Chasing with Dense Hordes

Large crowds in the vicinity of tornadic thunderstorms are nothing new. This has been going on for years, with or without reckless behavior by some within these crowds.

Obviously, dangerous use of vehicles (passing on the shoulder, blocking the highway, opening doors into traffic, turning around in front of oncoming traffic, etc.) makes matters much worse, is illegal, draws adverse media and law enforcement attention to storm observing, and can and should be enforced using existing laws. I have no problem with law enforcement busting people for such violations, as long as it’s consistently enforced (to include everyone: media members as well as “ordinary” chasers). It’s perfectly fine also for normal drivers to report the dangerous ones, either real time or after the fact.

What is new, however, is the public and media attention now drawn to the mere presence of so many crowds. I’ll link to the news stories available as of this writing, and provide fair-use excerpts below the links for when those stories expire.

From the Wichita Eagle: Reno County Tornadoes Attract Viewers, Cause No Damage

The salient excerpt:

    Storm chasers turned out it in droves to watch the funnel clouds.

    Jason Benz drove from Milwaukee to see the tornadoes.

    “It doesn’t take much to make it worth the drive,” he said, watching a rotating cloud from a rural country road in Reno County. “I got hail damage about a mile up the road.”

    The Reno County Sheriff’s Office blocked roads just south of Rice County to make sure people stayed safe.

    “Everyone wants to see, and sometimes they get too close,” said Deputy Sheriff Dan Bass.

Here’s an even more direct indictment from the Hutchinson News: Spectators Bedevil Trained Spotters

    Bill Guy saw something that scared him during Tuesday night’s tornado sightings near Nickerson.

    While trained spotters issued reports of eight tornadoes between Nickerson and Sterling, storm spectators lined Nickerson Road south of town and Hunter Boulevard to the north.

    “I wish people would just stay home,” said Guy, Reno County Emergency Management director. “Nobody’s going to get rich shooting pictures of tornadoes.”

    Watching tornadoes fall from the clouds is not a spectator sport, Guy said, and it creates a headache for trained storm spotters and emergency response crews.

    During the hour or so the storm moved over Nickerson, spotters encountered difficulty driving to their assigned locations – dozens of curious onlookers blocked their way.

Self-declared storm chasers, including curious locals who don’t have much clue what they’re tangling with, are joining in the fray also. The public roads allow such freedom, but it may come with a terrible price for those ignorant of storm structure and morphology. I would hate to see families with kids, especially, take part in something literally and figuratively over their heads, then drive into a tornado or get nailed by lightning as a result. This video from CNN drives that point home, even though those in it were fortunate to avoid such fates.

Still, public roads are exactly that, and as such, it’s within anyone’s right to drive by (or be stuck in a traffic jam at) any given spot on any given road. I don’t know what can, or should, be done.

What will be done? Many storm chasers have, for a decade or more, feared legislation against storm chasing. Forget that, it’s not happening. Such things may be proposed from time to time, but they will not stand the test of constitutionality. No such legislation will pass the test of right of peaceful assembly. However…existing traffic laws absolutely, positively cover all moving and parking violations, whether or not in the vicinity of storms, and easily can be enforced very aggressively. That, in some places, already is happening around storms.

What else is happening is that local officials enforcement will more often make due use of an emergency declaration (severe weather warnings qualifying as such) to disallow entry into sections of roadway or perhaps an entire county. It already has happened — in the news above, and even as far back as 3 May 1999 at Union City OK — and will become more and more common. So be it. By becoming so numerous, storm observers have brought this upon themselves (ourselves).

Unfortunately, cops are humans too, and no more or less prone to stupidity and overreaction than the population at large, and it has happened (re: Briscoe County TX, 28 March 7). Fortunately I wasn’t witness to some of that bizarre and inexplicable behavior, as were quite a few other storm observers. Most law enforcement folks are doing a fine job under some really tough circumstances, but face it: There are bad apples in the batch. We’ll sometimes see that.

Are there ways around all of this? Yes, for some, and on occasion.

Requiring some sort of official credentials by local law enforcement to pass a certain point (in a declared emergency) would thin the crowds. Selfishly, that’s OK with me, because I already have credentials that are accepted for passage in most areas and situations. Not all, but most…and that’s fine. If I don’t pass, I’ll just circumnavigate elsewhere, probably 10-20 miles downshear, and wait. If I do get through, great. I won’t feel sorry for those who don’t have acceptable credentials, either, because everyone in this country (from birth) has the opportunity to get the kind of training and education it takes to earn them.

Otherwise, thoughtful storm observers ought to consider dispersing themselves ahead of the crowds whenever roads and time permit. Find a good observing location down-vector from the projected path, watch from a distance at first, and let the storm approach. It will enhance one’s enjoyment of the event, reduce the aggravation of having to deal with so many other people (at least for a little while) and cut the stress of constant driving. Sometimes I’ve been able to have success avoiding the hordes this way, positioning 15-20 miles ahead of the storm, perhaps in the next county, and ahead of any potential law enforcement blockades. This offers a more distant view for awhile, but I don’t mind. My goal is just to appreciate the storm in as peaceful a manner as possible — not to compete with others, touch the vortex vapors, or get “XTREME TORNADO VIDEO.”

Finally, if you know of wanton, dangerous actions by other chasers or spotters, do NOT stick your head in the sand and tolerate that. Morally and ethically, even if not legally, to do so is tantamount to condoning and conspiring in reckless public endangerment, and makes those who know of such behavior every bit the dangerous criminal as those actually doing it. Stand up for what’s right, don’t be a chickensh_t! Report that stuff and bust those who do it. I will not hesitate to, and I absolutely don’t care who I offend as a result. The greater good is more important.


2 Responses to “Chasing with Dense Hordes”

  1. John Monteverdi on April 27th, 2007 12:02 am

    Hi Roger…thoughtful storm chasers may not be able to disperse if the road system doesn’t allow it. It’s a real difficult problem.


  2. kscharf on April 28th, 2007 9:30 am

    Thanks Roger for the interesting post. I too have the credentials, but I’m more concerned about the hordes ruining the fun of my chase by ending up in an accident with a yahoo not paying attention to the road, or being picked out for harassment by some frustrated cop. More and more I’m seeing the benefit of staying back 5-10 miles when possible and enjoying the whole storm structure. Still some great photo ops with greater solitude from the hordes.

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