Reporter: Denham Hitchcock
Producer: Steve Burling
There are few more terrifying sights than a tornado bearing down on you.
It's as though the world is about to end, and for the people of Joplin, Missouri, it pretty much did.
Their town was wiped out with terrible loss of life.
As America struggles through its deadliest twister season ever, Nine Network US correspondent Denham Hitchcock joined the men and women who call themselves "storm chasers".
But it wasn't long before the storms were chasing him.
Brian Barnes: Tornado tour operator
Dan Shaw: Australian Tornado Spotter
Sean Casey: Tornado Alley
Tornado Alley IMAX Film Opens in Australia from September 22
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: It’s awe-inspiring yet terrifying, directly above us nature is gathering one of its most destructive forces. You can see that the whole clouds, everything above me is rotating now right in the middle over there is the beginning of a tornado.
DAN: We gotta go!
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: Why are we leaving?
DAN: Because it could drop on our head!
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: It is starting to turn – it is twisting and we’re waiting for it to drop down and obviously it is a bit of a concern, because if it does drop down while we are here. We could get caught in it. This is life in Tornado Alley – USA’s wild mid-west where every Spring, millions of Americans brace as two weather systems collide.
JOSH: While red and blue next to each means ‘bad’, it means strong circulation. The red is air moving in one direction and the blue is air moving in the other direction and that’s what you have in a tornado is air moving in different directions very, very close to each other.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: What that can mean, is winds of up to 500km/h channelled into that distinctive funnel with the power to level concrete and steel and what makes them so deadly, is no one can predict exactly where a tornado will strike not even veteran meteorologists like Josh Wurman.
JOSH: What we’re hoping to do is learn about this phenomenon so that in the future when these big tornado outbreaks happen - more people will get to safety and those death tolls will be lower.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: This season, more than 1,200 twisters have torn across the US. The worst of them struck Joplin, Missouri killing 134 people and levelling a third of the town. The moment of impact when the monster storm hit was dramatically captured by storm-chasers who soon found themselves were in danger. When America woke this is what it was faced with the almost incomprehensible damage from the worst single tornado to hit this country since records began. It tore a hole through the heart of this city that is 1km wide and 10km long. It’s damage on a massive scale and the people of Joplin are still counting the dead and searching for the missing. It took more than a century to build Joplin and only minutes to bring it down. A lot of the people here have been left with nothing?
DEPUTY MAYOR MELODEE COLBERT-KEAN: That’s right. A lot of them are lucky to even have a structure where their house once was.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: Melodee Colbert-Kean is the Deputy Mayor of Joplin.
DEPUTY MAYOR MELODEE COLBERT-KEAN: The trees were lining the streets and it was just – you know, fires everywhere and people crying and bleeding. It was just overwhelming, very overwhelming.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: I can see those images still stick with you.
DEPUTY MAYOR MELODEE COLBERT-KEAN: And unfortunately, I think they will for a long time.
ISAAC: It was definitely, it was almost like feeling of dread.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: It was 5:30 in Joplin on a Sunday afternoon when the monster storm approached. Isaac Duncan and his mate Brennan Stebbins pulled off the highway into a service station for shelter. So you came in from over here this is where you parked your car and you’re telling me that was a service station?
ISAAC: And my car when it was all said and done was sitting over there in the middle of the store.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: Inside, day turned to night as the boys joined 18 others sheltering in the cool room. Isaac started the video on his mobile phone.
ISAAC: Everyone in there knew that something big was about to happen. It just hadn’t happened yet.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: Minutes later, all hell broke loose. 20 strangers clinging to each other in the dark, expecting every moment to be their last.
WOMAN: Heavenly Father. Jesus. Jesus.
