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"Storm Hunters: In the Path of Disasters"

Aired May 26, 2013 - 19:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, everyone. I'm Anderson Cooper.

When a massive tornado touched down here in Moore, Oklahoma, on Monday, killing at least two dozen people, some of the earliest and ominous warnings came from storm chasers, individuals who seek to witness and record extreme weather. Tonight, in the eye of the storm, on the ground, up close look at the storm chasers who filmed the Moore, Oklahoma, tornadoes in real time, getting some incredible footage, risking their lives to help warn those in the path of nature's fury.

Reporting for us tonight is 360's Randy Kaye.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There it is. That is a tornado definite cone on the ground.

RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): More than a mile wide --


KAYE: -- with hurricane force winds.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is not good.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is raining pieces of houses.

KAYE: A monster tornado cutting a swath of destruction for 17 miles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a tornado emergency.

KAYE: Tens of thousands diving for cover.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People in Moore need to be underground right now if they are not already.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kevin, get the pictures, man. Get the video.

KAYE: And a handful of storm hunters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We chase one of the world's most dangerous forces on earth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lots of rotation in there.

KAYE: Running straight into the path of disaster.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We try to get as close to it as we can and know that if you're in its path it will take your life.

SUBTITLE: Anderson Cooper Special Report, "Storm Hunters: In the Path of Disasters"

KEVIN RALPHS, STORM CHASER: There's thunderstorms happening in the panhandle of Texas today.

I'm Kevin Ralphs. I chase storms all over the country.

LAUREN HILL, STORM CHASER: We're check to make sure we have a way to get out.

My name is Lauren Hill. I frequently drive and sometimes do data.

COLT FORNEY, STORM CHASER: My name is Colt Forney. Videoing the tornado's early (ph) storm is usually my role when we're out chasing.

KAYE: As children growing up in tornado alley, Kevin, Lauren and Colt saw severe weather every spring. Now, as adults chasing tornadoes is their passion.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sit it down right here.

RALPHS: Our group mission as storm chasers is to document and see all of these tornadoes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Wow, that is a long rope that goes way back, yes.

RALPHS: Right alongside that is getting early warning out to the weather service as quick as possible.

KAYE: But the 2013 tornado season was starting out slowly.

HILL: This here was interesting in that we've had kind of a later spring. And so, we're like, well, maybe 2013 is going to be mild.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: It's been a benign and quiet April, May.

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: We're in a tornado drought. Well over the past couple of days and the weekend, the jet change.

STEELE: Finally, now, all of the ingredients coming together.

MYERS: So, the cold air is on one side, the warm air is on the other. When the conditions are right, those super cells will begin to spin. When one storm gets to use all of the heat, it becomes the big dog.

KAYE: The conditions were right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at these pictures. Simply extraordinary.

KAYE: On Saturday, May 18th, the base hunters chased down a twister in Kansas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Looking right at the side of the funnel. It's almost too close. I can't zoom out to get the whole thing in the shot.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Did you ever feel like you were too close that you, in the danger zone?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Not really this particular tornado. It was a very slow-moving storm. We had plenty of time to get out of its path.

HILL: The way the inclusion is getting bigger, it's right here.

KAYE: Then, on Monday, May 20th, they plan their next moves.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We look at the weather models, predicting where the strongest ones aloft are going to be, where moisture, where the service boundaries are located that will initiate storms.

RALPHS: We actually started out going south of the Norman and Moore area. We're looking at the radar, and it had what we like to say just the look of a strong thunderstorm and that's when we made the decision to go north on I-35.

MYERS: If you're anywhere from just from north of Newcastle, right into Moore, this your storm.

KAYE: Just before 3:00 p.m. Central Time, CNN meteorologist Chad Myers spotted the telltale signs of a developing tornado.

MYERS: You look down it was a ball. The next scan, the next time I looked at that Doppler radar, there was a hook echo on the bottom. And I looked at it, I looked at it again. There's the spin, there's the hook echo.

And I said, did I just see this? Did this just happen in six minutes? Because this wasn't here.

HILL: You could feel it all coming. You're knowing as a storm chaser that it's going strong, and in fact, it's going to intensify. There you go, you see it. There you see it. Now, it's on the ground.

KAYE: Moments later.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Look at it, on the ground.

KAYE: A tornado was born.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are in Moore, Oklahoma, and we have a tornado to our west.

RALPHS: It widened out to a straight up and down skinny tornado. And then as it moved into the Moore area, it widened and widened. MYERS: Not 10 minutes ago, this was not in contact with the ground. This was a very fast developing storm. We knew it, we saw it and then the tornado dropped right straight to the ground.

KAYE: As thousands scrambled to safety, Kevin, Colt and Lauren raced toward the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We should go west if we want to get closer, guys.

HILL: At that time, you know, I'm focused on driving because a lot of people are like stunned watching the tornado. They've just kind of stopped.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I see tons of police cars headed in every direction trying to get people off the road.

HILL: People were pulling over, they were panicking. They were blocking the interstate.

RALPHS: School is about to be let out, it's the middle of a Monday afternoon. People are busy going every which direction about their lives.

