Once the weather service issued a tornado warning for the Joplin, Mo., area on May 22, local TV and radio stations followed protocol for severe weather, ramping up their weather coverage in the 90 minutes or so before the twister hit at around 5:30 p.m. either with cut-ins or going wall-to-wall. But such alerts had become so frequent, especially lately, that even the station staffers themselves did not take them as seriously as subsequent events demonstrated they should have. After the storm hit, news teams scrambled to figure out what exactly had happened and how they could help their striken community.
TV Mobilized As Routine Turned To Disaster
Could local broadcasters in Joplin, Mo., have done more to warn people of the killer tornado that swept through their city early on Sunday evening, May 22? Probably not.
TV meteorologists tracked the storm throughout the afternoon as it moved through Kansas and into Missouri and as the National Weather Service issued — and repealed — an array of thunderstorm and tornado watches.
Once the weather service issued a tornado warning for the area, both TV operations — as well as the seven radio stations owned by the Zimmer Radio Group — followed protocol for severe weather, ramping up their weather coverage in the 90 minutes or so before the twister hit at around 5:30 p.m. either with cut-ins or going wall-to-wall.
The weather cameras perched atop broadcast towers captured video of the storm as it headed their way. The broadcasters urged viewers to take cover in basements or interior rooms.
But such alerts had become so frequent, especially lately, that even the station staffers themselves did not take them as seriously as subsequent events demonstrated they should have.
The tornado, with winds as high as 200 miles per hour, cut a swatch of destruction a quarter of a mile wide and several miles long. As of yesterday, 139 people had been reported dead and more than 100 were still missing. As much as a third of the city now lies in ruins.
“There has been incredible growth in the number of warnings that are put out,” says Pat Slattery, spokesman for the National Weather Service’s central region. From May 16 to 26, not a single day went by without a tornado warning somewhere in the region, he says.
And the storm that approached Joplin was not radically different than many others, except that the tornado itself didn’t actually form until it was just west of Joplin, Slattery says. The severity of tornados isn’t forecast; rather they are rated by the destruction they leave in their wakes.
“We hear those sirens going off so often that we’ve almost gotten used to it,” says Jeremiah Cook, weekend meteorologist at Nexstar’s NBC affiliate KSNF who was manning the weather desk that afternoon. (Nexstar also operates the ABC affiliate, KODE.) “You don’t think about the reality of it. I am as guilty as anyone.”
Although Cook urged viewers to take cover from the storm, it was “nothing I haven’t done multiple times in the past.”
At home that evening, Kristi Spencer, the news director for Saga Communications’ CBS-Fox duopoly, KOAM-KFJX, wasn’t particularly fazed by the tornado warnings, which she heard via the local news she oversees when the weathercasters cut into regular programming to apprise viewers of the looming storm.
The skeleton weekend news crew at the station had spent the afternoon covering routine stories, like graduation day. Spencer figured she’d wait until the storm rolled through town before getting the cookout she’d planned for the night underway.
“Honestly it happens so much here that we don’t bring the news team there every time there’s a tornado warning,” Spencer says. “But it usually hits in the middle of a farm somewhere, not in the middle of town.”
Spencer, who lives 12 miles from Joplin, lost her satellite TV signal when the storm hit, and didn’t know how bad the destruction was until she got a call from her in-laws, saying they were trapped in their home.
She was shocked by the devastation she saw on her way to help them. “Everything was bent and crumpled,” she says. “My first thought was: we are going to see bodies.”
What ensued at the TV stations in the wake of the storm was chaotic, as news teams scrambled to figure out what exactly had happened and whether their own friends and family were safe. Travel and communications ranged from limited to impossible.
Cook left the station — which was off-air for about 45 minutes immediately after the tornado passed — in the hands of colleagues, including the chief meteorologist, to report from the field on what was going on in the city. Plus, he had worries of his own, not knowing if his wife, eight-and-a-half months pregnant, was safe.
With blocked roads, downed power lines and no cell phone service, the stations had trouble getting post-storm coverage on the air. Saga’s KOAM-KFJX didn’t air its first reports until 8:45 p.m.
Spencer says her 23-person news staff rallied without so much as a phone call the night of the tornado. Sports staff became news reporters. Sales staff manned newsroom phones.
The Zimmer radio stations called on every staffer to assist in round-the-clock coverage, which started about 90 minutes before the tornado struck and continued through last weekend on all seven stations.
Things didn’t get much easier the day after the storm, as the stations still struggled with impaired mobility and communications systems.
They reached out to the Missouri Broadcasters Association, which made special arrangements for fuel shipments to keep stations’ emergency generators running. Otherwise, the stations would have lost power altogether by noon Tuesday.
There were great personal losses, too.
At least 10 Sega families, a dozen Nexstar broadcasters and eight Zimmer employees lost their homes. Joe Lancello, one of three KZRG-AM reporters, slept on couches and in a station-provided RV between shifts.
“There’s no playbook for this,” says Nexstar’s Cook. “We made this up as we went along.”
But he says there was something about having work — important work — to do after the tornado that somehow made those first wrenching hours more bearable.
Not knowing whether his wife and parents were safe — or if they were even alive — Cook says he had to focus on accomplishing his mission as a newsman. “I kept thinking that I couldn’t get to them. The only thing I could keep doing was my job.”
“Having worked around the weather this long, I know the hurting and the death doesn’t stop when the tornado lifts up,” he says. “It keeps on going and we knew that people were going to need this information.”
There will, however, continue to be life after the storm. Cook is awaiting the birth of his first child within the next couple of weeks.
And Spencer says she has already gotten into some sort of routine, accepting that grappling with the storm’s aftermath is Joplin’s new reality.
“This is the way it’s going to be for awhile,” she says. “We have kind of adjusted.”
Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.