Terry Miller was on a whirlwind tour after arriving in the U.S. from his home in Perth, Australia.
Friday morning he woke up in a Wichita motel, having spent the past days chasing storms from eastern New Mexico through western Kansas, even stopping to help a semi-tractor trailer driver whose rig blew over in 80 mph straight line winds northeast of Garden City.
It was all part of the vacation package he signed up for riding shotgun on Extreme Chase Tours.
While he’s on a trip of a lifetime, some local emergency personnel find such tour groups an added inconvenience during what can be life and death situations in severe weather.
The night a tornado wrapped in a wall of rain was about to blow through LaCrosse in May, Rush County Emergency Management Director Jim Fisher was counting on a small cadre of trained storm spotters and storm chasers for vital information regarding the direction of the tornado.
“We were working hard preventing anybody from being hurt,” Fisher said.
But when he needed to move some storm spotters down a county road, it was blocked by a tour van and a group of sightseers with tripods set up in the middle of the road. They were taking snapshots of the dangerous tornado that appeared when the dark night was lit up by flashes of lightning.
Storm spotters and local emergency management crews were racing about to inform both the local emergency management and the National Weather service the exact direction of the storm. But one of the tour members told a Rush County storm spotter he had paid $1,000 to storm chase and he had every right to be in the middle of the road.
“We tried to run them off, but they have every legal right to be out there, even if they are in our way,” Fisher said.
Over the past decade storm chasing has become so popular it has turned into a tourist industry. Groups of storm chasers have made a profession out of the chase.
Lanny Dean, a 22-year storm chasing veteran from Oklahoma, formed his own tour group – Extreme Chase Tours – seven years ago, after so many people requested riding along on his storm chasing assignments. Dean, an experienced chaser, has worked with regional and national television stations, the Weather Channel and Discovery Channel.
Dean says he never lacks for people on his tours.
“I get 10 to 15 emails per day from across the world wanting to go on a storm chasing tour. I have people booked for 2013,” Dean said.
The fascination with violent storms is part of human nature, says Mike Umscheid, a Dodge City National Weather Service Meteorologist and skilled storm chaser. He said people are fascinated with something so powerful that they have no control over and the sensation of witnessing an amazing storm.
“In some way everyone is touched by weather,” said Dean. “When you get out of the shower in the morning you wonder – is it going to rain? – and you tune in to see what the weather will be doing.”
Dean’s guests pay $2,700 for a six-day tour and they travel anywhere from Texas to the Dakotas to view Mother Nature at her worst or best. Tourists are educated on severe weather so that when they return home they really understand what a tornado warning means.
“They are paying for an education and we are teaching them,” Dean said. “We have them interact how a tornado looks on a laptop as compared to what is outside.”
They travel in a minivan equipped with laptop computers, and are accompanied by a pickup truck with radar in the bed of the truck. The tour guests are encouraged to take pictures and video.
“They learn more in six, 10 or 15 days about severe weather than they could in a lifetime,” Dean said.
Dean and a van of tourists were in Rush County the night of the tornado. But, they were not the tour group that blocked the road for the trained spotters.
Instead, that night Dean provided vital information to the emergency workers 10 minutes before the tornado hit.
“We’re making a living off of the weather, and were aiding the public, giving reports,” Dean said. “We help in aiding with the warning decision.”
Umscheid said there were tour groups whose customers have, “little or no experience as far as storm observing, let alone know of proper etiquette of storm chasing.
“They will set their tripods up on the white line of a highway, or in the middle of a dirt road,” he said. “The tour operators running these things are supposed to manage that. Some do a better job than others.”
Plus they add to the concentration of people in an area. There were a lot of storm chasers in Rush County May 25. Umscheid tried to steer clear of them.
“I was a little further south than the other chasers,” Umscheid said. “I was observing on a farm road, staying away from the hordes of people.”
The more seasoned, well respected chasers are providing real time information, streaming live video, Umscheid said. Meanwhile others are out there for the sensation of witnessing an amazing storm.
Umscheid said the Rush County storm could have been worse. He has been out on storms where 300 to 400 chasers were in a concentrated area of a county.
“That can be really bad,” Umscheid said.
While it can’t be policed, he says it can get so crazy with so many vehicles it’s hard to know what’s going on. It can be particularly bad in Kansas, but it’s worse in Oklahoma.
Fisher said their local firefighters and police go through NOA weather training, as do the storm chasers. Nor does he have a problem with the researchers who are out chasing storms; they know to get out of the way.
The problem, Fisher said, “Is the tourists.”
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