something about this situation.””

    I am thinking these scientists were blaming the storm track far more than the traffic.

    Bolstering your argument by supposing the dead agree with you indicates how weak your initial argument is. It is emotional to posit “people died, let’s make a law” without really identifying a true cause. Your analogy regarding the burning building is wrong as well. If you were turned away from Main Street due to a fire, and instead took Elm, would the state be responsible when a fire spontaneously breaks out on Elm as well and sprays glass on you? Tornadoes happen in bunches and clusters. They never follow the same track. There is no certainty.

    Were all the people blocking the road amateur chasers? Probably not. Would one less car have been on that particular road had your proposed law been in place? Probably not. Sometimes accidents happen. Scientists have to accept that. This storm changed track. Unless you wish to legislate God, I recommend you rethink your proposal.

  23. #23 Keith Gardner
    New York City
    June 4, 2013

    Too many words! But yes, I agree that people deliberately in the wrong place at the wrong time should be penalized. Enforcement is difficult, but not impossible. For example, it used to be hard to catch motorists running red lights in NYC. Now they’ve got cameras that take a picture showing the red light, showing your car going through the red light, and showing the license plate on your car going through the red light. There’s no wiggle room. They look up that license plate in the DMV database and conveniently send the summons to you in the mail.

    With the new Facebook and iPhoto (and other) face-recognition technologies that can pick a face out of an image – multiple faces even… Apply that technology to license plates instead of faces. Take multiple pictures of vehicles “in the way” of emergency responders at tornado or other emergency sites. Run them through the DMV and send out those tickets.

    But please, do we need new laws? I don’t think so! I think it’s exactly as you said; these are bona fide emergencies and thus are precisely the situations that they should already be empowered to act in.

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    June 4, 2013

    Christopher, I’ve heard from their own lips complaints by professional storm chasers about the looky-lous that clog up the roads, so probably both.

    Regarding the rest of your comment. please note that I did not claim in my post what you claim I claimed.

    Keith: I know, I hate words! Terrible things they are!

    I agree, we only need laws if we need laws. Most new laws seem to be rehashes of existing laws that can be adapted. I assume those are passed to make legislators feel good about their jobs. But, since we (we here discussing this) don’t really know the laws and how they work regarding emergency response, traffic, etc. state by state the possibility that some kind of adjustment must remain open.

  25. #25 Dorothy Cosgrove
    United States
    June 4, 2013

    I was visiting OKC from Kansas City that day. Having grown up in Wichita, Ks., I’m well aware of the unpredictability of tornadoes; though technology has greatly improved forcasting, tornadoes will remain highly unpredictable. I’m reminded of Grand Island, NE in 1980, when the tornadoes defied everything we supposedly know about them. I’ve always been told never to try and outrun a tornado, it is one of the most dangerous things you can do. I was in Warr Acres, just next to Bethany in OKC on Fri. May 31. Several parents in the group I was with decided to drive south, away from the storm. Long story short, I and many others took cover in the hotel bathroom as the tornado headed straight toward us (to hit at 7:05). I had spotty phone connection with my husband watching TV in Kansas City, and my sister watching from Edmond, OK. Just as it was coming toward us, it turned south. We were fine. The people who drove away did find shelter after what sounded like a very fearful drive. They sheltered at St Anthony’s Hospital which was only about 1/4 mile from where the tornado touched down.

    The fact of the matter is, you just never know where they’re going to hit. I think it’s an abomination that news forecasters suggested people drive away that temporally close to a suspected tornado touchdown. Driving away several hours ahead of time is one thing, but this guy was telling people to drive at the same time he was saying the tornado was impending!

    I’ll take my chances sheltering in place, thank you. But it is a free country, and if people want to be foolish then so be it. I won’t be joining them on the roads.

  26. #26 Mark Kitt
    usa
    June 4, 2013

    I’ve been in a tornado, when I was six!
    I remember Pa wearing this Civil Defense helmet and he was chirping on this big ol’ walky talky! He had a road map spread across the kitchen table! He turned and saw at me peering up from the basement steps! Then he yelled “get your ass back down there, boy!” Just then the power went out and I heard what sounded like a freight train. The kitchen windows blew in and Pa slid across the kitchen floor and we hid down under the stairs! It was over in just minutes, when we climbed the stairs half the house was gone but nearly all the houses on the street in back of us where gone! These things will always be unpredicable and its good to hid under the basement steps!

