The 2014 storm chaser conference-ChaserCon, was an informative event. Many presentations provided fantastic detailed chaser accounts, information, and new insights about tornadic preconditions, while offering attendees a realistic perspective on good and useful storm identification strategies with lessons learned from the deadly 2013 storm season. Key note presenters included: Tim Marshall, Dr. Greg Forbes, Dr. Jason Persoff, Jon Davies, Mike Bettes, Chris Novy, Dr. Howie Bluestein, and Chuck Doswell.
Tim Marshall's Sharknado presentation was exemplary and enjoyable, one of the best I have seen. Tim carefully placed added emphasis on establishing a pre-calculated (safety margin) or buffer zone when chasing. Tim recommended using storm data about forward tracks (as well as ‘visual confirmation’) of advancing tornadic storm progress, and recommended employing better exit strategies, and to consider using simple rate x time = distance (plus a SAFETY margin) for tracking tornadic supercells and possible rain wrapped tornadoes in high precipitation (HP) storms, when encountering or evacuating HP tornado areas such as the dangerous bwer (bear) cage or vault region.
This type of careful forward thinking for advancing chase strategies using a calculated approach to strengthening situational awareness, was viewed by most conference attendees as a good step forward for storm trackers, and was seen as a ‘better practice’ for the tornado spotting community. Also, most presenters indicated the need to consider becoming a certified storm tracker with Red Cross First Aid or EMT experience. SkyWarn training was also offered at Roger Hill’s CHASERCON 2014 conference. Attendees were urged to take the next step and become SpotterNet trained, or if interested, to consider becoming a certified meteorologist.
Dr. Howie Bluestein, Oklahoma University, gave a great detailed presentation of his close scan RaXPol data of the May 31st, 2013, El Reno wedge and satellite tornadoes. Dr. Bluestein velocity and reflectivity tornado image loops were amazing (See link). Also, see Dr. Joshua Wurman’s dual Dopplar velocity tracks of that massive deadly tornado. CSWR produced an excellent peer reviewed paper regarding the historic massive El Reno tornado.
NOAA/NWS Summary of El Reno tornado evolution.
Having personally tracked hundreds of mesocyclones and tornadoes, and traveled along with the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded VORTEX2 project (2009-2010), as well as with the Center for Severe Weather Research (CSWR’s) ROTATE (2011-2012) convective scientific field research efforts, I appreciate applying new standards and ‘best management practices’ for tornado tracking strategies at fairly close range, but with now added margins of safety. Most attendees of the conference expressed appreciation for such thinking, as well.
CHASERCON 2014 then made Kansas tabloid newspaper headlines by Chuck Doswell’s critical presentation, that offered perspectives about some wreckless behavior that had clearly followed the popularity of TV storm chase shows, and highlighted an increasing number of novice storm chasers and curious observers who chased storm trackers toward tornadoes. Although, statistically this number has declined a bit in recent years. However, Mr. Doswell gave a few insights to newer storm chasers in the audience to help them gain better storm tracking situational awareness, according to one attendee at the 2014 CHASERCON event.
Having tracked tornadoes in deadly 2013 tornado season, I had to agree with many of his criticisms, TORNADOES ARE DANGEROUS, and Tim Samaras and the TWISTEX crew (some of the most experienced and conservative chasers) were killed in the El Reno tornado.
Also, Chuck got an amazing round of applause from meteorologists, scientists, emergency managers, and chasers alike when he said, “the El Reno tornado was and EF5, not an EF3 like the weather service says, I don’t care what they think.”
However, several points Chuck made did not sit well with some people I interviewed at CHASERCON. One person in particular made the point to me, in person, that she had dug her family out of the rubble of Joplin with her bare hands. She became terrified about tornadoes so she wanted to learn more about storms, and that is why she came to the conference, to learn more about tornadoes so she could spot them before they hit her family again.
Chuck Doswell’s more notable comments quickly picked up by tabloid media news outlets including the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle included: “There’s no telling how many people storm chasers have killed – or will kill in the future – as a result of their videos of dangerous or reckless behavior.” Doswell also said TV, “storm chasers have inspired those who have little or no idea of what they’re doing to grab a camera and try to photograph dangerous storms.” Doswell indicated, “All of us, myself included, have done irresponsible things,” “The El Reno tornado didn’t teach chasers anything new.” “Rain-wrapped tornadoes are dangerous – gosh, what a revelation,” he said. “Being close to a large, rain-wrapped tornado, it’s hard to judge when it changes direction. Duh.” “There’s nothing wrong with being a thrill seeker.” “I’ve made mistakes, many of them, and I’ve never been afraid to own up to them.” “Chasers are not out there to save lives, Chasers are not out there to save lives, so quit saying that crap!”
