Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thoughts on the eve of the Fourth of July

As many of my readers may already know, I was drafted in August of 1969, after completing my first 9 semester hours of coursework toward my doctorate.  The occasion prompting the elimination of the student deferment for graduate students was the Vietnam war, and so while I was working as a student trainee for the summer in Kansas City, I received that fateful letter informing me I had to report for duty on such-and-so a date at the Chicago Induction Center.

As early as high school, it became clear to me that the Vietnam mess threatened to suck me in, and that threat had grown with time.  I would turn 24 years old that fall and had been reading about Vietnam and its history.  Even to a naive college student, it was obvious that our nation was headed toward the disaster that involvement in Vietnam would create for us.  The Vietnamese had a rich history of fighting against and repelling foreign invaders, and that was precisely what we were:  invaders.  I knew that the Vietnam war was a terribly bad choice for our nation, and our American freedoms were at no way at stake in Vietnam.

So, I struggled with the decision of what to do.  I had 3 options, basically:  (1) go to Vietnam, (2) go to Canada, or (3) go to jail.  The latter options both would have destroyed any chance I had for a career as I'd envisioned it.  So ... to serve my own ends, I reported for duty and the rest of that adventure followed its course.  For many years, I was ashamed of my inability to accept the consequences for resisting what I knew was wrong.  I still feel some of that shame, although time has shown me that my time in service had many positive aspects I didn't recognize during my enlistment.  For whatever reason, I still fulfilled my obligation to serve my country when called upon.  That's not something I'm ashamed of, at least by now.  As my father served before me, and my son has served (and still serves), so did I.  I feel no honor in my service, but I did serve.

I've never felt a lot of animosity for those who skated out of being in the military during the Vietnam era.  No, my animosity is toward those who supported that terrible war, even as they avoided any commitment of their own lives in that very conflict.  The chickenhawks.   Those unwilling to do what they said others should do.

To me it comes down to is this:  my country has not always been right to become involved in foreign wars.  In some cases - like WWII and the first Gulf War - that involvement was necessary.  This is not the case when it comes to our participation in the so-called "Iraqi Freedom" war and our continuation of the so-called "Enduring Freedom" war in Afghanistan.  The latter might have been justified early in its evolution, but nation-building in a foreign land with no democratic traditions is a terrible mistake.  Both of these bad decisions pushed through by chickenhawk politicians have proven to be nightmares in the same fashion as our war in Vietnam.  Hopeless messes with no logical "end game" - trying to build our brand of freedom in nations where foreign ideas are nearly universally loathed and foreign invaders resisted implacably and without limit on the means.  I honor those who stand by their principles and refuse to serve in such a war!  We support the principles of American freedom most meaningfully when we protest the wrongs our nation's government perpetrates.  When we decline to support those wrongs.  When we make sacrifices of conscience to draw attention to those wrongs.

I love the USA and the principles under which it was founded by those who declared our independence from English rule on 04 July 1776.  But my love of my nation is not of the "My country - right or wrong" variety.  I believe it's our obligation to challenge our government when it commits wrongful acts in our names.  Now, with my career in its final years, it's relatively easy for me to protest our involvement in pointless, unnecessary foreign incursions, with a huge cost to our nation - not just in the trillions spent on these debacles, but the cost to our young men and women, and the cost to the Iraqis and Afghanis we have killed.  Just like in Vietnam ...

It's the chickenhawks whom I most detest in all of this:  the rich and privileged who can use their circumstances, their wealth, and their influence to avoid serving in the wars they support and create.  They like to perpetuate the myth that our warfighters are there to preserve American freedom.  Bullshit!  Our young men and women are fighting for oil and corporate profits and political hegemony and ludicrous ideological notions, not American freedoms!  These are unworthy ends, incapable of justifying the tremendous costs inflicted by these ugly conflicts on foreign soil.  American blood (to say nothing of others) is being spilled without American freedoms being challenged by those "enemies" living in those lands.

