Storm Chasing: Brake lights can be fatal
Editor's Note: Below is the latest weekly online feature in which one of The Weather Network's meteorologists writes to our readers on weather-related topics from the forecast desk. This week, a first-person account of the outbreak of tornadoes in Oklahoma is told through the eyes of Dayna Vetesse, who witnessed it as part of a storm chasing expedition. Also, be sure to tune in to The Weather Network on Thursday, June 20 at 7 p.m. local time for a special presentation called Witnessing Nature's Fury, the story of the outbreak in Oklahoma City.
May 31, 2013, began like any other chase day: forecasting the target over a greasy-spoon breakfast at a local joint in Norman, Okla., a suburb of Oklahoma City. The ingredients that day were primed for an intense chase around The Metro, a geographic term chasers use to refer to the Metroplex (the surrounding counties, suburbs and towns of Oklahoma City).
The target was a north-south line from Anadarko, OKla., to Kingfisher, Okla., looking for storms to initiate in that region. As a group we decided to split the difference and set up shop in El Reno, Okla., an unknown city to the majority of Canadians and Americans outside of Tornado Alley, El Reno is now a name with instant recognition.
As we sat at the gas station on the south side of El Reno chugging down cold beverages and indulging in some questionable, deep-fried burritos, hordes of chasers piled in. Soon every parking spot or pull-off location in our gas station and the one across the street was occupied by chaser vehicles sporting various antennas and windshield mounted cameras.
Knowing that we would chase close to the Metro that day gave me an uneasy feeling; a feeling that grew as more and more chasers poured in. There was a mix of seasoned veteran storm chasers who have been chasing for many years, amateur chasers who had been chasing for a few years which had some level of experience, and then there were really amateur chasers – the ones who had only chased once or twice, had no mapping or radar software in the car and had the tendency to pick a seasoned chaser and follow.
The situation escalated when The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., issued a PDS Tornado Watch (Particularly Dangerous Situation). These watches are issued when there is a heightened risk to the public for strong, destructive tornadoes.
Not too long after this watch was issued, I tweeted an image from my RadarScope app with the location of storm spotters and chasers overlaid and voiced my concern about the number of chasers and locals out today:
Besides the storms THIS will be a particularly dangerous situation (chasers & locals): twitter.com/daynavettese/s…— Dayna Vettese (@daynavettese) May 31, 2013
Tweet I posted showing an image of storm spotters around Oklahoma City. Each red dot represents a storm spotter or chaser. This only includes those who use the program. You can double or triple the amount of dots for a better representation of numbers.
Storms formed late that afternoon, but also formed quickly and became full blown thunderstorms by 5:00pm CDT. After re-positioning a couple of times to watch the storms evolve on radar, we stationed ourselves on Highway 81, just south of town and the I-40 interstate. The storm quickly grew and intensified; and every now and again we caught a glimpse of something lurking behind the rain: a massive tornado. At this point the consensus was to get out of the way.
SPECIAL PRESENTATION: On Thursday, June 20 at 7 p.m. local time The Weather Network presents a half-hour feature called 'Witnessing Nature's Fury' which documents Mark Robinson and Jaclyn Whittal's journey in to Tornado Alley and the destruction witnessed during the May outbreak. Don't miss it!
The Traffic Jam
Brake lights: Every chasers nightmare when trying to re-position out of the way of a storm. On this day it was all we could see heading south. We were travelling about 60 km/h, which is very slow considering we were on a major highway, and trying to flee a storm. At thi spoint it became glaringly obvious that the traffic jam wasn’t just chasers; in fact, the majority of the people clogging the roads were locals. This is not to say he locals are to blame, but the issue is that many people do not understand storms and what to do in these situations. So while chasers know that it is time to hurry south, the locals are panicking, pulling over, slamming on brakes, flipping u-turns, etc. This combination is what caused the traffic jam - storm chasing and very scared locals. Later, it was revealed there was another reason for the jam, but I will get to that in a second.
As the traffic crawled south, in our vehicle was Brad Rousseau and Greg Stephens, closely followed by The Weather Network's meteorologists Mark Robinson and Jaclyn Whittal a few vehicles behind. To paint a picture, I kept looking back to see only a wall of black, brown, and green advancing toward us (I would later find out that the entire mass was the tornado). As the traffic subsided south of Union City, Okla., we found a safe spot to pull off with Mark and Jaclyn pulling in behind us. Not long after that a couple more vehicles containing our chaser friends pulled in. It was at this point that I first noticed some of our friends were missing.
