First things first: Don’t try this at home.
I have Facebook friends who post tornado photos using their iPhones. Using an iPhone to photograph a tornado? You’re too close. Far too close.
Reality television and continuous storm coverage have glamorized storm chasing and seemingly reduced the risk for onlookers to join in. It has almost become an extreme sport for some. Although I must differentiate between those who are severe weather spotters for the safety of their communities and those who are out there for the thrill.
I never wanted to be a storm chaser. But as a journalist, I have a duty to inform our readers.
Before covering Mother Nature’s fury in the safest way possible, I attend an annual severe storm spotter training class hosted by the National Weather Service in Valley.
The class is designed for Omaha-area men and women whose job involves warning cities of inclement weather that’s more than just tornadoes. The class is a great start, but it’s hardly an equal substitute for the years of training that professional storm chasers have.
For years I have covered Nebraska’s severe weather, never seeing so much as a funnel cloud. And the same held true this past Memorial Day.
Tornado sirens woke me in the early hours. I checked to make sure I wasn’t in immediate danger, then grabbed my photo gear and headed outdoors.
Reports of a possible tornado, along with high winds, led me near the Fremont State Recreation Area. I was worried about the holiday weekend campers.
I chose a safe route to the park and discovered most of the area abandoned with tents and other camping gear tossed about.
Dale Davis of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission was using a fishing pole to retrieve a tent that had blown into the water. He wanted to ensure no one was inside.
Later that day, more severe storms and tornadoes appeared. I again loaded up my car, this time driving to Shickley, Neb., just as a tornado warning was issued. The town of Edgar, 17 miles west, was struck by an EF2 tornado. I did not see the that tornado.
Then came Oklahoma.
A few days later, I drove to Oklahoma City to cover the Nebraska softball team as it competed in the Women’s College World Series. The recent destruction in Moore, Okla., was fresh in the minds of athletes, coaches and fans.
On Friday, an off day for the Huskers, I photographed practice but kept a close eye on weather forecasts. Oklahoma City had a tornado target on its back for the late afternoon and early evening.
As predicted, severe storms exploded just west of town. I gathered my gear and headed toward the area.
When driving into storms, I forever fear getting into a car accident by someone documenting tornadoes another not paying attention to the road. I fear that more than the tornado itself.
The reason? In tornadic storms, I keep my distance. I respect the storm. I track the tornado and leave myself a few miles should the storm make an unexpected turn – much like it did near El Reno, Okla.
I photographed the El Reno storm cell as it dropped several tornadoes from the sky just south of Interstate 40. The storm then quickly turned and crossed the interstate, causing injuries and casualties.
Shooting the tornado, I used my 300 mm telephoto lens, which I packed for covering the softball game. It allowed me to take photos at a safe distance.
I kept looking all around me to make sure no other storms or debris snuck up. I didn’t block the road, but pulled safely to the shoulder. Too many tornado tourists clog roads while slowing down to document the storm for their friends on social media. There were several times I was pinned down by people clogging roads for no apparent reason.
I heard reports that three of the dead were experienced storm spotters, and several weather channel staffers were injured when they got too close. I can only assume they have far more experience and education than me. It gives me more respect for the awesome power of nature.
Tornadoes, whether you’re photographing them or simply trying to survive them, are dangerous. Respect the storms and their hellish potential, and shelter yourself and your family. Facebook photographs just aren’t worth the risk.