Our founding fathers supported asymmetric warfare against the British to earn our independence.  We should be able to relate to those who seek self-determination through asymmetric warfare, even as we may disagree with their principles.  Surely we can understand people who resent having a foreign system imposed on them by powerful foreign invaders.  It's easy to feel empathy toward those who simply want to be left alone to follow whatever course they choose.  It's only when they choose to impose their course on others that we have any viable argument to oppose them - and military intervention is not our only alternative in opposition.   We in the USA can't claim the moral high ground when our history is laced with examples of unjustified interventions in the affairs of other nations.

I think the Fourth of July represents a good time to reflect on what we are doing and why we're doing it.  Let us mull over what is truly at stake, here and now.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A logical dilemma for a scientist

It's widely accepted that the Internet is awash with nonsense, as well as vast amounts of good information.  All sorts of wild notions are given "equal time" with other notions supported by genuinely knowledgeable people.  A thinking person understands that and behaves accordingly, not accepting any single source and seeking out information to get a balanced perspective.  Since the very beginning of my meteorological career, I've been dealing with "crackpots" on a regular basis.  First by mail, then by email, and now via social media.  There's a fuzzy boundary between truly innovative thinking and outright nonsense, and I've been dealing with "outsiders" (i.e., those who are not severe storm meteorologists) for decades.  I have files of interactions with crackpots.  An extremely high percentage of the "ideas" from outsiders are pure nonsense, despite the very rare instances when an outsider actually brings something worthwhile to the forefront (e.g., Alfred Wegner - the meteorologist who first proposed "continental drift" - known now as plate tectonics).  For every such example, there are hundreds of claims that are pure bullshit.

A recent example is the physicist who wants to erect walls to prevent the "clash of air masses" that purportedly "causes" tornadoes.  Recently, he even had to gall to respond to his meteorologist critics by asserting that their physics education was too weak to grasp his brilliant ideas!  This, from a physicist without any meteorological background!

Another recent example is found here, where the person clearly doesn't understand the physics of atmospheric gases.  He questions fundamental physical laws but provides no meaningful basis for his lack of belief in them.  There's no basis for his wild claims about the relative densities of moist versus dry air, inter alia.  Thinking "outside the box" is one thing - making counterscientific claims with no substantial evidence is quite another.

The issue that confronts us is this:  by responding to these nonsensical ideas, are we not affording them more respect than they deserve?  Are we not prolonging the "debate" with the authors of these unscientific notions when we attempt to refute them?  Would it not be better simply to ignore this blizzard of balderdash?

Well, for one thing, the public media, including, but not limited to,  social media on the Internet - in their technical ignorance - often don't allow these sleeping dogs to lie.  Crazy ideas like the "tornado wall" are news!!  The media bring them up over and over, incessantly bombarding their readers with questions for which they (i.e., the media) are too ignorant to answer.  By leaving the questions hanging, the media lend credence to unscientific notions.  Even when they provide quotes from actual practical scientists disputing crackpot hypotheses (not theories! - in science, the word theory has a much different meaning than in colloquial speaking), I suspect many readers are left thinking the crackpots have some legitimacy.  Scientific ideas are not settled by debate ... they're either validated by the logic and evidence, or they're not.

Thus, the public is bombarded with crackpot notions like chemtrails and the HAARP conspiracy.  The decline of respect for science in this nation, combined with abysmally bad science education (where creationism is taught as legitimate science by some public schools dominated by ignorant christians), is fueled by the barrage of outright bullshit from the media.  If we don't respond in some way to this flood from the cesspool of scientific ignorance, we run the risk of seeming to advocate it with our silence.

In my experience, there seems to be no way to get across any sort of nuanced notion by appearing on the regular (non-Internet) media, such as TV or radio.  Hence, I have a general policy of not doing interviews for the media - with rare exceptions.  My few pitiful sound bites and abbreviated presentations of nuanced notions inevitably are overwhelmed in the crushing cascade of crapola.   I always come away from such experiences feeling frustrated with how little I'm allowed to say.  There's a constant push to get away from typical scientific thinking, where "shades of gray" are the norm and ideas are presented with many caveats to prevent misunderstanding - toward the black and white world of dumbed-down short sound bites.

