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Storm chasers stir a tempest in tornado alley

Now that anyone can run down twisters with a smartphone, there's a new breed of thrill-seeker that worries some public safety officials.

April 22, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Locals look at the damage after a tornado hit Woodward, Okla. The outbreak of twisters also brought in a flood of storm chasers, a phenomenon that is starting to worry some officials.
Locals look at the damage after a tornado hit Woodward, Okla. The outbreak… (Bryan Terry, The Oklahoman )

KANSAS CITY, Mo — Chancy Smith, who is in charge of his county's emergency response unit, had never seen anything like it.

A "funeral procession" of cars trekked through county roads as a tornado bore down on Solomon, Kan., Smith said. Gawkers clogged the streets. Photographers stood in the middle of highways with tripods. Some vehicles drove over downed power lines.

Like some kind of paparazzi, obsessed with storms instead of stars, the chasers converged in tornado alley last weekend to capture images and perhaps profits from a deadly twister outbreak that scoured the Central Plains. While thrill-seeking storm chasers have long been a part of the severe weather season, the proliferation of smartphones, live storm tracking and a popular reality TV show have spawned a new and aggressive brand of hobbyists and professionals.

Last week, as the region girded for devastating tornadoes, chasers found themselves in their own storm of controversy and complaints as they vied for the best views in a tornado theater.

"The game is changing really fast out there ever since chasing started going mainstream," said Chris Sanner of Norman, Okla., a videographer who's been chasing tornadoes for 10 years. He and others said that since 2007, after Discovery Channel premiered the show "Storm Chasers," it's become a free-for-all — more cars out on the road, more hobbyists and more friction.

The powerful storm system arrived in the Central Plains as advertised: Twisters raged across the countryside in Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. Six people were killed in Woodward, Okla., where a nighttime tornado caught residents in bed and tore homes and trailers to pieces.

It's Smith's job to follow storm destruction and look for victims. After he lost track of the twister because four cars belonging to onlookers had blocked the road, his frustration peaked.

"The morons were driving over power lines," Smith told the Salina Journal in an interview that stirred uproar among storm chasers. "I was worried I would have to do rescues."

Smith later said that he didn't intend to include seasoned storm chasers with the scofflaws — yet folks with cameras got in his way.

"These people are my friends, my family that I'm checking on," Smith said. "If their house is damaged or destroyed and I'm out there trying to check on them or rescue them and I can't get them, I'm upset."

Rapid-fire Twitter messages among chasers offered a glimpse of the snippy exchanges among teams with names like @TorandoTitans and @SWATChasers.

"You guys weren't even potty trained when most people started chasing," Reed Timmer of Norman, Okla., tweeted at another chaser. "Why do u think you're suddenly authority on chase style?" Timmer's profile description includes the motto: "Dominate the storm!"; Tornado Titans' says, "Chase hard, score big!"

Timmer, a meteorologist, defended his work.

"I feel very lucky as a storm chaser," he wrote in an email. "Because not only am I doing what I love for a living, but it also has a human benefit — directly through storm reporting/live streaming video and indirectly through research and trying to better understand tornadoes."

National Weather Service officials kept their criticism muted; storm chasers are their eyes on the ground during a storm and are responsible for many of the warnings residents eventually see on TV.

"We depend a lot on legitimate storm chasers — the scientists who go out and do this and have experience with this," said Pat Slattery, a weather service spokesman. "What's causing problems is everybody and his brother getting on their cellphones and sharing videos of this."

Amateur video that can be easily posted online has made storm chasing a tough business, as professionals have seen the value of their images plunge.

"The best video comes from locals who are shooting with their iPhone instead of taking shelter, and that's hurt the market," said chaser Adam Lucio, who sells footage.

Anyone can now follow a storm with a simple phone app; amateurs no longer need the costly radar equipment used by many veterans.

Lucio, of Chicago, says he tries to take partners on the road to help cut down on the cost of gas and hotels.

"If you can break even, you're doing pretty good," said Lucio, whose full-time work is restoring decks. "I'd like for it to be a career, but that's just tough. Very tough."

Others, like Lanny Dean of Extreme Chase Tours, leads storm chaser tours out of Tulsa, Okla., where Australians and Japanese have flown in just to see the weather. On Wednesday, Dean's site was offering a six-day tour for $2,200.

Rhonda Wilder saved up for a year to take one of Dean's tours with her 22-year-old daughter, Mickey, in 2010.

They saw their first tornado on April 22, 2010. The twister descended like a finger out of the sky. Like real storm chasers, they took pictures and video of several twisters while on the tour.

"It was the coolest thing," Wilder said. "I've had babies, I've had my wedding day — this was right up there at the top."

Pearce writes for The Times.

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