In defense of Chris Novy

I first met Chris Novy upon relocating to Oklahoma back in 2002, first as the moderator of the wx-chase e-mail list, and later from his NSWW presentations on storm spotter safety. Chris is a multimedia wizard, an ethical chaser, and a tireless advocate for safe spotting. His video-rich presentations are always eye-catching, amusing, informative, and occasionally sobering. His message is always the same – no spotter report, no video clip, no smidgen of name recognition, is worth losing your life for.

Chris has gained some undeserved notoriety, chiefly for calling out famous storm chasers when they engage in unsafe and illegal behavior while chasing. Like a good journalist, however, he seeks to verify his sources, and often provides video evidence that he shot himself, unedited. Not surprisingly, his YouTube channel is stacked deep with abusive, ad hominem attack comments.

Chris was out spotting on Tuesday, 24 May 2011 in his car full of video gear, when he was manhandled by the titanic, rain-wrapped El Reno, Oklahoma tornado. By all accounts, this tornado was shrouded by opaque rain curtains, and so large as to be disorienting to those chasing near it. The way Chris tells it, he thought he knew where the tornado was moving based on previous radar images. But the storm hooked right and the circulation grew, dragging the huge tornado directly over Chris’ vehicle.

Please watch Chris Novy tell the story in his own words in an interview with our local Fox 25 affiliate, where he works.

The irony of the predicament was not lost on Chris – “Mr. Spotter Safety” got his butt kicked by a tornado. Instead of retreating in humiliation, he recognized the opportunity for a profoundly teachable moment, “a personal story to share with others in training.” Two of his in-car cameras survived and recorded the entire incident. He posted some of his dashcam video on YouTube and posted his gripping first-hand account on wx-chase. In doing so, he made a point that he himself likes to make in his spotter / chaser safety presentations: There is no point in getting right underneath a tornado to get a “money shot,” because you can’t see a damn thing!

Not surprisingly, Chris has endured no end of additional villification and judgment, particularly from those who were already angry at him for calling out unsafe chase practices of others. He’s been variously accused of exploitation, fame-grabbing, and outright hypocrisy. (Commentators appear to willfully forget that Chris is not making a penny off the publication of any of this footage, because YouTube is free. Not to mention that his primary chase vehicle, “pimped out” with camera gear, was totaled.) In contrast, I find that Chris has been tremendously humble about his “near death experience.” He endures the slings and arrows because he feels that the potential lesson he can bring to spotters and chasers across the country is worth the abuse.

I applaud Chris Novy for sharing his harrowing experience, and for doing so quickly and with humility and maturity. I’ve always made a point to keep a respectful distance from tornadoes, but I’ve certainly learned from his experience that tornadoes must be given an even wider berth than normal when they are large, rain-wrapped, and difficult to see. Tornadoes look contained, and perhaps even a bit tame, on a television screen, but Mother Nature always has the ace up her sleeve.

As my uncle says, “Spot safely; don’t be a spot.”

9 thoughts on “In defense of Chris Novy

  1. I agree with you 100%. Chris isn’t engaging in excuses or trying to defend his mistake in some pathetic way. He has owned up to the fact that he made a mistake … like Amos Magliocco and Eric Nuygen did a few years ago when they made comparable errors. Chasers like Chris are classy and are willing to admit they made bad choices, for the benefit of others. In my opinion, the classless are those who vilify these experienced, responsible chasers.

    Chris’s actions are in no need of defense, in my opinion. As Roger Edwards has put it in his blog on the subject, “Even experienced, knowledgeable and conscientious storm observers are not immune from errors in judgment or in tactical approaches afield.” What makes the difference is how you act afterward; irresponsible chasers try to excuse themselves from any responsibility for their mistakes and may even stoop so low as to try to profit from them.

    • Chuck – You (and Roger) are both absolutely right that Chris should need no defenders; his work should stand for itself. I mean, safe storm spotting and chasing, isn’t that something we can all get behind? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be, apparently not.

      Incidentally, I take no pride in my own brush with tornado near Beloit, KS on 29 May 2008. We made the same mistake (losing sight of the tornado, in our case, owing to darkness) and got sideswiped, but fortunately our tornado was an anticyclonic EF-0, and not a multi-vortex monster like Chris’s. I recall that we got moderately chewed out in the public fora for that incident, and rightly so.

