For me one of the most disturbing aspects of the Joplin tornado, which left at least 117 people dead when it struck southwestern Missouri on May 22, is that it was pursued by at least two teams of storm chasers, one of which was filming for a national TV show. Some might argue that storm chasers serve a valuable scientific purpose in gathering data that will allow the destructive forces of tornadoes to be better understood and predicted, so that lives will be saved in the future. And it’s true that after the Joplin tornado, as is often the case, storm chasers were among the first on hand to help the survivors, arriving well before EMTs and firemen. But for me it’s impossible to overlook the fact that for most who undertake it, storm chasing is strictly a recreational activity. The emotional reality is that storm chasers enjoying immersing themselves in a force of nature that takes lives. Indeed, their activities may actively contribute to the death toll.
It’s been 12 years since I went tornado-hunting myself. I was reporting a story about weather junkies for a now-defunct magazine. I spent a long day driving around Oklahoma with Cloud 9 Tours (which was one of the outfits on hand for this year’s Joplin twister), then got caught up in reporting the aftermath of that year’s deadly tornado, an F5 twister that tore through the town of Moore, Oklahoma. It was one death in particular that made me forever question the morality of storm chasing. I was never tempted to go again.
A little background: The popularity of storm-chasing began with a seminal “Nova” episode on the topic in the late ’80s, and has bloomed in the ’90s with the proliferation of weather web sites. The biggest upswing, though, came with the release of the movie Twister in 1996. In an instant, a thriving but obscure hobby had become a mainstream obsession. Amateur chaser Charles Edwards, who had started Cloud 9 tours in 1996, saw his business leap from two clients that first year to more than 30 in 1997. Soon, despite having a half-dozen rivals, his tours were sold out months in advance.
Then, as now, the vast majority of storm chasers were ordinary people who simply feel a need to witness the power, the scale, the hugeness — the thrill — of a tornado. For them, the weather had become the most extreme of all extreme sports, a direct, visceral encounter with the biggest and the baddest that nature has to offer.
“Some of these guys are total idiots,” Dr. Joe Schaefer, the director of the Storm Prediction Center, told me. “They’re a hazard to themselves, and a hazard to others. Supercell thunderstorms are very dangerous, and if you don’t understand storm structure it’s a crap shoot.”
As storm chasing boomed, it took on the trappings of other extreme sports, including the potential for fame and fortune, with clear video footage able to garner national attention. Really spectacular shots can become the stuff of legend. In the “Andover, Kansas” sequence of April 26, 1991, a reporter and cameraman from station KSNW escaped a tornado by hiding underneath the girders of an overpass. The footage of ferocious winds scouring the ground attained cult status, appearing on countless “Wildest Video” shows and nature documentaries. It also created in one stroke a major piece of tornado safety lore: that in a pinch, an overpass makes a superb impromptu shelter.
At 7.05pm on May 3, 1999, a large tornado dropped near Amber, Oklahoma and intensified as it passed over the outlying suburban community of Bridge Creek. The twister tore through the town with unimaginable force, shredding 100-year-old trees into splinters, ripping asphalt off driveways, flinging mangled cars, and pulverizing houses down to their foundations. In minutes the maelstrom snuffed out 11 lives.
Continuing northeastward, it faltered in intensity as the storm spun off a short-lived satellite tornado. But once across the South Canadian River, the twister quickly powered up again, and as it crossed the town line into Moore, directly north of Norman, it was once again raging at maximum intensity, with winds moving at more than 300 mph – the fastest ever recorded on earth at that time.
At that moment an amateur storm chaser named Stuart Earnest Jr and his friend Keith Webb were driving south from Oklahoma City, looking for a big twister. When they saw what was headed for them, they began looking for an overpass to hide beneath. As they had learned from the Andover video, the steel and concrete structure would provide fail-safe protection if worse came to worst. The first one they passed was too crowded with vehicles already; so was the second. Finally, at the Shields Avenue exit, they found an overpass where only one other car was parked.
“It began to hail,” Earnest told me, “and I pulled under that bridge. When we got out of the pickup it stopped hailing, so I ran up on the embankment, and there it was. It was probably five miles away. It was beautiful. It was huge. I was awestruck. The tornado was kind of a dark blue-black, and out around it had a green color.”
The tornado kept coming straight at them. Earnest knew he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — staring down the barrel of the storm, as it were. He could have gotten in his truck and driven away to safety at any time. But he was having the time of his life. “It was incredible,” he said. “More than I could even imagine. I’ve jumped out of airplanes and stuff like that, but I knew this was going to beat anything in my life.”
When the tornado was three miles away, the men began to hear an enormous rumbling, like the crash of water at Niagara Falls. A few minutes later, when the tornado was about a mile out, Earnest could see the roof of a house, all four sides intact, float overhead like a kite. “I’d always wanted to see something like that,” Earnest said. As the men ran for shelter beneath the overpass, Earnest thought excitedly: we could be the next Andover!
While they had watched the tornado’s approach, a dozen or so other passersby had also stopped beneath the overpass to seek shelter. Now the highway was completely blocked by cars, three rows deep.
