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Tornado tour companies draw criticism from Oklahomans in storms' path

Scientists worry about safety of tornado tour companies while residents in areas hit by storms say the concept is distasteful.
BY BRYAN DEAN Published: June 10, 2013

Moore elementary schoolteacher Kristen Perkins has seen an outpouring of memorials and tributes to recent tornado victims on social media, but she recently came across a photo that stunned her.

The picture of a group of people smiling and giving enthusiastic hand gestures in front of a giant tornado in Kansas came from the Facebook page of Extreme Tornado Tours, a company that charges as much as $3,500 per person for storm chasing tours across Oklahoma and other areas in Tornado Alley.

These tour companies aren't new, but they are coming under more scrutiny from those concerned about safety and the tastefulness of making entertainment out of storms that destroy homes and lives.

Perkins said Moore still is dealing with the deaths of 24 people in the May 20 tornado, including seven children who died at Plaza Towers Elementary School.

“The blatant insensitivity of it all made me sick,” Perkins said. “It is just disrespectful to people who have lost everything in tornadoes. People lost lives, homes, businesses. How can you make that a spectator sport?”

Extreme Tornado Tours is co-owned by celebrity storm chaser Reed Timmer, an OU graduate who chases storms for KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City in an armored vehicle named “The Dominator.”

Attempts to reach Timmer and others involved in Extreme Tornado Tours by phone and the Internet were unsuccessful Friday.

At least one amateur storm chaser and three veteran scientists were killed in the May 31 tornado that hit Union City and El Reno.

Types of storm chasers

Don Burgess, a researcher with the University of Oklahoma's School of Meteorology and a retired researcher with the National Severe Storms Laboratory, said those deaths illustrate the danger of the practice.

Burgess said it is important to make a distinction between different types of storm chasers. Veteran chaser Tim Samaras, his son, Paul, and colleague Carl Young died in the May 31 tornado.

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