How new friends changed my attitude about storm chasers

Storm chasers on a storm
Photo by Michael Enfield, used with permission

For some time, I’ve looked at amateur storm chasers with some disdain. I believed that too many were putting themselves into too much danger, just to see, photograph and/or video record tornados. I doubted that many chasers were truly motivated by improving public safety and even fewer were doing real science, no matter what they said. I was concerned that many chasers set poor examples for the general public and that their “antics” encouraged lesser informed people to take uneducated and unwise risks.

I’ve been a SKYWARN storm spotter for more than a quarter century. When talking to friends, family members and even journalists about my volunteer service to the National Weather Service (NWS), I was careful to make sure they understood that I’m not a chaser, like the people they’ve seen on TV or on the Web. My ultimate goal, I’d explain, isn’t to see tornadoes, it’s to help protect my community from possible storms by staying close to home and relaying valuable information to the NWS.

So it was with some trepidation that I attended an event in November, 2015 called INChaserCon, a one-day convention in the Indianapolis area for storm chasers. I’m glad I went. Some of the people I met there subsequently changed my thinking. They are admittedly driven by a desire to see tornadoes. But my subsequent experience with them demonstrated that they’re also very passionate about getting reports to the NWS.

After the chasers learned that I have access to NWSChat – a private, internet-based text chatroom run by the NWS – they invited me to join them on Zello, a smartphone app with which they communicate with each other—so I could relay their reports to the NWS via NWSChat.

That’s exactly what happened during the August, 2016 tornado outbreak in Indiana and Ohio. As a tornadic storm moved east from Kokomo into the county warning area of my local NWS office, storm chasers John Tinney, Eric Lawson and David Buell reported wall clouds, funnel clouds, etc. via Zello. I relayed those reports via NWSChat.

Then, a storm over my own home in Fort Wayne, Indiana received a tornado warning. Storm chaser Michael Enfield immediately headed toward that storm. Via Zello, he promptly reported a wall cloud, then funnel clouds and then a tornado for me to relay via NWSChat. The NWS survey report recorded the time of the tornado’s initial touchdown as 5:27 p.m. – the same time as Enfield’s report, confirming that he saw and reported the tornado when it first touched down. That storm eventually did EF-3 damage to a rural part of Allen County, Indiana.

Throughout the event, any time the chasers had something to report, if I wasn’t immediately available on Zello, they’d keep trying until I acknowledged their reports. Getting reports through to the NWS was clearly very important to them. By the end of the event, I had typed 50 reports into NWSchat. All but about 15 of those came from storm chasers on Zello. The rest came from storm spotters via ham radio.

By aggressively chasing storms, my new friends put themselves in positions to immediately report weather that was not near any traditional SKYWARN spotters at the time. By religiously reporting, they played significant roles in protecting people in the paths of the storms.

A Facebook post by Lawson sums up pretty well how this particular group of storm chasers sees things:

“I noticed a developing supercell heading towards Kokomo was looking really strong and rushed out the door. By the time I was on interstate 69 southbound the strong EF3 was already in progress and heading towards the town in which I have spent many days of my youth, and is home to many great friends and their families. Hearing reports of the devastation in progress on the radio made my heart sink. I was rushing south in horror wondering if anyone I knew had been hurt. This is the moment that things really changed for me, I felt less excited about seeing tornadoes, and much more concerned with providing accurate information to keep people informed.”

I have no doubt there are other storm chasers out there who rarely report their observations to the NWS. There are likely some that don’t care about anything but the excitement of seeing a tornado.

But I’m convinced that the storm chasers I know are not among these. They’ve changed my attitude about chasers.

4 thoughts on “How new friends changed my attitude about storm chasers”

  1. I think the more committed, season long chasers are similar to these as well as local chasers. It’s the ones that chase outside of their “home” region only a couple times a season that seem less interested in warning the local public. Though that doesn’t qualify them all in that category.

  2. I am cautiously agreeing. The chasers, of late, have been helpful in calling the EOC and answering calls to numbers published in SpotterNetwork.

    Those chasers who WANT to be a part of the solution to warning the public are always welcome. Those who don’t should not clog up the roads. 🙂

    NOW, if we can only get them to quit showing video of unsafe driving habits. 🙂

  3. Jay,

    First, it was great to meet you at in chasercon last year. Wish I was going to make it this year but I will be on my way to Europe!

    Second, there are a lot of chasers just like those you describes. Admittedly there are a lot more that are just out there for the thrill and never report anything. Obviously out here in the plains we have a lot more eyes from chasers to TV helicopters, but we still have a number of chasers that do the right thing. Luckily I have my own NWSchat account so I am able to just drop notes in – most though come from spotter network as that has my coordinates and a better overall reporting system.

    We’re not all selfish though. Some of us have been in your position – I ran skywarn up in Michigan for Ingham County/Lansing area for a couple of years before moving to Oklahoma. At some point I just wanted to experience and witness more – curiosity killed the cat I guess.

    I will say thank you for coming to Indy with an open mind last year. Makes me wish a lot I was going this year. And, if you ever want to come down to Oklahoma you’re always welcome to visit or crash here and tag along.

    1. Thanks for the great note, Ben. It was great meeting you, too. Hope you have a fun and safe trip. To be honest, I still shake my head sometimes when I see chaser convergence on the SpotterNetwork.org data feed. I ask myself, “If protecting the public is the primary objective of all these guys, why are they all hanging out in the same place? Does NWS need reports from 10 chasers in the same square mile?” I think that’s one of the differences between the mindsets of some chasers and some spotters. Most of the spotters I know don’t tend to travel as much, and don’t seem to care as much if they don’t see anything to report, because they know that their very presence helped protect their communities. On the other hand, the mobility of chaser Michael Enfield put him in a position to report, as it formed, the Aug. 24 tornado that did EF-3 damage in Allen County, Indiana. None of our traditional spotters were in the right place to do that at that moment.

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