When more than 100 tornadoes raked the Great Plains a couple of weeks ago, emergency responders ran headlong into a growing phenomenon: roads bottled up by swarms of tornado chasers.
On a sunny day in tiny Solomon, Kan., it's hard to imagine anything stirring the place up. A car eases past every so often, but two weeks ago, a powerful tornado was plowing through the countryside. One road was jammed — and dangerous.
"You couldn't get onto this road for the traffic, and someone was in the southbound lane passing everybody at a high rate of speed," says Chancy Smith, who coordinates emergency response in Dickinson County. Tracking the tornado, sounding the alarm, and helping the victims is his responsibility.
"I get down here by this bridge, and there's cars all over the road, and they are sitting here filming back this way, and so now I turn my front lights on and the siren – and they just stand there and film," he says.
A 21-year-old metrology student named Matt Piechota and a buddy had driven more than 1,500 miles in about 24 hours when they shot this tornado just outside Solomon.
"I've always just been into going out and experiencing Mother Nature and being up next to storms," Piechota says. "Being able to chase has always been one of my dreams."
It's a dream a lot more people have been perusing, recently.
"It's a lot of younger chasers, a lot of thrill seekers, and what we call 'Yahoo Chasers' out on the road," says Melanie Metz, one-half of a photographic team called "The Twister Sisters." They were chasing the same storm.
"The tornado itself is already a hazard; now we've got all these crazy aggressive drivers, and people with their cell phones, wanting to get the craziest video they can of the tornado," she says. That's because lots of TV shows and websites are ravenous for the raw footage.
Nobody got badly hurt two weeks ago in central Kansas, but from a vantage point overlooking the interstate, Saline County Sheriff Glen Kochanowski says it could easily have been worse.
"The majority of the people we had were parked along the road, parked on the road, standing in crowds blocking the road. Watching the sky, to see – 'Oh my!' — and they're going to get a picture," he says. "And they're not paying attention."
Kochanowski has been a cop around here since 1966, and he's never seen such a mess following tornadoes. Piechota the chaser, though, has seen worse.
"It actually wasn't as bad as it could have been," he says. "I've been on storms with a lot more chase, to where it's just a standstill and it's really bad, but that actually wasn't too bad,"
Bad enough for Kochanowski. He says he's got no qualms with the trained spotters and professional chasers, that they do very important work. But the next time gaggles of amateur gawkers show up, he says he'll be ready for them.
"We're going to have to have extra people, and we're just going to have to start arresting on the spot," he says.
Back in Dickenson County, Chancy Smith says he'll be throwing up roadblocks come next tornado, because it's clear to him where this chaser convergence phenomenon is headed.
"It's like riding a bull. It's not a matter of if you're going to get hurt, it's when you're going to get hurt," he says. "And it's going to happen. Someone's going to get hurt doing this."
And when they do, Smith says he'll dispatch his staff to stop and help, as long has as he has an ambulance that's not tied up in traffic.