Thursday, June 02, 2011

Have We Created a Culture of Tornado Death?

This year has been unreal for tornado deaths. Up to this point, we've chalked that up to some really terrible outbreaks that have gone through some heavily populated areas. But I think a little perspective is in order. This is the worst year for tornado fatalities since 1950, IIRC. 1950. In 1950, there was no storm prediction center issuing slight, moderate, and high risks of tornadoes. Tornado warnings gave scant prep time, and were often locally prompted by law enforcement, not from a far away radar scanning storm movement. People only had a few TV and radio from which to monitor the situation, and when they could give information, it wasn't good. Yet this is the worst year of fatalities since then.

It is safe to say that fatalities would be bad this year no matter what. But should we really be approaching the fatalities of an age when people literally did not know there was a tornado coming, let alone possible, until it was on their doorsteps? It is somewhat illogical to think that could be the case. So what has changed?

Well, for one, the amateur storm chaser has been glorified for about two decades, since average people started getting access to quality cameras and, more importantly, camcorders. They are always introduced with a disclaimer, but always glorified. But why haven't we seen a steady growth of deaths with the growth of amateur chasers? They are, after all, practically a dime a dozen these days. I am even formerly one of their numbers.

Well, to start with, most amateur storm chasers have just enough knowledge to not be a danger. Most people crazy enough to go out in their car after a storm have just enough knowledge to keep themselves safe. In some cases, they have the angels on their shoulders, and in others, they know enough to understand what a storm is presenting them and they react appropriately. So if it it isn't the storm chasers, what is it?

A few things have come together in recent years to create a "perfect storm," if you will. First, more and more shows on cable are showing tornado chasers who get very close to or right into a tornado. On its own, that's not enough, though, or this would have happened after the movie Twister. But add in the fact that anyone can publish their own video on the net, and now you have opportunity to be famous. Now, add into that the fact that every other person has a video camera on their phone, and you have a problem.

Now, people with very little or no understanding of storms are taking video of storms. The immediate example in my head is the Fort Atkinson woman who was taking video of what she thought was a tornado as her young teenage son implored her to take shelter. That son was precisely right. Even if it was a tornado, it was dark and she had no way of determining what the tornado was doing. She was lucky. Extremely lucky. Others haven't been so lucky. I see more and more video from people that get totally surprised by tornadoes, video of them diving for safety as the winds destroy their surroundings.

Our glorification of storm chasing, combined with the self promotion capabilities of the net, and the high def phone camera in so many pockets today, as created a new class of amateur chasers. Actually chasers is a misnomer because the tornadoes find them. And they have once heard of tornadoes, so they have just enough information to be dangerous - to themselves. There is going to be no way to measure this, but I am confident that a number of this year's fatalities have died because they had that phone camera out at a time that their butts should have been ducking and covering in a safe place.

I want to be clear that I am not disparaging all of this year's fatalities. Many, many people this year have done the right thing but had no chance. But this year should not be the deadliest year since 1950. We have gained too many advantages on tornadoes in that time span. Some minority of victims had to have been doing the wrong thing, and every person caught flat footed videotaping a storm does not live. There is a clear problem here, but we just aren't seeing it yet.

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