      • In earlier days of chasing, ones without radar, taking chances was far more uncertain. Getting close was never something we chose on purpose without great visual awareness. Now with radar in a vehicle, choices are made to get closer, not for the money shot, but out of interest. But let us not forget, how often we would drive through storms with no idea of where we were with respect to the tornado. All we knew was that it was “over there” somewhere.

        Chris Novy is an excellent presenter and advocate of safety. His close encounter does NOT indicate he is a hypocrite but it does underscore what he has been saying all along. Tornado chasing is extremely dangerous. Even the best can find themselves in a bad situation. Never let it be claimed, that ANYONE is too good to keep themselves safe at all times. When I chase, safety is my number one concern. Even then, I can find myself in dangerous circumstances. It is the nature of the chase. I applaud Chris for his work and look forward to him becoming an even more vocal advocate for responsible spotting and chasing. He will have the battle scars to back it up.

        Paul Sirvatka

  2. Thanks to all above and their comments as well as Robin for posting. I think that Chris did what should have been done in the situation he was placed in. I think that its a real eye opener for all spotters/chasers to look in the mirror and instead of shoot down Chris, say “what would I have done given that situation”. Everyone tends to act differently when a large and violent tornado is beating at their door than calm and collected after the fact rants such as mine here. I don’t think that its fair to not give him a chance to make a mistake, as he is human after all. No one knew the precise track of the tornado during its life cycle. He made an honest mistake and did not profit or gloat about the shot. To echo ideas posted above, as scientists and storm enthusiasts/chasers/spotters have to use one of my favorite quotes from U-571 “….You have to be able to make hard decisions based on imperfect information….”. This was no different from Chris’ position at this time. The most important thing is to take the experience and learn from it and pass that experience on to any and all who will heed and use it constructively. Regardless of who bashes him…it wont change the fact that it has happened, it is already finished, and with relatively insignificant losses in equipment and vehicles with much more gains in experience and important lessons.

  3. Honestly I feel differently about it. Last year in South Dakota an entire group of us [well known vets and “noobs”] got caught in a bad situation and had to bail into a farmers field to avoid being run over by more than 1 tornado. We owned up to it, paid our dues and didn’t hide anything. Yet many of the same people defending Chris [as well as Chris himself] tried to prosecute us for being reckless idiots that are going to “ruin the image of chasing.”

    I can respect Chris’ work for promoting safe spotting, but I don’t respect how he goes out of his way to nark on other chasers, there is a difference and in my opinion I think if he was more concerned with his own safe chasing and understanding the weather as opposed to trying to capture footage of chasers rolling through stop signs maybe this incident might not have happened.

    Ill probably open myself up to a whirlwind of criticism but someone has to speak from the other side.

    -Adam

  4. Adam writes…”Chris [as well as Chris himself] tried to prosecute us for being reckless idiots that are going to “ruin the image of chasing.” ”

    I solicited (and received) video showing of a bunch of chasers who found themselves at a dead end road, stuck in the mud, with a tornado almost eating them. The context in which I presented the material was that GPS road options aren’t always accurate and that storm movement can’t always be counted upon –something we chasers hear about all time but which spotters and newbies may not realize.

    Safety was my intent and the take-away was “don’t get yourself stuck with no escape options”. Now, if a few people in the audience thought to themselves “what a bunch of idiots” understand that many storm spotters, EM, and police officers view ALL storm chasers as being crazy. So if I show video of someone getting munched or running off the road or getting their car beat by baseballs there will always be a few people who will never get my safety message. Further, there is a faction of storm chasers out there which no matter what I do or say they will always think I’m out to “get them” because I’m not afraid to show the bad and good side of chasing. They’ve even demanded I sanitize my talks because my message casts a negative light on chasing. They’ve accused me of being the reason cops are out to get storm chasers. Well I won’t sanitize my talks and don’t feel I’m a “traitor” for expressing my honest opinions. If TIV drives down the wrong site of the highway and I show video of the event don’t blame the messenger. Instead blame TIV for making us all look bad.

    Many times my video clips don’t even have anything to do with chasers or weather. For instance I might show a clip of a pick-up truck pulling a camper through a bank drive-thru and tearing down the entire canopy. It’s a funny clip designed to illustrate the concept of “situational awareness”. This year I showed a YouTube clip of a Siamese cat chasing its own tail to illustrate the point that many things rotate but aren’t necessarily tornadic.

