On June 16, 2014, a violent EF4 rated struck Pilger, Nebraska. It killed 2 people and injured over 24; nearly destroying the town of some 350 residents.
As the tornadoes swept across central Nebraska, an armada of storm chasers tracked the twisters; capturing dramatic footage, including a series of rarely seen twin tornadoes.
Some chasers concentrated on filming the tornadoes while others called in storm reports. A few claimed they rushed into Pilger to save lives.
According to post-storm briefings on popular chase discussion websites, the initial impression was that the majority of chasers acted in a responsible manner. This is not surprising given that most chasers do indeed chase with honorable intentions and in a safe manner. The majority of chasers are hobbyists: driven by a simple love of adventure, camaraderie, meteorology and a good storm to photograph.
Long after storm chasers departed Pilger, residents began the long process of putting their town and lives back together. In the evening hours, chasers posted their bounty of dramatic images and footage on social media sites before heading off to bed.
Then all hell broke loose.
By mid morning, accusations of reckless storm chasing antics and ethical issues began to overshadow the previous day’s tragedy. Internet discussion groups and social media flame wars reignited the ongoing controversies.
The upheaval was attributed to a freelance photojournalist who arrived in Pliger shortly after the tornado. That evening, he posted a picture of a dying 6-year old girl on his Facebook site. This prompted a backlash of public anger; some wrongfully directed towards the storm chasing community. The photo was immediately removed.
“Pig in a mud puddle”
Mike Powers, a Dallas, Texas-based storm spotter closely followed the events from home: “Reports show chasers did some great things to help people in Pilger. The unfortunate event involving the photographer, who was not an established chaser, was the catalyst that ignited the ongoing controversies, concerning ethics and malbehavior. This has been building up for years in the chasing and storm spotting communities.”
Powers explained that storm chasing used to be about storm spotting, photography, camaraderie, real science and adventure. “Chasers were, and still are for the most part, responsible individuals and groups with honorable intentions. The majority don’t care about making money from chasing, boosting their egos or getting involved in ethics, bickering or poor behavior. But now, the problems are trickling down to them and they don’t like it.”
Powers referenced increasing problems with a minority of elite chasers who are, in some people’s opinion, “working the system because they can dictate what is right and wrong, while the majority of chasers, are forced to suffer the consequences and scorn of questionable behavior and possible ethical issues.”
Well-respected storm chaser and research meteorologist Chuck Doswell wrote in his blog following the Pilger tragedy: “Storm chasing is being flooded with a large infusion of folks out there chasing that are, as my friend (deleted name) says, mostly about themselves and not so much about the storms. ‘Look at me!’ they shout. ‘I'm special because I chase storms [stupidly!].’ They thumb their noses at the very notion of chasers being responsible to others. They wallow in their uncaring “outlaw’’ status, joyful as a pig in a mud puddle when they get publicity for their "exploits."
Chasers concede there has recently been an “alarming” increase in video clips showing both chasers and non-chasers narrowly avoiding violent tornadoes and death. In Power’s opinion, “A handful of chasers and copycats are risking life and limb to emulate what they ill-advisedly perceive as acceptable stunts in order to make money and gain social media glory.”
Experienced chasers say that close calls and dangerous encounters are an inseparable element of chasing. Powers emphasizes: “I don’t think there is any way to completely eliminate the risks associated with chasing. Even the most cautious chasers can be hit by a rogue lighting bolt or find themselves in a tight situation with big hail or a sudden tornado. We saw that last year when three chasers were killed in El Reno, Oklahoma. They were very experienced and cautious, but the tornado turned and expanded in record intensity.” The problem is when you have chasers out there porously trying to do dangerous things for thrills or for some drummed up reasoning.”
Although most chasers agree it’s a personal preference when deciding how close to get to a tornado, the big disagreement is how close is too close, or what some chasers call “stupid close.”
Powers says there is a big difference between endangering yourself and risking the lives of others. “Passengers may or may not know better, but some chasers forget they are operating on public roads, not closed arenas, and their antics may endanger the lives of others, including any rescue personnel who might have to come scrape them off the pavement.”