KAYE: And the tornado was heading right toward them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Put the hazards on.

HILL: I'm fine. Put the hazards on.

FORNY: At this point, the first stop here, the tornado was very large, the roar was intense.

HILL: Near the high school, the storm hunters caught it all on camera.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is where we were sitting at South Moore High School when the tornado was moving into the west side of Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very large tornado moving into Moore, Oklahoma. This is not good.

FORNEY: You could just feel it. I mean, like, this is going to be bad. This is going to be terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's coming about right at us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh my gosh, that's violent.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Listen it to. You can hear it. Listen!

FORNEY: You knew people were going to die. You knew it was going to destroy houses and there's nothing you could do but watch it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Debris, lots of debris. Dear God, please keep these people safe. Look at the debris.

HILL: Just complete and utter fear and you're just feeling people's panic, you know, in the city and you're knowing the path that it's likely to take. It's awful.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big -- there's a whole roof that just came off!

MYERS: This storm was wrapped in debris. So much debris wrapping around this tornado you really couldn't see the funnel its.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you live in the creeks of Wimberley or Rock Creek you need to be in your tornado shelter immediately.

KAYE: At local station KOCO, they were also tracking the tornado's path.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, you can see right here with the high resolution mapping, we have plenty of neighborhood developments right here, lots of high density neighborhoods, this is moving into a very dense part now of Moore.

KAYE: Tens of thousands of people directly in the path of disaster.

FORNEY: Kevin, get the pictures, man, get the video.

RALPHS: Colt and I, we were -- he was getting video, I was taking photos, just running around everywhere. Lauren was waiting in the car so we would have an immediate exit.

FORNEY: I've never heard roar like that before.

Oh my God, it's going just turn north.

RALPHS: There's a certain point in the chase where you know you have to stop the chase.

FORNEY: This thing is violent.

KAYE: Coming up, the race to safety.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Dear God, please keep these people safe.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we need to go! We need to go! My God.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold on. It's going to our north.

KAYE (voice-over): A massive tornado hurdling toward a city of 55,000. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get in the car.

UNIDENTFIED MALE: Jump in when you guys are ready.

KAYE: Fear and fury recorded by storm chasers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let's go. Let's go. Let's go.

KAYE: Schools, hospitals, homes about to be swept away.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we need to go! We need to go!

HILL: You could feel the vibrations. It almost felt like an earthquake. You could feel the rumble, you could hear the roar, you could hear the like clanking of debris.

MYERS: We have something called the debris ball that we see now, which we know is not rain. It's not hail. It's literally the pieces of board, shingles and people's homes and lives that's getting spun around by this tornado.

FORNEY: We've heard roar before but never this intense. Maybe up on top of Niagara Falls, just that deafening roar. It sounded just like that.

The upward motion of violence at the base and then just the sky filled with debris.

MYERS: We went from nothing to 166 miles an hour in 10 to 15 minutes then I stayed that speed for at least another 20 minutes.

KAYE: Moore, Oklahoma, was under attack and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This thing is not letting up.

RALPHS: It's probably the worst most helpless feeling you can feel knowing that people's lives an properties are being torn up directly in front of you. You know you're looking at total destruction. It's like watching a bomb fall and you see all of the damage and the debris that explodes out of it.

MYERS: It moves so slow that it kept spin in the same spot and that's why there's no much damage in that one area where there's nothing left. The storm churned over those houses probably a minute or two over each house.


KAYE: Then, 40 minutes after the tornado touched down, its relentless assault finally ended.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is terrible. This is war zone terrible. This school is completely gone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are entering the damage path on the northwest side of Moore.

KAYE: The storm chasers began surveying the damage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh my God. This is the damage, the damage path right now. Houses are completely leveled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's unrecognizable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Houses are leveled.

RALPHS: We looked up the Google street images that are around that area. And the first thing we did is go and look at the day care. We thought it was a stand alone building all by itself but we looked at the street view and it's a three or four business strip mall that was completely leveled. It was unrecognizable at all.

And behind that where we thought was just mostly open field because where we were was on the edge of Moore, was actually a subdivision of new houses. And all you could see was the ping, the patter piping and the sewage piping sticking up out of the ground. That was the real identifier that would have been a clue as to what those structures were before they were wiped off the map.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Trees debarked. Wow. Complete devastation.

KAYE: They couldn't be just observers. They knew they had to help.

FORNEY: When we first got there were, from the day care from what we heard, there were several kids sitting out by the side.

HILL: Crying.

FORNEY: And we --

RALPHS: We just ran into the rubble where the day care s and started assisting any way we could, pulling people out, helping people out. And it's -- that's terrifying in and of itself.

FORNEY: Fifteen people they all made it out alive, cut up and bruised.

HILL: In shock.

FORNEY: But, luckily, every child was accounted for and all of the adults were accounted for as well.

HILL: You're trying to keep your composure and reassure. And one of the most amazing things I think I've ever seen in my life and will always stick with me was even though those people were in shock and covered in debris, they were carrying kids, they were just helping each other.

KAYE: In the aftermath there was great sadness with 24 lives lost, ten of them children.

(CRYING) KAYE: But also great joy and emotional reunions, and grateful survivors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's just terrible. It's so bad I can't even believe I'm still alive.

