Near miss on the plains — Tornado passing behind farmhouse

Tornado passing behind farmhouse - rural South Dakota
Tornado passing behind farmhouse - rural South Dakota

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Photographic triage. How else could I describe my shooting style while photographing this tornado on the South Dakota plains?

This picture was taken from a moving car that was running parallel to the funnel, trying to keep up. Carefully considered compositions go out the window in situations like this. I shot a few frames whenever we passed an interesting foreground subject like this farmhouse.

Memories Awakened

A photograph like this holds special meaning for me, awakening memories of a similar event from my childhood. I was around five when a tornado passed near our house in rural Arkansas. We had no storm shelter, so my mother pushed me under a bed. She tried to crawl under the bed too, but couldn't fit, so she squeezed up against the side.

The tornado left our house untouched, passing to the north and knocking down a few power poles. It did little damage to the landscape, but considerable damage to my psyche. I became terrified — cripplingly terrified — of storms.

In the years that followed, the nausea of fear would return at the first sign of thunder, lightning, or even dark clouds. I was grateful when we moved into a house with a basement; it became a sanctuary whenever the sky darkened. Storms weren't exactly rare in Arkansas — it's part of tornado alley — so I spent a lot of time in the basement.

In my tweens, I had a couple of years of counseling with a therapist in Memphis. During that time, my fear did lessen. It didn't disappear, but it became less debilitating.

Perhaps the counseling helped, but I suspect something my parents did helped even more. They encouraged me to read books about weather. Learning the science behind storms — understanding how they worked — made them less mysterious. They ceased to be inexplicable agents of malice.

A fascination with weather began to grow. At the University of Illinois, I minored in atmospheric science. In the mid-eighties, I came across Stormtrack, a magazine for severe weather enthusiasts edited by researcher Tim Marshall. I read Tim's how-to guide on storm chasing, and began hunting funnels in the corn fields of central Illinois. During this time, my irrational fear of storms all but vanished, replaced with a respect for their dangers that I consider healthy and appropriate.

In recent years, I've chased more seriously, both on my own and with Cloud 9 Tours, a company that acts as a guide for finding severe weather in the great plains. My passions for photography and for storms tend to feed each other.

Of course, I see the irony here — that a person consumed by a fear of storms could later become a person who actively seeks them out. I've learned, however, that my experience is not unique. More than one storm chaser has told me that their love of severe weather grew out of a terror of storms when they were young.