Science, as it really is practiced, requires deep, nuanced understanding.  Some scientists may be notably effective at presenting scientific ideas to the public (e.g., Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson), and so are given more time to present those ideas.  Most of us are hampered by the fact that in order to understand the subtleties, one must have some background in science.   If we keep it short to fit the apparent assumed short attention spans of media "consumers", we run the risk of leaving something important out - either for brevity per se, or because we were rushed and forgot to add it to our presentations.

So should we respond ... or not ... to the crackpots?  Is it worthwhile to seek opportunities to make presentations to the media?  Insofar as the media control the content, I say "No!"  But here on the Internet, the medium remains open to all.  The crackpots and the scientists are given equal opportunity.  I say we scientists should take every opportunity to discredit the crackpots here on the Internet.  We can take as much time as we want, and seek to provide evidence and logic to support our attempts to discredit the wild claims of the crackpots.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A look at the 'photojournalism' argument

So I've been seeing lots of arguments to justify photographing of a little girl who subsequently died from injuries in a tornado, and marketing of that photo.  Virtually all of them have called attention to other famous shocking images shot by photojournalists and published widely - an RVN army officer executing a Vietcong prisoner, or the firefighter holding a child he'd recovered from the rubble of the OKC bombing [who later died], and so on.

In general, photojournalists believe they have an obligation to record the truth of what they see, without regard to how others might feel about their photographs.  To me at least, this is especially so when the truth about a situation is not well-known (starving children in some far-off national civil war, for instance), or even being suppressed (as in many goings-on in Vietnam and other wars).  Heartbreaking images of victims of some sort of illegal or horrific activity convey the real-world consequences of those poorly-known or nefarious situations.  They can galvanize efforts to pull back either the shroud of cover-up or the shroud of ignorance.  I get that, and support it wholeheartedly.  I think if put in the sort of situation where unreported or unethical activity was going in front of me, I'd attempt to record for all to see what is not known.  I wouldn't deliberately seek out such a situation - I leave that for those who have the stomach for it.

But where is the widespread ignorance of the fatal consequences often associated with violent tornadoes?  What government agency is flooding the media with claims that tornadoes do no harm to anyone?  Yes, a photojournalist might be compelled to take such an image and it might be within the boundaries of photojournalism's ethics, but is that image needed to right some wrong, or to reveal something heretofore unknown?  What useful purpose was served by publishing that image?  A photojournalist made some money.  A public medium presented it as "news".   Anything else?

From a purely technical viewpoint, shooting and marketing the image is likely not illegal in any way.  Nevertheless, how does seeing the image make you feel?  Did you previously think tornadoes killed people in nice, neat ways?  Were you unaware of the threat from tornadoes?  Were you misled about tornado hazards by someone or some agency?  I'm pretty confident most people don't want to think about what tornadoes do to humans, so perhaps there's at least some reason to reveal the true horror of it.  Facing its reality might induce some positive action.  But as a viewer of the image, does it make you feel it was the right thing to photograph and publish?  I'll leave that to my readers.

After the 03 May 1999 tornado in the OKC area, my wife, who worked in the Norman hospital ER that night, told me about the horrible things she had seen coming in to the ER.  I had absolutely no wish for her to have recorded images of that agony for me to look at.  I'm pretty confident no one in an ER would allow such a thing!  After the Jarrell, TX tornado, I was told that the death toll had been difficult to determine after the event, in part because many of the victims had been cut to pieces by the tornado, making it very challenging to know to whom the scattered bodyparts belonged.  Again, I have no wish for anyone to share images of those grisly reminders of the violence of tornadoes. 

It's repugnant for me even to think about seeking out and finding horrific injuries inflicted on tornado victims, to say nothing of photographing them and selling the photographs.  I leave the seeking part to the trained and experienced first responders, who surely must go through some awful experiences in dealing with tornado victims on the scene.  I salute them for their courage and devotion to help people in awful circumstances.  I don't want to be within the damage path after a tornado.  If I'm nearby, my policy is to leave search and rescue to the professionals, and stay out of their way.

