OWH photographer in the thick of Oklahoma tornadoes

First things first: Don’t try this at home.

I’m serious.

A tornado on  the ground near El Reno Oklahoma just south of Interstate 40 on Friday May 31, 2013.

A tornado on the ground near El Reno, Okla., just south of Interstate 40 on May 31, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

High winds snapped this power pole on from Highway 81 just south El Reno Oklahoma on Friday May 31, 2013.

High winds snapped this power pole on U.S. 81 just south of El Reno, Okla., on May 31, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

A pickup truck drives through a flooded Highline Blvd just east of South Meridian Ave where several trees were also down after a tornado on  the ground near El Reno Oklahoma just south of Interstate 40 on Friday May 31, 2013.

A pickup truck drives through flooded Highline Boulevard just east of South Meridian Avenue where several trees were taken down on Friday May 31, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

An abandoned tent that was damaged by a storm at Fremont State Recreation Area early on Monday May 27, 2013.

An abandoned tent that was damaged by a storm at Fremont State Recreation Area early on Monday, May 27, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

Ominous clouds just east of Shickley Nebraska as the area was under a tornado warning on Monday May 27, 2013.

Ominous clouds are just east of Shickley, Neb., as the area was under a tornado warning on Monday, May 27, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

A wide shot of a storm just before it produced a tornado near El Reno Oklahoma just south of Interstate 40 on Friday May 31, 2013.

A wide shot of a storm just before it produced a tornado near El Reno, Okla., just south of Interstate 40, on Friday, May 31, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

A tornado on  the ground near El Reno Oklahoma just south of Interstate 40 on Friday May 31, 2013.

A tornado on the ground near El Reno, Okla., just south of Interstate 40, on Friday, May 31, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

A semi overturned on Interstate 40 Eastbound just east of El Reno after a  tornado on the ground near El Reno.

A semi overturned on Interstate 40 eastbound just east of El Reno, Okla., on Friday, May 31, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

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.

A rainbow is seen east of US 81 just north of El Reno Oklahoma where earlier tornadoes filled the sky on Friday May 31, 2013. Several tornadoes in the area caused damage and injuries.

A rainbow is seen east of U.S. 81 just north of El Reno, Okla., where earlier tornadoes filled the sky on Friday May 31, 2013. CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

More recent storm photos: NebraskaOklahoma

Chris Machian

About Chris Machian

I was born in Omaha, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with a journalism degree in 2004 and have spent most of my life here. I was a photo intern with the Omaha World-Herald in 2003 and had various roles with the company before becoming a staff photographer. I love to shoot UNO hockey and last year placed video and still cameras inside the goal to provide our readers with another unique perspective. My goal is to use available technology in ways that help our readers understand the stories we cover. For instance, in 2011 I used Gigapan technology to provide a wide view of flooded areas while allowing users to zoom in on the smaller details. My love of this job extends beyond disasters and sporting events; I also enjoy covering the events that help define Omaha's cultural landscape.
This entry was posted in Viewfinder, Viewfinder - Editor's Picks, Viewfinder - Featured and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.