EMS personnel point out that irresponsible and avoidable chaser accidents caused by reckless driving or contact with violent weather could pull away emergency personnel from actual emergencies like tornado disasters.
More than one chaser has suggested simply allowing the “Darwin Effect” to run its course.
Some storm chasers argue that image problems originate from news outlets that continue to give a “stamp of approval to imprudent behavior and fail to address the questionable antics, claims and ethics.”
Powers suggests, “Some chasers have become so popular and protected by the media and their fan bases, they’ve developed a kind of storm chasing immunity, free of any scrutiny or investigative reporting.”
With no “opposing viewpoint from the media and the majority of chasers and spotters,” Powers argues the “lop-sided publicity is destroying chasing for everyone else, including 99 percent of responsible chasers who only pursue weather as a hobby.”
So why don’t chasers take a stand and try to fix the problems?
Powers says that any chaser or private individual who questions the “ethics or shenanigans of an elite chaser runs a big risk.” “We are talking damnation and character assassination from hordes of cult-like social media followers and fans.”
Sometimes the retaliation can be brutal and unlawful.
In June of 2013, a chaser in Texas received fan-generated death threats and extensive social media bullying after he critiqued a popular chaser’s behavior.
When the reality television show “Stormchasers” was cancelled in 2012 due to declining viewership, chase fans turned to the Internet and social media to find storm chasing entertainment.
To fill the vacuum, a handful of chasers immediately began conducting and promoting their own up close and often hazardous storm chasing clips. Before this period, chasers point out that very few close encounter clips existed.
“The original chasing philosophy became cloudy as people embraced what they thought was normal behavior. Antics and stunts replaced reality, says Powers. “The Responsible Age of chasing faded” and the ‘chasertainment’ era was born.”
Many chasers argue that when the popularity of extreme chasing exploded, big money and marketing schemes naturally followed.
Powers suggests that people often see dramatic footage on the Internet and television and may think, “Oh my, what brave men and women to risk all for our safety. But little do they know the main purpose is not always for public safety, but a rather, a highly competitive, ego driven pursuit to make big money, up the other guy’s footage and self-promote one’s self into oblivion. You have to wonder when all you see are visual gimmicks, promotions and cameras pointed at tornadoes. You rarely see actual life saving work being preformed or official documentation of such heroic events by the media, EMS or law enforcement. This has got to be one of the biggest stratagems in recent history.”
The volunteers who risk their lives to provide storm warning information argue that the “bastardizing” of chasing is not only destroying the image and creditability of chasing, but most disturbing, the character of “storm spotting.”
The real heroes of Tornado Alley
Storm spotters are volunteers who go out in the community and report dangerous storm conditions to the authorities. The National Weather Service website reports there are 290,000 “trained severe weather spotters in local groups around the U.S.”
Although they comprise the largest number of people who actively pursue severe weather, spotters rarely receive any attention; yet they can unselfishly take credit for relaying life-saving information to millions. Some chasers also serve as spotters and relay valuable storm observations.
Storm spotters from around the Nation make no effort to hide their disgust with the current situation.
Spotter-related discussion groups often flare up like volcanoes when “egomaniac chasers” takes credit for their hard work, or makes “exaggerated claims” of heroic endeavors.
Spotters recently accused a handful of chasers of being “ambulance chasers” after a series of violent tornadoes in Arkansas and Mississippi. Powers says, “There is no way they [chasers] can see and actually chase in many southern states because of the dense vegetation. It’s dangerous chasing and almost impossible to see or film a tornado. The vast majority of chasers avoid these areas. But a few aggressive individuals travel there and wait until a town is hit and they converge; sometimes claiming credit for spotting and saving lives. It’s a publicity stunt. No one did this before there was a social media audience – go figure.”
Many legitimate spotters claim people are now questioning their legitimacy and creditability because they are not conducting the same dangerous stunts some extreme storm chasers now claim are necessary to save lives.
Stan Johnson, a 30-year-old, Oklahoma City volunteer storm spotter says, “Now days, a lot of people have a corrupted view of chasing and spotting. For example, there is actually no reason to get in the debris field of a tornado except for television ratings, drama and marketing footage.”
