Thursday, August 25, 2011

Beautiful in Dreams, Nightmare in Reality

When you grow up in southwest Missouri you become accustomed to severe weather.  I remember getting home from school, turning the antennae on top of the house to the southwest, and watching the Tulsa storm coverage as storms were approaching from the southwest.  I remember many of evenings spent in the basement taking shelter with the squelch of the scanner in the background.  My fascination increased when we got the internet at the house and I realized I could read the National Weather Service forecast discussions.  Perhaps the most common question I ever get asked is:  “why did you start storm chasing”?  Well it was simple.  I combined my intense interest in weather with my enjoyment of photography and I had myself a very enjoyable hobby….or so I thought.  I’ve been haunted by this hobby for the past sixteen months.  For the last three months it seems more like being horrified.

March 12, 2006
I hadn’t given much thought about storm chasing until late winter of 2006.  I had watched all the shows on TV.  I had recorded a few and watched them several times, but I had never thought about doing it myself.  After spending my college years and first four years out of college traveling the country working with various sports teams I decided I should give it a shot.  Like I said, it combined an intense interest of weather and photography.  I took my first NWS Spotter Training Course in February of 2006.  I had a basic understanding of weather spotting, but after that class I really started researching how to forecast these events.  On March 12, 2006, it came to me.  I watched the radar as several tornadic supercells raced across Missouri.  I grabbed my camera and a weather radio and set out to chase the prolific supercell that traversed from Kansas to Michigan.  It was exhilarating.  I raced around to get the best views of the updraft, dodged downed trees and other debris, and finally gave up as it crossed the Mississippi.  It wasn’t that long of a chase, but I chased, and I was excited about it! 

I had a few uneventful chases in 2006, but my research intensified.  I really didn’t want to get out and do much chasing, even with educated chase partners, until I was really comfortable doing my own forecasting.  Between 2007 and 2010, I chased thousands of miles in ten states.  I witnessed several tornadoes, monster hail, incredible winds, and some of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen.  Small towns like Bison, Oregon, Hiawatha, Stutgart, Hutchinson, Medicine Lodge, Alva, Edina, and Wayne all meant something to me.  I had seen some amazing landscapes and had incredible stories to tell.  Best of all, I had not seen what a tornado could do to a populated area first hand.

Yazoo City, MS
Jesse Risley, Brad Goddard, and I left Troy late on the 23rd.  We had talked about this setup all week and knew that it would be a tough chase.  Fast storm speeds, lots of trees, marathon driving…there was a lot to be discouraged about.  What was apparent though was a significant severe weather outbreak would likely unfold.  We slept for three hours in the car at a truck stop in West Memphis, AR.  We were in Mississippi and were under our first tornado warning shortly after sunrise.  We chased a few storms while we could keep up and then spotted a storm getting its act together in northern Louisiana.  We looked at the radar, looked at the map, and decided that Yazoo City, MS would be a town we could intercept the storm in.  We were all quiet for a few minutes, but we knew what each other was thinking.  I had never faced the reality of a dangerous storm heading into a populated area.  As we drove the approximate 70 miles we had to go to Yazoo City we started hearing reports of this storm producing damage.  As we got closer, the National Weather Service issued a Tornado Emergency for Yazoo City.  This was getting real.  We quickly got to the south side of town so we could remain out of the way of the storm and hopefully get a view of it.  As we stood there, trees limbs falling around us from the inflow, we realized people were driving obliviously into the storm.  It was at that time we stopped worrying about our pictures and started focusing on stopping traffic.  Once the storm passed we drove north into town.  We didn’t have to drive far until we saw widespread destruction.  Damage was absolutely everywhere.  Debris littered the landscape.  We pulled into a subdivision and our lives were changed forever.  We arrived at the same time as Reed, Joel, Chris, and Dick of Storm Chasers on the Discovery Channel.  We first rescued a couple of elderly women from their home.  We then split up and ran house to house trying to triage victims as we went.  There were elderly, infants, children, pets, and others all in need of medical attention.  My attention was drawn up on top of a hill where a man with a back injury named Lee was found.  He was lying in a pile of rubble, on top of a recliner, covered in mud and insulation.  I remember there being a turtle of all things crawling on him.  I was the only one there at the time that had any kind of medical training, so I began surveying the scene, assessing vitals, and looking for any injuries that he might have.  He was paralyzed from the waist down.  He had pain in the abdomen and ribcage.  He was bleeding from several places.  It was something that we weren’t prepared to handle.  I held inline stabilization while Joel, Jesse, and others were trying get through on 9-1-1 to get help up to us.  Once help arrived, we safely placed Lee on a backboard and we carried him for what seemed like miles over downed power lines, trees, muddy embankments, and more debris.  We finally got him onto the back of a small off-road vehicle and he was whisked away to be placed on a helicopter to the nearest trauma center.  Lee’s wife was next.  She had a badly broken pelvis.  Pelvic fractures are known for being extremely painful, and her fracture was unstable.  We carried her through the same path as we had her husband.  I can still feel her fingernails digging into my hand and hear her cries.  I was a guy trying to help her that had just joy-rode 500 miles overnight to take pictures of what just destroyed her life.  I felt horrible.  After helping for over four hours we all realized that there was enough help there that knew the area and the proper protocol and that we were probably just in the way.  I looked at myself covered in mud and other people’s blood and wondered what on Earth I was doing.  I felt overwhelmed over the thought that we potentially saved dozens of lives by stopping two lanes of traffic heading into the city.  I had nightmares for weeks and my every thought seemed to be of that poor town.  Four people were killed by that EF-4 monster that was 1.75 miles wide.  Many more were injured and dozens lost everything.  I continued to chase in 2010, but with a heavy heart and lots of self-doubt. 

