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. 

7 comments:

Vickie Doswell said...

I understand completely! I remember how hopeless I felt after all my excitement sitting in that Yankton restaurant after the Spencer SD tornado! OMG! I had been so elated and jubilant seeing that tornado until the reports came in that it had literally wiped Spencer off the map and people had been killed! I felt like a low life for enjoying such a majestic thing when others were devastated!

Chris White said...

Thanks for the perspective Dr. Doswell. Chasing has always brought me mixed feelings between the excitement at seeing a storm and then considering the damage it can inflict on peoples' lives.

Billy Williams said...

I have learned that any traumatic event is like you described for tornado survivors. Nobody but those who have gone through the same horrible event can begin to understand what going through it is like, and the effects, even with many years of healing, hang with someone for a long long time. The subject I see it with is abuse and kidnapping (the latter personally). As much as your opinion of "Twister" does not seem to be too favorable, I do see the them in Helen Hunt's character, in the form of an obsession related to going through losing her father to the tornado many years before, in the scene the movie opens with. And related to the traumatic experience of survivors, is the fact that they can usually recount events from 30, 40....or 70 years ago in fine detail as it it happened yesterday.

John Huntington said...

There are also examples like this of chasers helping people:
Storm chasers rescue woman in Orrick, MO

Chuck Doswell said...

John H. - Generally, my opinion is that chasers who get involved in search and rescue should not be shooting footage of that activity. Leave cameras behind! Otherwise, it strikes me as self-serving more than humanitarian.

John Huntington said...

I would generally agree but in this case it was apparently a chest mounted GoPro so it shouldn't have restricted the rescuers. I do hope they asked the woman for permission to post....

Chuck Doswell said...

John H. - my concern about this sort of thing isn't at all about restricting the movement of rescuers.