  27. #27 CherryBombSim
    June 4, 2013

    CBS from Dallas agrees with Dorothy from KC and OL from OKC. One of the first rules you hear about what to do in a tornado is “Do not try to outrun it.” In fact, the general wisdom is that if you are unlucky enough to be in a car when a tornado hits, you should pull over, get OUT of the car, and find a low place to hide. The newscaster’s advice was appalling.

  28. #28 Alan
    June 4, 2013

    Countless hikers have fallen to their deaths from cliffs. Humans enjoy challenges that involve risk and admire those who “cheat death”.
    However, people are not immortal and sometimes die doing the very thing live for, you simply can’t legislate that human desire for adventure out of existence, nor should you try to.

  29. #29 Jason Webb
    United States
    June 4, 2013

    Writing new laws on the books is useless, even before the news agencies started this new trend which is disturbing you have people hiding under overpasses and pulling stupid stuff, Chasers have complained about this issue for years, notice numerous videos of truck drivers who even drive into the funnel, enforcement will be non existent because this puts law enforcement in a position of risk and is irresponsible, i agree with the tours, but again many people cannot afford the tours that are out there now and so they figure its cheaper to go it themselves, we can blame people for the groups death but the fact is that there were several unusual factors that caused this

    #1. the storms path was extremely erratic and it made a sudden turn that surprised even veteran forecasters.

    #2. the storm went from a mile wide wedge to a 2.6 mile record breaking monster in an extremely rapid time, usually people 1 mile away from the storm would be safe or even 2 miles away but in this case it dropped on people 2 miles away, more so i don’t believe it was a traffic jam as opposed to the rapid size increase and the sudden change in course.

    the same thing happens every year with both tornadoes and hurricanes, how many people ignore the wanings and do not evacuate coastal areas, to only try to call 911 in the middle of the storm panicking and 911 tells them sorry cant help you.

    Education may help, but first we need to educate Meteorologists in the media, the brilliant minds out there need to come up with a set of definitive standards on what to do and what not to do and hold the TV weather accountable, develop an educational program for the public, but most of all give people a place to go, public shelters or something for safety, if people have a shelter they more than likely wont get in their car in the first place.

  30. #30 Ryan
    June 5, 2013

    I think this tornado did some stuff we didn’t expect. I was in the northern part of the metro and we were nervous because most tornadoes through here track NE eventually. This one didn’t. It almost stopped, then went East. I think the only way to deal with these weeks-long tornado outbreaks is to build high-quality shelters in every community and make sure people know where they are.
    Anything else is just going to lead to panic like the panic that killed people on the 31st. Oklahomans can handle a day or two of this, but after a week plus of watching families with lost loved ones on the news they start getting jumpy.

  31. #31 Bart Comstock
    Tulsa, OK
    June 5, 2013

    The one thing in your article I see that you failed to address is the number of chasers in the past that have been killed by the storm while chasing them. Excluding the one thrill seeker and the three professionals that were killed in this event there has not been another incident. Furthermore only a tiny handful of “trained” spotters have ever been killed either and the only two I know of was back in 2011 on a single tornado.

    Another thing I noticed that was looked over in this article was the unique conditions that were present at the time that Tim and his crew were killed by the storm. These conditions being a tornado being the widest in history (with only one other tornado in recorded history coming close to the same size) and the abnormal path the tornado took. This tornado was also pretty unique in that the forward speed of the sub vortices in it were at or above 150mph. That is the speed at which they rotated around the tornado, not their recorded windspeed. This kind of movement is nearly unheard of in a tornado and that paired with the fact that the tornado was 2.6 miles wide, moving at an accelerating speed, turning 45 degrees suddenly, and had recorded winds of up to 295mph in it created the perfect scenario that no one could have predicted.

    This tornado was a once in a decade if not longer event that we have truly never seen anything like. If out of the many decades that chasers have been in the field only 3 have ever died then I’d say chasing is safer than many other dangerous events. Why not outlaw sky diving too? And if public safety is truly the issue at hand here then instead of telling people to get in their cars and trying to figure out some sane and responsible way to evacuate from the path of a tornado mandate better public and privet shelters in areas more prone to this kind of weather.

    In closing it should be important to note that Tim and crew did not get killed because of the traffic that was present on that day. He was killed because an unusual and unprecedented tornado acted in an unpredictable manor and sadly cost him, his son, and chase partner their lives.

