Otoe County Emergency Management Director Gregg Goebel is calling the tragic death of meteorologist Tim Samaras and his crew in a May 31 tornado at El Reno, Okla., a sad reminder of the real danger of severe storms.
The tornado, believed to be the widest ever recorded on earth at 2.6 miles, killed 11 people, including Samaras, 55, his son Paul, 24, and Paul Young, 45.
Samaras, who developed a probe that enables scientist to photograph from inside a tornado, has been studying tornadoes for 30 years.
He holds the record for “measuring the lowest barometric pressure drop” in the world at 100 millibars inside a 2003 tornado in South Dakota.
Goebel said no one may ever know exactly why his team was caught by the destructive force of the El Reno tornado, but said there are still unsolved mysteries regarding the time and place that tornadoes emerge.
There was no recognized warning of tornado that damaged three homes and several other buildings along Goosehill road before descending on Thurman, Iowa, last April.
Goebel said National Weather Service radar drew storm spotters’ attention to cloud activity near Talmage.
One of the storm spotters was position just south of Nebraska City, but could not see any danger.
The first indication that something had happened came from a resident who telephoned that a house had been hit.
Seconds later, Goebel said, the weather service alerted to suspicious cloud rotation.
Weather radar can only see the top of the clouds, so storm spotters are needed to report conditions on the ground level.
All Otoe County storm spotters are certified by the National Weather Service and must take annual training.
Storm spotters are trained to stay on the flanks of an approaching storm cell, but Goebel said the sudden development and touchdown of the Goosehill tornado is a reminder of storms’ unpredictability.
In 2004, Otoe County storm spotters were tracking the storm that produced a tornado that leveled Hallam.
Although the tornado was on a direct path with Palmyra, where storm spotters were located, they were not able to see the funnel until it lifted.
Goebel said topography and storm dynamics like heavy rain that obscures vision can shield a tornado from view.
He said Samaras and his crew were not acting in the role of storm spotter, but as storm chasers.
He said storm chasers attempt to get near enough for scientific measurement or photographic documentation, but Otoe County Emergency Management storm spotter teams function with the idea that spotters will stay out of the storm's path.
Goebel said proximity is still necessary to see what is happening beneath the clouds.