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Chasing Okla. Storms: 'Technology Can Only Go So Far'


When huge tornadoes, like the one that hit Moore, churn, swirl and scream, most people run for cover. Then there are people like Val Castor, who jumps into his truck and heads straight towards it. Mr. Castor is the senior storm tracker for Channel 9 News in Oklahoma City. He's been covering Oklahoma's temperamental and often treacherous weather for the last 22 years. Val Castor, we had the honor of spending a little time with you in your truck a couple of years ago. Thank you for being with us today.

VAL CASTOR: Well, it's good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Well, what can you tell by looking at a tornado that all the machines and software they have nowadays might miss?

CASTOR: People ask why do you have storm chasers when you have all this technology? But Doppler radar and technology can only go so far. And you need the eyes and ears in the field to see if there really is a tornado on the ground, because radar will not tell you. Radar will tell you if there's rotation in the clouds and it will tell you how strong the rotation at that level, but it will not tell you if there's a tornado on the ground and that's what the storm chasers are for.

SIMON: Could you give us an estimate how many tornadoes you'll see in a spring season?

CASTOR: Well, you know, generally, on any average year, we see anywhere between, I would say, 10 and 20 tornadoes per year. Last year, for an example, was a pretty high-frequency year for tornadoes in parts of our state. And we saw 28 tornadoes last year. This year has been a very slow start to the year early. In March, in April and about the first half of May, there was almost nothing. And then all of the sudden just this last week everything hit all at once. And we've seen 11 tornadoes in the past week.

SIMON: I wonder: when you see tornado after tornado and they don't have the kind of devastating effect that this EF5 one did, does it begin to make people who grow up in that area take their safety for granted?

CASTOR: Well, you know, the people of Oklahoma are very tornado savvy. And so you sometimes get, I think, so accustomed to seeing tornadoes that it becomes less and less of a big deal to us and a lot of people will go out just to see it and maybe to take video of it. And that's why when we get on the air and this tornado, just like the May 3rd of 1999 tornado - I know our chief meteorologist, Gary England, at the station probably made a statement that saved a lot of lives. He said if you're not underground you're not going to survive this tornado. And at that point, people took it seriously. And I know that the storm trackers in the field, including myself, were describing the tornado as strongly as we could.

SIMON: Your wife is also a storm chaser, and you've got six children.

CASTOR: Right.

SIMON: Do you ever think about moving to Maine and opening a quilting shop?


CASTOR: Well, first of all, I don't know how to quilt. Second of all...

SIMON: You can learn, you can learn.

CASTOR: You know, it's not that exciting, and third of all, you know, I storm chase because I feel that God has called me to do that. I feel it is a calling that I have to be a benefit to the public out here to help keep people safe.

SIMON: Do you learn something about life or something by seeing so many tornadoes straight in the face?

CASTOR: Yeah. And, you know, when we go out there and we chase, I mean, you know, we try to keep personal feelings out of it as much as possible because we're trying to do our job. When we see something this big and this strong, immediately we know that there's going to be injuries and there's probably going to be people killed. We don't want to see that. We hate to see that. You know, it really hits closet to the heart 'cause I do have six kids. You know, when I hear stories about kids at elementary schools, that's where it really hits home. You know, I was telling someone else just a while ago that after that long day - I think I got home about 12:30 at night - I woke up every one of my six kids and hugged them.

SIMON: Well, we're glad you're together and grateful that you found some time for us in obviously a very busy and important week. Val Castor, who's the senior storm tracker for News 9 in Oklahoma City. Thanks so much.

CASTOR: You're welcome. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.