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Chasing storms, saving lives

Alexandra Pope, staff writer

May 28, 2011 — Every spring, storm chasers head south to pursue their passion for observing severe weather. When tornadoes take a human toll, chasers are often first on the scene -- and go from shooting footage to saving lives.

Chasers captured footage of the EF-5 tornado that levelled Joplin, MO
Chasers captured footage of the EF-5 tornado that levelled Joplin, MO

The setup was perfect last week for an outbreak of severe weather across the south-central United States.

Storm chasers Jason Persoff and Robert Balogh knew there was a strong possibility that the developing thunderstorms would produce dangerous tornadoes.

“The cloud levels were dropping, the humidity was increasing, the storms were getting a lot of features to suggest both rotation and ... that they had created their own supercell environment,” Persoff explained.

One storm would ultimately spawn one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history -- an EF-5 twister that levelled the city of Joplin, Missouri.

When Persoff and Balogh arrived in Joplin to survey the damage, it was not as chasers, but as first responders. In addition to sharing an interest in severe weather, both men are medical doctors. Their first stop in Joplin was the hospital.

“We went straight to the emergency room ... announced who we were and asked how we could help,” Balogh said.

The devastation in Joplin weighed on the chasers' consciences
The devastation in Joplin weighed on the chasers' consciences

The pair got to work in the trauma bays, treating massive cuts and bruises and broken bones.

The severity of the injuries and the devastation around him weighed on Balogh's conscience. It can be difficult to rationalize a scientific interest in something that literally tears people's lives apart, he explained.

“At one point, early on, I did have thoughts of never going to chase again,” he said.

But Persoff is pragmatic about his dual role.

“The weather will be there whether I choose to witness it or not,” he said. “The storm formed, but it also brought us. The way I reconcile that is that had we not been chasing the storm, we wouldn't have been in a position to assist.”

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