One thing that happens virtually all the time is when bodies are recovered in a fatality situation, they're covered up as soon as possible, until they can be taken to a morgue.  Why?  Surely it's out of respect for the dead and their families.  Would it be respectful to uncover them just so a photojournalist could record that carnage and perhaps win a Pulitzer prize?  I definitely think not, and I'm confident most (if not all) first responders would feel the same way.  If any photographs were taken before the bodies were covered, it would be for identification purposes, not for a photojournalist to record. 

In fact, in the case of the little girl in Nebraska, it's my understanding that first responders on the scene did ask the "photojournalist" to stop photographing the victims, but he refused to stop.  He's been backpedaling like mad to make himself out to be some sort of saint.  This is a troubled young man and his credentials as a photojournalist are pretty thin, it seems to me, although I don't know enough to be sure.  I actually find his story to be a pretty sad one, based on what I have heard second-hand, so I don't want to demonize him, despite my concerns over what he did before and after the event.  What I find especially disturbing now are the rationalizations I hear about the duties of photojournalists.  I ask again:  what would you do, given the situation of being there right after the tornado?  Would you take the shot?  Would you feel right about being paid for its use?

In my case, no ... and no.  Opinions vary, as usual.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The passing of Alan R. Moller

Today, I woke up to the sad news of the death of my long-time chase partner, friend, and colleague, Alan R. Moller.  He finally succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer's, taken from us years before his body finally died by that cruel affliction.  Seeing his razor-sharp mind and amazing memory stolen from him was difficult to endure:  among his last words to me were:  "Do I know you?"  When I told him we'd been friends for more than 40 years, he said "That's amazing."  I realized then that the man I knew was gone, and the end of his body was inevitable.  I just couldn't endure seeing him that way again.  It was too much for me to take.  My deepest gratitude to his DFW-area friends:  Sam Barricklow, Carson Eads, Tim Marshall, Ed Cohen, and others.  They visited him and helped to brighten his days as the end drew near.

Fortunately, I have the memories of that long-enduring friendship to cherish.  The Al Moller I knew was a wonderfully complex person, with an inquisitive, deeply-probing mind, a high-powered thinker on many topics, a person who willingly gave of his time and resources to anyone and everyone who needed them, something of a volatile temper, a wry sense of humor, often impatient but very devoted to his passions: forecasting, storm chasing, drag racing, western art, blues music, photography, and so on.   For many years, I got the benefit from the extended time spent with him during our chase expeditions.  I treasure that time, now. It's how I want to remember him.

When it came to his passions, Al could be very outspoken.  This was something of a problem for his efforts to climb the career ladder, but he never, ever sacrificed his principles in order to avoid ruffling bureaucratic feathers.  He didn't suffer incompetence or stupidity very willingly.  He stayed an idealist all his life.

Anyone lucky enough to have attended one of his public presentations was in for a real treat.  At the end of the formal scientific presentation, he would often put on a "bonus" slide show of his favorite images.  Not just storms, but photographs of wildflowers, mountain scenery, fall foliage, ... any outdoor landscape he might encounter on his journeys.  With each new image on the screen, there would be a moment of stunned silence, followed by a collective sharp intake of breath - the actual definition of what it means to be "breathtaking".  His slide shows were famous, and more than worthy of that involuntary reaction.  And it wasn't a case of Al bragging about his great photographs, either - he simply wanted to share the beauty he saw with others.  No, those slide shows weren't showing off, but passing on the marvelous moments he'd been able to capture.  Chasing with Al made me a much better photographer, as a by-product, but he was always the master.

When we chased together, it wasn't uncommon for us to get into loud, vigorous arguments - shouting matches, more or less.  These never even came close to becoming a cause for us to give up our friendship.  We both were stubborn, opinionated people, but with a deep mutual respect for each other.  I appreciated that Al wouldn't hesitate to catch me up if he thought I'd said something stupid or incorrect.  These arguments never detracted from the fun we had chasing together - chasing with Al was something I looked forward to during the time of our chasing partnership.  Eventually, the time came to end that part of our relationship, but it's something I enjoyed tremendously while it endured!

