SALINA, Kan. — Hundreds of people were traveling the roads of Kansas this weekend, trying to catch a glimpse of the tornadoes touching down. It’s those so-called gawkers that one county official says caused a big traffic jam and held up Emergency Management crews trying to do their job.
Storm chasing produces exhilarating, thrilling, heart-pounding moments. Riders on the storm, like FOX 4 Photojournalist Jerry Paauwe, who captured footage of the E-F 4 tornado that touched down near Salina, Kansas, on Saturday.
Many storm chasers provide a valuable service to communities and first responders.
“We not only call in the reports, we also call in the damage and say, ‘Send a crew here, send a crew here,'” says Shawna Davies, a trained storm chaser.
However, Dickinson County Emergency Management Director Chancy Smith says this weekend many caused more harm than good.
“A natural gas compressor station was hit by the tornado and was currently leaking natural gas. And there was five to six power poles snapped off and the lines were laying across K-18 highway and there were cars driving over them to get up to see the damage that the tornado had caused,” says Smith.
Smith says more than 300 cars lined the roadways near Salina.
“In my 18 years of public services, I’ve never seen this many people chasing a storm,” he said.
In some cases, chasers blocked emergency crews from responding to tornado-ravaged scenes.
“There were people getting off the main roads and getting stuck on the access roads on the side roads that weren’t maintained for traffic,” Smith said. “It is dangerous out there when they are that focused on getting to that storm.”
Professional storm chasers Shawna and Jon Davies, who is also a meteorologist, were there.
“That’s a problem because we get gawkers,” he said. “And gawkers are people who just get in the way.”
With 40 years of experience combined, they say each year sees more and more un-trained chasers on the tail of severe weather.
“If you can’t help, if you’re not trained with CPR, first aid or have gear to move debris, get out of there,” Shawna said. “Let the emergency management do their job so they can help the residents who didn’t want to be in the path of that tornado.”
Smith admits legitimate storm chasers do provide valuable services to The Emergency Management Services and says this weekend was a rare occurrence that he hopes never happens again.