Time is an interesting thing. How we perceive it is different. For some, time flies. To others, time stands still. Things evolve over time. Our lives become enriched by the people we meet and the experiences we have. We often reflect on our past, as our minds play a highlight reel of our lives. My highlight reel is full of fond childhood memories, playing catch with my dad, my mom’s hand-made birthday cakes, sledding with my sister. I remember the fear of that first day of kindergarten and the tears of a scared 5 year old. Those same feelings came back on my first day of college. Then the thrill of graduation lead to the nervous apprehension of entering the real world. Mom and Dad were no longer there to be my safety net. I had to learn to be responsible and professional. It was daunting.
TV wasn’t a natural fit for me as a career. I was quiet kid who was much more introverted than extroverted. Meteorology came easy to me, but broadcasting didn’t, but this was my chosen field and I felt compelled to see it through. I didn’t want to be a failure. I became driven by my passion for weather and TV just happened to be my platform to talk about it.
My fascination for tornadoes only grew over time. I recall early in my career daydreaming about broadcasting a live tornado. I had no idea if anyone had ever done it before. It became my lifelong goal. I covered many big events over time, but it wasn’t until 15 years later that the moment would come. I stood there in LaGrange, Wyoming, staring down a stunning tornado that lasted for nearly a half an hour. It was surreal. It was the moment I had waited so long for. It was perfect. A beautiful tornado spinning over a grassy plain. For its finale it took a bow so I could see right down into it. The picture is still fresh in my mind. Knowing that not a single soul was injured, made the moment joyous and unforgettable.
The next several years would bring me face to face with multiple twisters. All unique, and all mesmerizing in their own right. Some would affect no one, others would take lives. That has been the hardest part of the job, reporting on the human toll weather takes.
May 22, 2011 is a day that I will never forget. Little did I know that that morning, when I woke up in Kansas City, that I would cover the single deadliest tornado in more than seven decades. I didn’t think too much of the storm when I first saw it in Columbus, Kansas that afternoon. It was just minutes later though, as our chase team followed behind it, that the storm unloaded a torrent of rain and hail. The sky turned midnight black and we had to pull over. It was impossible to drive. If it hadn’t been for that, our crew would likely have been in Joplin as a monster tornado struck. I think about that moment a lot. How things could have been tragically different.
As we drove into town, the scene was dramatic. Homes were flattened. St. John’s Regional Hospital had been hit. There was chaos all around. People were walking around in a daze. Many were injured and bleeding. Others were looking for loved ones and their pets. There was a pungent odor of natural gas and pine trees. All of my senses were heightened by what I saw, heard, smelled, and touched. There were times I felt it was all a bad dream. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life, but it was all too real.
My experience covering the Joplin tornado is one I’ll never forget. So often we cover a disaster after it happens, not while it happens. That’s what made Joplin so unique, being immersed in the tragedy as it unfolded. There are things I saw that day that left a lasting impression on me, things I hope to never see again. But it’s reality, and I’m a more empathetic meteorologist and broadcaster as a result. I visited Joplin a month after the tornado. The recovery was slow and the physical and emotional scars were still fresh. I visited the warehouses where hundreds of cats and dogs were being housed. They were all left homeless by the tornado. I instantly fell in love with a scared and lonely golden retriever. She would come home with me just days later, and rarely leaves my side to this day. The bond I have with her mirrors the bond I feel with the people of Joplin. They’ve endured more in the past 5 years than most people will in a lifetime. They’ve done it humbly and with gratitude to all of the volunteers who rushed to their aid. I’m honored to return to Joplin for the 5 year anniversary. The progress has been remarkable and the spirit unwavering…to me, that’s what makes this Midwest town “Joplin Strong”.
The Destruction in Joplin
Mike and Joplyn