Hearne: Are ‘Storm Chasers’ Just Money Grubbing Morons?

van1The answer to the above question: yes and no…

It’s one I had to ask myself for like the zillionth time after reviewing that new twister flick that opens today, Into the Storm.

I’ll get to the movie review a little later.

It’s the ongoing glorification of the mostly dudes who drag around Oklahoma, Kansas and other tornado riddled states chasing twisters for either what passes for research, fun and/or money that jumped out at me. Because it appears to be reaching almost epidemic levels.

As in, anybody and everybody seems to feel like they can do it.

Mostly for grins, although there is a highly vocal minority of “serious” storm chasers who consider themselves to be legit in the same way as fireman and police.

That’s a bit of a stretch to me. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that news networks like CNN – starved for sexy video footage to compliment its amped up storm coverage -and reality shows like the Discovery Channel‘s Storm Chasers have begun championing the practice, sport, whatever you want to call it.

Net result: more and more inexperienced thrill seekers are joining in the fun.

First let’s pin down what we’re talking about:

“Storm chasing is broadly defined as the pursuit of any severe weather condition, regardless of motive, which can be curiosity, adventure, scientific investigation, or for news or media coverage,” according to Wikipedia“A person who chases storms is known as a storm chaser, or simply a chaser. While witnessing a tornado is the single biggest objective for most chasers, many chase thunderstorms and delight in viewing cumulonimbus and related cloud structures, watching a barrage of  hail and lightning and seeing what skycaps unfold.”

And while most so-called experts agree it’s mostly about “thrill seeking” (as depicted in the new movie), “pecuniary interests and competition” may also be involved.

In other words, money and sport.

Speaking of which, according to Stormchase.us there’s not much money in storm chasing; $400 per pic or video for national media like CNN and 100 bucks a throw from local media news outlets.

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 4.30.13 PMHowever, a cottage industry of tornado storm tourism has blossomed in recent years.

Take Extreme Chase Tours which charges you $2,700 per person to take your life into your own hands and get up close and personal with a genuine Tulsa Twister.

Extreme Chase Tours is taking reservations now for the 2015 tornado season with seven “early bird” tours in April, 28 “May Magic” tours at $2,900 per outing, 21 tours in June and 14 in July ($700 Visa or Mastercard deposits required).

The company claims all of its 2008 to 2014 storm tours sold our early, so thrill seekers and wannabe meteorologists are advised to make their reservations early.

lanny dean

Lanny Dean

Extreme is lead by storm chase superstar Lanny Dean – with 413 tornados and 12 “major hurricanes” under his belt.  He’s the company’s lead tour-meister, with 24 years of storm chasing experience and a pedigree that includes past membership in The Outlaw Chasers and beaucoup television credits ranging from The Weather Channel, Fox News and CNN to Good Morning America, Inside Edition and TLC.

So what’s a storm chasing vacation like? Three words: expensive and hair raising.

“At first mother nature did not want to play, with a storm that fizzled out as it hit Dallas/Fort worth.,” says Aaron Stanley of Melbourne, Australia. “But by day three it produced a massive super-cell which was nothing like I’d ever seen before. Impressive wall cloud, lightening, golf ball sized hail, many funnel clouds and eventually a Tornado! Getting up close to see the magnificent structure of the cell and tornado was an adrenalin pumping awesome experience I’ll never forget. Very nerve wrecking, but awe inspiring at the same time.”

Therein lies the problem…

Beginning with the fallout from the blockbuster movie Twister in 1996 and continuing with “Into the Storm” this weekend and CMT‘s coming soon Tornado Hunters show this fall – anybody and everybody are trying to cash in on the tragedies that befell towns like Joplin and Greensburg, Kansas.

Shamelessly at times.

“You don’t know – maybe you just watched somebody lose their life. Maybe somebody has lost their home,” boasts “Tornado Hunters” star Greg Johnson in touting his new show. “These are terrifying moments – that’ll never get old.”


