The recent death of three, veteran storm chasers — and the close calls experienced by others — is a reminder that extreme weather is not a harmless, made-for-TV fiction.
It is all-too-real. Get caught in nature's fury and you may not be able to come back after this — or any other — commercial break.
A tornado near El Reno, Okla., Friday took an unforeseen turn and caught what has been described as a pack of storm chasers, as well as motorists attempting to flee. The tornado killed 13 persons, including tornado researcher Tim Samaras, 55; his son, Paul, 24; and his colleague, Carl Young, 45.
A Weather Channel team chasing the same tornado — in an SUV marked "Tornado Hunt" — got thrown about and the driver had multiple bones broken.
The deaths raise important questions about the commoditization of danger in a video age.
Samaras had been chasing after tornadoes for years and did so with a scientific bent, winning science grants to gather data with instruments. He was not considered reckless, according to The Washington Post.
Yet, he and two others who accompanied him are dead.
Samaras had received numerous scientific grants from National Geographic. But he also was featured on Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers" program, and therein lays a distinct danger.
Packaged for television, the spectacle of chasing after storms runs the risk of becoming a do-it-yourself instructional video. What viewers see are people in cars with video cameras driving close to and, then, away from, danger. It can be a thrill to watch and a lovely thing when everything turns out fine.
Video can do that to you.
Journalists have lately noticed that American soldiers often describe their first combat experiences as being an out-of-body experience that has all the familiarity of a movie or a video game.
The line between deadly reality and harmless fantasy has become difficult to maintain.
So it is that some storms are now attracting packs of vehicles that potentially can get in one another's way, not to mention complicate the ability of others to flee.
Samaras had told NationalGeographic.com that storm chasing had experienced a growth in popularity. "On a big tornado day in Oklahoma," he said, "you can have hundreds of storm chasers lined up down the road. ... We know ahead of time when we chase in Oklahoma, there's going to be a traffic jam."
The risk with making storm chasing into an entertainment product — whether reports of the Weather Channel, a Discovery Channel program, or any of dozens of YouTube videos — is that it will drain commonsense from viewers without any particular qualifications or need to risk life and limb.
From, "yeah, I can drive," and, "yeah, I've got a video camera," it's a short conceptual leap to "yeah, I can do that."
Only, no, you can't, at least not safely, if even the veterans can't.
When dangerous weather approaches, the smart thing to do is to take shelter.