Al also had a passion for public service, as well as for forecasting and severe storms.  This he discussed with me during our chases together.  He was profoundly committed to that, doing spotter training talks all over north TX and elsewhere - the best spotter training anyone could have asked for, dispensed with his unique style and panache.  It was from him that I learned that a good forecast/warning wasn't the end of the story.  There was much that had to happen after a weather forecast product left the forecast office, and Al was unshakably determined to do whatever he could to make those things happen.  Al cared about people ... all people ... and did whatever it took to help them, if they needed something.

I'm proud to have known Al - he helped me, too, in many ways. His passing leaves a hole that can never be filled, but he gave us all so much - a legacy any man would be proud of, at the end.  His contributions go far beyond those he touched personally - people who never knew Al, but have benefited from his huge legacy without knowing from whom the benefit originated.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Me! Me!! ME!!!

According to Wikipedia, the "Me Generation" is the so-called Baby Boomers - my generation.  Of late, it seems to me that our current 20-somethings are strong competitors for that label.  As a weather geek, I'm probably not the most knowledgeable about such things, but it sure seems to me that storm chasing is being flooded with a large infusion of folks out there chasing who are, as my friend Gene Moore says, mostly about themselves and not so much about the storms.  "Look at me!" they shout.  "I'm special because I chase storms [stupidly!]."  They seem to care little or nothing about the feelings of storm victims as they cheer a tornado touchdown in their videos.  They thumb their noses at the very notion of chasers being responsible to others.  They wallow in their uncaring "outlaw" status, joyful as a pig in a mud puddle when they get publicity for their "exploits". "We can do whatever we want to and you can't do anything about it!"  And that part's true - I can't.

The dominant theme seems to be to get your video on TV (and/or to post it on Facebook) to show the "adventure" of being caught in a tornado, even when the video is pretty clear evidence in some cases that they're not in the tornado.  They often like to claim they're out chasing in order to save lives - which is pretty evidently ludicrous.  No, for these egomaniacs, it's all about shouting themselves into fame and fortune, pushing their foolishness onto our TVs and computer screens so that they become renowned - if not famous, then infamous for their foolishness.

In the wake of the tornadoes in Nebraska on yesterday, we have an image spread far and wide by a self-proclaimed photojournalist that purports to show the body of a little girl on a gurney shortly before she died from her injuries.  The photojournalist seems quite defensive about some of the reactions to his marketing of this image and, in my view, he has cause to be defensive.  I acknowledge that photos may show an unpleasant or even offensive image of a situation, and a photojournalist surely has the job to record those images and to show the rest of us the truth of the situation.  I get that.  But profiting from this image just seems wrong to me.  The event his image records is not about the photojournalist and his reaction to the situation, upon which he seems primarily focused.  It's about the little girl, her family, and the town's struggle to cope with a disaster.  In my opinion, his proceeds from selling that image should be donated to disaster relief, or to the family of the little girl.  He advises others to send relief to the town - should he not do likewise (preferably without fanfare or the cameras rolling as he does it) when he is profiting from their misfortune?  Does his success as a photojournalist make him immune to the immorality of personal gain at another's expense?

Also, an arrogant private sector weather forecaster has taken the same opportunity to promote himself and his services, heaping scorn on the forecasts and warnings by the National Weather Service (NWS).  Private sector forecasters have a proclivity for this, especially when they actually appear on the air, promoting themselves rather than focusing on their statutory obligation to disseminate weather information.  Disrespecting forecast competition isn't limited to other private sector forecasters - they often spread their net of scorn to include the NWS, whose ability to respond is basically zero, regardless of the truth or falsehood of such criticism.  No, the private sector is blatantly self-promotional, and is evidently willing to use every situation to promote themselves and disparage their "competition".  They are the quintessential proponents of themselves.  Rarely do they subject their own products to rigorous verification, and even more infrequently do they publish their verification statistics for all to see.  "I'm great! Take my word for it!" they proclaim.  A few are exceptions to this typical behavior - more power to them.  But self-serving promotion of themselves is rampant and unethical, in my view.  The American Meteorological Society should be much more aggressive in pursuing ethical violations by its members, it seems to me.

