Special Reports

Pain of Joplin tornado shows in TV coverage

Within minutes of a powerful tornado ripping through Joplin, Mo., Sunday night, the Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes arrived on the scene.

Bettes is the on-air face of “The Great Tornado Hunt.” The day before he had been in high spirits, posting a picture to Facebook of himself and Greg Forbes, the Weather Channel’s severe-weather expert, standing outside the Topeka Hooters with several of the restaurant’s wait staff.

But as Bettes broadcast from the parking lot of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, he found himself for the second time in as many months confronting the grim reality of how storm pursuit sometimes ends.

“Take a look — everything is completely demolished,” Bettes told viewers as his cameraman surveyed the landscape of tree stumps, debris piles and twisted metal where a neighborhood once stood.

“All I can say is it looks very reminiscent of what we saw last month in ...”

His voice trailed off. The camera pointed away from Bettes, taking in the wreckage in silence.

“.. in Tuscaloosa,” he finally said, his voice breaking.

Technology has made storm chasing seem like an exciting spectator sport.

Thanks to GPS, radar-equipped laptops and streaming video, storm trackers have been able to sail incredibly close to deadly storms — and feed the public’s fascination with extreme weather.

But with the tornado tragedies in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Joplin making this the deadliest storm season in six decades, Mother Nature appeared to be serving notice: Extreme weather is no game. And reality video is not reality.

“As bad as this looks on television, in person it is much worse,” is how CBS’s Harry Smith put it. Along with ABC’s Diane Sawyer and NBC’s Brian Williams, Smith was anchoring the news from Joplin Monday.

In recent years, technology has emboldened a small industry of professional storm chasers, who capture twisters on camera at close range, then sell the footage to media outlets. But the most sought-after video on Monday was shot by an amateur and distributed for free on YouTube. Two of the three nightly newscasts played it, and more than 750,000 people watched it online.

It actually wasn’t much of a video. It was an audio record of the storm captured on a smartphone or camera as it passed over a convenience store where about 20 customers were trapped inside.

“Hey, where do you want me to put everybody?” someone says at the beginning of the audio. Two minutes later the storm begins to batter the building and the people inside. The full tornadic force comes a minute later. The cacophony sounds like a rushing current, as people wail and pray loudly, “Heavenly Father! Jesus!”

But the storm passes and afterward the audio captures a light moment: “Is that you right below me?” someone says.

Of course, the most important role technology played in Sunday’s tornado was alerting people to the impending storm. Here, media coverage tended to downplay the tremendous strides forecasters have made in warning the public about tornadoes.

The “CBS Evening News” noted that Jasper Countians had “less than 30 minutes” to react after the National Weather Service issued its tornado warning. On NBC, Al Roker said he had heard that hospital staff were given just five minutes’ warning. That assertion was contradicted on CBS by a nurse who said she had 20 minutes to shuttle patients away from hospital windows before the storm struck.

(The National Weather Service in Springfield issued its tornado warning for the Joplin area at 5:17 p.m. and posted its first report of damage at 5:41 p.m.)

Weathercasters said Monday, however, that 20 minutes is ample notice, especially when compared to the days before Doppler radar, when towns like Udall, Kan., were wiped out without warning in a rain-wrapped tornado like the one that struck Joplin.

“I am certain that the people had some good warning time,” said Gary Lezak, KSHB’s chief meteorologist.

One often overlooked aspect of the nonstop weather coverage is its effect on those covering it nonstop.

Mike Walter, the former KMBC and WDAF news anchor, documented it in his film “Breaking News, Breaking Down,” which won a prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

After watching the video of Bettes on the Weather Channel, Walter thought Bettes was experiencing classic post-traumatic stress disorder.

“As soon as he referenced Tuscaloosa, you could tell it was all coming back.”