Three storm chasers died last week near Oklahoma City, and my first impression was mostly of sadness for the tragedy but, I have to admit, there was also a degree of frustration. What do you expect to happen if you purposefully race toward a tornado? Prudence dictates a person should seek shelter from such a storm, not chase toward it. In my initial judgment, I jumped to the conclusion the three who died were thrill-seekers who went too far.
Reading more has revealed a different perspective. The oldest man, Tim Samaras, had been chasing storms for years and, according to one story I read, "was not considered reckless. He specialized in putting instruments, some handcrafted and customized, into the path of storms to measure their wind velocities, pressure drops and other characteristics." Mark Wiley, a National Weather Center meteorologist, said while the "majority of storm chasers head out into turbulent weather as thrill-seekers ... a small minority put research first," like Samaras, whose son, Paul, 24, was also killed, along with veteran chaser Carl Young, 45. These men were dedicated to researching tornadoes in order to save lives. They risked the heart of the storm for knowledge.
For some reason, this story reminded me of the death of Steve Irwin, known as the Crocodile Hunter. Irwin, a fierce advocate for wildlife preservation, died in 2006 while swimming with a stingray near the Great Barrier Reef filming a television show. One moment he was swimming with the stingray and the next moment he was dying. Irwin's producer, John Stainton, said at the time, "Steve came over the top of the ray and the tail came up, and spiked him here [in the heart] and he pulled it out and the next minute he's gone."
The search for knowledge is a powerful motivator. Knowledge has the power to enlighten, but doesn't it also have the capacity to blind? Can what we know about a thing blind us to what we still don't know? Is it possible that the information the three in Oklahoma gained about tornadoes turned tornadoes more into something to be measured and less into something to be feared? Steve Irwin knew a great deal about stingrays, but that knowledge wasn't enough to stop his death.
All of these men spent time, some decades, dedicated to getting close to, learning about and studying dangerous things. I wonder about the human propensity to believe the more we know about something dangerous, the less dangerous it seems. The old adage goes, "familiarity breeds contempt." I'm not saying Irwin or the three men in Oklahoma had contempt for what they studied. What I am saying is it's possible their intense familiarity wore down the sharp edges of those dangers. One of the sharpest that may have been rounded was the edge of unpredictability. Just because you know a great deal about something doesn't mean you know enough to keep you safe.
Some are speculating human unpredictability may have played a role in the Oklahoma deaths. They wonder if the three, as well as others who died on the roadways, were caught without options for shelter because the Interstates were clogged with other storm-chasers, both professional and amateur, as well as people terrified by the earlier destruction in Moore, Okla. and were attempting to flee. The mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett, said, "For reasons that are not clear to me, more people took to the roads, more than we expected. Everyone acted differently in this storm, and as a result, it created an extremely dangerous situation."
For reasons that are not clear, it created an extremely dangerous situation.
These deaths in Oklahoma are a reminder that, sometimes, knowledge isn't enough to create safety. We should always seek to know more but never forget that we don't know all.
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