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Published: Sunday, April 22, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Gawkers jump into storm chasers' ranks

  • A storm chaser records a thunderstorm just east of Pretty Prairie, Kan., on April 14.

    Travis Heying / Wichita Eagle

    A storm chaser records a thunderstorm just east of Pretty Prairie, Kan., on April 14.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Given life-threatening wind, hail, lightning and flying debris, chasing tornadoes would seem harrowing enough.
Now add to that what many agree is a new and growing danger on the edge of the violent vortexes: people -- hundreds and hundreds of regular people.
People risking their lives, gawkers clogging roadways, some with kids in the backseats of their cars or in the beds of their pickups. They sit poised with cellphone cameras, stop dead in the middle of lanes beneath roadway bridges, travel at breakneck speeds for the chance to get up-close-and-personal with one of nature's most awesome and awful displays.
Kansas' Chancy Smith, the director of emergency medical services for Dickinson County -- raked by a series of tornadoes April 14 -- caused a minor storm of his own when, after the tornadoes, he publicly called the throng of chasers who flooded his county "morons" for risking their lives and possibly the lives of others by impeding emergency services.
Raked by quick rebuke, Smith has since said he did not mean to malign legitimate storm spotters and chasers or scientists who do much to help the National Weather Service predict and track major storms.
Experienced, long-term storm chasers have expressed similar worries.
They're talking about the others, the hundreds of rubberneckers, gawkers and severe-storm sightseers and shutterbugs who clogged the exit off I-70 as the tornado swept past Solomon, Kan., parked as if they were at a drive-in movie. Meantime, his firefighters, he said, clocked others tearing 60 miles per hour and more through the tiny town in pursuit of the twister like they were kids after a lost balloon. He said some drove, rumbling past fire trucks and over downed, live power lines where a damaged natural gas facility was spewing the explosive gas.
"There were morons out there. There were plenty," Smith reiterated to The Kansas City Star on Wednesday. "I was a police officer for 17 years and a director of emergency services for seven, and I have never, ever seen that many people converge on a storm. There were hundreds and hundreds ...
"My cohorts in other communities are saying, 'Don't apologize for what you said. We have all had this problem.' "
It has certainly hit a nerve among emergency services people and longtime storm chasers who concede that, in recent years, it seems that witnessing tornadoes up-close has turned from a risky endeavor attempted by adrenalin addicts to a family spectator sport. Local high school kids looking for tornadoes using apps and websites on their smartphones have become common.
"I really couldn't tell you why it's occurring," said Joe Koch, the emergency management director in Saline County, Kan. "It is becoming more common for people to go out and see these tornadoes."
So common, in fact, that when the National Weather Service issued its early warning for last weekend, alerting the public that scores of tornadoes were likely to sweep through tornado alley, Koch sent out an alert of his own to emergency personnel.
Expect an influx of people.
Meteorologists and others said the reason is clear: technology, TV news and entertainment.
Whereas tracking storms used to require an intimate knowledge of tornado formation and, often, thousands of dollars of specialized equipment, one can easily find and track them now with a laptop, Wi-Fi or a smartphone.
Websites such as tornadoalleylive.com, severestudios.com or chasertv.com allow anyone to locate tornado-spawning systems in an instant. You can follow radar sweeps and live video streaming from chasers. Smartphone navigation apps lead you there. Some believe that the glut of shaky tornado images shot by telephone cameras on YouTube and the Discovery channel's show "Storm Chasers" has made live-tornado watching seem safer and friendlier than it actually is.
"When we first started chasing 12 years ago, we might see another person or two out there, and we probably knew them," said North Carolina meteorologist Peggy Willenberg. She and her cohort, Melissa Metz of Minnesota, follow and photograph tornadoes as a duo known as the Twister Sisters.
Now: "The troops have descended," she said.
Willenberg and Metz were in Kansas on April 14 to capture video and still pictures of black, violent swirling twisters.
"What I saw is people out there that didn't have any sort of equipment," Willenberg said. "I saw cars full of kids on the road. Families is what I'm talking about."
Willenberg said her concern is safety -- first for families:
"These are beautiful and wonderful phenomenon," she said, "and I can understand everyone wanting to get a look at it. But to put yourself in danger like that, and to put others in danger, is just bad."
Jeff Piotrowski of Tulsa, Okla., was in Wichita this past weekend as the tornado raked areas outside the city.
"Ten years ago, there would have been a dozen people out there," he said. "Today it would be me and 30 or 40 others. You have these people who want to see their video on the Weather Channel."
Story tags » FloodEmergency ManagementTornadoWeather

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