Self-promotion seems pervasive in today's world.  It's surely not limited to my generation.  And it seems to be increasing, at least as it relates to severe weather.  It surely can be argued that this blog could be interpreted as a form of self-promotion, but I think rather than seeking fame and fortune, I'm putting my thoughts out as catalyst for discussion - not lining my pockets with cash or attempting to gain fame as a consequence.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

More on "extreme" storm chasing

Recent tornado situations once again have produced incidents where chasers have found themselves in danger from tornadoes, and narrowly escaped serious injuries or death.  Then, to compound the irresponsibility of such actions, they post their "I'm in the tornado!" videos as a digital badge of their "courage".  And they license such videos, hoping to get them aired - for a price, of course.

I've talked about this at some length before, and expressed my concerns.  But a recent Facebook post accused those critical of "extreme" chasers as being "haters", encouraging the posters of extreme videos to keep up their actions in the face of any criticism.  Chasers unwilling to risk themselves by getting close to tornadoes are called "sissies" or worse.  The particular subset of chasers represented by such extreme attitudes has been with us for quite a while.  They rightly say we have no power to stop them from what they choose to do.  I expect to change no one's mind with this blog.

The loss of the Twistex chase team on 31 May last year in the El Reno tornado has sent a message to all chasers:  even seasoned veterans trying to be as safe and responsible as possible (while trying to carry out an inherently dangerous mission) can make a mistake in certain situations.  The El Reno HP supercell storm produced a large, "wedge" tornado, moving somewhat erratically, wrapped in rain.  By getting in close to the mesocyclone where situation awareness became difficult, many chasers were putting themselves in danger and several had some narrow escapes, in addition to those who did not manage to escape.  Many of us came away from that experience with the new (and old) lessons for safety becoming increasingly relevant to us in our chasing decisions.  Many of us learned several lessons from the tragic outcome of 31 May 2013 - but of course, the "extreme" crowd has already demonstrated this year they have learned little or nothing from the loss of their friends and chasing colleagues.  Some of those lessons were already known from the now decades-long history of storm chasing, some came from that terrible day.  That some chasers would ignore these lessons was, unfortunately, a predictable response from that group of extreme chasers who consistently thumb their noses in defiance at anyone critical of their behavior, sneering contemptuously at those whom they label as "haters", and referring to them as "sissies" for not indulging in dangerous behavior of the sort they crave.

I have no problem with someone selling their stills and video from storm chasing.  I've been doing it for a long time, and it's helped pay for the costs of storm chasing - but the tally sheet at the end of most years tells me I just about break even with my sales.  That's fine by me - I continue to think of storm chasing as a hobby, not a profession, so I do it for the fun and excitement of being able to witness the awesome spectacle of severe storms.  I shoot stills and video to capture the moments during a chase and - to sell if I can.  I don't chase "competitively" with anyone and I'm never jealous of someone else's success.  All I care about when it comes to the extreme chasers is that when they broadcast their near-death experiences and contempt for responsible behavior, they do two things that concern me:
  1. They glorify doing dangerous things that could result in their fatalities and those who chase with whom they chase.  This confirms the bias the media have in regarding storm chasers as crazy.  It reinforces an image of chasing that's not appropriate for most of us.  In effect, it's promoting an inappropriate stereotype applied to all of us.
  2. They encourage others to emulate their behavior, perhaps in hopes of achieving fame and fortune as a chaser, or perhaps just for the adrenaline.  Real fame and fortune, of course, is just an illusion for all but a very tiny fraction of chasers who have marketed themselves as "extreme", only a few of whom actually know what they're doing well enough to become rich and famous for their exploits.
If someone has video of a near-fatal encounter, the most valuable thing they could do with that is to use that footage to present and discuss what mistakes they made in getting into that situation, in order to help other chasers not to make the same mistakes.  Several experienced chasers have done just that - admitting they made a mistake, accepting the responsibility for it, and then sharing that information in a way that helps other chasers.  This is something extreme chasers never do, whereas many experienced, responsible chasers have already done so.  Sadly, extreme chasers don't seem to want to use their errors to help others - it's all about them, not even remotely about the storms.  Their actions speak so loudly, I can't hear the words they're saying.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thoughts on an event 15 years ago

