Tornadoes, Tragedy, and Photography

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Mercy : Prints Available

A large wall cloud develops on a monster supercell in Oklahoma. This was the storm just south of the killer tornado that hit Moore on May 20, 2013.

I was in Ponca City, Oklahoma, on the last day of a five day storm chase. 2,400 miles from Colorado to South Dakota and eventually down to North Texas. Monday, May 20th, and it looked like this day would be the most conducive to producing strong tornadoes; the Storm Prediction Center in Norman had already issued a moderate risk for much of eastern Oklahoma. I left Ponca City around 10 am and began driving south towards Ardmore, my target for the day. Ardmore is a town about 60 miles south of the Oklahoma City area. Numerous storm chasers from around the country and world were headed with me south on I-35. As I got south of Oklahoma City, I passed the entourage from the “Great Tornado Hunt”; a Weather Channel group. The air was murky with poor visibility; the humidity was high and I felt like I was ingesting pea soup with every breath. But everything was still–no sign of the impending doom that would strike that afternoon.

When I got to Ardmore, the first storms of the day were already exploding to the west along a cold front. It looked like the most dominant storm would pass north of Ardmore, so I headed back north, then pulled into a rest stop to check the radar. Storm chasing solo is a tricky and sometimes dangerous proposition, since without a dedicated radar screen and GPS mounted on your dashboard (too much effort for my occasional storm chases) you have to frequently stop to figure out where you’re headed. I checked on the radar and saw a small but intense storm to the north, headed towards Oklahoma City. It was in the exact place that the RUC, a computerized forecast model, had predicted it would occur that afternoon. I had discounted that particular forecast in favor of another computer model (the WRF) which predicted stronger storms occurring to the south. But It was quickly becoming apparent that this northern storm meant business.

I turned on the radio to check for warnings, and I was shocked to hear the voice of Gary England, describing reports of a large, rotating wall cloud southwest of the city. Wall clouds are the clouds that produce strong tornadoes. England is a well-known Oklahoma TV personality and weather forecaster, who gained recognition for his on-the-air tornado warnings, particularly the May 3, 1999 killer tornado that struck the city of Moore. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; at first I thought it was some bizarre dramatization, like an Orson Welles broadcast. But the live broadcast that unfolded was sobering–very quickly the wall cloud metamorphasized into a huge wedge tornado, a mile wide and headed directly towards Moore. England and his crew of spotters in the field were in shock as well; the beast of a storm was following nearly the same path that the 1999 storm had taken. Mass destruction and fatalities were inevitable.

I looked at my map and saw that I was a mere 40 miles south of the tornado–if I gunned it I could probably get south of the beast before it moved away from the area. But I wasn’t really anxious to chase a mile wide EF-4 tornado through city streets that I was unfamiliar with. I decided to stay the course and chase the storm north of Ardmore. That storm developed a large wall cloud, and I was concerned that it might follow suit to ther northern cell, and drop a massive tornado as well. But for whatever reason–we may never know why–the storm I was chasing spared the countryside. A tornado was reported near Pauls Valley, north of Ardmore, but it must have been brief and/or weak, because I didn’t see it.

With the Interstate now closed to the north, I continued south into northern Texas towards another tornado-warned supercell thunderstorm. I continued to listen to the radio reports of the massive destruction in Moore. On the one hand, I was glad I was not part of that horrifying event. It was an ugly black storm and nothing but destructive power to look at. But as a photographer and journalist, I was also dissapointed that I was not present to document and be a part of this somber but historic event. My profession is to warn the public about dangerous weather, and I felt powerless that I was not able to be there for that tragedy and do what I could to help the community. My heart goes out to the victims of the tornado. Nature can be cruel, unforgiving, but it can also be beautiful.

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One Response to Tornadoes, Tragedy, and Photography

  1. Nicolaus Wegner says:

    Really enjoyed the storm chasing stories Stan!

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