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                   Wednesday, May 20, 2009 - 1:10AM

Missed points: Forget about the tornadoes!

25 Years of Storm Observing
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I have said it many times before - tornadoes are not true risks to storm observers. A tornado is a relatively small event, similar to a freight train - as long as you stay out of its track, you're OK. And as we've been seeing time and time again lately, even if storm observers get into the path, not much seems to happen other than (at the worst) some blown-out windows and scratched paint (before you come down on me too hard for that comment, the standard disclaimer follows a couple paragraphs down). The automobile has, and in my opinion will always be, the main danger that a storm observer faces on an expedition. But tornadoes always steal the spotlight from that risk factor, to the detriment of the overall safety of the activity of observing.

Getting into a tornado, or even just getting close to one, is a formidable task that requires detailed forcasting, careful positioning, intensive chase strategy and sometimes just dumb luck. Getting to that one point at that exact moment in time - across a vast expanse of thousands of square miles of open country - where an event so small crosses a road - is not easy. It's not going to happen accidentally, unless you're having a bad day of epic proportions. Furthermore, most tornadoes are visible and/or in a location that is obvious to any competent observer/observer. They are almost always in a specific area within a storm (particularly the stronger tornadoes) and not just randomly touching down all over the place in an outbreak. Nearly all storm observers know where this 'danger area' is - it's no big secret or mystery.

Now the disclaimer that I have to include: not all tornadoes are created equal. Most (if not all) tornadoes that storm observers have been 'hit' by (and obtained video within) thus far have been relatively weak. Some were merely in the outer fringes of the debris field and not in the actual vortex core, which again, is a very small 'target' to get into. It is well-known that tornadoes can toss cars and mangle them into lumps of twisted metal, the outcome of which is not good for occupants within. It's possible (some say inevitable) that one of these days, a storm observer will get hit by the core of a truly violent tornado and will likely not survive. But the reality is that most tornadoes are not a notable threat to a storm observer, particularly for those who don't have the objective to get extremely close to them every time (the vast majority). We've seen it time and time again - the video is compelling and dramatic, but when you can drive away with all of your windows, let's face it: it wasn't that big of a deal!

So why say all of this? I have no problem giving respect to tornado dangers - but they are greatly overhyped. And that's not so much of a problem, except that other risks that are far more dangerous get overlooked. That brings me to the reason for this post: the 'Camaro Guy' footage from Kirksville, Missouri last week. This is the one I blogged about earlier, where a 'local' observer drove 110-120mph in traffic on a two-lane road to catch the tornado - only to find himself too close and subsequently getting grazed by it. The footage and the photographer made international headlines.

And what got all the attention from that as the 'miraculous story of survival'? The tornado encounter! The media raved about the amazing story of the guy coming out alive after such a dangerous event. In interviews, the photographer went on and on about how he'd learned his lesson about tornadoes, was thankful to survive, would not recommend anyone else do it, etc - the standard 'near death experience' stuff.

What never got mentioned was the fact that by driving 110mph on a two-lane road with traffic (one-handed while holding a video camera), the driver was in far more danger from a crash than he ever was from the tornado. The people on the road there were at much greater risk from his speeding car than they were from the tornado itself. Cars can lose control easily at those speeds, the outcome of which is far more violent than all but the worst tornado strikes.

But not one mention of the accident potential on TV. It was all about the tornado, the tornado, the tornado. Hopefully you can see my point. The real risk of the situation was the car! Yet as we've seen time and time again, there was a tornado involved - so it gets the story. I don't want to sound like I'm dwelling on this guys mistake, but I just get tired of tornadoes getting too much credit for their risks to storm observers. 'Camaro Guy' was just one more example of the true risk (the car) getting completely overlooked in favor of something that was not really much of a threat (the tornado).

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