    -Bart Comstock, Storm Chaser

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    June 5, 2013

    Bart, the fact that the tornado was extreme is certainly the biggest factor, but I did not overlook the fact that this event (these storm chasers getting killed as well as three others luckily surviving a badly rolled over car).

    The point of this post is to note two things that I can’t prove are relevant in this case but certainly are relevant generally. One is that people may have been encouraged via chatter in a number of places to use “driving away” as their strategy for getting away from this particular tornado. The other, which according to professional storm chasers is a problem, is the increased number of people crowding roads (including but by no means limited to) highways in or near the paths of storms. That is a real problem and has increased over time.

    You are absolutely right, that this tornado was a particularly monstrous one. I’m not sure about your claim that there was not a traffic jam, that conflicts with everything else I’ve heard.

  33. #33 Greg Laden
    June 5, 2013

    BTW, here is Bart’s Youtube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheTornadoChaser

  34. #34 Eric Lund
    June 5, 2013

    I’ve been reading Jeff Masters’ blog regularly. Since this post went live Jeff posted about another storm chaser, an amateur, who was killed in this tornado. I also heard mention of a storm chaser who, attempting a U-turn to avoid a flooded stretch of road, went off a hidden embankment and was lucky to avoid drowning. Jeff also included a video from a different storm chaser who, by his own admission, was too close, and whose escape (along with his partner, who was driving) was delayed by something like half a minute by other storm chasers getting out of Dodge. It wasn’t what I would consider a traffic jam under normal circumstances, but when you have a tornado coming straight at you those seconds are important. That sort of delay could have been the difference between the Samaras team escaping and being caught in the tornado.

    The amateur storm chaser who was killed mentioned, in the cell phone conversation he was having with a friend (who was in a safe location and urged the storm chaser to get out of there), two local TV news vans passing him. That’s two more vehicles going into the danger zone. I can at least understand why news crews were in the vicinity, but they didn’t really need to be there either.

    One more thing: at the point the tornado lifted, it was heading more or less directly eastward along I-40 (again, Jeff Masters is my source here). This was one of the highways that really did have a traffic jam thanks to the TV people who encouraged locals to attempt to flee in their cars. Another two or three miles east and we would have been looking at a death toll in the hundreds. Which, I think, was one of Greg’s original points.

  35. #35 Chris Lassiter
    North Carolina
    June 5, 2013

    Why is it these days that every time someone dies someone wants to make a new law restricting freedom? If you are worried about the roads being clogged during a tornado then don’t drive or don’t live in tornado alley. There are places in this country that I have almost no tornados This law would only allow people who “***work***” for the government to be there. . Here’s a new law we can make: Whenever there is an emotional tragedy, no laws related to it can be made for at least 5 years. Now that would be an effective law.

  36. #36 Greg Laden
    June 5, 2013

    I agree, Chris, that the specific suggestion that I made in the post that existing protocol should allow emergency personnel to keep roads clear. That would also be my preference, so we are in agreement.

    Very few professional storm chasers “work for the government” … really, none. There is a large university team with a NASA/NOAA grant that I know of, and a number of professional chasers are grad students at a university, but that is not the same thing.

    Regarding emotional tragedy and responding to the thing that caused the emotional strategy, no, you’ve got that wrong. But, I suspect I know why you proposed that idea. Enough said.

  37. #37 Brandon Tyler Coburn
    United States
    June 6, 2013

    I could not agree more with the statement in this article saying that driving away is not the best option. I live in a rural town in southern West Virginia, however we are no strangers to tornadoes in 2001 a tornado ripped several close friends houses to shreds and they were only saved by using the old bath tub trick. If they had tried to drive away their cars would have surely been torn apart, and again just last summer a tornado ripped through the forests close to home demolishing hill sides and houses in its path. Also my brother was forced to move to Oklahoma for a job just last week only days after the tornado in this article struck Oklahoma city. I also agree that people should not be allowed to drive through tornadoes for the safety of others, however if people were not allowed to escape I believe that more shelters should be provided for individuals in the path of the storm. I also think that storm chasing is not necessarily a bad idea, of course it has its risks but imagine the benefits we could reap if we understood these monsters enough to harness the energy they release rather than letting it do nothing but cause a mess.

  38. [...] How three storm chasers died, and what to do about it [Greg Laden's Blog] [...]

