That’s how long it took storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski to stop and tell a law enforcement officer in Joplin, Mo., that a massive tornado was moments away from striking the eastern edge of the city.
The report was passed along, prompting a local emergency management official to do something he hadn’t done in decades – sound the tornado sirens in Joplin for the second time in an afternoon.
In the weeks and months that followed the deadliest tornado to hit in the U.S. in decades, Piotrowski said, he heard from hundreds of people who told him that second siren convinced them to seek shelter.
“Who knows how many more people would have been killed or injured if he hadn’t done that?” Gabriel Garfield of Norman, Okla., said after hearing Piotrowski’s presentation about chasing the Joplin tornado of May 22, 2011. Piotrowski spoke at the national storm chasers‘ convention in Denver.
As it is, the EF5 tornado killed 162 people, the highest death toll from a tornado in more than 60 years. More than 1,000 others were injured.
Piotrowski kept filming as he followed in the tornado’s wake, showing entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble. The sight and sound of people climbing out of the rubble and frantically shouting for loved ones made some gasp in a standing-room-only crowd of hundreds at the conference.
While most of the presentations at the conference were about past memorable chases and how to better read data, radar and the sky in anticipation of being well-positioned for developing tornadoes, Piotrowski used much of his time to make an impassioned plea for storm chasers to be ready to help the stricken should a tornado strike a city or a farmstead.
“I didn’t mean to use so much time on that,” he said apologetically after his presentation. “But it’s so important.”
Staying safe during severe weather is the focus of Severe Weather Awareness Week, which is being observed this week in Kansas. The statewide tornado drill will occur at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, weather permitting.
Veteran storm chaser Shawna Davies calls rescue and recovery “the other side” of storm chasing, yet many chasers ignore or avoid areas damaged by tornadoes.
“There’s still too much of a ‘golly gee’ factor” among the chasers who converged on Denver for the conference, she said.
In other words, they focus only on being in a position to see and capture tornadoes on camera.
Jon Davies, Shawna’s husband and a veteran weather researcher and storm chaser in his own right, said he heard a lot of people complain about the fact that “there weren’t many tornadoes to chase” last year.
“I get a little annoyed with those comments,” Davies said. “The fewer tornadoes we have, the less people get hurt. Less people have their lives trashed.”
Jon Davies and Wichita storm chaser and severe weather photographer Jim Reed were eating in Great Bend after chasing storms in central Kansas on an April day in 2003 when they spotted emergency vehicles streaming north out of town. Hoisington had been hit just after sunset by an EF4 tornado.
They immediately headed to Hoisington.
“It was a big shock with the darkness and rubble, and we started helping look for people,” Davies said. “That left a really deep impression on me.”
Reed said he had helped storm survivors before, “but for some reason, the Hoisington experience really stuck with me.”
Shawna Davies and other chasers have embarked on an effort to encourage chasers to get Community Emergency Response Team training.
The CERT program educates people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may affect their areas and trains them in basic disaster response skills, including fire safety, light search and rescue and disaster medical operations.
Piotrowski urged chasers to alert law enforcement or emergency management personnel to imminent threats such as an approaching tornado. Don’t assume they already know, he told the crowd in Denver.
“Take the time to tell them what’s going on,” he said. “Just 10 or 15 seconds could save the lives … of a lot of people.”
If a tornado strikes a town or farm near where you’re chasing, Piotrowski told the chasers, stop driving.
“Every person can save a life,” he said.
Every chaser should wear a helmet to protect his or her head from flying debris. Chasers should wear their seatbelts in the event they’re involved in a collision or their vehicles are struck by strong winds or even a tornado.
They should have multiple forms of communication – such as cellphones connected to different service providers – in the event cell towers go down.
“Are you dressed for being outside” while you’re chasing, he asked the crowd.
Carry a can of spray paint so you can put addresses for destroyed houses or buildings on a driveway or street.
There are many more items chasers should have in their vehicles, Piotrowski said, including:
Chasers should chase in groups so they can work together in the event of a tornado strike, Piotrowski said.
“Chase where you know the terrain” so you can give accurate details and descriptions to emergency dispatchers or the weather service, he said.
Not everyone is going to be comfortable dealing with injured victims, Davies said, but at the least they can keep drinking water and blankets in their vehicles for victims.
Not long after the Hoisington tornado, Reed said, he took an American Red Cross class in adult first aid and CPR. He carries in his vehicle a first aid kit, extra water, blankets, lighting – “anything that might help should I encounter another Hoisington type of emergency.”
Storm chasers are often in a position to be the first on a tornado damage scene, he said. As a result, they need to be in a position to help victims.
“That’s incredibly valuable time when every minute counts,” he said.
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