Perfect storm reporting

Several tornadoes hit the state of Oklahoma on March 25 in a regional outbreak of severe weather. In addition to the well-televised tornado hitting Moore, a city hit nearly half a dozen times since 1999, another tornado hit near Tulsa in northeast Oklahoma. This tornado was noteworthy largely due to the actions of a well-known storm chaser who took shelter beneath a highway overpass when the tornado got too close and he was unable to safely flee. His video of this event was posted within a couple hours and went viral almost immediately. In addition, the chaser sold his video to several major news organizations across the country.

Highway overpasses are one of the most dangerous places to be during a tornado.  An overpass affects the winds interacting with it in such a way it creates a wind-tunnel effect, often increasing the wind speeds under the overpass to extreme levels. In addition, debris is often siphoned beneath the overpass where it collects and can trap those seeking shelter.

What is not being shown in the video are the results of these dangerous actions. Parking under overpasses creates a bottle-neck of traffic, leaving many motorists stranded in the path of potential danger. This not only leaves people out in the open, but it prevents emergency crews from using the roadways.

The most notorious video captured from beneath an overpass came in April 1991 when two photojournalists attempted to outrun a tornado along the Kansas Turnpike and eventually sought shelter beneath a highway overpass. The tornado made a glancing blow of the structure, and none of the nearly dozen people hiding there were injured. This video gave the impression to the public that overpasses are safe. This was brought to light during the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado in May 1999 when a massive tornado, the strongest on record, struck an I-35 overpass and killed one and injured nearly everyone else seeking shelter.

Since then, it has been hammered into tornado safety talks, booklets and webpages that overpasses are unsafe. Not hiding under overpasses is the second-most mentioned tip behind getting into a basement in terms of safety information conveyed to the public.

When the March 25 overpass video was posted, the backlash from chasers and meteorologists began almost immediately. While the overpass shot made for dramatic, television-worthy video, the chaser shot plenty of newsworthy footage away from the overpass that would have easily been salable. And while his decision to be close was brought into question, it was the editing of the video that took most of the criticism, particularly the inclusion of the overpass scene.

The chaser responsible for shooting the footage stated that his options were limited only to this one, mostly due to being too close and not allowing himself more chance of escape. He went on the Weather Channel the following morning to discuss the video and contradict his actions by saying overpasses are not safe places to take shelter. However, that isn’t the message people will remember.

It is essential that storm chasers demonstrate safe practices during severe weather because their footage is what is distributed by the media. Public awareness of tornado chasing has increased in the last decade due to popular TV shows and media coverage. This has inspired the public to become involved in their own chasing endeavors using the chasers’ videos as a guide to “how to chase,” even if the practices are unsafe.

Chasers have been posting close calls and “being hit” videos for years, which the public sees and digests, leading them to make similar dangerous decisions. Had this tornado, or any of the dozens that have been captured, been stronger, lives would have been lost or adversely affected by these choices. As storm chasers continue to post such close calls, the public continues to lose respect for the true danger of these events, leading them to take chances and put themselves and others in great danger.

With storm season in full swing through the end of June, more and more chasers will hit the road to document these forces of nature. Their videos will keep showing up across news sites, social media and TV specials documenting not only storms, but chasers’ own procedures. Inevitably, when something goes wrong, these chasers will be left with a choice of what to do with their video. They may not be able to fully control the circumstances around them in the field, but what they do in the editing is something they can control. That choice will be between the sale of an entertaining, yet foolhardy video, or the responsibility of keeping those unsafe practices out of the viewing of the public.

Tony Laubach is a meteorologist with more than 17 years of storm chasing experience. He has been featured on TV programs for National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel as well as had his severe weather video featured on news networks all over the world. 

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