Storm chasing couple's whirlwind life

It's the long Fourth of July weekend, and we can only hope that bad weather doesn't spoil any of your holiday plans. But one Oklahoma couple actively chases bad weather, video camera in hand. Manuel Bojorquez tagged along with them for our "Sunday Morning: Cover Story:

They're among the most destructive forces of nature: tornadoes that roam the Midwest this time of year in shapes both mesmerizing and terrifying.

In Oklahoma, where tornado warnings can mean the difference between life and death, there are no bigger names in storm-chasing than Val and Amy Castor, a husband-and-wife team who serve as a mobile early warning system for approaching storms.

The Castors are part of a network of storm chasers who broadcast live for Oklahoma City's CBS station, getting as close as possible to pinpoint a tornado's path.

"Most people would run away from these things; here you are driving into them," said Bojorquez. "What's that like?"

"Well, it can get pretty intense," Amy laughed.

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Storm chasers Amy and Val Castor, who broadcast for CBS Affiliate KWTV in Oklahoma City.

CBS News

Though most common in the Midwest, tornadoes can happen in all 50 states.

So far this year more than 1,000 tornadoes have been reported across the country. This past week alone, 35 tornadoes touched down in a broad swath through Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. Thirty-four people have been killed in 2017 so far -- almost double the number of people who died all last year. 

And damage from major tornadoes like the one that hit south Georgia in January can run into the tens of millions of dollars.

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An object of the Castors' mutual attraction.

CBS News

Val Castor has been chasing tornadoes for 25 years. He was working as a studio camera operator at Oklahoma City's Channel 9 when he volunteered one stormy day in April 1991, quickly proving that storm chasing should be his fulltime job.

"We ended up getting video of three tornadoes that day," he recalled. "And it just so happened that none of the Channel 9 photographers were able to capture any video that day, and so they were very excited about that."

Val became the station's first storm chaser, and a household name. A few years later, a meteorology student named Amy asked to ride along for a college project.

"I really got hooked at that point," Amy said. "I thought this is so fascinating to actually be in the field and experience it first-hand."

And that school project? "That never happened! I met him and we started storm-chasing, and then about a year later we started dating, got engaged and then got married."

The Castors now have six children, and a devout faith they rely on before going on the hunt.

"Just put us where we need to be, Lord, and keep us safe, you know, in the process."

They took Bojorquez storm chasing in their decked-out, three-quarter-ton truck. Val drives and broadcasts; Amy helps navigate and runs the camera.

"There's a lot of work involved to try and get this all put together," Amy said. "Make a shot look great for the news and be mindful of what our purpose is.

"It's a really high-stress environment, especially when you have a tornado on the ground."

When asked what their closest call has been, Val recalled when they were hit by two or three "small" tornadoes.

"Was there ever a moment when you thought, oh man, this is it?"

"I have a lot of those," Amy laughed.

One of those came in 1999 as a deadly category-five tornado roared through Moore, Okla.

"Sometimes when I'm just so focused on getting close, getting up to it, I'm just blocking everything else out," Val said. "And so she says, 'Well, I think we better stop and not get up so close.'"

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A "rope tornado" captured on camera by the husband-and-wife storm chaser team of Val and Amy Castor. 

Val and Amy Castor

"He's watching the road and so having an extra set of eyes really helps," said Amy. "Because I can turn around and look behind us. And that's happened quite a few times, that a tornado developed right behind us."

In 2013, they decided to back away from a tornado in El Reno, Okla. "Absolutely the biggest tornado I'd ever seen," Val said. "And I could see that it was growing and very unpredictable."

Unpredictable -- and deadly. The tornado took an unexpected turn that killed three storm-chasers.

Bojorquez asked, "Do you ever have that moment when you think, Maybe it's not worth it -- we have six children at home?"

"Oh, I do, yes," Amy replied. "But then I have to think again, you know, the greater purpose behind it is saving lives"

Has anyone ever come up to them and said "You saved my life"?  "Quite a bit," Val said.

"It's quite humbling, too," Amy added.

It's not just tornadoes. Last year the Castors started out covering a wildfire, and ended up saving a man.

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A man whose grader was stuck and about to be enveloped in flames was rescued by the Castors.

CBS News

The couple's need for a front-row seat to Nature's wrath may be rubbing off. Their eldest daughter, Grace, snapped a photo of a tornado near their home before running into the storm cellar last spring. "It was really cool, it was my first one!" Grace said. "I'd never seen one before. It was really awesome."

But for at least the next few tornado seasons, it'll just be mom and dad in the truck.

When asked if storm chasing ever gets old, Val replied, "No. We have chased five days in a row, okay? We have probably driven around 4,000 miles in the last week. That part, you know, is starting to get a little tiring, but it doesn't get old. We're still excited every time we go out."

       
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