The Scariest Beauty I’ve Ever Witnessed!
I was watching the news coverage of the tornadic activity in the Midwest. The iPhone chimed, a text from my dear friend in OK. All I see on the iPhone sitting next to me is a photo of a flattened home! Dread instantly grabs me as I lunge for the phone and quickly touch the photo to see the text message. No words, just another photo of a house, half gone! I text back quickly, I knew it wasn’t his home but wanted to know what was up. The Falcon Lake tornado that took a couple of lives is just a hop and skip from his house and he was there as a first responder. Our heart goes out to all those folks who have had their lives devastated by this amazing act of nature! While none live there now, Sharon’s family come from Joplin and tornadoes have come up in conversation more then once in the last three decades. It is a scary part of life in Tornado Alley.
In 2007, my dear friend Kalebra Kelby said, “I’m going storm chasing.” Without hesitation I said, “I’ll go with you!” There was no hesitation and by the next day I was all set for a May, 2008 storm chase out of OK. I wanted to see a tornado first hand and man, did we seeing 11 the first day! I will never forget standing on that ridge watching as CNN reported live, “A hog farm was just vaporized” as we watched hogs fly. That was my first tornado to ever see and its power though barely a EF1 was jaw dropping! Even so, it didn’t prepare me for what I was about to see a few days later in NE.
Kearney, NE, 29 May, 2008. Rail cars were picked up and dropped like match sticks as the tornado touched down in the middle of town and did what tornadoes do. No one was killed but it was the scariest beauty I’ve even seen in my life! It was very surreal, we’re racing towards the wall cloud hovering over Kearney (strangely, a town I now frequent while working with Sandhill Cranes) like some alien craft from Independence Day while residence are racing in the opposite direction. I was looking and shooting out the van window as we drove northeast along the dry line (the top photo is from that moment) and I could see the terror, fright and absolute fear in the faces passing us. I thought as we drove past this home, “Will it be here next time I drive by?” You can’t witness such an event without it leaving its mark. There isn’t a tornado I hear about to this day when those faces don’t come rushing to the front of my consciousness. And at the same time, being a photographer, I was so pulled into the magical world of light the tornado produces. That’s why I wanted to storm chase in the first place, the light and the photography but it soon became very obvious that it was the human element that brings the importance of storm chasing to the forefront. That’s because those chasers while out for the video coverage are the eyes on the ground letting the world know where that tornado has touched down. That’s still a critical element not detected by our technology. That knowledge does save lives.
I’m in KS now, I’m not storm chasing but I will be watching the skies. I’m am completely sucked in to the power and beauty of nature in all of its forms which includes weather. I dedicated a whole issue of the BT Journal to storm chasing and if you’re looking for even more info and to see some incredible storm photography, I highly recommend you chech out Jim Reed, an amazing person and photographer! All of those who have had their lives changed by this beast, our prayers go out to you. Having seen this first hand, I realize there is little if nothing I can do and while it seems so trivial I can only relay the one thought I always have. The sun will rise tomorrow.