KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Given life-threatening wind, hail, lightning and flying debris, chasing tornadoes would seem harrowing enough.

Now add to that what many agree is a new and growing danger on the edge of the violent vortexes: people — hundreds and hundreds of regular people.

People risking their lives, gawkers clogging roadways, some with kids in the backseats of their cars or in the beds of their pickups. They sit poised with cellphone cameras, stop dead in the middle of lanes beneath roadway bridges, travel at breakneck speeds for the chance to get up close and personal with one of nature’s most awesome and awful displays.

Kansas’ Chancy Smith, the director of emergency medical services for Dickinson County — raked by a series of tornadoes April 14 — caused a minor storm of his own when, after the tornadoes, he publicly called the throng of chasers who flooded his county “morons” for risking their lives and possibly the lives of others by impeding emergency services.

Raked by quick rebuke, Smith has since said he did not mean to malign legitimate storm spotters and chasers or scientists who do much to help the National Weather Service predict and track major storms.

Experienced, longtime storm chasers have expressed similar worries.

They’re talking about the others, the hundreds of rubberneckers, gawkers and severe-storm shutterbugs who clogged the exit off Interstate 70 as the tornado swept past Solomon, Kan., parked as if they were at a drive-in movie.

Meanwhile, he said, his firefighters clocked others tearing 60 mph and more through the tiny town in pursuit of the twister like they were kids after a lost balloon. He said some drove, rumbling past fire trucks and over downed, live power lines where a damaged natural gas facility was spewing the explosive gas.

“There were morons out there. There were plenty,” Smith reiterated to The Kansas City Star on Wednesday. “I was a police officer for 17 years and a director of emergency services for seven, and I have never, ever seen that many people converge on a storm. There were hundreds and hundreds …

“My cohorts in other communities are saying, ‘Don’t apologize for what you said. We have all had this problem.’ “

It has certainly hit a nerve among emergency services people and longtime storm chasers who concede that, in recent years, it seems that witnessing tornadoes up close has turned from a risky endeavor attempted by adrenalin addicts to a family spectator sport. Local high school students looking for tornadoes using apps and websites on their smartphones have become common.

“I really couldn’t tell you why it’s occurring,” said S. Joe Koch II, the emergency management director in Saline County, Kan. “It is becoming more common for people to go out and see these tornadoes.”

So common, in fact, that when the National Weather Service issued its early warning for last weekend, alerting the public that scores of tornadoes were likely to sweep through Tornado Alley — the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rocky Mountains where tornadoes are most frequent – Koch sent out an alert of his own to emergency personnel: Expect an influx of people.

Meteorologists and others said the reason is clear: technology, TV news and entertainment.

Whereas tracking storms used to require an intimate knowledge of tornado formation and, often, thousands of dollars of specialized equipment, one can easily find and track them now with a laptop, Wi-Fi or a smartphone.

Websites such as tornadoalleylive.com, severestudios.com or chasertv.com allow anyone to locate tornado-spawning systems in an instant. You can follow radar sweeps and live video streaming from chasers. Smartphone navigation apps lead you there.

Some believe that the glut of shaky tornado images shot by telephone cameras on YouTube and the Discovery channel’s show “Storm Chasers” has made live-tornado watching seem safer and friendlier than it actually is.

“When we first started chasing 12 years ago, we might see another person or two out there, and we probably knew them,” said North Carolina meteorologist Peggy Willenberg. She and her cohort, Melissa Metz of Minnesota, follow and photograph tornadoes as a duo known as the Twister Sisters.

Now: “The troops have descended,” she said.

Willenberg and Metz were in Kansas on April 14 to capture video and still pictures of black, violent swirling twisters.

“What I saw is people out there that didn’t have any sort of equipment,” Willenberg said. “I saw cars full of kids on the road. Families is what I’m talking about.”

John Hale, 21, began going to the tornado spotting school held by the National Weather Service at age 13 and has been chasing tornadoes and spotting for years.

“There are a lot of inexperienced people out there,” he said, “high school students and especially the locals.” 

Because last weekend’s outbreak was so well-publicized in advance, he said, he believed it brought out more people than ever.

“When the National Weather Service tells the public there is going to be a good chance of tornadoes,” Hale said, “there is going to be a lot of people out there who are not experienced to see something nature only puts out only so often.”

Willenberg said her concern is safety — first for families:

“These are beautiful and wonderful phenomenon,” she said, “and I can understand everyone wanting to get a look at it. But to put yourself in danger like that, and to put others in danger, is just bad.”

Certainly, most people don’t.

Aaron Bruce, 28, manager of the Hog Wild BBQ in Salina, Kan., said there was no reason for anyone in his restaurant to run out to hunt down a tornado.

“We didn’t have to,” he said. “We could see two funnel clouds form pretty clearly just looking out the window.”

Willenberg, the meteorologist, said her concern also extends to the welfare of experienced storm chasers. Driving in storms — with wind, hydroplaning, debris and other drivers speeding about — is one of their most fretful tasks. Now, with more people on the road, it has become even more hazardous.

Just as frightening, she said, is the prospect of heading 70 mph down the interstate and encountering something she is seeing more and more of: beaver dams of cars stopped in the middle of the road beneath county bridges.

“I would come up the interstate and there would be cars four or five deep projected out into the road, just sitting there,” she said.

Warren Faidley, a Tucson, Ariz., photojournalist who has been chasing tornadoes and capturing their images since 1987, called what he is seeing now “completely out of control.”

“The danger of driving is the No. 1 hazard these days,” he said. “It’s more people out there driving, texting, running off the road, crossing the centerline.

“The problem is these reality TV shows make people think they can just go out there and do this.”

Jeff Piotrowski of Tulsa, Okla., was in Wichita this last weekend as the tornado raked areas outside the city.

“Ten years ago, there would have been a dozen people out there,” he said. “Today, it would be me and 30 or 40 others. You have these people who want to see their video on the Weather Channel.”


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