Ten life-changing days in the Midwest
Tornadoes are one of Mother Nature’s most powerful phenomena, and this year has been no exception being the deadliest tornado year to date. A tornado classified as a five on the Enhanced Fujita scale – an EF5 – can have wind speeds in excess of 500 kilometers per hour and will flatten anything in its path.
There are people who follow these storms. Earlier this spring, I was one of them.
In early January of 2011, I saw a blog post on Regina-based professional storm chaser Greg Johnson’s website about a summer 2011 storm chase. He was looking for a videographer. I figured I would send him an email showing my interest and give it a shot since I’ve always wanted to experience the storm-chasing culture.
Greg got back to me and we were both ecstatic for the trip. We spent months planning and even Global Regina got on board with it. We left Regina on May 16.
That day was spent in the car driving from Regina to Bismarck, S.D. We were excited for the trip. We stopped for our last Tim Horton’s coffee in Estevan and then we were on our way to the border.
As we drove to the Canada-U.S. border we found out that our border guard was a storm chaser for 13 years. We chatted with him for a bit, but before we knew it we were off into the United States.
I observed the beautiful landscape of the Dakotas wondering what the rest of the trip would bring. It was late. Soon, we were in Bismarck ready for Day Two to start.
Bowdle, S.D., one year after
We left Bismarck on May 17 knowing that the day would probably be clear of storms. We were following the Storm Prediction Center and nothing was showing on the radar. We used this opportunity to get organized in the car and to make sure everything was working during our long drive.
On our way south we drove by the town of Bowdle, S.D. One year prior, the town was hit by an EF4 tornado that did some damage. Just outside of town we saw the foundation of what used to be a farm house and broken trees. It may have been a year since the tornado hit, but traces of its effects were still present.
Bowdle is a small town of just over 500 residents. There’s a tavern, a post office and a small grocery store. It looked like a proud town. American flags hung on every streetlight.
I talked to a young resident of the town who witnessed the tornado first hand. She could retell the story as though it was yesterday. It was something she didn’t forget.
The town really came together during hard times, she explained. That was one positive that came out of the tornado.
This left us upbeat for our drive to North Platte, Neb., where we spent the night.
Tales from Tuscaloosa
The chance of a storm on the SPC was low on Day Three, but chasers were still going to follow it because it was more than the last two weeks were offering. It was May, and anything can happen storm-wise during that month.
We cruised through Kansas and crossed into Oklahoma. As we were gassing up, we saw three dark vehicles marked “Weather Channel”, so we started following them. It was a group of storm chasers from the national weather channel, so we knew they had as much chance of finding a storm than anyone.
All of a sudden we got pulled over by a State trooper.
Personally, I didn’t think we were speeding and I’ve heard a few horror stories from State troopers. I didn’t know how it would go. More importantly, I was worried that we would lose the Weather Channel.
Apparently the gas we stopped for was not paid for. The trooper was nice, but he still wanted us to go back and pay. It would have been hard to turn around and backtrack, since we were at the start of what could have ended up in a chase.
After talking with him for a bit, he agreed to take our money to the gas station without making us go back and he shook our hands. But that wasn’t before he told us about his Greensburg, Kan., tornado experience.
In 2007, an EF5 tornado destroyed the whole town. He was there to see the devastation first-hand.
Once we were on the road again, any sign of severe weather quickly dissipated, leaving us empty-handed.
We did, however, encounter a chase convergence on the side of the road so we decided to stop.
When we got there we spoke to a young man who paid to go chasing with “Extreme Tornado Tours”. He paid good money to be on that tour because he was fascinated by these storms.
He was a meteorology student at the University of Alabama situated in Tuscaloosa. He witnessed the big EF5 tornado that happened one month prior and described what he saw.
At first he looked a little uncomfortable, but then went on with his story. He told us that he knew there were going to be storms that day, but he never expected to see one of that strength.
He mentioned that a girl he worked with lost her life when her house collapsed on top of her.
