It’s suffice to say that storm chasers and law enforcement officers have butted heads a number of times in the recent years – best described as natural enemies – in a recent national convention for storm chasers in Wichita.
Law enforcement officers and
chasers alike say this needs to change – not just for the sake those involved
however to improve the safety of the public as well.
“When the storm chasers are out and storms are going on, the roads are like a high-speed chase.”
Gordon Ramsay, Wichita Police Chief
The interest in storm chasing exploded since the release of the 1996 blockbuster, Twister.
“The arrival of smartphones with ever-better photo and video capabilities means more and more people with little to no training in how to read storms are hopping in their cars and trucks and dashing after severe storms in hopes of seeing a monster tornado”
Ben Alonzo is a Kansas native
and long-time storm chaser who now works as an earth and atmospheric science
professor down in Florida. In an email response to questions, Alonzo said that his meteorology students are often shocked when they ask me about the chances of getting killed by a Tornado during storm chasing…
… “I’ve told them that you’re much more likely to be in a fatal traffic accident. It’s the traffic I’m worried about – not the Tornado.”
A significant amount of the confrontations between law enforcement and chasers are disobeying speed limits and stops signs – Butler County Emergency Management director Keri Korthals suggested. Korthals went onto to say that
public safety is one of the biggest things that’s going to get law enforcement
Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper
(KHPT) Chad Crittenden said chasers have been known to be so aggressive in
trying to get dramatic video of Tornadoes that they’ve driven across pastures,
farm fields, oil battery roads and private access routes1.
1: causing damage and sometimes getting stuck.
Crittenden went onto to say that the KHPT had received a number of complaints from farmers in rural areas of Kansas in recent years about damage caused by chasers.
Crittenden closed on this subject by saying having to retrieve stranded chasers and other motorists who are stuck in ditches or muddy fields – for example – is more than just a nuisance for law enforcement and first responders. It’s potentially putting the lives of the responders at risk – simply because they may be in the path of an approaching Tornado.
On the other side of the argument, chasers suggest that law
enforcement officers have caused problems and created dangerous situations by
needlessly blocking roads and or limiting where chasers can monitor the
weather. A prime example of the above scenario – a number of chasers suggested in social media posts – occurred outside of Dodge City, Kansas in 2016 in which several Tornadoes touched down near the city.
“The police had a road blocked off which backed up traffic for miles during the event, which created a potentially dangerous situation.”
Colin Hooks, Wichita-based storm chaser
Hooks went onto to say had the Tornadoes shifted their
track, the people halted on that road would have been sitting ducks because of
the traffic congestion created by the road block.
During the panel at Chasercon last month, Sedgwick County Undersheriff Richard Powell stated his department had not had issues with chasers and he was so glad to see so many chasers at the conference.
“We truly do realise the value of you folks. You’re more sets of eyes, more sets of ears.”
Richard Powell, Sedgwick County Undersheriff
The presence of so many chasers at the conference reflects the level of passion, the level of professionalism is evident in what for some is a hobby and for others a profession. Korthals told the collective – in the crowd – she has a mixed reaction when she sees storm chasers converging on Butler County.
“No offense, but I’d really like not to see you in my county. If you find my county interesting, that usually means we’re going to have a bad weather day”
Butler County Emergency Management director Keri Korthals
At least one thousand four hundred square miles, however, Butler County is the largest geographically in the state. It’s fair to say, that’s a lot of territory to monitor, Korthals suggested.
“Any extra eyes on that storm is something we value immensely”
Butler County Emergency Management director Keri Korthals
Law enforcement officials, Korthals suggest in a later interview that sometimes (we) make the mistake of assuming all storm chasers are the same: They’ll do whatever it takes to get the video or photos they want – including breaking laws & putting others in danger including themselves. Korthals carried on to say that all chasers are lumped into one group – chasers are bad. All they want is the glory of the money shot.
However, some storm chasers are conducting scientific research. Others are chronicling the storms with agencies such as the National Weather Service of private forecasting services such as AccuWeather/Weathernation following their live reports. Television stations in Tornado Alley also contact chasers to track severe weather and provide video and storm reports.
Whilst getting up-to-date weather information is easier for troopers station in the metro areas such as Wichita, Crittenden stated, chasers can be a vital sources of updates for troopers in rural sectors of Kansas. Crittenden went onto say that if you have valuable information – this looks like this is going to happen – come tell me. Crittenden closed by saying at the same time, don’t be mad
if I tell you that you can’t go down the road because it’s not safe.
World-renowned storm chasers Reed Timmer urged chasers at last month’s Chasercon to obey the speed limit and accept the consequences of not identifying the correct storm to track. I’d be lying if I said I have sped a few times, Timmer admitted.
Korthals, Crittenden and co suggested the best way for law enforcement and storm chasers to move away from being natural enemies and forgoing a better understanding is increasing communication and understanding.