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'It Sounded Like a Freight Train': The Dangers of Storm Chasing

By Story by AccuWeather.com's Carly Porter.
March 26, 2010, 4:40:06 AM EDT

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Chasing after a tornado hundreds of feet wide with wind speeds up to 200 mph sounds crazy, right?

Every spring, storm chasers dust off their cameras and dream of seeing the next big twister in the United States' "Tornado Alley," which is what the area between the Rocky and Appalachian mountains is known.

This extreme hobby certainly does not exist without danger.

While a chaser is not likely to be flung in the air and swept up into the center of the tornado like the infamous cow scene from the movie "Twister," he or she is definitely susceptible to lightning strikes and driving visibility drastically hampered by heavy rain and hail.

"Lightning is as big a risk for chasers as the tornado itself," said Mike Smith, storm chaser and Corporate Executive Officer for AccuWeather.com's Weather Data office in Wichita, Kan.

Storm chasers should always travel in pairs, which prevents the danger of one person alone becoming distracted by checking weather data, navigating, shooting photos and video, and communicating with other chasers via phone or radio.

In the first "in the field" chaser death, Christopher Phillips, 21-year-old University of Oklahoma meteorology student from Englewood, N.J., was killed when he swerved to miss a rabbit and rolled his car over into a ditch on April 26, 1984.

The April 26 storms in northeastern Oklahoma killed 10 and injured hundreds in their path.

However, it's rare to hear of professional storm chasers dying, or even becoming injured, as a result of their pursuit.

"Chasers know what they're doing," said Smith.

"They have the equipment, and most are either meteorologists or amateur meteorologists with a lot of experience forecasting severe weather."

Sadly, the general public and safety management workers are often the most at risk.

Law enforcement ill-trained in the meteorological aspects of storm chasing are often dispatched to clear the general public from roadways where storms are headed.

In May of 2007, a police officer was killed in the Greensburg, Kan., severe weather outbreak when a tornado overtook him. The EF5 tornado killed 10 others and was responsible for leveling at least 95 percent of the city.

Smith said that although storm chasing presents many dangers, his passion has allowed for fascinating experiences.

"I was once close enough to hear the sound of a tornado," Smith said. "It sounded like a freight train and a waterfall simultaneously."

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