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.
TAW: Can you tell us more about your experience of the Joplin tornado?
Piotrowski: My first message when the tornado was on the ground on the southwest side of Joplin, I sent an email alert that said: "Large devastating tornadoes in the city of Joplin. Whole subdivisions are leveled. Please send help. Please send massive help. We need it now--" or something to that effect. Of course, the tornado warnings were already in effect. They knew the tornado was on the ground. But just having additional people verifying the scope and magnitude is critical to preparing people, so that people know what to do, so that people can save lives down the road. I found myself Sunday afternoon one of the few people who actually witnessed and saw the tornado going through Joplin. Even though there were probably lots of people chasing, I was one of the very few of the people who saw the tornado. I was able to report it was on the ground and get the authorities to get the sirens going.
TAW: And what happened then?
Piotrowski: When I was on 20th Street when this thing came down, it was about a hundred yards wide. I saw rotating rain curtains like a robo-carwash, just real fast rain curtains spinning on the ground. I mean as soon as it hit the first building or whatever it hit first on the southwest side of the city, it instantly turned black for about ten seconds, and then it went from that to about a quarter mile wide about 15 seconds later. This is all in a matter of seconds. It wasn't like over a five minute period it got bigger and bigger, or like over ten minutes it got bigger and bigger. And then about 20 seconds later it was a half a mile wide, and about another minute later it was about three quarters of a mile wide. And about another minute after that it was a mile wide, and I was parallel to it. When it was a quarter mile wide I was a good half mile or mile north of it, so I'm fine. I'm not in the vortex. As we kept coming east on 20th Street, it just got wider and wider and wider, and it literally tried to suck me into the north wall of the tornado coming down 20th Street I saw a car in front of me get picked up and hurdled into a field just west of the Joplin High School. At that point, it blew out my windows. I got cut up. Glass was all inside of my Chevy Avalanche, and I had to abort the mission. I had glass all over me, so I turned the rear end of the car into the wind, because it was about 120 mph behind me. Debris was everywhere. In the sky there were millions of pieces of debris flying over me by me near me. Just everywhere.
Then I realized that there was somebody in the car that got picked up and thought, we've gotta go help them. We waited for the wind to die down for a minute or two, and they did the same thing. Once the wind died down, the two ladies came crawling out of the windows of the car and came running our direction because they saw our headlights on. My wife got out of the car, and the ladies were in shock. They took off to somebody's house they knew, that was basically gone. And that scene at 20th and Iowa Ave--which I'm approaching right now--in that area there were about 400 to 500 homes, and 99 percent of that neighborhood was flattened. There were no walls standing, and all I could hear was gas spewing from all the broken gas lines. I had a fire on top of the hill behind me. Homes and buildings were on fire, engulfed in flames within seconds of the tornado. And then all I heard--it sounds like thousands but it may have only been 50 people or 20 people--all I heard were screams and moans of terror. "Help me, help me!" just blood curdling screams from all over the neighborhood, and I was the first person to take my vehicle and drive over the debris, and I went as far up Iowa Street as far as I could towards the heart of the tornado. I got within about 50 yards of the first houses, and then when I walked down Iowa Street, the first thing I saw in the middle of the street--the debris was about two to three feet, two to four feet deep everywhere--I saw bodies in people's front yards. People got blown out of their houses, dead and alive. That's what I witnessed.
I spent the next three and half hours by myself. By myself with no emergency services people, no 911 on the phone--I called hundreds of times--no help, no firemen, because their resources were so overwhelmed here. I personally, hand by hand, dug 40 different people out of their homes and the rubble, both dead and alive, for the next three and a half hours until 8:45, when I got so frustrated. I had two flat tires. I changed the flats after digging people out of rubble. I did have some people come in at about 8:00 some people that had loved ones here--friends and neighbors, parents and kids--start just flooding the area looking for their loved ones. I had people help me change the flats, then I drove my truck out of that area, drove my truck about a mile, found a fire truck and brought it back into the neighborhood. That was the first emergency services there. That was about three and a half hours after the tornado went through. I could see for a mile--because everything's level, I could see if there were fire trucks or ambulances in the area--there were none. In my part of town, there were no ambulances or fire trucks for the first three hours, why? Because they were probably consumed by [work] in other parts of the city. There weren't enough people to help. Then I started putting out pleas on Facebook, telling people I need at least 100 ambulances where I was located, and the number of fatalities and injuries at my location. The way we got people out was that the people that came in there, they started picking up their family members and loading them into trucks and driving them to the only hospital left in Joplin. That's how we got people out of here.
That's what I witnessed. That's what I saw. I mean, people only know about a third of the story. It's not about just chasing, it's about helping and saving people. What I witnessed here in Joplin is unimaginable.
I found three boys that were special needs boys--I later found out that one of them had died--the other two boys were crying and wailing, "Help me, Help me!" Covered in blood. One of them had an extremely critical head injury. The others had really bad injuries. They were on the floor of their house, or what was left of the floor. The entire structure was gone, and at that point I'm telling them, "Don't get up." Because I know they're injured, I get them some cover, some carpet, and I cover all three of them to keep wind and hail from hitting them. And they're just wailing for help.
Right next door, I find two elderly women that are screaming, both in wheelchairs with two cats, and they're under about six feet of rubble. There are girder beams laying across them. One of them is on [one lady's] back, one them is on her face crushing her neck. That woman is over 80 years old, she's still in her wheelchair--upside down, backwards with the debris on top of her-- and her whole roof is sitting on her face. It took me an hour and a half to uncover those two ladies.
Right behind, them, I turned around and found a black dog. I'm about to cry--[muffled sobs] It was really bad. [speaking through the sobs] There was a black dog behind me. It looked like it wasn't injured, the dog looked fine. It kept barking. Because I have animals, I love animals, I know what's going on. He just kept backing and he was standing on top of rubble, and there was an elderly gentleman about three feet under the rubble. His owner was about three feet under the rubble, and the dog's telling me, "Help me, there's somebody here." He's barking, so I go over there. This is house after house. This is what I witnessed down Iowa Street. So I started uncovering him, and the guy was alive, not critically injured with three feet of rubble on him. Again, a 75 year-old gentleman.
It was just that scene, house after house after house, for about three and a half hours, nonstop. You can't write history, you can't describe it. This is something you cannot make up. You can't-- You just can't understand the sheer trauma that these people have been through here. It's just unimaginable.