- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2011

As tornadoes roared across Oklahoma this week, cable networks joined local television stations in carrying the story blow-by-blow, with live broadcasts streaming video and audio from storm chasers who track the twisters on the ground — a stunning display of how technology has changed the way news organizations cover disasters.

Tricked out with GPS radar, Wi-Fi, laptops and satellite links, storm chasers have “crowd-sourced” coverage of fast-moving disasters and are sharing the coverage online and over the airwaves.

“It’s gotten to where it’s rarer to not have the video of a major tornado than it is to have it,” said Dan Robinson, a St. Louis-based storm chaser who has watched his hobby turn into a full-blown industry. “There’s so many people following these storms, sometimes you can actually get caught in a traffic jam out there.”

Ten people were killed and dozens of homes were destroyed Tuesday in an outbreak of at least six tornadoes in and around Oklahoma City.

Two days earlier, an F-5 tornado — the strongest on the F-scale — destroyed about half of the city of Joplin, Mo. The death toll from that storm has hit 126, with more than 200 people still missing, according to official estimates, making it the deadliest single U.S. twister in more than six decades.

Bob Walker, executive vice president in charge of programming at the Weather Channel, an NBC cable sibling, said the coverage his network’s viewers are seeing is part of a conscious decision to focus less on radar maps and more on “showing the activity live whenever possible.”

“What we’re trying to do is invest in the science so that when these things happen, we can be a part of the solution and save some lives,” Mr. Walker said.

Part of that investment meant putting meteorologist and reporter Mike Bettes in the Midwest this spring to chase storms in a souped-up weather truck with the capacity to beam audio and video directly to the network’s satellites.

On Sunday night, the Weather Channel crew was among the first to arrive on the scene in Joplin, where Mr. Bettes, in a live moment that has gone viral online, was visibly shaken by the scope of the death and destruction stretching as far as the camera could see.

Arriving just 10 minutes behind the twister and its 200 mph winds, Mr. Bettes pleaded with neighboring towns and counties to send help.

“It’s everything, it’s just completely demolished,” he said before choking up, the camera still rolling.

Mr. Walker called the moment “an example, a moment where Mike was caught up by what had happened.”

He said Mr. Bettes and the crew, who were taping for a show called “The Great Tornado Hunt,” knew spending the spring in “Tornado Alley” — primarily Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, along with some of the surrounding Midwest and Southern states — would be intense.

What they didn’t expect was a season like 2011. A spate of almost 200 confirmed tornadoes across 16 states from April 14-16 claimed 43 lives, with North Carolina getting the worst of it. A system of storms in the Southeast on April 27 and April 28 claimed 341 lives, including 238 just in Alabama. And then came Joplin.

“Clearly, what no one anticipated was the scope and the severity of the season,” Mr. Walker said.

The destruction of the storms, however, has meant a huge ratings boost for the Weather Channel: Prime-time viewership since Sunday has quadrupled, and the network’s online traffic has doubled.

Fox News and CNN also have adjusted their nightly political coverage to focus more on the severe weather, and both networks scrambled Tuesday to mix live, storm-chaser-generated audio and video with breaking updates from affiliated local stations and their traditional, anchor-driven coverage.

It’s the kind of all-hands-on-deck approach that local news stations in Tornado Alley have used for years, said veteran Oklahoma City meteorologist Gary England of KWTV-Channel 9.

“That’s how it’s done in Oklahoma — it’s how it has to be done here. It came about out of necessity,” said Mr. England, an author who worked with executive producer Steven Spielberg on the tornado epic “Twister.”

In Oklahoma, knowing about tornados — where they’re headed, how much time you have, how big they are, what to do — is all a part of the daily routine, Mr. England said.

Although Mr. England has his own crew of storm chasers, it’s a phenomenon about which he has misgivings.

“One of these days, you’re going to have a van full of these storm-chasers get trapped out there on a road and killed, and there’s just no sense in that,” he said.

“With the forecasting tools we have today, the big tornadoes are not a surprise anymore. A lot of times, we know a day ahead of time when there’s going to be trouble.”

He said the station leverages social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, to warn fans and viewers, sends email and cellphone alerts, and networks with emergency personnel to get the word out.

“It’s like a machine,” he said. “If the public is paying attention, they won’t be caught by surprise.”

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