Hero TV meteorologist on how his powerful message helped save lives as tornado closed in
As a deadly category four tornado closed in on the tiny town of Amory, Mississippi, TV weatherman Matt Laubhan was running out of ideas.
"I was coming to a point where I knew I was at a loss for words," he told The Independent. "I had said [street] intersections, I had said times... I knew that what I was saying wasn't enough."
As chief meteorologist at Mississippi broadcaster WTVA, it was Laubhan's task on the evening of Friday 24 March to track the various twisters wreaking havoc across the state and to convince Amory's residents that something far more dangerous than the average storm was bearing down upon them.
Nagged by a feeling that he was not quite getting through to people, the 40-year-old father of two did something he had never done before on network television and blurted out a prayer: "Dear Jesus, please help them. Amen."
In the aftermath, residents told The Independent that his grave and urgent demeanor probably saved lives in a town that sometimes takes a relaxed attitude to frequent "tornadic weather".
"In that moment it just kind of came out," said Laubhan in an interview from his TV van, while driving to the town of Winona to assess the damage there.
At least 21 people in Mississippi and one in Alabama were killed by the tornadoes over the weekend, with some neighbourhoods completely flattened.
'Men just won't go to shelter. We're stubborn'
Laubhan says that he has covered a lot of "big, bad tornadoes", but Friday's twister in Amory was different.
He had spent much of the past week studying the infamous "super outbreak" of 2011, when more than 175 tornadoes including a category five – the highest – killed 324 people across mutiple states and caused $10 billion in damages.
This tornado, he explains, looked very similar on radar and was taking an almost identical track. As it approached Amory, Laubhan was getting alarming reports from Rolling Fork and Silver City, where people had been killed.
"One of my storm chasers that told us behind the scenes that he had been there at the scene of another fatality in Silver City, while paramedics were resuscitating a child for 20 minutes. You don't resuscitate somebody for 20 minutes and they have a successful life after that. They might live but they're gonna have brain damage."
As the storm progressed, the danger became unmistakeable. The Amory tornado was touching down more often and for far longer than usual – a bad sign – and its profile on radar was so obviously worrying that his nine-year-old daughter could have picked it out.
At that point, says Laubhan, "you didn't need an expert on the air, you needed somebody that could convince people to go to shelter. That's all people needed – somebody that said the right thing at the right moment so that they save their own life."
In fact, it was far than certain they would do so. "Research tells us that men in particular just won't go to shelter. We're stubborn," he explains. "And the only way to convince us is by our wives nagging us."
That is partly why, as he struggled to communicate the severity of the danger on Friday night, he had a mounting feeling that he was not succeeding.
"I'm having that moment where I realised that I'm trying to tell people something so that they can save themselves, and what I'm saying is not sufficient. I took a deep breath, and that [prayer] just kind of fell off," he says.
'I do believe there's a higher power'
The moment challenged Laubhan's traditional walls between his public role as a reporter and his private faith as a committed Christian, as well as the "compartmentalisation" that usually keeps his emotions in check while reporting on difficult events.
As the tornado approached, he knew that Amory area had seen bad storms before, and was filled with horror at the prospect of having to tell them that it was about to happen again.
"Most meteorologists become meteorologists because they're scared of storms as a child," Laubhan says. "It is that fear that drives the thirst for knowledge, and so that fear you turn into a passion.
"I don't fear tornadoes anymore... but you do find yourself partially in it. And unlike a lot of other professions where you can step away for a moment, as a [TV] meteorologist, the best chance for people to survive is with me continuing to talk.
"Whether it was true or wasn't true, in my mind I felt I was becoming affected by the moment, and I needed help to be my peak. So that prayer was as much for me to communicate what I needed to communicate as it was for the people at home."
Laubhan regularly prays at the end of his Facebook Live broadcasts, which he says allow more scope for personal views. By contrast, he had long felt that it would be inappropriate on network TV because "those are not my airwaves – those are the public airwaves".
He continues: "At the same time, I do believe that there's a higher power. I do believe that He can cause people to act in a way that I can't, and I do believe he works through me and works through people.
"But you want to make sure that you don't alienate that person... I do think you have to have respect, and I have to trust that the people that need to hear it at that moment will hear it."
After the broadcast he took a 24 hour break from checking his phone and emails. When he returned, he had been inundated with hundreds of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages, most of which were positive.
As for the few negative comments, Laubhan says he welcomes them. "This is an opportunity to talk to people about what I believe is very important, which is that there's a God out there that loves them – specifically them – and wants to be there for them.
"Even those folks that are unhappy are thinking about something that maybe they wouldn't be thinking about today. I have never brought anybody to Christ – only God does that – but God does need people to plant the seed. And so if this is a seed that's been planted, I look forward to see how it's watered."