We all remember where we were when traumatic events happen in our lives. For this chase team, we remember how the day of the Joplin, Missouri EF-5 tornado played out.
It started out as a typical May day for Terence, Justin and myself (Bryce). We decided to target Southeastern Kansas that day and left Wichita just as storms were developing near Fredonia, Kansas. I recall a dewpoint at or very near 75F at Parsons as we departed Wichita. The day felt juicy and volatile. We took Justin’s car (this was before we had the sophisticated chase setup we have today) and instead of mounting the camera on the windshield, I propped it up with Justin’s old CD collection.
We caught up with the severe storms near Altamont, Kansas. Admittedly, they seemed fairly garden variety. The Wichita NWS office had Labette County under a Tornado Warning for what seemed like hours. The storms drifted off to the east and we dropped south to intercept near Baxter Springs, Kansas. As we approached Baxter Springs, the storm began throwing large hailstones out quite a ways from the main hail core, so we pulled back a bit.
We opted to push east, jumping on I-44 and making our way along the south side of Joplin. Justin’s AC quit working in his car, so defrosting the extremely humid air became a major issue. We pulled off to let the rain and golfball sized hail move past. Soon after pulling over, we began getting reports of damage in Joplin. At first, the reports were of trees down and maybe some powerlines. And I saw a report of a truck blown off I-44 about three miles east of our location, so it became apparent that the storm meant business.
We went into Joplin, crested a hill and saw some of the worst devastation our team had ever encountered.
I personally have never had such a hopeless feeling come upon me. We move some downed trees and debris out of the road so traffic can move through, as well as emergency vehicles. We asked if anyone was hurt, if anyone was missing as far as they knew. Everyone said they were fine, just trying to get out of the area.
We continued a little further into the heart of the EF-5’s ravenous path. Homes quickly went from light damage to roofs gone to walls all caved in. The smell is something I will never forget. The smell of wood, insulation and natural gas filled the air.
We didn’t stay long in Joplin as emergency crews evacuated everyone so they could continue search and rescue operations. It was clear our presence would be more of a hindrance than help. We left Joplin with a new found appreciation for Mother Nature, storms and the raw power of tornadoes. We also had a renewed appreciation for our safety and the roof over our heads.