Sunday, 29 May 2011
Below: Arial photo of what’s left of the Walmart I was in just before the tornado hit in Joplin, Missouri.
Over the past week, it seems like all I see and hear in the media and even on Facebook is more tragic news about the Joplin, Missouri tornado. I can’t get the event out of my mind, so I thought I’d recap some parts of the chase day here on my blog.
The single most horrible thing that occurred that day was when I ran through the Walmart at 20th st. and highway 71 in Joplin. MaryLeigh and I were in a frenzy trying to locate a topographic map of Missouri, in an attempt to both 1)escape the deadly wedge tornado, and 2)maybe have a chance at getting into a position to view it before diving south. Anyways, when I parked the car in the Walmart parking lot, all we could see to our northwest was a black sky with a lowered base disappearing into the rain (apparently, THAT was the tornado). At the time, we actually didn’t know for sure that there was a tornado. But I had a very, very strong suspicion that there was a wedge approaching. In fact, I was nearly 100% sure, and quite frankly, a bit scared. NOTHING is worse than storm chasing through a city when a major, rain wrapped tornado is on the ground. Any storm chaser would agree that is a very, very dangerous situation. Period.
I told MaryLeigh I would run into the store just for a minute (literally) and grab a map if they had one. I ran as fast as I could, passing by families that were leisurely walking into Walmart to shop. The tornado sirens were blaring, so I’m not really sure why anyone would be so lackadaisical about the current severe weather situation! I didn’t see any maps at the front of the store, but there were three employees talking in a frenzy right by me. So I asked, and only after asking repeatedly several times did the employee finally mumble an answer…saying they were located in the back of the store. The employee was clearly aware of the tornado warning/siren, and was quite literally about to freak out, trying to hold her own composure. I felt really, really bad at that moment, because I realized if a tornado did strike there was nothing I could do to save anyone. I had to focus on mine and MaryLeigh’s lives. Every second mattered, and I figured you would have to be underground to survive whatever was coming (given the conditions).
I RAN to the back of the store, didn’t see anything resembling a map section, then RAN as fast as I could to the front of the store and out. I passed by several families calming shopping, as if nothing was going on. For the life of me I wish I could have told all of them to get underground or something, but there was simply no time for any of that. I knew every second counted. I had to get back to the car, to MaryLeigh, and get south immediately. I’ve never had such a sense of urgency ever in my life than I did in this moment.
We left the parking lot, hauled it south, and continued on our journey out of there. But emotions began to run high as the day wore on when we found out that Joplin had been completely destroyed, and the Walmart I had run through was leveled. It’s quite likely most of the people I saw in that store are now deceased. The employee I spoke to briefly may no longer be alive.
Just moments after we left, that EF5 tornado destroyed everything. It’s quite a traumatizing thing to experience, and I truly hope I never experience anything like this again. As a meteorologist and a storm chaser, I have a strong passion for experiencing severe storms and tornadoes. But this was neither — it was an experience in human behavior right before a major tornado. This began as a typical storm chase, but ended as an escape from a deadly tornado, involving experiencing the seconds before human suffering. My thoughts go out to the people of Joplin, Missouri.