However, there were many additional comments made by Mr. Doswell that instilled a positive message about tornado chasing cultural changes needed for better safety of emergency personnel and storm trackers. One of Mr. Doswell’s ending comments was, “Consider what you can do to enhance the positive side of chasing.” For reference, the following CHASERCON 2014 link presents the full text of Mr. Doswell’s discussion.
CHASING’S END OF INNOCENCE, CHUCK DOSWELL
Chuck Doswell’s last comments, “Chasers are not out there to save lives, so quit saying that crap.” Did upset a fair number of people who felt that their reporting of tornadoes and severe weather did help, and that their assistance to others in storm damaged areas also made a difference.
STORM CHASERS CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE AND SAVE LIVES
During the May 10th 2010 tornado outbreak in Oklahoma, DOW 8 radar technician Justin Walker terminated his scientific mission, as soon as he saw damage and heard voices. Justin went to pull debris off blocked storm shelters so that people inside could escape.
Jeff Piotrowski, a highly regarded and well known bwer cage storm chaser, with just 18 seconds, gave warning to police that the Joplin EF5 tornado was heading their way.
Wichita Eagle March 9th 2013
After the Basehunter chase team first identified the Joplin tornado touch down they immediately ‘called it in. The EF5 only traveled ten miles through Joplin and was on the ground from 5:34pm to 6:12pm (38 minutes) , the tornado was at its widest one milewide, which was achieved in less than one minute, yet that tornado killed 158 people, injured 1,150 others, and did 2.8 billion dollars in damage. Basehunter chase team members Scott, Colt, Isaac, Kevin and his father Harlan Rolfs picked up a severely injured woman from the rubble in Joplin, and took her to the hospital, that was also destroyed, so took her to an ambulance where she finally got help from medics for her lacerations, contusions and puncture wounds. Emergency managers reported damage to be 75% of Joplin.
On May 20, 2013, Basehunters, Colt Forney Kevin Rolfs, Lauren and Jimmy Story ‘called- in’ and then filmed the deadly Moore EF5 tornado in Oklahoma at the South Moore Highschool. As they were closest to the western extent of the damage in Moore, they knew that emergency crews would be inundated and have a hard time making their way to the scene. As the tornado continued east wrecking havoc, these storm chasers put away their cameras and went back into the destroyed area of Moore to lend aid with search and rescue. As they drove up on the intersection of Western and SW 149th, they found the remains of a day care center where children were trapped in rubble, crawling out of debris. While searching for the remaining children (who thankfully were eventually accounted for), Lauren noticed a loud gushing sound. Thinking at first it might be a ruptured waterline, she continued toward the sound, only there wasn’t any water, just the overpowering odor of the ‘rotten egg’ smell additive put in natural gas. Turns out debris from the powerful tornado had broken a natural gas main line that was spewing huge volumes of natural gas into the area. Thankfully, with the help of local residents, storm chasers, Lauren, Colt, Kevin, and Jimmy loaded the kids into a pick up truck and evacuated them to safety. During the Joplin, EF5 tornado, natural gas leaks sparked fires that ravaged whole blocks while people were trapped in wreckage.
Once out of the EF5 damage path in Moore, Oklahoma, Lauren contacted people she knew who forwarded a message to activated Federal Emergency management via (thecepp.org) and local emergency utility crews to remotely shut off the gas main to avert fires, as such had occurred previously during the Basehunter’s experience during the Joplin EF5 tornado event.
CNN NEWS MOORE EF5 TORNADO
Another chaser indicated that during the El Reno tornado, “I was on the phone with CSWR who was scanning the large violent tornado with dual Doppler radar. I got an interrupted call from another chaser John Hallen, Severe Warning Systems (SWS), who was in the El Reno tornado notch and needed remote eyes on the storm and driving directions, because satellite tornados had demolished his west option escape routes. I helped John find some road options, but John said, “I think I hear people yelling from a destroyed house, wait a minute, he listened, and then said I think they’re trapped, I gotta go and help them, talk to you later. John called back 10 minutes later and said he removed rubble from a below ground storm shelter where a family and some neighbors were trapped, and he let them out. He informed them another tornadic wall cloud was coming and to take shelter but to remove any more possible debris. After the second tornado passed by that area, the following storm dumped six inches of rain in an hour. Had they been in that below ground shelter trapped during those heavy rains they may have drowned.
