As a storm chaser, it’s a moment you know you might witness, but hope you never do. For me, that moment came on May 22, 2011 in Joplin, Mo. I arrived in Joplin just minutes after a mile wide EF-5 tornado wiped out a third of the town.
The chase that day seemed like any other, but it turned out to be the most devastating scene I have ever experienced. The sights and sounds are etched in my mind forever.
The smell of trees ripped from the ground and natural gas filled my lungs as I walked through piles of debris where homes once stood. There was a stunned panic that overwhelmed. Bodies lay in the streets, victims of what would turn out to be the deadliest tornado in nearly 75 years. The walking wounded stumbled their way to a destroyed hospital in search of crude medical treatment from doctors who didn’t even have pain medication to give patients with massive injuries. Neighbors frantically searched for neighbors, hoping for miracles beneath mountains of rubble.
As a broadcaster, you have an obligation to report what you see to the public, but there were moments where I became so overwhelmed by the sadness, my mouth couldn’t find the words for what my eyes were seeing. There was no building left untouched as far as the eye could see. You would think that after covering everything from tornadoes to hurricanes to blizzards, I’d be desensitized to such tragedies, but nothing prepared me for what I saw that day. It was a destruction beyond comprehension.
A wildly violent tornado season across the country was punctuated by Joplin. This quiet Midwest town became a household name in an instant. A city, a state and a country cried as they watched firsthand the horror of Mother Nature.
I cried too, realizing that our chase team was just minutes behind a tornado that could have taken us all. I cried for the victims who were powerless against a storm the likes of which they’d never seen.
Joplin is a changed city. It may never look the same, but its people are strong and determined to come back better than ever. I’m confident they will. Challenging times bring out the best in people. Thats’s what America is all about.
Mike Bettes is a meteorologist at The Weather Channel.
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