“You don’t need to be 50 feet from a tornado to confirm it’s on the ground. In reality, you get a better and safer overall spotting view from a few miles away and the extra distance allows you to track the storm for a longer period of time. Now people expect to see flying debris killing people.”
Johnson also argues that more and more people are relying on “extreme” footage that chasers and television stations provide before taking shelter. “This a scary trend. Some people obsess over live destruction as long as it’s not in their city, while some become so mesmerized they delay seeking shelter.”
On May 20, 2013, a tornado in Moore, Oklahoma killed 24 people. When interviewed, several residents said they waited to “self-confirm” the tornado’s intensity via television before taking action. One resident said he “watched the tornado thinking it would miss his house.” He climbed into a roadway culvert, narrowly escaping with his life. His house was pulverized.
Spotters and scientists point out that mobile radar units can measure wind speeds and shear (wind direction) from a safe distance. Therefore, human interaction with a 300-mph twister is not a good argument for getting haphazardly close, “even for research,” says Johnson.
Johnson and other spotters say that when people hear they are storm spotters, the reaction is much different than before. “People use to say things like, ‘Thank you so much, Stan, for your volunteer work.’ Now days, I hear more of ‘Man you guys are nuts, but I love the crazy footage clips.’ We are loosing many good spotters because they don’t want to become involved in the chasing circus.”
Gimmicks and Stunts
People who want to become involved in storm chasing are often disappointed when they discover it is all but impossible to make a living from chasing alone. Although there are some occupations related to storm chasing, like on-air meteorologists, the options are very limited.
The slim career opportunities do not prevent some from trying to cash in at any cost or method.
Powers says, “Most chasers who have decided to try to and make it big soon discovered there is only one way now days: stunts and marketing ploys. The crazier the antics and the further you push the story of why you are chasing, the better. And you better be willing to take big risks in order to up the other guy.”
One popular gimmick some chasers use to promote themselves are “tornado resistant” or armored vehicles. At least 10 such vehicles exist with more planned for next chase season. Such vehicles look impressive and may offer weak tornado resistance due to ground hugging effects. But most violent tornadoes generate flying debris or erratic winds that could disrupt ground effects or crush the vehicle. Some chasers argue that the image of a “tornado resistant” vehicle gives people the wrong impression.” Other chasers argue that the vehicles are a great way to increase public awareness.
Even with brilliant marketing and gimmicks, Powers notes that two humongous obstacles stand in the way of want-to-be storm chasing heroes and their dreams of atmospheric gold; “Publicity and legitimacy.” “The last thing a budding chaser wants is bad publicity. So the newbie will need to continuously justify his or her pursuits as having some noble, scientific or public service value. If not, fans, law enforcement, and commercial interests might judge them as just another jackass. If it’s done right, it’s almost bullet proof.”
According to Powers, “To conquer image issues, a chaser will have to devise clever monikers of justification.”
“You might consider calling yourself a ‘twister scientist,’ ‘extreme spotter,’ ‘weather investigator’ or something of similar importance. After all, who is going to question a humanity saving hero? The media eats this stuff up, generally without questioning legitimacy or reality.”
Powers points out that some successful chasers have succeeded without “clever character branding, stunts and sophomoric behavior.”
For those few who conquer the publicity and image hurdles, the pitfalls of maintaining favorable public impressions are ever present.
“First of all, you might kill yourself or someone else through negligence and sit in prison for half your life. There’s always the risk other chasers or the media will discover your tricks and call you on it,” says Powers. “As much as the media loves building someone up, there is always the one reporter who can bring someone down.”
Social media contributors argue that very few individuals who claim to be “storm-chasing scientists” have ever published a peer-reviewed, scientific research paper related to their claimed research. Nor have any leading scientists cross–referenced their claimed “research.” Few, if any, of these chasers have an affiliation with a major scientific institution or university. Most collect limited, localized data that cannot always be verified.
All this is a “big red flag” in Power’s opinion. “If a chaser is not making his or her money from some form of actual research, then they are gathering data in an amateur collective effort, just like everyone else with a anemometer or rain gauge at home. To claim you are saving humanity by such limited research is laughable.”
