This is another essay. It's just my opinion. Any comments? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This essay’s incarnation grows most directly out of a conversation I had today with my friend, Steve Weiss, but it has roots that go pretty far back - to my days in graduate school, actually. It’s a concept that has been brewing on my back burner for a long time, and it’s evidently just now breaking through into my direct consciousness. If there’s anything of substance here, it’s tied up in the fact that when we begin our careers, we’re likely so focused on becoming what we want to become that we don’t see what is going on until much later. It is only with time and the experiences that come with it that a new perspective can emerge
Like many of my friends and colleagues, I owe my choice of profession to circumstances that seemed largely out of my hands - a lifelong fascination with severe storms, and tornadoes in particular. That’s what drove me to be so dedicated to my goals that I would not allow myself the luxury of failing to achieve them. It’s what made me work harder and challenge myself more aggressively than most of my peers. My heroes and mentors were those at the top of my career field, virtually all of whom had the same shared passion for the subject.
My personal experiences, combined with decades of commitment to the field, have led me to a new realization about what I’m doing. That realization has come slowly and certainly not steadily, but my recent chat with Steve Weiss finally forced me to grasp its full implications. And I think sharing it via this venue is an opportunity to help others realize it sooner than I have - and perhaps to do more with that realization than I have.
A fascination with severe storms, and especially with tornadoes, is a common “affliction” - much more common than I realized for a long time. As explained here, this interest began to manifest itself in elementary school and became a lifelong obsession. At that age, many people (including myself) are focused almost entirely on themselves and their interests. This is what drives us, after all. With time, storm chasing eventually represented my opportunity to see with my own eyes this atmospheric phenomenon, a dream I had for many years. In 1972, that became a reality. Those were heady days, when I discovered that others had shared my dream. It hardly seemed possible. Here we were, a loosely-knit band of acquaintances, connected by our passion for storms.
With time, the realization came that not all chasers are the same. Like any group of people, our little band spanned something of a spectrum, and I was just someone within that spectrum. I had views of what chasing was about, but my goals weren’t necessarily shared by everyone in the group. I’ve said there are nearly as many reasons to chase as there are chasers. A notion of responsibility to something more important than indulging myself in this passion began to dawn on me when we drove into Union City, OK on 24 May 1973 (see item #32, here). Into the damage path. The devastation left by that tornado in town was sobering motivation for me to think about what I was doing. A phenomenon that I wanted so badly to see had the potential for enormous damage and I had to reconcile my desire to see a tornado with the capacity of such events to lay waste to people’s lives. As discussed elsewhere, I reached that reconciliation and continued to chase with no guilt.
After graduation and, as my career began to unfold, several important people began to have an impact on my life. One important contribution was provided by the opportunity I had during our extended storm chase partnership to have long conversations with my friend, Al Moller. Given that many hours of chasing are spent driving without seeing much of interest, we had lots of time every year to chat about many things. Al’s career has been as a forecaster, while mine has mostly been as a researcher. In particular, Al became a “warning coordination meteorologist” even before such a job existed in a formal sense - Al has many talents, and one of them is for sharing his insights. Among the many things we discussed were his interactions with storm spotters and emergency managers. Thus, he was very well-prepared to shake up my world. As we talked, it occurred to me that even if we meteorologists do everything absolutely right regarding forecasts and warnings, those products have no value unless:
We meteorologists work with equations, scientific journals, numerical models, computers, weather maps, and so on. Most of us are not communication experts, many of us aren’t qualified as educators or trainers, and most of us have only limited contact, if any, with the users of what we provide. We’re certainly not versed in sociology or psychology. Thus, we generally are neither very good at these tasks nor do many of us want to be very good at them. We didn’t get into this field to do such tasks - we became meteorologists because we were interested in meteorology.
Another thing happened, when I began to work in SELS (the forerunner to the Storm Prediction Center - see here for some historical perspective). My first experiences in SELS were in the late 1960s, and I was working side-by-side with people whose names were familiar to me as pioneers in severe weather forecasting - and research. One of these men was Joe Galway, and I often questioned him about the formative years of SELS, since he was among the very first forecasters in SELS. Joe was gracious about indulging my curiosity and so I began to hear stories of the reality behind the organizational façade. The narrative was about real people, with all the trappings of real people, including selfishness, greed for power, jealousy, and petty vindictiveness. The story of SELS and severe storm forecasting / research is covered in my historical essay (item #76 under "formal publications", available here).
I wish now that I had recorded those conversations. I have a few sketchy notes, but they’re not what they should be. As this unfolded, I began to see that how an organization evolves depends on key decisions made by key individuals, who may have reasons of their own (sometime venal and sometimes altruistic, perhaps) for making a particular decision. Those decisions reverberate within that organization for a long time - many decades, in some cases. People can make a difference, but that can be for good or ill (depending on one’s viewpoint). It’s doubtful that anyone ever makes a decision to do something clearly evil, but that can be the result nevertheless, whatever the intentions of the decision-maker. It’s my belief that bad decisions are made mostly by people who simply haven’t anticipated the implications of those choices, or don’t understand them.
Folllowing the devastating tornado outbreak of 3 May 1999, I participated in an extended survey of the major tornado tracks. As evidenced by the latter sections of my narrative on the survey, this was a very disturbing experience. I had trouble sleeping, and what I saw reawakened some of the feelings I had after the Union City tornado. I was angry with the media for their superficial coverage, and I still am. For the very real people whose lives had been shattered by this event, their pain didn’t end when the media moved on to the next story. Their agony wasn’t over when their stories ceased to be front-page news. For many of the living victims of the tornado, recovery will be slow and painful, and some may never get over their physical and mental trauma. These stories never seem to be told.
