07.03.13

Thoughts of a Storm Chaser

Posted in Storm Chasing at 6:23 pm by Rebekah

I can’t let the 15-year anniversary of my first tornado go by without posting something about storms!

I’ve had the rest of my chase photos from this year ready to post for a while, but have put it off for a couple of reasons–1) Yahoo! (my web host) changed the way they want us to upload files last fall, and I haven’t been able to figure out yet what I’m going to do about that…it might involve another (complete) reworking of the site, as I’m now sadly out of date, but will take some time to solve the problem. So no chase logs/photos/updates for now on the ol’ Green Sky Chaser page. I am working on this, however.

2) My chase vacation had some ups and some downs, and I have been trying to figure out how to deal emotionally with all that happened, before I could try to distance myself a bit and write more about it.

On the flight back to Kwaj, I wrote some of my conflicting thoughts down on my iPad. I was going to edit it for a future post, but I just decided I’ll go ahead and post it here raw and unedited, as it reflected my thoughts as they were fresh. I had just heard about the deaths of well-respected storm chasers Tim Samaras, Carl Young, and Paul Samaras, Tim’s son, as I sat in the Oklahoma City airport ready to board my flight.

Then soonish I will post chase logs from the rest of the trip, to the blog here, while in the meantime I keep beating my head against on the wall on what I am supposed to do with the main site.

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02 June 2013

These last three weeks of vacation for storm chasing have been a nice break, filled with good company, interesting forecasting challenges, and amazing storms, but have also brought great tragedy to many people. Here are some of my rambling thoughts on the subject.

As a storm chaser I sometimes find it difficult to reconcile feelings of excitement for witnessing beautiful and powerful storms with the destruction and heartache that can follow. Granbury, Shawnee, Newcastle, Moore, El Reno, Oklahoma City, etc. were hit hard during these three weeks, and even the storm chasing community lost three of its own most well-respected chasers.

Not long after the “chase-cation” began, we passed through Granbury, Texas, just after an EF4 tornado destroyed some neighborhoods and killed several people. The sight of leveled houses, sirens wailing, and crying people harkened back to when I helplessly watched a nearly 2-mile-wide EF5 tornado wipe out Greensburg, Kansas over 6 years prior, some memories which I had tried hard to suppress.

Greensburg was the first tornado damage I had ever seen firsthand, and it affected me so profoundly I nearly quit chasing, and only after I visited the town nearly a year later, and saw how well the community had come together to help rebuild, was I able to feel that I could start chasing again, but with a bit of an altered perspective that comes to many when seeing something like that.

I was startled to see Granbury like that, and again struggled with how I am supposed to feel and react. How quickly our joy at finally seeing a tornado and having our forecast verify can turn into horror at realizing what is happening or about to happen. No one ever wants anyone to get hurt or sustain property damage. And yet many storm chasers, myself included, chase for the beauty and awe of strong storms. We do what we can to report severe weather and help the warning process.

Everything came closer to home when Moore, Oklahoma was hit hard by another EF5 tornado. I did not see the tornado and avoided seeing the damage for as long as I could (however it is on the route to the Oklahoma City airport), as I wanted to remember the city as I had last seen it the morning of the tornado. I do not regret missing that tornado at all. I have many friends who live in the area and know some who lost all but their lives. Sadly others were not as fortunate.

I did see a multi-vortex tornado near El Reno 11 days later grow into a wedge as it crossed I40, when we finally lost it in the rain. Lives were again lost, including those of well-regarded storm chaser Tim Samaras (I remember first hearing of him and his “turtle” tornado probes in a National Geographic magazine years ago, after an intercept with the Manchester, South Dakota tornado in 2003), who has contributed quite a bit to tornado research and the chasing community; Tim’s 24-year-old son Paul; and Tim’s storm chasing partner also seen on The Discovery Channel’s “Storm Chasers” show, Carl Young. This is the first known incident of storm chasers being killed while actually chasing.

This news is still fresh and stunning to the chaser community, and I don’t yet know just what happened. I do know that the storm was a difficult and at times dangerous storm to chase, and many even experienced and safety-conscious chasers were caught up too close when the storm kept turning and there were a lot of people on the roads.

Mike Bettes of The Weather Channel was in a vehicle tossed a couple hundred yards and totaled, yet miraculously walked away with two others.

Many roads around and south of Oklahoma City were gridlocked as those scared after the recent Moore tornado panicked and heeded poor advice given by media outlets to drive south if they could not get underground. Some, myself included, got stuck in bumper to bumper traffic as violent winds and driving rain shook the car and large hail threatened and funnels came very close to us as we sat there.

We finally made it to Chickasha along with what seemed half of Oklahoma City during a mass evacuation. Hopefully the media will try to correct their statements and better educate people next time…it is much safer to plan ahead and go to shelter than to get stuck in gridlock and wait for the tornado to hit you in your car.

We all make mistakes, myself included, so I hate to point fingers or judge without knowing all the facts. I just know what I saw was utterly insane and I am amazed that more lives were not lost.

It will take time to process all that has happened on the break, and after seeing and hearing of so much pain it is tempting to try to desensitize myself to it all…after all, heartache occurs all the time and there’s nothing I can do to stop a tornado…but at the same time I don’t want to entirely shut myself off to it as I don’t want to forget those who lost so much…I find seeing these things firsthand it is harder to ignore the images than when watching them on a TV.

Those affected and all the damage are more than just statistics. They are seared on my memory and serve to remind me to respect the atmosphere’s power and make me want to assist however I can best, through reporting, donating, praying, etc. And then I get up the next day and do it all again, still drawn to the majestic beauty that awaits.

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