It is not unlawful or immoral to label yourself anything you want. However, some chasers argue that there are serious questions when people and officials are supporting chasers and giving them breaks under such impressions. Powers says, “Chasers should not be profiting or gaining publicity from such claims if they are solely designed to justify profitable background projects.”
Accredited scientists say that disingenuous chasers are “an insult to actual scientists, spotters and chasers, including those who have died while conducting actual research.”
In contrast, some chase fans say there is nothing wrong with chasers “fudging” their identities or claims of life saving endeavors. “Who cares if they are real scientists or not,” says Kevin Thomas, a self-proclaimed, “storm chasing fanatic.” “I love following chasers live on social media. I don’t care what they do. It’s all about the extreme video clips.”
Although a few chasers may get a bad rap for misbehaving, some often post warning and public safety information on their social media sites. But experts say relying on social media posts for emergency information can be risky.
The fog of social media
When asked what the real-life ramifications are for chasing stunts and marketing masquerades, Powers says, “Chasing is not game. Storms kill and injure a lot of people. Lives are destroyed. No storm footage is worth risking a life. Public trust in accurate and honest information is paramount in the overall picture. If all you see are stunts, tricks and harebrained behavior, then who the hell do you trust? The creditability of all storm-related undertakings and those involved is at stake. Not everyone is bewitched by the illusions, they see right through it, but it creates doubt.”
Safety experts say misinformed media coverage may encourage the public to view some chasers as endorsed experts. People may begin to ignore official information or instructions in favor of their favorite chasers.
Social media reliance can be risky. More than once, social media followers have become panicked when their usual source of critical information did not reply. Some chasers have even been accused of issuing hyped-up forecasts in order to gain publicity.
Doug Mears is a Seattle, WA-based social media consultant. He points out another danger of relying on social media for emergency weather or disaster information: “Social media sites are always altering their algorithms regarding posts and who sees them. It’s quite possible if you post emergency information, some followers may never receive it.”
Recent trends support arguments regarding social media’s impact on weather safety. A disturbing number of people now think social media is the most reliable place to gain emergency weather information.
In the spring of 2014, DirectTV temporarily dropped the Weather Channel from its lineup, arguing in part that more and more people are getting weather information from the Internet and social media.
The National Weather Service cautions people: “The best sources for emergency weather information are still via a weather alert radio or local television.”
There are growing concerns that distorted presentations of storm chasing realities could also be spawning “copycat chasers.” Powers says, “When young kids and teens only see chasers doing outrageous things, they think, ‘Oh my, I want to be that person.’ Some take it to the next level and actually try to chase.”
Several amateur chasers have recently been killed or injured while chasing. This includes individuals attempting to photograph or film tornadoes in Alabama and Oklahoma. There are still unanswered questions as to the source of their inspiration.
Despite the divide between chasers over the marketing of bad weather pursuits, some chasers argue antics and misbehavior have some unexpected benefits. “I guess you could argue even the worse offenders do raise public awareness of severe weather in a round-about way. That’s a good thing,” says Powers.
Many chasers conduct their activities and enterprises with the best intentions. Some are actual researchers, scientists, volunteers, educators, journalists, photographers and meteorologists with a solid track record of honorable service.
No storm chasers are known to have committed any crimes, wrongdoings or unlawful acts related to marketing and self-promotion. This could change as chasing becomes more competitive.
“It’s really up to people to decide for themselves what is right or wrong, what is ethical or unethical, honorable or who to really trust,” There are a lot of fantastic chasers out there who truly represent the very best in chasing,” Powers says.
Footnote: This article, the quotes and opinions within, refers to no specific chaser, chasers, organization or business entity. Multiple chasers and non-chasers have used (or not used) marketing techniques, self-descriptions, and business techniques as noted herein. No comments are an indictment or suggestion of any illegal or immoral activity. Some quoted names were changed by request due to on-going threats and investigations.
America's Storm Survival Expert
Extreme weather Journalist and Photographer
Associate Member American Meteorological Society
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