Yesterday, thousands of people watched storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski stream his experience following a series of tornados across Oklahoma. Piotrowski is a professional storm chaser who's been featured on National Geographic and the Discovery channels and won an Emmy for his work covering storms in the Midwest. With about 35 years of experience chasing storms, he's seen some of the worst tornados in recent memory, but nothing could prepare him for what's he's witnessed this week. In addition to tracking yesterday's storms, Piotrowski witnessed the tornado touch down in Joplin, Missouri on Sunday night, narrowly survived his truck being brushed by the twister and was one of the first witness on the scene of devastation the storm left behind. This evening, Joplin's city manager Mark Rohr reported that the death toll had risen to 125 and more than 900 people are injured. Through the third day of search and rescue efforts found no new surviors, Rohr vowed to continue the search.
After being transfixed by his work last night, we caught up with Piotrowski today as he was pulling back into Joplin to ask him about his experience chasing storms. He described to us the role that storm chasers play in reporting tornados and helping alert people in harm's way. His account of the catastrophic destruction caused by the F-5 tornado that struck Joplin speaks for itself.
The Atlantic Wire: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell us about your decision to livestream yesterday's storm?
Piotrowski: Yesterday, I did something I normally don't do. I've been around this a long time. Back in the 80s they developed an analog technology that allowed you to shoot a still picture from out in the field and send it back to the station where somebody can see it. I've always known that if you can show somebody a picture or a livestream of a particular tornado coming in their direction, people are a hundred times more likely to respond to a visual element versus [a verbal warning]. I knew yesterday was going to be a really really bad day, worse than usual, and I thought it was critical that I stream what unfolded as it unfolded. I thought it would be helpful to show people the split-second decisions you have to make while storm chasing. You have to decide: Do I go down this road? How much fuel do I have left? Do I have time to make a one-minute stop? Do I go down this road? If I go in this direction, am I going to get cut off by debris?
On I-40 when the tornado was west of Oklahoma City, we stopped as the tornado was getting ready to cross the interstate. We ended up stopping the westbound traffic on I-40. We had four 18-wheelers and about 40 cars that, in about two minutes, were getting ready to drive into the tornado, an F-4 maybe another F-5. (We don't have the official declaration on that tornado yet.) Just taking the time out to prevent people from making the wrong choices and stopping traffic when you know that if they continue forward those people would probably be injured or killed in a matter of seconds--that's what it's all about.
TAW: How does the storm chasing community mobilize when a big system hits?
Piotrowski: We all talk, and we all have certain forums that we belong to. Everybody has what we call a target area, where people think they want to go for the day, where they think they have the worst storms. Some people just like storms that are pretty and beautiful and don't want to see anything bad. And then other people want to film the biggest, baddest tornadoes that happen that day. So you've got different kinds of storm chasers up there--from the scientists to the people who justice taking pretty pictures to the people who want to see all kinds of weather. My mission has probably been this way because when I was fourteen years old I was washed away by a flash flood in Tulsa and it almost killed me. I almost drowned. From that point of being saved by the Tulsa fire department at age fourteen, weather had a huge impact on my life. From that point on I had a purpose in life to help other people. A lot of times I'm on the scene before the local authorities know what's happening and generally after the disaster is unfolding they'll show up on the scene to get roadblocks up and fix downed power lines. But 99 percent of the time I'm there before anybody knows what's happening.
TAW: What's happening where you are in Joplin today?
Piotrowski: Well, I just got here. I would say based on past experience that there's a grassroots effort. As I'm pulling into town, I'm watching a pick-up truck loaded with supplies and ladders--it's a local grassroots effort. That's what America's about. People helping people. That's what we're seeing here. It's not people waiting for government aid, even though there's going to be lots of people that need it. We've just got grassroots efforts of people pouring in and helping. That's what I'm seeing as I'm pulling into town here. It's just really amazing to see that kind of response with the people that are here right now. And they're going to need a lot of help.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.