  39. #39 Dan L
    June 7, 2013

    One thing in your favor: Tornadoes do not have politically powerful, wealthy backing, so it should be easy to enact laws regulating how people enjoy them :-)

    “I suggest that law makers in tornado alley states consider legislation making it a violation to intentionally drive into or near the path of known or likely tornados. This is not an especially enforceable regulation…”

    I doubt that the new law would save lives. I doubt that it would even have a measurable positive effect.

    Public safety workers already enjoy wide latitude in the execution of their jobs. They can easily cite or arrest anyone they need to, and even temporarily imprison them, without charging them with anything.

    Storm chasers being killed by storms isn’t even a problem. It’s just news. 528 people were killed by weather in 2012, of which about 200 were a result of high velocity air. Were 20 of those people storm chasers? I doubt it.

  40. #40 Grant
    June 7, 2013

    Wooosh….

    speaking of high velocity wind, that was the sound of the point flying by Dan L.

  41. #41 Dan L
    June 8, 2013

    Spell it out for me, Grant. I answered in good faith.
    What was that point that I missed?

  42. #42 Sean
    Florida
    June 9, 2013

    With all due respect, the citizens of tornado alley, especially Oklahoma, need to better educate themselves on severe weather. If you live there, there should be no excuse…your life depends on your knowledge. Do not rely on others, including the T.V. meteorologist.

    My humble opinions:
    This storm was erratic and there will be more storms just like it in the future.
    There are too many chasers/gawkers on the road these days….get use to it and prepare for it.
    Oklahoma is a severe convective weather ‘bulls-eye’ and always will be.
    The KFOR anchor should have said “if you are in your vehicle (head south). . .”.
    Police/authority do have the power to stop vehicles/storm chasers from continuing down a road if there is an immanent threat. They need to better forecast for a chaser convergence and prepare to block roads.

  43. #43 Greg Laden
    June 9, 2013

    Sean, I agree on all points. I would just add that other media outlets had apparently been talking about “outrunning” as a strategy for a couple of days before this particular tornado, so the idea was perhaps already in people’s minds. This included CNN. Those media outlets need to do a more professional job and take their responsibility as journalists rather than entertainers more seriously (generally, not just with respect to tornadoes).

  44. #44 adelady
    June 9, 2013

    All this about tornadoes is very reminiscent of fires in Australia. Big fires are also pretty unpredictable and they can drop burning embers many kilometres away from the fire centre. Not only are rubberneckers prohibited from fire danger areas, even people who live in the area are prohibited from access. If you’re prepared to fight fire and defend your property you have to be there before fire starts and stay there for as long as it takes.

    And, just like a tornado, the last place you want to be caught in a fire is in your car. (Though I’m not so sure that restrictive law re tornadoes is the first or best strategy – simply ensuring that emergency personnel of all kinds have the authority to control traffic might be OK so long as they are adequately trained and backed up with good links to forecasters.) We have strong public service announcements for months before and during fire season about making a fire safety plan for your household and how to listen for public safety messages on high fire risk days – and those announcements for the duration of the fire are very cautious about advising people to get away only if it is safe to do so.

  45. #45 M.S.
    Norman, OK
    June 9, 2013

    Let me post a reply to many of the above comments and suggestions. I have lived in the Oklahoma City area for 37 years and have been professionally chasing storms for the last 18 years. I hold a degree in atmospheric and oceanic sciences.

    I would like to point out that Mike Morgan, the meterologist at KFOR, did what he’s done successfully many times since May 24, 2011. He gave direction to leave if in the path.

    I’m not saying I agree with it, but this is not something he suddenly started doing. Sheltering in place should always be recommended. It’s not safe to get out and drive, but I can tell you from having lived in Oklahoma for 37 years, people drive away from tornadoes on a regular basis. This is nothing new, and this really has nothing to do with someone on television telling them to do so. When the NWS uses phrases such as “You will not survive, neighborhoods will be flattened” no one in their right mind is going to stay at home and wait out the tornado in their bathroom or closet above ground.

    If you must call out Mike Morgan, then you must also call out Marc Dillard and Reed Timmer from KFOR for also suggesting people drive south. Another example of this on a NATIONAL level and not just a local level is Season 5 episode 6 of Storm Chasers (The discovery channel show that followed three chaser groups) where Joel Taylor, Reed Timmer, and Chris Chittick all call friends and family on their cellphones advising them to drive away from Yukon, OK and Norman, OK. Actually pointing those in Yukon into the path of the Pidemont, OK tornado.

