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"Confluence of events could spell chaos" for storm chasers

28 million people to be affected by severe weather in central U.S.

Millions of Americans are on guard as they face dangerous weather after dozens of tornadoes were already reported in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas. But some Americans are heading directly into the onslaught: storm chasers. 

A combination of damaged roads from recent flooding and clogged arteries from converging chasers may make for a dangerous situation. 

"It's the heart of storm chase season, it's the weekend and we're expecting the biggest outbreak of the season so far. This confluence of events could spell chaos," said 35-year veteran storm chaser Roger Hill. 

Hill owns Silver Lining Tours, a company that takes people on "chaser-cations" in search of the perfect tornado shot. Friday's chase was a success for his tour as they tracked down a tornado near the Kansas-Nebraska border. 

Once a hobby for a handful of meteorologists, researchers and photographers like Hill, technology has opened the storm-chasing field to thousands of laymen armed simply with a smartphone and a radar app — all in search of that perfect tornado picture. 

But in cases where crowds of chasers swarm in on a handful of promising storms, a phenomenon called "chaser convergence" ensues. 

That was the case earlier this month when the masses gathered in the tiny town of Tulia, Texas — population 5,000 — to witness a tornado touch down. Hill was there. 

"People were coming in from all over the place," Hill said. "There was a traffic jam half a mile long with hail the size of baseballs and a large, rain-wrapped tornado that no one can see." 

People can end up without an escape route and if the storm takes a wrong turn "that's a recipe for disaster," he said. 

Six years ago, on May 31, disaster did strike when three professional storm chasers lost their lives doing what they loved. Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras and Carl Young were killed during a research mission when the violent El Reno tornado took an unexpected turn.

It was the evening commute and Oklahoma City roads were packed with frantic drivers trying to get out of the way of the monster storm. 

"Oklahoma is considered the mecca of storm chasing. We know ahead of time when we chase in Oklahoma, there's going to be a traffic jam," Samaras said in an interview days before his death. 

Hill said chaser traffic can be overwhelming to a small rural town. 

"Each year it gets worse," he said. "It's crazy, people don't care. Accidents are increasing, local authorities are raising hell." 

He emphasized that the real problem is not the experienced chasers but the handful of "bad apples" who don't follow the rules of the road. 

"You have those few chasers that want to get so close so that they can get great video," he said. 

Kory Hartman, the owner of SevereStudios, a storm-chasing video company, said the influx of amateurs is the main concern. 

"We see an issue where local residents jump in their trucks and try to play 'storm chaser' with people hanging out windows and everything else," he said. 

And this particular season poses more unique risks. Flooding in winter and early spring has led to flood-damaged roadways in various parts of the Midwest and Plain states. "Roads and bridges are washed out with miles of detours," Hartman said.

Hill is most concerned about this upcoming Monday. It has the largest potential to produce significant tornadoes, and the threat area is in the heart of Tornado Alley — Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

Hartman has advice for storm chasers: "It's best to avoid crowds," he said. " If there's a secondary forecast target, maybe go there instead of the big bullseye on the Storm Prediction Center map."

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The draw of a tornado bullseye, however, can be too much of an adrenaline rush for chasers to resist. As a storm chasing veteran, Hill believes gridlocked roads combined with an unpredictable tornado will inevitably, eventually lead to disaster again. That's why he urges budding chasers to take the risks seriously.

"Storm chasing can be a very exciting adventure", he said. "But a tornado can be viewed from a safe distance without putting yourself in danger. If you aren't experienced in storm chasing it would be wise to educate yourself before doing so or join a storm chasing tour group led by an experienced professional."

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