At that moment, with the storm just a few hundred yards away, another passenger car drew near. Inside was 26-year-old Vietnamese immigrant Tram Thu Bui, her 31-year-old husband Thanh Pham, and their two small children. “They were driving along, maybe a quarter mile before the overpass,” Thanh’s uncle, Oscar Orosco, told me, “when Thanh looked to his right, and boom, the tornado was right there. It was so wide that at first they didn’t recognize what it was. They thought it was just rain or something like that.”
Quickly recognizing the danger, Thanh hit the gas. He guessed, correctly, that his best chance for safety was to speed south out of the path of the tornado. But as he reached the Shields Avenue overpass he saw that the road was blocked by all the vehicles already parked under the bridge.
There was only one hope: to scramble up to safety among the two dozen other souls already pressed up under into the corner of the bridge. By now the tornado was almost upon them, shaking the ground like a rumbling freight train. As Thanh scooped up the children, Tram scrambled up the concrete slope towards the outstretched arms of those who had already found shelter.
Hefting a child in each arm, Thanh scrambled desperately up the concrete slope. But rain and wind had already turned the surface muddy and slick, and as frantically as he tried Thanh could not make his way up. By now the outer winds of the tornado, laden with lacerating debris, slashed at him, threatening to topple him over. Recognizing it was hopeless, Thanh put the children on the ground, lay on top of them, and wrapped his legs around a pillar of the roadside guardrail.
Tram had nearly reached the top of the concrete slope, where the others were already bracing themselves, pressing into the v-shaped cleft between the roadway and the embankment and holding onto one another’s arms and legs. One of the men grabbed hold of Tram’s arm. For some reason, she hesitated, and looked back at Thanh just as the full force of the tornado struck.
“She just stood there, and they looked at each other,” Orosco said. “And then something got in his eye, and he blinked for just a second. When he looked again, she was gone.”
“We never thought it was such a great idea to hide under overpasses,” SPC forecaster Roger Edwards told me. “But until May 3, no one had ever been killed doing it.”
As it turned out, the wisdom instilled by the Andover footage was an utter fallacy. Tornado specialists who viewed the tape declared that the cameraman wasn’t even in the vortex, but merely the turbulent inflow. In a real tornado, especially a monster like the one that hit Moore, an overpass acts as a wind funnel, concentrating tornado winds and airborne debris. Worst of all, those who park and block the road prevent escape for everyone who happens to come after.
“Hiding under a bridge, that’s one thing,” SPC forecaster Richard Thompson told me, “but blocking traffic — in my opinion, that’s a kind of manslaughter.”
What’s more, you couldn’t pick a worse overpass to hide under than the one at Shields Avenue. Unlike many overpasses, there were no girders underneath to hide between, just a smooth concrete surface. And the opening was angled to the southwest, the direction from which the storm came. As it happened, the tornado was near its peak strength when it struck the Shields Avenue overpass, with wind speeds well over 300 miles per hour.
Within seconds of the tornado’s impact, the refuge-seekers were sucked out one by one. Soon only Earnest remained, pressed against the concrete cleft, as the wind scoured his scalp and drove splinters deep into the flesh of his arm. After a minute or so, the wind abated, and he thought that the worst was over; but quickly he realized it was just the eye of the storm, and as he braced himself as the winds again began thrashing him.
When at last the winds died, Earnest, mud-soaked and bleeding, raised his head. From among the tangled debris field, Thanh appeared. He wandered the roadway holding his children, calling out: “Where is my wife? Where is my wife?”
The scene that greeted the men was horrific. To the north of the overpass lay a long line of wounded, moaning bodies, scattered like ragdolls among the wreckage. Earnest found his friend Webb lying neck deep in water in a culvert 150 feet north of the overpass, bleeding profusely from his face and moaning Earnest’s name. At his side lay a badly injured girl, crying out: “Help me. Please help me.”
Thanh wandered dumbly, searching randomly for Tram. The first person he saw was a man, his head so badly scoured that it looked like he had been scalped. Next was a woman, pierced by a piece of wood, her body half embedded in the ground. She begged for help, but there was nothing he could do. On down the line he went, searching, desperately, vainly.
Searchers would not find Tram’s body until two days later, buried under mud and debris.
Forty-eight people died in the tornado outbreak that struck Oklahoma and Kansas May 3. Of them, 38 were killed by the Moore tornado alone. The average tornado lasts seven minutes. The Moore tornado lasted an hour and a half. Worse, much of its path was over a heavily populated area. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it caused $1 billion worth of damage, making it the single most destructive twister in the U.S. history at the time.
For Stuart Earnest, his encounter with the monster tornado was one of the highpoints of his life. “I’m just exhilarated about it,” he told me. “It’s my dream come true.” But his friend Keith Webb took a different view. After recovering from his injuries Webb moved from Oklahoma to California, leaving no forwarding address. “He had the completely opposite reaction I did,” Earnest said. “He said he didn’t ever want to live in this state again.”