April 27, 2011, had changed his life forever. He must have witnessed some devastating things in those long hours.
This got me thinking that everyone we talked to in the Midwest that day seemed to have had a tornado experience. It was something that stuck with me for the rest of the night.
Getting engaged in front of a twister
We awoke on Day Four in Salina, Kan., with moderate storm probabilities. We were well into our trip now and we hadn’t seen much of any storms. Our first priority was getting gas in the next small town and finding an internet connection.
We stopped at a hotel to be greeted nicely by the front desk. Turns out they like having storm chasers stay during the day because it lets them know where the storms are. As we did our work, we met a group of people from North Carolina who took time off to go chasing.
We spent the morning looking over weather radars and got to know our new friends a little better. We all agreed that we would team up for the day and follow each other.
In the early afternoon, we set off to go chasing in north-central Kansas. We spent the next few hours driving all over that region, following cells until it was getting dark. We decided to head towards Minneapolis, Kan., for the last potential chase of the day. We saw fast rotating clouds and we soon saw our first funnel. It was an amazing experience.
As we watched the funnel grow, one of our North Carolina friends got on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend.
They first met on a storm chase, so he wanted to propose in front of a funnel cloud. She said yes. We headed back into Salina.
A photo opportunity like no other
We spent the morning of Day Five in Salina. We were near our target area, so there was no point going out early to chase. We knew that there could be some potential for a tornado, but looking at the radar we knew that Day Six would be even better.
We set out and were on our way. During the day, we had to separate from our chaser friends to take a live Skype call from Global. We had to get to the nearest hotel and find an internet connection.
To get there in time, we would have to go through a cell.
In that cell there was rotation, but also hail and high precipitation. It was nerve-wracking – not to mention we were cutting it close time-wise.
When we got to the hotel, it was raining as hard as I’ve ever seen. We did the live call, I took video of the rain and pea sized hail, and then we were on our way again.
Although we didn’t see any tornadoes, we got amazing photo opportunities. The clear after the storm was picturesque. Our chaser friends weren’t there because their car broke down, so we met them that night in Wichita, Kan.
The previous day was satisfying, but we were looking for a tornado. We left Wichita early because our target area was going to be in the southern portion of Oklahoma.
Driving down we passed through Tulsa, Okla. Tulsa’s architecture was old-fashioned, because the city experienced one of the first oil booms. It was a nice city and just a positive experience to drive through.
Later on, as we were heading towards a super cell with potentials of tornadoes, there were disagreements as to where and how we were going to approach the storm. The tension was a little high and this was a decision that was crucial to the chase.
We headed towards Ada, Okla., where we knew there would be severe storms. Greg reminded us all that safety was our first priority.
We wanted to see a tornado. I realized here that we could very well see one. For the remaining time, I composed myself and just made sure I would be as ready as possible for when that twister hit the ground.
We ended up a on a road just outside of Ada with the storm cell moving our way. It was a relatively slow moving storm, so we were able to get out of the vehicle every once in a while until it would catch up to us. We would then have to drive down the road to distance ourselves from it.
At one point, I was outside shooting video and then I looked up and could see the edge of the cell over us with rotating clouds. Someone yelled at all of us to get back in the vehicle.
This high-adrenaline chase was the reason I signed up for this in the first place. I couldn’t have loved it more.
While tracking this storm we did end up seeing an “elephant trunk” tornado touch down on ground for a brief moment. Soon afterward, while driving, I heard Greg yell “there’s a tornado in my rear view mirror”.
We got out of the vehicle and there it was: a beautiful EF2 cone tornado in the middle of the road about a quarter-mile away. That moment made the whole trip worth it.
Before we knew it, the tornado was gone. What lasted about three minutes felt like just a few seconds. I felt amazing. Immediately, I wanted to see another tornado. Storm chasers always say that they do it because it’s addictive. I now knew exactly what they were talking about.
A day like that called for a celebration. We went out to a restaurant for much-deserved food and drinks. To my surprise, the restaurant was filled up with storm chasers who, like us, were ecstatic about their day.
