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. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Is storm chasing inherently an immoral behavior?

Since the deaths of storm chasers during the El Reno tornado of 31 May 2013, there's been a growing concern expressed on social media about the ethical basis for storm chasing.  I can understand those concerns and have expressed my own concerns on this blog several times, and in my web essays.

The question is, then, is chasing inherently immoral?  I wrote a lengthy essay a while back on chasing safety (see the "web essays" link above).  It's been updated several times as new issues have come to light.  There's another excellent blog by Barb Mayes Boustead on the post-El Reno tragedy that reflects what I think responsible chasers feel about this topic.  But some have the belief that even the concept of chaser responsibility is meaningless, because it's chasers who decide for themselves what responsibility means to them!  Thus, in this view, chaser responsibility has no meaning because it's a relative morality.  This has some similarity to the religious arguments about relative versus absolute morality.

Who besides chasers should decide what chase behavior is responsible?  There are no wholly objective chaser morality boards, and even if such did exist, any regulations they might impose are essentially unenforceable.  In the absence of a set of god-given chasing responsibility commands, I think most chasers have a pretty clear idea of what is responsible and what isn't - I tried to articulate this in my essay on the topic.  Part of the problem is that some chasers choose to flaunt their irresponsibility for all to see - a red badge of testimony to their extreme disdain for responsibility. They think of me (and other critics) as a self-righteous prude and thumb their noses at my concerns - these are storm chasing's "yahoos".  And of course some chasers have different opinions about this or that component of my safety essay.  The fact that such disagreement exists doesn't mean that it's not possible to define chaser responsibility in a meaningful way.  I suspect if a survey of chasers were to be done, the resulting consensus wouldn't be too different from what I've listed in my essay.   There might be circumstances where something mitigates the apparent irresponsibility of some act I've deemed to be of concern in that essay.  Not all nighttime chasing is irresponsible, for instance.

Some believe that by being on the roads, chasers are threatening the safety and efficacy of first responders and ordinary citizens - blocking the roads at a time when those roads are needed the most.  This is most serious whenever major chaser convergences arise, of course.  It's not so relevant for solo chasers.  Often, of late, locals on "joyride" chases in their vicinity or fleeing their homes can combine with numerous chasers to create long lines of vehicles, effectively blocking the roads, so this is not an unfounded concern.  I readily admit that massive chaser convergences can be a big problem, and I avoid them whenever possible.

I also believe that when chasers become casualties, they're adding to the burden imposed on first responders.  Resources needed to rescue an irresponsible chaser who got in close and paid the price are not available to the real victims of a devastating storm.  Responsible chasers avoid such situations. 

Another thing that I believe concerns critics of chasing in the post-El Reno era is the sensationalization of chasing and the celebrations of chasers over their successes, even as people's lives are devastated.  In fact, I've written about that here.  I share the concerns of critics about chasers showing their joy in videos.  At the very least, I recommend the audio portion of their glee be suppressed when their videos become public.  I understand the excitement of a successful chase, but chasers should be mindful that tornadoes can result in tragedy, and be respectful of those who have been unfortunate in having their lives destroyed by tornadoes.  Showing your excitement on videos shared in public media is simply not being responsible!

In the same way that the atmosphere doesn't obey my wishes, so that I bear no real responsibility for what tornadoes do, it seems that chasers are under no obligation to obey my "rules" about being responsible.  Widespread glamorization of chasers via the media has produced massive chaser convergences and brought in many new irresponsible chasers over the years.  I know of no way to stop the process and I have no authority to do so.

But is chasing inherently hostile/immoral?  Not when done by responsible chasers, some of whom have made contributions to the science of storms that have led to important new understanding that can be applied to the warning and forecasting of tornadoes.  Some have played roles in storm spotter training that undoubtedly have saved lives.  Chasing cannot inherently be hostile.  It becomes immoral only when the actions of irresponsible chasers lead, directly or indirectly, to harm to our society.

Let me illustrate this with an example:  many have seen the infamous "Turnpike" video from the 26 April 1991 event in Kansas.  That video showed people sheltering under an overpass as a tornado supposedly went right over them - their survival was implicitly advocating the use of overpasses as shelters.  The TV news team members were storm chasing, not accidentally caught and seeking to escape the danger, and their award-winning (!) video led to 3 fatalities under overpasses in the 03 May 1999 event in Oklahoma, as some of us had predicted eventually would happen.  No doubt the news team was unaware of the consequences of their video.  But it had unfortunate consequences, nonetheless, that were predictable.

How many people already have died in tornadoes with video cameras or cell phone cameras in their hands?  No one knows.  There may be many more of these about which we have little or no information - it may have happened in Tuscaloosa on 27 April 2011, two years before the El Reno chaser deaths.  Is this another unintended consequence of chasing?  Probably so - especially the sensationalization of tornado chasing that has become so pervasive in the media.   The competition to get the wildest, near-death experience recorded and broadcast has begun and clearly will result in more chaser fatalities.  And, likely, more irresponsible chasers.

I agree with the storm chasing's critics about how chasing is getting out of hand.  And there are aspects of chasing that I disavow.  But in the end, I chase storms because I'm fascinated by them.  I never did so to gain fame or fortune, but rather for the love of the natural world in all its awesome power and majesty.  I've tried to use my chasing experience to give something back to society in exchange for the opportunities I've been given to pursue a lifelong fascination.  I don't think that's being irresponsible or immoral.  I can't speak for others ...