I stared at pictures of a storm chase vehicle twisted by the El Reno, Okla., tornado that took the lives of Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and Carl Young.Though I didn’t know them, it struck a nerve. “If it could happen to one of the best of them, then …,” is a thought we who chase are surely pondering.There will be debates, calls for the regulation of chasing and rethinking of the practice itself.The challenge is the very wide spectrum of people who are chasing. Most are making an important contribution and aren’t reckless thrill-seekers. Tim Samaras and the others with him dedicated their lives pursuing answers, and they played a valuable role in gathering data to warn the public.There’s now the familiar “why did it happen?” questions being asked. Tim’s lifelong quest was to “better understand some of the final mechanisms for tornado genesis.” It’s the “how does it all come together?” question.There’s also the “how does it all come together?” question involving such tragic fatalities.• There can be rush-hour and chaser traffic jams (I’ve been in those): too many chasers in a small area with fleeing public.• Though law enforcement officers work hard saving people’s lives, it’s been reported that one officer was blocking a possible exit road when disaster struck.• Like an expanding storm, there is also an appetite for ever more dynamic footage. The chaser and the media are subtly taking greater risks and have grown accustomed to the new norm, of the incredibly dangerous.A severe weather event is chaotic, unpredictable by nature. It is a coming together of many different things in the atmosphere. The tornado at El Reno took a sharp left turn; statistically, many don’t. It just so happened to rapidly grow into the widest tornado ever recorded.There was also the human dynamic, many people making split-second decisions in dealing with danger.The National Weather Service included “social scientists” to study what happened during the historic outbreaks in 2011. They looked at people’s understanding and reactions, and what part the media and emergency managers played. Now, it seems we need to include the spectrum of chasers into the equation.I suppose if one could graph all the data of people’s reactions in weather emergencies, we would have the appearance of some chaotic storm.A tornado obscured in rain and debris, moves through a city. Like the fog of war, the fog of the chase can happen, too. It’s the pit-in-the-stomach time when a chaser, like a anyone else, just wants any shelter or escape route, in the face of the dark, spiraling menace.It can be the effect of small mistakes or erratic storm behavior. The storm interceptors’ situation spins out of control, an error from which there is no recourse. Maybe they just simply got too close.One of Tim Samaras’ last tweets was about “tornadoes being unpredictable.” How true.Scientists study the mysteries of storm behaviors in hopes of getting a better understanding, which leads to improved forecasts and saved lives.In like manner, we need to improve our responses amongst the people involved, in emergency management, citizens and those chasing in a highly dynamic situation, to mitigate the tragedies as best we can.The pursuit will go on for better answers; it will be a little more cautious under a somber cloud.
G. Thomas Windsor of Damascus, Md., is a storm chaser, has a severe weather website, WindPhoto.com, and is the author of Life is like a Weather Forecast.