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the tornado outbreak that began on the afternoon of 03 May 1999.  That day, I was "head down" into my research at my NSSL office, not planning on chasing, because I always had much to do professionally before I went on my annual chase vacation.  As the afternoon wore on, word filtered up from the SPC below (in the old NSSL building on North Campus) that the outlook had been upgraded to "high risk".  Then, toward the end of my workday, about to leave for home, I drifted down to the research/operational workstation room that was next door to the SPC operations area.  In checking out the developing storms, it seemed that the storms beginning to our southwest were left-movers and didn't pose much of a threat - but I thought "Well, it's going to be in my backyard, so I might as well go out and take a look-see."  I hadn't brought my cameras, so I had to go home to fetch them.  By the time I got home, a quick look at the TV showed a tornado in progress on live feed!  I barreled out the door and got into the chase recounted here.

But I don't want to reminisce about that chase, per se, in today's blog post.  Rather I want to consider the account (in that link above) of my damage surveys and how I feel about things today, with the passage of 15 years.  I remember a talk I gave somewhere about storms and storm chasing - during the Q&A following the talk, someone asked me if I'd ever seen an F-5 tornado, and I'd responded, "No, the strongest tornadoes I've ever seen were only F-4s."  I recall being mildly amused by the question, but also a bit offended by the implications.  That question also reminds me of the scene in that awful movie Twister where the hero Bill Harding (played by Bill Paxton) is held in awe because he's the only one in their merry band who's actually seen an F-5.  Somehow, it seemed my status as a chaser, as seen by others, was diminished because I'd not seen an F-5 tornado.  Like an F-5 tornado was the chasing equivalent of a 12-point buck mounted on my wall.

After the incredible day's chase on 03 May 1999, I was pretty sure I'd seen my first F-5 tornado and that carried with it some sense of fulfillment - until the BPAT survey began, and I had another chance to see for myself, with my own senses, what tornadoes can do.  I'd participated in other surveys before, included that done for the storied 24 May 1973 tornado that hit Union City, OK.  That tornado had initiated some concern within me (see item #32, here) for the morality of storm chasing (see my previous blog) and I eventually resolved that concern when I remembered that my desire to see a tornado had absolutely no effect on the atmosphere.  I was not responsible for the devastation of tornadoes, so my conscience was clear.

I hope my overall feeling of horror comes through in my personal account of the BPAT survey.  In the days following the event, I felt a growing anger over the superficial and sensationalized media treatment of the 03 May 1999 outbreak.  In retrospect, my real take-away from the survey was the realization that no one who had not experienced a devastating tornado could even begin to understand the feelings of the survivors.  That feeling has been reinforced by a project reviewing the 1925 Tri-State tornado - it was clear by interviewing the survivors that the impact of their experiences still was felt strongly nearly more than 70 years later!  As obvious as that seems to me now, it was something of a revelation then.  With the passage of 15 years, that theme has come more and more to the forefront of my feelings about storms. 

I haven't lost my fascination with tornadoes and the storms that produce them.  I haven't lost the desire to go out and see them for myself.  But as time passes and more events accumulate in the record books of tornadoes, it's become much more difficult than it used to be to detach myself from the tragedies they produce and stay focused on the science and the storm chasing experience.  I understand why some people can view storm chasing as immoral or hostile activity, although I maintain that it's neither of those.  When I think about the storms of 03 May 1999, it's no longer only in terms of the excitement of that chase.  I now feel more strongly than ever that we professionals need to put more effort behind programs that can mitigate the awful consequences of a tornado in a populated area:  improve our forecasts, support the imposition of more substantial building construction and the spread of suitable tornado shelters, and so on. 

Rather than feeling a sort of wistful echo of my experiences as a chaser on 03 May 1999, I'm now reminded of the terrible feelings I had during the BPAT survey, talking with survivors and seeing first hand what this phenomenon can do to humans.  How can I feel excited recalling a successful chase on that day when I think about what that storm did to the people in its path?  It's taken me several decades of storm chasing to reach this point, so I certainly can understand some of the enthusiasm for the experience that relatively new chasers feel.  I just hope they can begin to develop more empathy for the survivors and not let their excitement dominate that empathy.