4-22-10_tornadoStorm chaser Mark Farnik was roundly criticized this past June for posting a photo of a dying 5 year-old girl tornado victim on Facebook just weeks after he’d posted that he wanted to see “some highly destructive tornadoes to make it rain for me financially.”

Tacky, right?

And while most storm chasing incidents have been limited to auto accidents – as opposed to actual storm or tornado deaths – a group calling itself Hails Angels “sparked outrage” earlier this spring after posting a video on YouTube of them driving recklessly into a tornado in Mayflower, Arkansas and then tweeting a photo of their crumpled up truck.

And so many storm chasers were chasing severe storms in central Kansas two years back that USA Today reported, “Chancy Smith, director of Dickinson County Emergency Management, said some roads in the northwest section of the county were like ‘a funeral procession’ Saturday and some storm chasers would not allow emergency vehicles to pass or drove over downed power lines.”

Dickinson County Administrator Brad Homman said, “It was outrageously stupid. People were driving crazy. It was dangerous. I’ve never seen anything like it in my 27 years of working in emergency service.”

chase_tour_vanThe $64 million question:

How to separate the “idiots” from the so-called legit storm chasers?

Because it appears that today’s “legit” storm chasers started out basically as yesterday’s “idiots.”

Dean’s storm chasing tour biz got caught up in the Kansas controversy.

“He’s out making a living off of other people’s demise,” Homman said. “Stay in Texas or Oklahoma, or at least use due regard for our safety. That certainly wasn’t maintained (Saturday) from my observation.”

Speaking of the “highly regarded” storm chasers, a year ago “storm researchers” Susan Schneider , his son Paul Samaras and sidekick Carl Young – from an outfit called Thunder Chase – bought the farm courtesy of a 302 miles-per-hour “violent wedge tornado.” That while “studying” the twister that struck Oklahoma City. Their 3,200 pound Chevy Cobalt was reduced to a “ball of metal” after being carried half a mile by the tornado.

Kinda like in the movie “Into the Storm” only less glamorous.

And while Samaras death sparked a debate over storm chasing tactics in close proximity to tornados, oddly, his website is still up, hawking $22 DVDs and inviting storm chase fans to continue to “follow Tim on Facebook.”

Uh, follow him where exactly?

twisterTo answer the question posed up top, yes, it appears that the lion’s share of folks out chasing tornados are fools – even the well-intentioned ones – but the money grubbing part of the equation is less clear.

Because unless you can sell a you-know-what load of photos and videos and are running a successful storm tour biz, chances are you’re losing lots of money, wasting lots of time and pissing off lots of public officials by chasing after storms that as often as not end up being no-shows.

That doesn’t appear to be the primary issue among the thrill seekers likely to show up en masse this weekend for “Into the Storm.”

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8 Responses to Hearne: Are ‘Storm Chasers’ Just Money Grubbing Morons?

  1. the dude says:

    “How to separate the “idiots” from the so-called legit storm chasers?”

    I let the tornados do the judging.

    • the dude says:

      And anyone that has lived in that section of the ‘alley’ knows damn well only complete fools go chasing these storms. The smart ones get the hell away from them or go down to the storm shelter to wait it out.

    • admin says:

      That’s a little cold, dude but…

      Probably prophetic

  2. mike t. says:

    good, uh, ‘twist’ on the topic, hearne. ‘spin’ a movie review into an editorial all in one fell ‘swoosh’.

    seriously, nice piece.

  3. Will says:

    Your wind speed for the El Reno tornado is incorrect. It was not “302 miles-per-hour”. It was an EF3 with wind speeds estimated at or around 291mph.

    If you’re going to bash chasers at least have your data correct.

    • admin says:

      Maybe you should check it too, Will…

      Because Samarus Wikipedia page describes the wind sped of the tornado that killed him at 302 miles per hour.

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