ISAAC: People started screaming out religious things like ‘Jesus’, ‘God’ and praying really loud and when I heard that, that almost made me panic, them yelling for what sounded like their life. I wanted to let everyone know if we were going to go out and wanted to go out with them knowing that. I had submitted to the fact that this was probably going to be how I died.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: Incredibly, the entire group survived emerging through a tiny gap into an Apocalyptic landscape – unrecognisable as their home town. Neighbourhoods, streets, landmarks now replaced with a front row seat to how the end might look. So you walk out and see a scene like this.
BRENNAN: A lot of people tell me you should feel so lucky that you lived through that and I don’t know whether it’s lucky or incredibly unlucky for being here in the first place.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: As lethal as they are, tornadoes have an almost hypnotic attraction. Storm-chasers like Sean Casey spend their entire lives pursuing that illusive moment when the sky touches the ground. Sean, this isn’t something you go and pick the kids up in, is it?
SEAN: No. I would never put my kids in this vehicle.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: But Sean’s obsession outranks all others. He’s converted a small truck into a mobile tank and drives directly into the eye of the tornado. It’s a seven tonne monster that literally hugs the road.
SEAN: We first lower the air, we get low then we put on the hydraulics, and then we start lowering these panels. The panels are so that air doesn’t get underneath the vehicle which creates lift.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: But even with all that armour plating, Sean knows better than to think he’s tornado proof.
SEAN: There are EF-5 tornadoes out there that will pick up our little tank and toss it out in the field and we’d go rolling right along right inside that vehicle – it would become like a - with all our equipment – like a metal blender.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: And that’s exactly what we were suddenly facing on a back road in Missouri. Storm spotters warning of the danger swirling directly above. Can you see behind? Can you see how far it is back?
SEAN: Just get up another 500 metres it’s going to hit the ground in a big way!
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: So we have come down the road about 500 metres basically because it was about to drop on top of us. What you can see up there in that boiling cloud is the beginning of a tornado. The wind and the rain it all comes with it. What we’re waiting to see is if it touches the ground.
SEAN: We’ve been told we’ve got to go. Let’s go further.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: But when the storm chasers start running, you know it’s time to get out.
SEAN: Don’t stop - keep going, keep going, keep going.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: Right, so a bunch of storm chasers we are with have just told us to get the hell out so we’re driving out. Even after such a close call, the thrill of the chase is undeniable. No wonder tornado tourism is booming.
BRIAN BARNES: We have got a developing wall cloud over here and the tornado could actually form at any point in the wall cloud.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: We joined “Storm Tours” just one of dozens of buses packed with people from around the world, along for the ride Australians Barry Lohse and Craig Thomas.
BARRY: This was like a ‘bucket list’ thing for me and I thought let’s just go and try it out.
CRAIG: The atmosphere in the van was just pumped you know – this is awesome you know we’re actually in a tornado chase like who would have thought this and I think everybody forgot about taking pictures of it because of the fact we were in it – we were there!
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: It’s a far different story in Joplin, where trees stripped of bark are the only landmarks left.
MAN: We would ask you to take us much as you can give it to your neighbours – your friends who are in need.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: With thousands now homeless necessities like bread, toiletries and water arrive in the back of a truck.
WOMAN: I have four boys.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: Deep in America’s Bible belt this is a town tattered, but certainly not defeated. If you lived through this tornado some people would be questioning their faith, wouldn’t they?
MELODEE COLBERT-KEAN: You probably would be questioning it a little bit at this time – but if you have faith that’s what it is – it’s holding on even when you don’t know.
DENHAM HITCHCOCK: That faith could yet be tested further. This year, double the number of tornadoes have scarred the landscape and the season isn’t over yet. So is it becoming increasingly dangerous to live in Tornado Alley?
JOSH: The risk for anyone living in Tornado Alley is pretty similar to 50 even a 100 years ago, the difference is that more people are living in Tornado Alley.
SEAN: These towns being levelled, it is really a game changer for me, it really just takes that excitement that I have felt in the past and replaced it with dread because every time we chase this year you feel like something God awful is going to happen.