    I will not comment at all in regardess to the death of Tim, Carl, or Paul, as they were close personal friends of mine and I am not reading to speak on that subject currently.

    Plain and Simple what needs to be done now is EDUCATION. Oklahoma schools are not properly educated on how to shelter children. The majority of schools are built from concrete blocks that are not reinforced. I know this from my own children being in Norman public schools. I’ve had grown adults that have lived in Oklahoma their entire lives ask me what the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning is. Many still believe mountains and rivers save towns.

    It needs to be taught in public schools, teachers also need to take these courses. It needs to be taught FREE for the public as well. Also we MUST push for adqueate shelters. I am not a believer in public shelters, so we need more people to take advantage of state and county rebate programs to get their own shelters.

    For those suggesting regulation on storm chasing. It will NEVER happen. It is not inforceable. Police have a hard enough time now dealing with emergencies, the last thing they have time to do is stop to write tickets. Yes, chaser convergance has been a huge problem over the last few years. I’ve literally sat bumper to bumper with chasers on a five mile strech of road. I’ve looked at video and have counted 458 people outside their vehicles in that small strech of road.

    As for highway patrol and local police… their cars NEED to have radar installed and they need lessons on how to use it. I’ve had several police hop in my car to look at radar and ask for opinions while chasing because they are not equipt with it. On May 13, 2012 Norman PD blocked off roads and literally put me in the path of the tornado. Thankfully, I got out of it with just a few minor injuries and broken windows, but if a monster tornado happens people will not be as lucky as I was.

  46. [...] 2013/06/03: GLaden: How three storm chasers died, and what to do about it [...]

  47. #47 Danny Caputi
    United States
    June 13, 2013

    I haven’t seen any good arguments yet that storm chasers and others on the road during a tornado are posing a danger to anyone but themselves. Until I see good evidence to the contrary, I will be strongly against regulations on this activity.

    You argued that your car could become a dangerous projectile if you intentionally drive into a strong tornado, but so could cars in parking lots. I don’t think there has been a single case (correct me if im wrong) of external injury or property damage due to a chaser’s car getting picked up by a tornado. Storm chasers should absolutely pull off the road and yield to emergency vehicles as well as people trying to escape. They should not drive where they will not be able to pull over safely to allow emergency traffic and other traffic to flow.

    I don’t know all that much about chasing so I recognize that there could be some logistical problems with my above statements. But what I would really like to ask is this. With the regulation that you are proposing, what would you suggest to someone who doesn’t have the tools or money to contribute their chasing to science, but simply would like to witness the beauty of mother nature, and is educated enough on storms to make smart decisions to not pose a danger to others?

  48. #48 Greg Laden
    June 13, 2013

    I did not make the argument that storm chasers cause cars to fly through the air and hurt people (though that could happen) I made the argument that amateurs who are just out to see the tornado jam traffic … this is not something I’ve discovered, it is something that professional storm chasers have claimed to be true. And, I’ve argued that telling people that the safest thing to do is to get in their car and drive is wrong. That is not my argument either, it is simply what all the experts say. I’ve also suggested that traffic jams which could be caused by either of these effects can trap people where they don’t want to be and that is dangerous to those in the vehicles. That seems to be what happened here.

    I would say to such folks the same thing a fire chief would say to people who are not trained, qualified, or equipped to study burning office buildings but feel that somehow being close to one would help them provide insights about fire safety: “Move along, you’re not helping but just getting in the way here.”

  49. #49 Danny Caputi
    June 13, 2013

    Okay, fair enough. But I’ll just say that I think there are less extreme solutions than putting a ban on all amateur storm chasing. For example, the requirement to hold a permit to chase could be limited within a certain radius of a city or residential area, where congestion is more likely to create a danger to public safety. Or, amateurs could get to a good viewing area well ahead of anticipated severe weather, and then stay put and off the road.

    I agree that telling people that the safest thing to do is to get in their car and drive is wrong. Hopefully, that lesson will be learned immediately.

  50. #50 Moosie
    June 27, 2013

    I do not understand the need for ‘storm chasers’ when we have the 503 WRS that routinely punches holes in tornados and drops sondes.

