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.
Burgess said they were scientists attempting to gather data that researchers could use to improve their understanding of storms and potentially improve warning systems.
Another storm chaser category includes those attached to television stations or working as storm spotters to provide information about the location of storms to help keep the public safe.
“Then there is this third group that is this big general area of storm chasing for entertainment,” Burgess said. “I think it became more popular after the movie ‘Twister.' ”
Storm chasers motivated by selling compelling video of themselves getting too close to storms or simply for the thrill of seeing violent storms have various levels of expertise and can cause real safety problems, Burgess said.
Roads can get crowded. Cars can make it difficult for first responders to get to victims after a storm, and chasers can find themselves too close to a storm even if they have experience, Burgess said.
“It's because of those concerns that we stay away as much as possible from metropolitan areas,” he said. “We sometimes decide not to collect data because of those concerns.”
National Weather Service Meteorologist Ryan Barnes said there is real value in the research that can only be done very close to a tornado, but it should be left to professionals.
“Our mission is to protect life and property,” Barnes said.
Perkins said she values the scientists who risk their lives to further tornado research, and she understands the motivation of those who want to see a tornado up close.
But she can't shake the feeling that charging people thousands of dollars to see potentially deadly storms is wrong.
“People get adrenaline rushes in different ways. Some people go rock climbing,” Perkins said.
“But when a community was just hit, have the sensitivity not to make it a business.”