Death toll climbs to 18 in Oklahoma tornado outbreak

Carl Young and Tim Samaras watching the sky.

Carl Young and Tim Samaras watching the sky.  (Discovery Communications)

The death toll climbed to 18 Monday as search crews recovered more bodies after an outbreak of tornadoes tore through the Oklahoma City area on May 31.

Among the victims are six children and twelve adults, including three veteran storm chasers.

The National Weather Service says five tornadoes touched down Friday, along with heavy rain that caused widespread flooding. Some victims have been difficult to find because their bodies floated away.

The Oklahoma City Fire Department says a 34-year-old woman remains missing.

The death of Tim Samaras, star of Discovery Channel's "Storm Chasers," along with his son Paul and colleague Carl Young, has raised questions over whether the risk of dashing off into violent storms in Tornado Alley is too great.

"I think there will be some who will step back and say: `Am I really doing something safe here?"' said Michael Armstrong, a meteorologist for KWTV in Oklahoma City. "I think you'll probably have others ... that just feel that invincibility that they've always felt and they'll keep doing what they're doing and basically look at it as though it was an aberration or an outlier."

Oklahoma is considered the "mecca of storm chasing," Tim Samaras told National Geographic just last month, and there are often hundreds of storm chasers lining the roads. Seasoned storm trackers provide critical field data that can't be gleaned from high-powered Doppler radar, veteran meteorologists say. But they're increasingly competing with storm-chasing tours, amateur weather enthusiasts inspired by cable TV shows and tornado paparazzi speeding from storm to storm.

Samaras' colleagues said he took numerous safety precautions, spending hours looking at weather models and developing safe escape routes and rendezvous points. All were done in case his crew would have to pull away from a tornado and use well-maintained roads that wouldn't turn into "pancake batter" in rain.

"Storm chasing isn't about what you see on TV. It's about forecasting and safety preparation," said Ben McMillan, a storm chaser from Des Moines, Iowa, who teamed up in 2011 with Samaras and Ed Grubb of Thornton, Colo., for the Discovery Channel show "Storm Chasers"

Samaras also usually drove a three-quarter ton truck with a reinforced lining, Grubb said, but had a smaller truck last week because he was on a three-week research trip focused mostly on lightning.

The deadly tornado that struck near El Reno, Okla., on Friday was an EF3 with winds up to 165 mph.. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.