    I believe my message concerning chasers is neutral. I stress personal safety (don’t get yourself hurt) but also shun irresponsible behavior (don’t hurt others or attract law enforcement). In Adam’s case of getting stuck in a field, this was a clear miscalculation on the part of these chasers just as my not recognizing the rain-wrapped tornado’s path change and intensification was a miscalculation. I will be showing my own mistakes in future talks –one coming up in just a couple of weeks.

    One last comment. I find the bulk of people who complain about my talks have never seen my talks. Instead, they get all fired up by what others say on StormTrack, FaceBook, and personal blogs about me. Remember, I come a law enforcement background and approach my talks as a public safety official not as a storm chaser. This distinction is clear and essential. My approach can be a source of confusion to certain chasers who can’t comprehend why I “a fellow chaser” would present material which could possibly cast a negative light on “my fellow brethren”.

    ..Chris..

  5. Chris has offered his interpretation of how he handled the incident that Adam has described. Knowing Chris and his typical presentation material, I’m inclined to accept Chris’s version regarding the message he was trying to get across. Adam’s comment strikes me as being rather unnecessarily defensive. I suppose Adam thinks I also “nark” on other chasers. Fine. He’s entitled to his opinion and there’s no doubt that I have no respect for irresponsible chasers. There’s a huge difference between getting caught inadvertently, as Chris was, and those who routinely invite such incidents by trying to skate on the edge of personal disaster. The former can happen to anyone, veteran or newbie, as we have seen, whereas the latter is foolhardy and invites emulation by those for whom chasing is some sort of video game. I have every intention of continuing to criticize irresponsible chasing. Do Adam and his cohorts on “the other side” (of what?) believe we should condone it by remaining silent when we see it?

  6. I too was chasing the Binger-Calumet-El Reno storm and can easily see how one could be caught off guard as the tornado not only became rain-wrapped, but grew from a 1/2 mile wide wedge to a mile wide in a very short amount of time. In addition, the storm took a jaunt to the east, endangering motorists along I-40, and ultimately impacting the outskirts of El Reno. I don’t know Chris personally, but find it difficult to believe that someone as cautious, and with as much spotting/chasing experience, would place himself ENE of a clearly violent tornado without having an escape plan in case the storm took a right turn, as we know cyclic tornadic supercells often do. We were forced to bail east on I-40 at the Calumet exit, as it became clear that tornado debris and damaging winds would be impacting that area shortly. That said, we knew the potential threat if the tornado were to take a hard right turn, and planned accordingly ahead of time so that we could rapidly retreat if needed. This is not meant to be a criticism, and I do think Chris responded well in posting the video and telling his story. I’m glad and surprised that he survived! He clearly had a close call with death and admitted his error.

    At the same time, I agree with Adam’s point in that there is a lot of criticism that goes on within the chasing community, some of it undeserved. What may be interpreted as irresponsibility may actually be an occurrence of bad circumstances, and perhaps that is something we should think about before speaking out against or in support of any particular chaser. I was also chasing in South Dakota last year, and we easily could have taken the same road that landed many experienced chasers in a field with approaching tornadoes. Nothing indicated the road would abruptly end like it did. I can’t help but feel there is a bit of favoritism playing into Chris’ defense here, and I guess it’s just unfortunate that personal relationships tend to enter into the argument before any analysis of the scenario is considered.

  7. I’ve been critical of Chris, and not because he got caught in a tornado. I could care less about that, stuff happens quickly out there sometimes and mother nature foils the best of intentions.

    My issue was he has made me the subject, in at least two cases, of his presentations, mostly because he doesn’t like my auxiliary lighting. The problem is, in the two examples I’ve seen him use me in, he took both completely out of context to prove a point he was making, when what he’s saying was going on there was not what actually was going on there.

    To add insult to injury, I caught him at a presentation at the convention using some of my video in his presentation without my permission, which I am sure is something that pretty much everyone in the community frowns on.

    He may have some valid safety points to make, but IMO he needs to go about it a little more carefully and make sure what he’s saying is happening in his examples is what is actually happening, and not what he assumes is happening.

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