Here is video from Jesse Risley of that terrible day: 
Bowdle, SD
May 22, 2010 was a day I had dreamed of.  Friday, May 21st was my last day of work before vacation.  I had some obligations Friday evening, so I didn’t hit the road until 9pm.  I drove to a truck stop north of Omaha, NE and slept for a few hours.  I felt good about my forecast.  I was certain something was going to happen in north central NE or SD.  I glanced over data and decided to keep pushing into South Dakota.  I stopped at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD because, well you HAVE TO STOP THERE!  It was pretty lame, but had some cool stuff, clean bathrooms, and a decent cell signal.  I did some last minute forecasting and decided to head to an area further northeast than I had planned.  So I drove to a target north of Pierre, SD. Brad Goddard, Brandon Sullivan, and Skip Talbot pulled over and we watched storms explode out of clear, blue skies.  In the next couple of hours we saw tornadoes of all shapes and sizes, including an up-close encounter with a large wedge tornado near Bowdle, SD.  At this time my car began smoking and running very poorly.  I felt vulnerable, but was lucky that I could ditch my car and jump in with Skip and get out of harm’s way.  We made some temporary repairs to my car so I could get back to Missouri, but $1,000 of repairs later I knew that my season was over.  Overall, it was the most amazing day I’ve ever had as a weather enthusiast, but my car troubles showed me just how fast things can turn on you.

Amazing time lapse from Skip:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzcKsZ0sxjs

Mental Struggles—off-season of 2010/2011
I spent winter of 2010/2011 contemplating whether or not this was a hobby I wanted to continue or not.  I loved the travel, but it took time away from my beautiful family.  I loved experiencing the power of nature up-close and personal, but now it was hurting people and taking their lives.  I loved the camaraderie of spending time with fellow chasers, but the growth of the hobby was making it extremely dangerous and not nearly as exclusive as it once was.  As spring approached, I continued to think about these things, but once storms started coinciding with my off days I had to jump back out there.  After a few chases, some fruitful, some frustrating, I decided to just lay low and chase locally by myself.  I had a few fun, albeit short chases that paid off with some amazing hail and beautiful storm structure.  One of those days was occurring as my former stomping grounds were being razed.

May 22, 2011
I was in Neosho for my cousin Caleb’s wedding on the morning of the 22nd.  I started that day like I start most in the spring:  I sat on the couch with the laptop and reviewed all of the weather data from the most recent runs.  As I was doing this I noticed two areas of interest:  1) the four state area in which I grew up and 2) the northeast MO region in which I currently lived.  We spent the morning playing with the kids and visiting with my parents.  We ate lunch and started to drive home.  As we passed through Joplin at 1:30pm we had no idea what awaited that town. 

I jokingly turned our drive home into a storm chase.  We paralleled a nice storm on I-70 for several miles.  When we got home I unpacked the car and got the kids situated then headed south to intercept a tornado warned storm near New Melle.  I had a very close call with a ragged funnel there.  I stayed on that storm until it died just north of St. Charles.  I headed north to intercept another cell in Pike County Missouri.  I got into position and sat in a parking lot watching the storm roll in.  The roads and data aren’t good in that area, so I enjoyed the view I had.  My wife sent me a text that said “Joplin just took a direct hit”.  My first thought was that maybe a truck stop or something got hit.  She then started texting me things like “this is awful”, “St. Johns got hit”, and “Mike Bettes can’t hold back tears”.  It was then that I raced home and watched the events in absolute horror.  My heart was just ripped to pieces as the pictures started coming in.  I was incensed by my Facebook wall as it started getting filled with people bragging that they were on the storm even though they missed the tornado and others celebrating the tornado and hyping up their plans for the following days.  I really started doubting myself and the ethics of the hobby. 

