NEW YORK – The Weather Channel is sending meteorologist Mike Bettes back out to chase tornadoes less than a year after he was hurt when an Oklahoma storm sent his SUV tumbling, but this time from a safer vantage point.
Bettes will hit the road starting Monday for "Tornado Week," his network's version of "Shark Week" that's usually its biggest scheduled programming event of the year. So far, this year has been an historically quiet tornado season.
"I was very hesitant as to whether I would get back out there," Bettes said. "But time has passed, and time heals all wounds. My family has been supportive, my co-workers have been very supportive, and I've gotten a lot of messages from our viewers who have said, 'Mike, get back on that horse. Tornadoes are in your blood.'"
A tornado left him bleeding last May 31 in El Reno, Okla., when his chaser vehicle was caught in the wind. One of his cuts required stitches in his left hand, and he swallowed some glass, but his injuries and those of camera operator Brad Reynolds were considered minor. Driver Austin Anderson had a cracked sternum, five broken ribs and a broken cervical vertebra and required surgery.
Bettes said he thought he would regret it if he didn't get back on the road. It's not for the thrill; he said it's important to warn communities because some people don't take the danger seriously until they see a storm.
This year, though, he'll keep a greater distance between himself and any tornado.
"Being close isn't always an advantage," he said. "We have expensive cameras with telephoto lenses that can fill up an entire screen with a tornado. We don't have to be right next to the tornado."
The Weather Channel also won't chase tornadoes in metropolitan areas, like Oklahoma City. Regions with more density and traffic can make an escape more complicated if the storm takes a sudden turn, he said.
Even while caught up in the tornado last year, his team's mounted camera kept operating and the network aired the footage. It largely showed a black screen with audio of crashes until the camera came to rest with the picture sideways.
"It made me a little sick to my stomach to watch it," Bettes said. "I felt like I was watching my death."
"Tornado Week" will include a special about chasers caught up in the El Reno tornado. A new series, "Tornado Alley," will premiere with storm footage, survivor tales and computer graphics to simulate actions of certain tornadoes (Monday, 9 p.m. EDT).
Bettes said his wife, fellow meteorologist Allison Chinchar, who works at Atlanta's NBC affiliate, understood the decision to go back chasing tornadoes. His mom? Not so much.
"I have assured her that we'll be safe, and will call her every day," he said.
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