    Further with this ridiculous drive away strategy and the inability to predict small movements how do you parse the storm chasers from the poorly directed refugees? Then we have police in the mix attempting somehow to cite the stupid?

    Finally do what we did in California for earthquakes. You have to sensor the state. Stop having idiots chase things. We need sensors in place, in advance of the storms. We need infrastructure built! Then we get the micro information they are hunting, reliably and in a timely manner.

    Hope that helps but I doubt it.

  51. #51 Beckie
    July 18, 2013

    I think that Tim Samaras knew what he was doing. The tornado was unpredictable. Making a law which makes it illegal to chase storms will make it practically impossible to get enough data to understand tornadoes. understanding tornadoes will prevent this from happening.
    I also think its called natural selection. If idiots who don’t know what they’re doing want to drive into a twister, let them. And if people are close enough to a tornado so that a car gets thrown at them, then that might just be natural selection as well. Even if the people who are at risk of vehicular projectiles are innocent bystanders, chances are they’re at more risk from the tornado than the cars in them. Also, consider that there is huge debris in tornadoes regardless of whether or not some amateur gets caught in it.
    If you want to make this about Tim Samaras, how about you contact his family, colleagues, or friends and ask them what he would have wanted.

  52. #52 Mike Young
    eastern kansas
    July 23, 2013

    To me the real imperative is to get a tornado shelter in most homes and businesses and educate the general public about what to do and what not to do. Also, we all have to take responsibility for our own safety and try and do what’s best for you. I remember my wife telling me a few years ago about her retail stores tornado policy which was contrary to everything I knew about safety during a storm. They eventually revised this policy I’m assuming based on what has happened to folks in their stores during a bad storm. It still came down to the fact that you have to do what you feel is right (especially if it conflicts with what you are being told to do) and not just become a helpless lemming during an emergency. Anyone can be wrong and that includes forcasters on tv, government and business emergency policies. It’s your life so guard it like you own it.

  53. #53 EZ Claim
    Chennai
    October 11, 2013

    It will NEVER happen. It is not inforceable. Police have a hard enough time now dealing with emergencies, the last thing they have time to do is stop to write tickets.

  54. […] blogger Greg Laden said that until he is proven wrong, he assumes that “the hundreds, or even thousands of […]

  55. #55 John Davenport
    Texas
    April 28, 2014

    The deaths of Mr. Samaras, his son, and Mr. Young had absolutely nothing to do with the horrendous traffic affecting other parts of Oklahoma on May 31. Dan Robinson had a clear view of their white Chevy Cobalt in his rear facing dash cam as they pulled up to and crossed Hwy 81 until their headlights fade behind the outer wall of the suction vortex that killed them. Mr. Robinson also had forward and side facing dash cams operating that day and the Twistex crew’s Chevy is the only other vehicle visible in any direction on Reuter Rd for the last 15 or 20 minutes of the chase. They were caught off guard not by traffic, but by an extremely powerful and erratic multi vortex tornado that grew from a mile wide multivortex into a 2.5 miles in diameter behemoth as it also accelerated and turned north toward the ill fated chasers. Being stuck in traffic during a tornado outbreak is obviously unfortunate, but unless you can find a way to outlaw tornado formation in cities during rush hour, sporting events, concerts, accidents,or anything else that causes traffic to snarl, getting hit by a tornado while stuck in traffic is simply a risk one assumes by living in tornado alley and choosing to drive a car. Using the unfortunate but unrelated deaths of well known storm chasers to rail against people trying to seek safety from a storm by getting out of the way strips any slight merit or credibility from your already weak and less than well thought out argument. What is it that causes some people to react to every tragedy in life by trying to legislate the risk out of living in a free country? Why are you so quick to blame the TV and not the idiots living in the heart of tornado alley who chose to get in a car when they knew there were already tornadoes in the area? Rather than wishing for the cops to block storm chasers from going to work or giving untrained hayseed sheriffs deputies the responsibility of predicting tornado behavior and rerouting traffic accordingly, maybe instead of getting stuck in traffic the next time an F5 rolls through town how’s about using that time digging a nice cozy little family sized hole in their back yard and stocking it with a weather radio and a couple of 12 packs of whatever passes for beer in Oklahoma. The gas you’d save would easily pay for a shovel.

  56. #56 Greg Laden
    April 28, 2014

    Wooosh.

    That was the sound of nuance rushing by your libertarian ear.