In Kansas forever more

Kansas is known for more than just wheat. It’s known for tornadoes, and that started long before the Wizard of Oz. As Kansas is in the middle of Tornado Alley, an area of the central United States that sees the highest number of tornadoes annually over that of anywhere else in the world, it is also the storm-chasing center.

Earlier this year after an early season severe weather event in southern Kansas, one of the Wichita-area news stations published two stories regarding storm chasers and how they were getting in the way of emergency vehicles and over-crowding roads. Another story published online by a second Wichita station interviewed a sheriff in Barber County, Kansas who is concerned with the crowding of roads.

Both stations employ or contract storm chasers for weather coverage in Kansas during severe weather events, and both stations used in-house storm chasers to give their views. While it is unanimous among chasers and law enforcement that there are more chasers than needed on any given event, the stories seemed skewed against storm chasers.

Law enforcement members claimed traffic laws are being violated, one official interviewed going threatening arrest for those not obeying traffic laws. During a storm early last month, the Barber County sheriff drove down the freeway with his loud speaker, telling chasers to “move their cars.” This was heavily covered on social media.

But storm chasers feel cops are being too aggressive, reporting that they witnessed most chasers obeying traffic laws and not blocking parts of the roads as law enforcement indicated. Many chasers said rural law enforcement agencies overstated any hazards the chasers posed.

One storm chaser used the power of video to provide a counter-argument to law enforcement’s claims that chasers were behaving dangerously. He posted two timelapse videos of significant tornado event days from 2014 and in his video, the number of incidents he captured showed no chasers blocking roads. Several other chasers posted videos from the early April day and showed the sheriff driving down the highway with his loud speaker while passing vehicles that were fully off the highway, or in pullouts and driveways near the road.

Storm chasers are sometimes judged as reckless thrill-seekers who will do anything for the shot. And while it is true that there are incidents involving careless behavior of some, these recent video releases show there is at the very least some exaggeration in the stories depicting careless chasers.

These Kansas stations that posted the stories focused heavily on the side of the law enforcement even as they contract out their own storm chasers to go and cover the same events. It wasn’t until storm chasers brought to light the lack of incidents on video that the news stations gave the chasers a chance to voice their side of the story.

While some storm chasers have stated they will stay out of Kansas due to issues with law enforcement targeting storm chasers, most chasers say Kansas is one of the best places to follow and report on storms, and no matter what how the media depicts them or how targeted they are by law enforcement officials, storm chasers are determined to be in Kansas forever more.

Tony Laubach is a meteorologist with more than 17 years of storm- chasing experience.  He has been featured on TV programs for the National Geographic and Discovery channels and his severe- weather videos have been featured on news networks around the world.