On TV, there are programs about “cold case” murder investigations, and some of these touch on the continuing agony of those who have lost loved ones to a senseless killer. But very little attention is paid to the long-term agonies of tornado survivors - once they’re off the front page, it’s “out of sight, out of mind.” Since these stories are so infrequently told, the real enduring horror of tornadoes is hidden from view. A conspiracy of silence, apparently. Someone decides this isn’t of enough interest to use for selling beer, cars, and deodorant on prime-time TV, so the agony goes unnoticed and the lessons of this aspect of tornadoes go unlearned.
Further, with my semi-retirement, I've been privileged to be a collaborator in a reassessment of some aspects of the infamous “Tri-State” tornado of 18 March 1925. Our research is not yet finished, but one important part of our research has been the opportunity to interview living eyewitnesses of a tornado that occurred more than 80 years ago! Clearly, these were adolescents or children when the tornado crashed into their lives. Yet their memories of the event have remained strong. They don’t recall everything we might want to know about their experience, but they have vivid recollection of some things that mattered to them at the time. Many of these living eyewithesses are excited to find someone willing to listen to their stories - perhaps their friends and families have grown tired of hearing these old “war stories” - so they happily go on at length with us, sharing freely of these most intimate and profoundly personal memories. These are enjoyable interviews because these living eyewitnesses are such delightful people, for the most part. Yet, their tales involve horrible things and it’s evident that they’ve been profoundly affected by an event more than 80 years ago.
Like the victims of the 3 May 1999 tornadoes, the Tri-State survivors are real people. They’re not just numbers, not just elements in a statistical summary, not flat, 2-dimensional characters in a book. They’re real people, and many of them resemble friends and acquaintances of mine. We do them an enormous disservice by treating them as mere statistics. Real events have real, long-term consequences that affect real people.
A few days ago (in March of 2007), I was at a workshop for emergency managers in Paducah, Kentucy (PAH) at the request of the local office of the NWS. I was giving talks for their program - one about storm chasing and one about our research on the Tri-State tornado. As a token of their appreciation for my participation in their workshop, I was given some booklets about recent devastating tornadoes in their area. I thanked them for their gifts, and simply pushed them into my carrying bag. Later, while waiting for my flight in the PAH airport, I took them out and began to browse through them. In these booklets were photographs of victims killed by the tornado, along with short descriptions of their lives, which were cut short by this violent phenomenon that I find so fascinating. I was moved nearly to tears by the time I had reviewed these booklets. Whole families were swept away in some cases. Children, parents, siblings, grandparents - each one a precious family member and friend to the survivors. These booklets put those faces in front of me in a way that I found very compelling. The obvious goal of these publications is to keep the memories of those people alive, but they also serve to put faces in direct association with the statistics. I'm very grateful for this gift by the fine staff of the PAH NWS office. Thank you.
It can be difficult for the survivors to find meaning in such seemingly random events. In one of my favorite movies - The Shawshank Redemption - the main character says (metaphorically), “I was caught in the path of the tornado. But I didn’t think it would go on so long.” Those unlucky enough to be literally in the path of a tornado may indeed not realize how long this event will affect them. Even some outside of the path can be affected deeply, when the victims are friends or family members. As I said after my survey of the 3 May 1999 tornadoes, no one can have much empathy unless we, too, have shared that horror, however sympathetic we might be. It’s difficult to imagine any mere words that can offer much relief. Tornadoes are not malevolent. They're simply physical atmospheric events capable of creating human tragedies if we don't all accept our responsiblities to prepare for them.
I got into this profession for the sheer love of storms. I still feel that passion, but now my focus has shifted. It’s not good enough for me anymore simply to be a good meteorologist. Al Moller convinced me that we owe a debt to the society that supports our duties and allows us to enjoy being a meteorologist. This involves understanding that people are deeply and profoundly affected by the phenomena that excite us. We need to give something back to those people, and we can’t allow ourselves to be swayed from a commitment to (a) the best forecasting and/or research we can humanly accomplish, and (b) not letting it end there, but doing something beyond that to ensure that the value of our forecasting and research reached the real people who will be affected in the future. We owe that much to the victims, and we owe it to ourselves. Petty bureaucratic obstacles never should be allowed to deter us from this commitment.
Furthermore, Joe Galway made me realize we owe much to those people who were influential in our lives - imperfect people (as we all are) who nevertheless have made a difference for us. The way to repay that debt involves more than just giving thanks. I’ve paid homage to some of my mentors already, in another essay, but I’ve mentioned here some particularly relevant contributions from some very special people who forced me to realize a deeper motivation to excel in my profession. We can repay the debt to our mentors only by living up to our responsibilities. Steve Weiss has reminded me that anyone in meteorology who doesn’t yet accept the responsibility to people beyond the formal confines of our job description - such a person is not really doing their job. We all have different interests and talents, but we need to take on our mutual responsibilities in ways commensurate with our abilities, for the sake of the victims-to-come. Among other things, this means we should seek to collaborate with specialists in other disciplines to make sure we fulfill our obligations to our users. It’s not good enough to wash our hands of that responsibility - to publish papers or issue forecasts only, leaving the rest of our responsibility up to chance. To do so is simply selfish. I wish I'd realized this much earlier, but perhaps I wasn't mature enough to understand it properly before now. Hopefully, this essay can awaken an awareness of responsibility in some others.