Beyond the Forecast: Learning Lessons from the 2013 Tornadoes

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Posted Sun, Nov 2, 2014

On May 31, 2013, the commonly thick air was even heavier that day in Oklahoma City. Although the skies started clear, many Oklahomans knew the sky could go from blue to black in minutes. Suddenly, the skies west of Oklahoma City became dark like night to at 5 p.m. –  just in time for the evening commute.

'Stay Weather Savvy', the last tweet from storm chaser Tim Samaras before he, his son Paul, and chase partner Carl Young were overtaken by 295+ mph winds in the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on May 31, 2013.

‘Stay Weather Savvy’, the last tweet from storm chaser Tim Samaras before he, his son Paul, and chase partner Carl Young were overtaken by 295+ mph winds in the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on May 31, 2013.

Just south of El Reno, a tornado with a width of 2.4 miles and winds in excess of 295 mph, was tracking across the west side of the metro area, crossing I-40 and leaving destruction behind. In addition, the supercell thunderstorm that spawned the EF-3 tornado caused massive flooding, and the images of the twister turned into scenes of people abandoning their cars on I-35 to escape the storm.

Eight people died in the wake of the El Reno tornado, including three reputable storm chasers, raising questions about the necessity of storm chasers and their role to the media. From localized TV coverage, to the dramatic first looks of destructive tornadoes, to storm chasers, the weather community is trying to figure out where mistakes were made that cost lives and how they can improve for the next EF-5.

Ben Holcomb, a storm chaser from Norman, Okla., witnessed the EF-5 on May 20. In the days following did countless interviews, and his message across all platforms was the same: No matter how dangerous, delivering the live video to those impacted by the tornado is always worth it.

“It humanizes it. Forces people to take action,” Holcomb said. “It’s one thing to hear that there’s a large tornado on the ground. It’s something completely different to see a huge tornado and hear that it’s [down the street].”

On May 31, the threat for severe weather was immanent and local media relayed that message under clear skies, but viewers became confused by conflicting messages. While one station is telling residents to shelter in place regardless of where that may be, another is calling for a mass evacuation of the metropolitan area.

Dan Goff, former Chief Meteorologist at WUVT News at Virginia Tech has analyzed this event from both perspectives, hoping to seek clarity for himself.

“I don’t know what I’d do in that situation,” Goff said. “I have no idea. I hope what I do is right, but how will I know? I’ve never been in a situation of that magnitude, I’m going to do whatever I think will save lives, and that’s what both did that day.”

Prior to May 31, there have been very few storm chaser casualties credited to a tornado, many of which chasers will attribute themselves to their own stupidity and adrenaline, and never a chaser fatality. While the three storm chasers died gathering information and conducting research, other chasers impacted were chasing as a contributors to local media, or as a hobby chaser that later sold video to news organizations.

The remnants of Tim Samaras' Chevy Cobalt.

The remnants of Tim Samaras’ Chevy Cobalt.

“It’s an inherent risk to chase,” Holcomb said, “But when you’re chasing to contribute video that could save lives, it’s worth it. When you’re some kid with a camera that puts yourself at the wrong place at the wrong time and you’re able to make thousands off of it, that’s when chasing isn’t worth it.”

 

After what we saw with [The Great Tornado Hunt], even being out there for the “right” reasons could get you killed. At the end of the day, it’s about ratings, and for the producer, the more dramatic, the better, according to Goff.

“It’s complicated, but the majority of contributed video will save lives,” Goff said. “I can’t speak to what these teenagers are doing with their cameras, but in the end, ignorance isn’t bliss in a life or death situation and the more information about a tornado we have, the better we will be when communicating that message.”

 

2 Responses to “Beyond the Forecast: Learning Lessons from the 2013 Tornadoes”

  1. Emily Says:

    Great story. Very dramatic, kept my attention

    Reply

  2. Kelsey Hammond Says:

    I love weather stories. This was a great read!

    Reply

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