April 18, 2024

© Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post
Destruction lies in the wake of a disastrous tornado on March 26 in Rolling Fork, Miss.

The deadliest tornado to strike Mississippi since the April 2011 Super Outbreak tore through the towns of Rolling Fork and Silver City on Friday night, killing at least 25 people.

As locals faced imminent dangers, storm chasers moved in for the hunt. One chaser, Marcus Reynolds, was hit head-on by the Rolling Fork twister and his car flipped. Although Reynolds was uninjured, the incident is reigniting a debate about when it’s safe to pursue a storm and how close to get.

Tornadoes have killed several chasers over the past decade, while the pursuit has surged in popularity. Several factors made Friday night’s storm particularly dangerous: its speed, its size and its timing, sweeping through in the dark of night.

Extreme-weather pattern poised to incite more severe storms, tornadoes

How the chaser was hit by the Rolling Fork tornado

Ahead of Friday night’s tornadoes, the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center had declared a Level 4 of 5 risk of severe storms — and the most dangerous storms were predicted at night. Under such circumstances, it’s been something of an unwritten rule that chasing storms is ill advised.

But at the tail end of winter, many chasers were eager to venture out again.

Reynolds, a seasoned chaser who has loved weather since he was a boy, didn’t want to sit out Friday night’s storm because of the “raw captivating power and charming challenge,” he told The Washington Post.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Friday, Reynolds found himself driving into Rolling Fork — hunting a monster he knew was there, but that he could not see — by himself. Heading south toward the storm, he sensed it approaching and that it was close. How close would soon become frighteningly obvious.

“Where is it?” Reynolds is heard saying on a recording as his dash camera caught footage of the massive wedge-shaped funnel. (Caution: The linked video contains strong language.)

Other than some streetlights and a few other cars, it was pitch black as rain pattered against his windshield.

“Oh! It’s right there!” he said as the tornado was hauntingly illuminated by the flashing light of a transformer.

Reynolds said it was immediately apparent that he had to act.

In the final seconds before impact, he took a few last turns, prayed and pointed his car into the wind. His vehicle rolled and glass shattered.

Somehow, he walked away, shaken but unharmed.

The incident was eerily reminiscent of a 2013 tornado in El Reno, Okla., that killed four storm chasers and injured Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes, whose car was flipped. And like the 2013 tragedy, the video shared by Reynolds immediately sparked contentious debate about the perils of close-up chasing.

Four of their own died in the monster El Reno tornado. But storm chasers have declined to back away.

“There is a subculture within chasing that seems to prioritize a ‘go for it’, ‘get as close as you can,’ ‘take risks’ framework,” wrote Barb Mayes Boustead, a meteorologist and storm chaser, in a message to The Post.

Mayes Boustead said that as storm chasing has increased in popularity, there are more people with a “mind-set that denies the responsibility one assumes and the burden one creates when they are that close to a storm.”

Chasing in the South at night is particularly dangerous

Before the surge in popularity of storm chasing over the past two decades, most chasers waited until May to flock to the Plains. Storm chasing in the South was much less common.

The flat terrain of the Plains allows storm chasers to see storms coming from far away and observe their finer details without getting too close. But the varying terrain and large number of trees in the South obscure sight lines, so it’s difficult to see a dangerous tornado coming.

As a monstrous tornado neared Rolling Fork, residents say sirens were silent

Although the terrain around Rolling Fork is relatively flat, any benefit from that was compromised by the timing of the storms.

“When you chase at night the rules change,” wrote Andrew Pritchard, a meteorologist and veteran storm chaser, in a message to the The Post. “The bounds are tighter, and danger is harder to track.”

The danger of chasing at night is magnified when storms are moving at high speeds, like they were Friday night.

The tornado tracked right through Rolling Fork. (National Weather Service)

“Storm speeds are typically faster during these outbreaks, sometimes with storms traveling in excess of 50 mph,” Pritchard said. “It’s easy to become very reactive when you’re storm chasing, and I try my best to stay out of that approach.”

Reynolds told The Post that he plans to rethink his chasing approach.