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More Severe Weather May Be Headed To Missouri This Year, But Another Danger Could Come With It

A line of traffic mixes with storm chasers in eastern Colorado during a storm in May of 2019.
Jennifer Brindley Ubl
A line of traffic mixes with storm chasers in eastern Colorado during a storm in May of 2019.

Some meteorologists are calling for an active and long severe weather season in the heartland, which means "citizen chasers" might add to the potentially dangerous conditions on the road.

Veteran storm chaser Steven Coy remembers a day in Oklahoma back in 2019, when one of his fellow chasers got caught in a car accident.

“I was chasing that day and the roads were clogged with chasers,” Coy, who is based at the Lake of the Ozarks, says. “Outside of one of the towns, it got hit by a tornado that day you can probably count a hundred, 200 cars and trucks, chasers, maybe other people.”

Meteorologists say the weather pattern known as La Niña may bring a longer and more severe storm season to Missouri this year. Some experts say conditions are looking similar to 2011 -- the deadliest year on record for tornadoes. But along with the safety risks that already come with severe weather, comes an emerging kind of danger.

Paul Pastelok, lead long-range forecaster for Accuweather says “chaser convergence” could be a big risk this season.

“There’s a lot of people out there when these forecasts are for a big outbreak, you're going to see a tremendous amount of chasers out there,” Pastelok says.

The number of storm chasers at big weather events has been growing over the past several years. Movies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Twister” are often cited by tornado enthusiasts as being the spark for tornado fever. But technology and social media have also contributed to the popularity of severe weather.

“I think because of social media, the fact that you can get a radar app on your phone, those certainly, encourage more residents to go out and chase,” says Martin Lisious, the founder of Tempest Tours, based out of Oklahoma City.

Lisious is a veteran storm chaser and is credited with technical advising for the “Twister” movie. He continues to lead tours and make films about severe weather. Lisious also spends a lot of time cautioning people abouthow to be safe in tornados and warns that inexperienced “citizen chasers” should avoid adding to the cluster of people clogging up the roads whenever storms form.

Meteorologists and chasers alike stress the unpredictability of severe weather — especially tornadoes. The lure of nature’s fury leads to risky conditions on the ground when inexperienced drivers and other onlookers bottle up roadways.

Roger Hill, who has been chasing storms for 36 years, says it’s inevitable that someone is going to get hurt or worse.

“It’s going to happen,” He says. “Been several people killed in tornadoes already that are, that are storm chasers or researchers or whatever. And there'll be more ... how can it not happen?”

Hill says he still gets excited at the sight of a twister, but if it appears a dangerous crowd is converging, he’ll take his tour to a totally different weather event.

Coy says it’s a balancing act of doing the work of a serious storm chaser and being, in his words, a weather nerd.

“I never want to see destruction out there, but at the same time, I want to enjoy what I love,” he said. “But hopefully these storms and tornadoes stay out in open fields. We get to enjoy them without having to see debris get hit or houses get hit, anything get hit, people being affected.

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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