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Deaths prompt debate over role of storm chasers | News

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Deaths prompt debate over role of storm chasers

ROME, Ga. -- The death of three storm chasers in Oklahoma has sparked debate, pitting the benefits of chasing against the risks.

Meteorologist Tim Samaras and two members of his team, including his 24-year-old son, were in Oklahoma to conduct scientific research. Friday's tornado near Oklahoma City crushed the vehicle carrying Samaras and his team.

Atlanta's Mike Bettes, in Oklahoma to chase the tornado for the Weather Channel, was injured when his vehicle was rolled by the storm.

In Rome, 22-year-old Hayden Jennings says the events do not discourage him from continuing as a storm chaser.

"We call the National Weather Service or 911, and they can put out a warning and get a better lead time on that," said Jennings.

Jennings is part of the five member Northwest Georgia Severe Weather team. He considers it a public service to observe and notify authorities of a storms presence and intensity.

He says it worked to perfection in 2011 when the team was in Pelham, Alabama.

"There was a large rotating wall cloud," said Jennings. "We called that into 911 and within 20-seconds, they had their tornado sirens going off."

Bettes, who is married to 11Alive meteorologist Allison Chinchar, says he is now re-evaluating his role as a chaser.

"I just saw my wife's face and I thought, that's my life," said Bettes. "I don't want to give that up just yet."

In a written statement, the Weather Channel said their meteorologists in the field, "are trained experts dedicated to serving communities threatened and impacted by severe weather.

"While it is too early to say specifically how we might change how we cover severe weather, we make it a practice to regularly review our methods," the statement goes on to say. 

What was once an exclusive group has exploded in numbers. Trained scientists and journalists have been joined by thrill seekers armed with cameras.

"There are people who advertise vacations to storm chase," said NBC meteorologist Al Roker, in Atlanta for a charity event. "The problem is not the trained people out there.

"Not that you want anyone to lose their life, but what's ironic is that it was someone who was so meticulous about safety," said Roker.

11Alive's own Mike Francis was once a storm chaser in Oklahoma and he says there's ten times the number of chasers there now.

"If you're all driving 60- 70 miles per hour trying to get away from a storm, some won't get away from that storm," said Francis.

Hayden Jennings is also a trained first responder who plans to keep chasing. His group has made a rule to stay 10 miles from any tornado.

When they can.