Are We All Okay?
As storms chasers in a convoy of vehicles, often times we end up separated once the storm gets going. This happens for various reasons: photography, video, fear of hail, etc. So, naturally, we were not together for this storm, either. I called my family to tell them I was okay, as back home they would be seeing it all play out on the news. According to my father, who told me this once I was back home, all I said was, "I’m okay. We made it south but I don’t know if our friends are dead or alive.” I was serious … I managed to get a text to one of our friends but didn’t hear back from him for almost 30 minutes. When I did finally receive a reply, all it said was "Alive."
Shortly after the text message we managed to get a hold of everyone and confirmed all of our friends were okay. The news poured in from all over; Twitter, Facebook, emails all buzzed with news that one of The Weather Channel vehicles containing Mike Bettes and a few crew members was tossed and sent 200 yards down the highway by the tornado (all occupants sustained injuries, but non-fatal). Another one of our chase friends confirmed he made it out of the way of the tornado, but saw it overtake chasers behind him.
Why Was the Traffic So Bad?
As the evening wore on and we slowly made our way to the hotel and heard more and more about the destruction left in the wake of the afternoon's severe weather. But there was one unsettling development that really caught our attention: we found out that a local news station in Oklahoma City urged residents to leave their homes and head south. This was the aforementioned reason for the traffic jam and was an irresponsible and deadly piece of advice as it panicked residents to pack up and flee south. As mentioned, this resulted in every major artery out of the Metro being packed solid with vehicles. We even know of some people that were stuck in traffic on the I-35 in Oklahoma City as rotation passed just to the north of them on the interstate. The information given by the news station has appalled the meteorological and storm chasing community filling up at the same time. What should have happened is residents should have been advised to stay in their homes and find a safe place to ride it out. It is important that you never leave your home to try and outrun a storm.
That said; let’s recap the reasons why the traffic jam occurred and ultimately endangered many lives:
- Storms occurred close to the Metro with a high population density.
- Many chasers were out chasing due to the high probability of tornadoes that day.
- Many locals were out chasing due to the fact that it was close to home and a largely advertised severe weather event.
- Many locals were out fleeing the storm and trying to get south ultimately endangering themselves more.
- Flooding began to occur in Oklahoma City, creating more of a traffic nightmare.
- Some roads were damaged or had debris blocking the roads. This led to other roads becoming clogged with traffic.
And at the end of the day, the news network who advised people to go south endangered the lives of many locals and storm chasers. Let’s recap the reasons why this was a worst case scenario:
- The Moore EF-5 tornado occurred just 11 days prior to this event and was fresh in everyone’s minds.
- The citizens of the Oklahoma City Metroplex were highly anxious due to the recent Moore tornado.
- The target area for the day was relatively small which led to the crowding of storm chasers in a small area.
- Due to the highly advertised nature of the day it was easy for inexperienced but interested “chasers” and locals to venture out The mass amounts of chasers and local “chasers” on the roads trying to go south.
- The traffic caused by residents taking the advice of the news network who told citizens to flee south.
- The highly unpredictable tornado that accelerated southward toward the highway before turning back north.
- Those trapped on the highway trying to get south out of El Reno and Union City were essentially stuck in the tornadoes path.
What Does This Change?
A day later we learned the horrible news that Tim Samaras, brilliant engineer and veteran storm chaser, his son Paul Samaras, and research partner Carl Young were among those killed in the El Reno tornado. We always boast that a storm chaser has never been killed storm chasing, but we can no longer quote this as fact. With the increase in storm chaser activity and the even bigger increase in thrill seekers trying to get close, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. The problem was no one ever thought it would be Tim and his crew.
I am grateful to be home and grateful that my friends are safe, but my thoughts are with those who are missing friends and family members due to the devastating severe weather that has occurred in Tornado Alley this month.
The best things you can do is have a plan for severe weather. Before you head out for the day, know your forecast. If there is a risk of storms, have a plan in place. Especially if you are vacationing and are in an area you are unfamiliar with: learn where the safe spot is and where you can shelter from the storm.
(Below is a discussion between Andrea Bagley, Mark Robinson, Jaclyn Whittal and the author Dayna Vettese around the traffic jam that create a dangerous situation in Oklahoma City, and what could have been done to prevent it. We apologize for the audio issues.)