KAYE: But even storm chasers are not immune to the emotional toll.

RALPHS: It's not the happy-go-lucky storm chase out in the middle of a field in western Oklahoma where the tornado isn't really destroying anything or isn't impacting lives. The human impact here was devastating.

HILL: You close your eyes and you could see it. You can see what happened. If you could see the damage. Like some moments you're OK and then it just hits you in a wave.

RALPHS: It makes you do a little soul searching because you say how can I still want to see these after I know what they've done.

HILL: But it isn't over.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right there, there's a lot of rotation right there by the way.

KAYE: Coming up, more storms are on the way.

RALPHS: Let's go! Let's go!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's where your info and your best chance for tornadoes is going to be, right there (INAUDIBLE).




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh my God. It's unrecognizable.

KAYE: Storm chasers Scott Peak and Jimmy Story also witnessed firsthand the devastating tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was making this roar. I've never experienced anything like it before.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The ground was vibrating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We started seeing some houses flying up in the air and we knew it wasn't good at all.

KAYE: In less than 24 hours later, as colleagues Colt, Kevin and Lauren decide to stay in Moore, Scott and Jimmy head back out on the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just north. And course (INAUDIBLE) right now.

KAYE: Heading south from Oklahoma into Texas they are chasing a storm they think may spawn another tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The storm is right here.

KAYE: They have taught themselves to read weather patterns.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As it's coming up from the south, we'll try to intercept it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are both super cells now.

KAYE: A collision course that may put them smack in the path of another tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We pick an area where we think the best conditions will be and then we'll drive out there where the atmosphere is prime and the conditions are ripe for tornadoes or severe storms to occur.

KAYE: Racing to intercept the brewing storm in Scott's Honda, the pair will drive more than 600 miles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With weather it changes, changes very quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right there, beautiful notch.

KAYE: As they get closer, the chasers stop to observe the storm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The best chance for the torn is right in that notch wherever it's hooking in, right there. There's a lot of rotation right there by the way. What is that? Is that a funnel?

Yes. That looks like a funnel. We're going to have to go, guys, let's go, go, go! Get in. We need to go.

KAYE: Scott and Jimmy quickly decide it would be safer to follow the storm further east.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hours and hours of being on the road and maybe a couple of hours of sleep just to see about maybe five seconds of a good tornado, just the anticipation is an adrenaline rush and that's what drives us.

KAYE: Scott has been chasing storms for ten years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quick them up high.

KAYE: By day, he teaches gymnastics.


KAYE: Jimmy is an ultrasound technician.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me show you what we have inside our vehicle.

KAYE: But in their spare time, they're on the road chasing storms.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our ultimate goal is to get great footage and warn the public of impending danger.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just destroyed that barn. I hope they're OK. We're going to have to stop and make sure nobody is hurt.

KAYE: Scott has crisscrossed the country, gathering breathtaking video and photos of severe storms and tornadoes, calling in alerts to the National Weather Service.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tornado! Right there, tornado!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's past us. It's past us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back in 2008, I was chasing a tornado --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We just got hit by a tornado. We just got hit by a tornado.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It broke in my back windshield of my SUV.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Son of a -- we're fine now. We're fine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That window is broken out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little shaken up and a little in shock that that just happened but very lucky.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The danger is not knowing what you're doing. We know where the tornado is going to form. We look at our radars. We try to be close to the area that the tornado is going to form. But we're also smart and we're not going to get in its way.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is rotation right here.

KAYE: Back in the thick of their chase in east Texas, Jimmy and Scott close in on their pursuit of an intense thunderstorm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Boom. Boom. There's the dominator right there. There's the other dominator. There's the other one.

KAYE: This storm has also caught the attention of other storm chaser.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're going the same place we are.

KAYE: Who, like Jimmy and Scott, make money selling images of violent storms. Scott and Jimmy continue on. Driving directly into the storm looking for forming funnel clouds. They encounter heavy rains.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's hail, a little hail.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of the hail stones can go right through your windshield and break all of the windows out in your car. That's what scarce me the most.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right here, right here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, might be something.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Lots of rotation. Look at that.

KAYE: They spot a small funnel cloud.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Funnel. Funnel. Funnel right there.

KAYE: But on this day, no tornadoes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're probably going to call it an evening. That's a wrap, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the most violent time. Look at that.

KAYE: For those storm chasers, it has been an emotional week.

HILL: This is the first time --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Those feelings are being conjured right back up of the hopelessness.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That was my first violent tornado that I'd ever seen in my life and to watch it unfold and to know that it was causing death and destruction.

KAYE: Jimmy remembers arriving in Moore shortly after the tornado touched down and finding an injured boy wandering the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was alive but caked in mud and had a head wound. And when I went to sleep last night, you know, every time I closed my eyes I saw that little boy, you know? Man, I still kind of do.

KAYE: Witnessing the tragic toll of nature's fury this week has given Scott and the other storm chasers a new perspective of their work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've always been passionate about storm chasing and I don't think I could ever stop. But seeing images like this makes you step back and appreciate what you have. You know we can at least help people in some way.