Chasing Oklahoma: Too Dangerous for One Team?

Sean Breslin
Published: June 5, 2013

Storm chasing remains a serious business for Roger Hill following a deadly string of Plains tornadoes.

The leader of Silver Lining Tours, Hill takes vans full of eager weather enthusiasts on week-long trips to capture twisters, and from April through July, the caravan is jam-packed. A day before the deadly EF5 tornado hit El Reno, Okla., Hill wrapped up his latest chase tour -- one that ended in Oklahoma.

It might end up being the last time he ever takes a group to that state to look for tornadoes.

"We may just abandon that area altogether," said Hill, wary of a situation similar to the one that occurred Friday afternoon. The tornado that killed four storm chasers and injured several others behaved erratically before taking a turn into an area chasers thought was a safe distance from the storm.

(MORE: Why Storm Chasing is So Critical)

Roger Hill photo

Roger Hill chats with Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes in Grover, Colo. during the 2011 Tornado Hunt.

One of the chasers that died was Tim Samaras, Hill's next-door neighbor in Colorado. Hill said he's still in shock and disbelief about the tragedy, confirming Samaras' reputation for being one of the safest chasers in the field.

"Something horrendously wrong had to happen for them to get caught in that," added Hill.

Even in the aftermath of deaths that floored the weather community, Hill said there have been no cancellations of future storm chasing tours, mostly because he hasn't fielded a single phone call from anyone who wants to cancel his or her trip. Quite the opposite has happened, in fact -- Hill said the recent tornadoes have actually stirred more interest in his tours than normal.

He believes this is because of the track record of the Silver Lining Tours. They're well-known for spotting scores of tornadoes every year, but also because their safety guidelines keep visitors at ease while witnessing one of the most violent natural phenomena on the planet.

The tour didn't always abide by as many rules as it does in 2013, but when one group was nearly caught in the Joplin tornado, many more precautions were added to Hill's outings. On May 22, 2011, the group made a routine rest stop when a storm re-developed that would eventually spawn the monster EF5 tornado that would rip through Joplin, Mo., killing more than 160 people. Hill's caravan was just blocks from the twister.

"That's as close as I ever want to be (to a tornado)," Hill said.

(MORE: El Reno Tornado Now the Widest Twister on Record)

Since that close call, Hill implemented rules that combat both challenges faced during the Joplin tornado. His team will never chase in a city setting again, and if a tornado is shielded by rain -- "rain-wrapped," as meteorologists call it -- they will flee the area.

Combining those guidelines with previously-enforced rules to keep a safe distance and plot several escape routes if a tornado begins to close in or change direction, and Hill believes his tours can keep a spotless track record of safety with the guests.

Even if he never chases in Oklahoma again.

MORE: Oklahoma Tornadoes, May 2013

Homes along Pralle Lane and Mary Pat Court were damaged in the storm, Saturday, June 1, 2013 in St. Charles County, Mo. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Robert Cohen)

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