Horrifying video from some heroic storm chasers:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuU-nFuIZN4

Article about these chasers:  http://www.joplinglobe.com/local/x775917564/Desperate-moments-Spotters-watched-storm-build

The Week After
I spent the day after the storm in shock.  I would log onto Facebook only to see stories and pictures from friends and family of more destruction.  Places that were very familiar to me just flattened.  The death toll rose by the hour.  It was just a sad, depressing day.  By Monday night I had decided that although I couldn’t do much, I was going to do something.  I started trying to gather donations from some coworkers and a friend of mine from high school that lives up here now contacted me and suggested that we combine our efforts.  He and his wife did an amazing job of setting up a donation drive, securing a truck and trailer, and a holding place for our donations.  Before I knew it we had a community-wide operation.  The outpouring of the Troy community was amazing.  Tears would come to my eyes every time I would see someone who clearly needed money giving us $100 dollar bills or a full grocery cart of supplies all the while apologizing that they couldn’t give more.  People were so generous and the Lincoln County Fire Department, which volunteered to deliver the supplies, had to make TWO TRIPS to Joplin.  My coworkers overwhelmed me with donations as well.  It was amazing to see so many people come together for a community so far away.

Ground Zero
My boss generously gave me his vacation day on Friday because his plans paled in comparison to the need in Joplin.  He knew that my heart was there and that it would be best that I get down there.  As I got closer to Joplin I found a radio station that was broadcasting only information about the disaster.  I started to clam up as the mile markers descended and Joplin got closer.  A dear friend of mine kept me up to date on where to check in at so I could help with debris cleanup.  We gathered in groups and loaded buses.  The bus took us through the ruins and to a street on the south side of the damage path.  I was speechless.  Words can’t describe how awful of a scene it was.  Complete devastation for miles.  People still hugging and crying together.  Home owners that were able to still live in their houses felt extremely guilty because even though they suffered damage they could look out their front door and see a vast wasteland of destruction.  The sights and smells were something that was all too familiar.  My dad and I helped the next two days.  It was great to get a chance to spend time with him while helping others.  He said perhaps the most meaningful thing to me after our first day of cleanup:  “we don’t have problems”.  He was right.  I wanted to hold my wife and kids so bad at that time.  It broke my heart every time I would see a child’s stuffed animal caked in mud and insulation miles away from the arms of the one that loved it.  I hated that there were so many victims and so many that were too young to understand.  I cried the first hour of my five hour drive home.  Not a misty-eyed cry, but the uncontrollable sobbing and shouts of “why God, why!?”  The memorial service was playing on the radio and I just lost it.  My heart was completely broken for the victims and all of the heroic people that were giving their time and efforts.  The thing that kept me going was the resolve of our amazing country.  People from ALL OVER the United States had already made their way to the area to assist in the recovery.  Thousands and thousands of people from country would descend on the area in the months to come.  I think of my aunt and cousin who are still working many hours caring for the victims at St. Johns.  I was amazed by the many volunteers from the area that constantly drove the areas supplying food and drink to the volunteers.  It was just an amazing outpouring of love.  159 people lost their lives as a result of that horrible storm.  Thousands of injuries continue to heal.  Thousands of homes and businesses continue to be cleaned up and rebuilt.  Luckily, this town, this state, this country has shown an amazing quality:  resolve.





What now? 
At the moment, I have no interest in investing a lot of time or money into chasing while people’s lives are still in ruins.  I have no problems chasing close by and helping warn my community, but I just can’t get myself to get back out there yet.  I still respect several chasers out there.  There are some genuine good guys out there that will probably be the reason I get back out there.  I have made too many friendships to just give up on it.  There are other chasers out there that are just attention seeking junkies.  Even when they are “helping” they are constantly bragging on social media feeds and calling attention to themselves.  They may do storm reports, but all the while they are keeping score of how many “icons” they drop.  There are enough ignorant chasers out there that drive foolishly that have already convinced me to never return to certain states.  There are definitely chasers that care and genuinely help in time of need.  I am currently looking for a disaster training class to take.  I want to be better prepared to help with disasters should I ever have to see one again.  My wife and I continue to participate in fundraisers for Joplin and I encourage everyone to do so also.  For chasers that might read this, I hope to see you again.  For people interested in chasing, I hope you consider my words.  For all others, I hope you appreciate my heartfelt thoughts.  I am fascinated by weather.  I am amazed by its beauty and power.  I love photography and being behind the lens when beauty is all around me.  I absolutely hate tornadoes and all that come with them.  

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