From the ABC 7 Weather team

Lessons to be learned after the death of three storm chasers

June 3, 2013 - 11:37 AM
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A terrible tragedy in the Storm Chaser Community, staying safe during a tornado.

I didn’t know Tim Samaras or the other men that died in Friday’s violent tornado. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and criticize when you hear that storm chasers got caught in a tornado and were killed. But those who died in the El Reno tornado were scientists, not hot shots, trying to ultimately save lives by doing tornado research.

They are the ones that try and place their sensor equipment in the path of the tornado to study the winds and have had success. At this point we need to reflect and learn from what happened. We still don’t know everything about tornadoes and how they behave. This one took a sharp right turn after moving to the Northeast for a while. It was congested with traffic; there were a lot of storm chasers in the same area, the tornado became wrapped in rain and was difficult to see. Trees were blocking the view at times.

The circulation was wide and for miles you could feel intense winds were being drawn into the tornado. There are likely a number of reasons coming together that account for this tragic loss and we should look at is as an opportunity to improve chasing and to educate.

Friday Tornado Tracks

While EF 3,4, and 5 tornadoes are much less frequent here, we are still vulnerable to them. The La Plata, MD tornado in 2002 was an EF4, even stronger than the El Reno tornado. So, we ask ourselves, how is it possible for us to stay safe when some of the most experienced scientists in the world can’t? We don’t have storm shelters and safe rooms here like they do in Oklahoma. Some of us have basements. Underground is always best. No basement? The next best place is the lowest level of your home away from doors and windows, in the bathtub with a helmet on. Covering yourself with blankets and/or a mattress will help protect you from flying debris. You want as many walls as possible between you and the tornado. A closet under the stairwell is likely survivable, perhaps an interior pantry. If you live in a mobile home, you have to plan far enough ahead to evacuate to a safe place. Spend the day with a friend with a shelter if the risk is high. Being caught outdoors is the worst place to be. In a car might be better than out, but somewhat controversial since cars can be lifted by tornadoes and become projectiles. If no shelter is available, lying in a ditch and covering your head is the best bet.

We all have to take some personal responsibility when it comes to storm safety. We need to be weather aware. We need to watch television, or get on the internet or have our mobile devices programmed so that we are alerted on the days that we are at risk of tornadoes and then get alerted again when a watch and warning is issued. We can’t wait or rely on sirens to sound or for someone to call us and give us a heads up. We need to know ahead of time and we need to have a plan of how and where we will seek safety. This is just as true when you are at home, or if you are at a soccer game, or if you are at the grocery store or at work or school. We are the only ones that can make ourselves act. It’s easy to feel immune. Most of us never think anything bad could happen to us. That happens to other people. That happens to people who don’t pay attention, or who aren’t educated… The deaths of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young prove that isn’t true. The storm chaser community has grown dramatically in the past ten years. There are literally thousands of people that chase storms every year. There is no license to be a storm chaser, and there are many in the field that don’t have the proper equipment or knowledge to stay safe and get out of harm’s way. And every now and then even those that do, can get caught by the unexpected, reminding us we still have a lot to learn and we are not in charge.

For an informative look at Tim Samaras's work and the El Reno tornado, there is an excellent blog by Dr. Jeff Masters that you can read here.

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