What else could we ask for? We chased all day to see just three minutes of a tornado, and it was so worthwhile. We headed back to the hotel after the chaser convergence, knowing the next day was looking just as promising.
News of a devastating tornado
As we woke up from our high, one week into the trip, we were preparing to go on another day-long wild chase.
It was still morning, but there was a wide area of storms so we had to get on the road sooner than later to get in position.
Greg looked at the radar and thought that Missouri would be a good place to set as a target area. Specifically, he said that a town just outside of Springfield called Joplin would be a great place to go to until we knew more about the situation. There was discussion about going there, but we eventually decided not to. Instead, everyone decided to head south towards the Oklahoma–Texas border, because big storms were starting to appear on the radar.
The problem with predicting where storms will be is that they are unpredictable. There’s always the potential that something else could pop up on the radar. You never know what to expect, especially in May.
As we set out early to chase, we could see cloud formation and the air was extremely humid. All of the elements were in place.
We chased that afternoon and then ended up in northern Texas. We did see golf ball-sized hail, but no tornado. The rotation was not as high as it originally seemed and the potential for tornadoes diminished by the minute.
As suppertime came, we were ready to give up. Then we got word that an EF3 tornado had hit our original target area.
We also heard that there was significant damage. At first we were frustrated that we didn’t end up going there, but then we heard that it was rain-wrapped. At the time, all this meant to us was that we wouldn’t have seen much of it anyways.
Greg decided that, while we missed that tornado, it would still be good to go there and see if we could offer help. Our friends from North Carolina weren’t up to the long drive, so we decided to go separate ways and to meet up later on.
We weren’t exactly sure what had happened to Joplin, but as we got more information we found out that it was up scaled to an EF4. It would eventually be classified as an EF5.
When news started coming out and we saw pictures, our jaws dropped. The damage looked huge and there were reports of missing people. It was alarming.
But nothing compared to what we would actually see when we got there.
Like a movie, only real
Miami, Okla., is about twenty miles out of Joplin, and it’s where we spent the first night. We figured we wouldn’t be able to get into Joplin on the first night, so we got some rest and prepare for this day.
We found out before going to sleep that Global National wanted to take me and Jaclyn Whittal, weather specialist for Global Regina, away from the chase so we could do work for them in Joplin. We coordinated with the producers, who got us a rental car, and we informed Greg that we wouldn’t be able to chase with him anymore.
It was really disappointing to have to leave the chase team, but we knew that the network needed us to cover this story.
Driving into Joplin, we could see damage from the tornado. We were surprised by the damage, but it was minimal compared to what we saw later on.
We drove up a small hill, and then we saw emergency vehicles everywhere as we could start to see the other side. The military was controlling traffic, so we had to go through checkpoints carrying a valid media ID. Most of the general public couldn’t even enter the town.
The damage from the path of the tornado was unlike anything I have seen before. It was absolute chaos, like something that you would see in a movie, only now it was real.
What was once a neighborhood was now a vast field of rubble. The tornado was half a mile wide and ended up leaving a six-mile path of destruction.
We talked to a man, clearly in shock, who was searching for something in the rubble. We could only assume it was where his house used to be.
We asked him, “What are you looking for?”
He replied in a monotone voice that he and his brother were OK, but they were still looking for his wife.
Another woman we talked to said she was holding on to the wall when it gave out. She described being in the air as her daughter was holding on to her legs. She then played a sound recording off of her phone.
All I could hear was crying, yelling and wind. It sounded like a hundred freight trains. It was the most disturbing thing I have ever heard.
The end of a life-changing experience
We spent two days in Joplin, then headed back to Regina. We talked to people who lost loved ones and those who managed to hang on. These people only had a 20-minute warning, and they did not know what was coming their way.
Landing in Regina was bittersweet. While I still wanted to be out in the Midwest, I had made it home after everything I experienced. The memories of the trip – and the stories of the people of Joplin who tragically lost their lives – are memories I’ll never forget.