Veteran Storm Chasers On Twisters

Veteran storm chasers Jeff and Kathyrn Piotrowski have been to many of the cities and towns hit during this year's record-breaking tornado season. From the road on their way to Oklahoma City, the husband and wife describe what they've seen and what it's like to run toward a storm — instead of away from it.

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Storm chasers Jeff and Kathyrn Piotrowski have been to most of the places hit by this year's record-breaking tornado season. We reached the couple on the phone this past Friday. They were on the road, on their way to Oklahoma City, chasing yet another storm. They captured some of the first video of the Joplin tornado.

(Soundbite of video)

Mr. JEFF PIOTROWSKI: I got (unintelligible).



Ms. PIOTROWSKI: Why are you doing that?


We were heading westbound, just out of downtown Joplin.

There it is. The tornado is coming into the city.

So about that time, I saw a policeman ahead of me.

Hey, guys.

I pulled up beside him, and he rolled down his window.

The tornado is trying to come down right here. The winds are on the north, and it's coming back around. The tornado is right here. It's coming on the ground right here.

You know, I pointed down south, and at that point, I said, please resound the sirens. It's going to be a very large and powerful tornado.

Get the sirens going. Get the sirens going. I'm telling you.

About 20 or 30 seconds went by, I heard the sirens go back off again as I'm driving. I made a U-turn, and there was flying debris coming by us. And the farther we go east on 20th Street, I'm thinking I can get ahead of the tornado, but the tornado was actually expanding and consuming...

Ms. PIOTROWSKI: Back up.


The winds are screaming outside. And I know I had to stop. So I pulled over to the side. I turned the back of the truck toward the wind so that I'm not sideways to the wind and get picked up. The core of the tornado is passing just south and east of me, a couple hundred yards. As soon as the tornado passes, everything (unintelligible).

And it's a massive tornado, just massive destruction. It's like, at least, it's a mile-wide tornado.

MARTIN: Jeff Piotrowski's been doing this for three decades. Kathyrn says it's only been 14 years for her, but this year seems different.

Ms. PIOTROWSKI: I'm seeing more wedge tornadoes. They immediately drop down from the sky and then rapidly intensify to within a mile wide in a matter of minutes. And this is what's unusual. Jeff could probably give you (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Sure. Can we get Jeff back on the line?

Ms. PIOTROWSKI: Sure. Absolutely.


MARTIN: Hi, Jeff. Do you want to add to that, what you're seeing differently this season?

Mr. PIOTROWSKI: Well, this year, a good example, yesterday morning, it was 58 degrees here in northeast Oklahoma. And today in southwest Oklahoma right now, it's 106 degrees. So when you have these boundaries, these cold fronts and warm fronts moving back and forth over a two- and three-state region, you're setting a (unintelligible) thunderstorm development with extreme wind shear...

MARTIN: There is the obvious question, and Jeff and Kathyrn get it all the time: why they do this. In the off-season, Jeff makes forecasting software. He and Kathyrn also sell their storm footage to media outlets. And when they're chasing storms, they're in constant contact with local authorities and news organizations.

Jeff is the first to admit running toward a tornado is something you can't experience through a video.

Mr. PIOTROWSKI: To be able to make a forecast and be able to look at a map, look at the data, pick a town, pick a target, get to that location and just watch the sky change before you, you've got to experience to understand.

MARTIN: Jeff Piotrowski, he and his wife Kathyrn spoke to us from their car on the way to Oklahoma City.

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