Tornado Intercept Vehicle (TIV Crew) and storm chasers Sean and Jennifer Casey and Darren Brunin raised $15,000 through Storm Assist for Moore OK tornado victims.
On June 17, 2010 in Wadena, Minnesota, the TIV crew went back to help town after the large wedge tornado passed. The TIV team had attempted to warn the town of Waldena, MN, before the wedge tornado hit the town, and then returned, and TIV medic, Marcus Gutierrez, assisted injured victims in Wadena, and later that year, the TIV crew returned to towns with storm victim donations.
Tim Samaras, storm chaser, 'tried to help save lives', Newsday June 2, 2013
CBS reports: “Doug Kiesling of stormchasingvideo.com has been chasing weather since 1987. His SUV is hooked up with gear that allows him to transmit live HD video straight to the National Weather Service.” “We’ve been able to show them ‘Yes there’s a tornado on the ground. Yes, there is rotation on the ground,” Kiesling said.
Dennis Sherrod, retired military and retired highway patrol officer, chased the Tuscaloosa EF4 tornado, reporting storm motion and damage to authorities. Afterwards, Dennis spent ‘months’ of his own time lending support to the State of Alabama with heavy labor and equipment. Dennis supported recovery efforts from the affects of that deadly tornado outbreak.
A chaser at the conference said, “I cannot recount the number of times I have called-in a tornado that local NWS thought would have been in a different location due to their elevated WSR 88D scans, and were especially glad to receive accurate GPS and lat. long. coordinates, especially when such tornadoes were heading toward a populated area.” "Also, State Patrol in several states, have come up beside my storm spotter vehicle and looked at my GR3, Analyst displays, and Mobile Threat Net profiles to understand where tornadoes were compared with their physical location."
“In my opinion, storm trackers are in a unique position to lend first responder crisis assistance in a heavily damaged area, until official EMS 'can arrive,' because they have full situational awareness of the storm dynamic that just hit a community, while the community, including many first responders get massively blind sided by the event themselves. This was made brutally clear in Joplin, MO, on May 22, 2011, May 20 in Moore, OK, 2013, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27, 2011. As one very seasoned chaser said at the CHASERCON event, "I truly respect Dr. Doswell, but respectfully disagree with that single point. He too got blind sided in the El Reno tornado, he doesn't know everything."
REFLECTIONS ON DISASTER RESPONSE
Most States like Colorado have Good Samaritan laws providing some protection for first responders and accident volunteers. Other states, such as New York, may actually place some liability on accident volunteers, unless they can prove their currently certified and trained in the State. In New York a standing joke is that if you get shot, call a cab. They aren’t really joking, a cab will get there in half the time and take you to the nearest hospital. In New York some activities can protect Samaritans and others not. For example, you have to be NY trained and certified to use a defibrillator, but may assist in ventilation. Just know what your dealing with, and know your capabilities, so you too don’t become a victim. 'Fortunately tornadoes are not common occurrences in NY.
FROM STORM CHASING TO OTHER RISKY ADVENTURES
The following are some perspectives from mountaineering and back country skiing. Each year a few climbers and skiers are killed doing what they love. In the mountaineering community, there is reverence for their loss, and for family members left behind. Then there is discussion of ‘how did that happen?’ When the error is understood by the mountaineering community ‘at large,’ either new methods are chosen to reduce frequency of such risk-driven events in the future, or new equipment is developed to address an identified fatal flaw. The same is true for the back country skiing community. This year avalanches have killed back country skiers in Colorado, and some in ski areas, so far 10 people have died. Avalanches killed 5 highly skilled back country skiers last year who were each avalanche trained and certified.
This year a line of new avalanche survival equipment has come on the market. One can only hope the storm tracking community including scientists, meteorologists, storm spotters, state patrol, first responders, equipment companies and storm tour companies learn some lessons from the casualties caused by the El Reno tornado of 2013, and do a better job in the future.
The more salient message from the CHASERCON 2014 conference was to be more professional when tracking storms, make reports, make wise decisions well in advance, help when you can, and then leave the scene when official support arrives, so that you do not inhibit the greater effort of helping the public recover from such deadly storms.