Tornado Chasing – Safe?

I saw this article on the BBC web site today and it reminded me of a holiday I had a few years ago chasing tornadoes in the USA.

Tornado chasers face storm as lawsuit hits close to home

Going on a tornado chasing holiday was a bit of a “bucket list” item for me for many years. I am hugely saddened by the loss of life and property that tornadoes cause but they are part of nature and weather is an interest of mine and tornadoes are a wonder of nature (albeit a destructive one) and I wanted to see one up close whilst remaining safe. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out as expected.

So back in May 2013 I signed up for a Tornado Chasing Tour: 10 days starting and ending in Dallas, Texas. Boy! I was excited.

On arrival at Dallas I was met by the tour in their “chase” vehicle. It was a standard Chevrolet Tahoe. It was to carry 5 people, their luggage and the various bits of equipment needed to chase tornadoes. It was whilst I was trying to squeeze my baggage into the back that I started to have reservations. I was right to be concerned.

The two in the front were the tour leaders although it was clear right from the start that I was an outsider. Everyone seemed to have known everyone else for years and the other 2 in the back with me were experienced chasers. I was very much the odd-one-out and they made me feel just that.

Having said that, they were all nice enough and I tried to relax that first night. It wasn’t until the next day, when we actually started tracking a storm, that my concerns grew. You will see from the photo that the driver had access to a laptop from his driving position. Unfortunately, the driver was the most experienced tracker and tour leader and so once we started tracking he spent a lot of time reviewing the laptop screen instead of concentrating on the driving. This scared me to death right from the start of that morning. There wasn’t much I could do about it there but I took it up with them that evening.

The response was predictable. Words like “…this is how we have always done it…”, “…everybody does it like this…”, “…we don’t have accidents…” was the only response. I said that I was not happy with them operating in that way as I felt it was not safe. They suggested that if I wanted to be safe then why did I go on a Tornado Chasing Tour?

This wasn’t something I could accept and so the next morning, when the UK was awake, I called the UK tour operator and explained. After much discussion on the phone and after many calls from the UK to the tour leader, it was agreed that I could leave the tour that morning and they would refund my £1800 in full. I accepted and left the tour. They went off chasing and I was stuck in a Best Western in some unknown town in Oklahoma.

I made my way back to Dallas and got a new flight home but the scariest of things happened that evening whilst I was sitting in the hotel bar near the airport. I was watching the TV in the bar and they were showing the Weather Channel and it was showing an F5 tornado. It was right near where I was the previous evening. It caused a lot of damage and there was some loss of life. I could have been there! I know I wanted to see tornadoes up close but that close-call scared me. I never want anyone to get hurt, least of all me, and there I was nearly in the thick of it and nearly being an observer of the sad and distressing situation that many good folk found themselves in as a result of this awesome, in many ways beautiful but deadly phenomena. I was glad to have missed it and to be on my way home.

On my return I corresponded with the tour operator extensively. Clearly this was not how they wanted things to be and they were very receptive to my ideas on what needed to improve. They even refunded my tour in full and gave me the cost of my airfare as compensation. But it is a shame that it took someone like me, willing to stick up for my own safety and that of others, before any changes happened. I believe that that operator did clean up their act and that since then I have found other operators that do take safety seriously and do not allow their drivers to operate the laptops whilst driving.

I did consider whether to do it again but this time with one of those operators but you know what? My appetite to chase tornadoes has left me for some reason.

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