All of us live with things we’d rather not think about. Whether earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or snowstorms, it’s easier to just hope they don’t happen. Where I live it’s tornadoes, and we saw this past week we really do have to think about them.
Late last Sunday afternoon, while I was out mowing the grass, 130-miles south of me Joplin, Missouri was getting flattened by a tornado. The death toll’s well over a hundred now, and continues to climb. There were warnings, and many people heard them and took shelter. But the size and scope of this tornado meant that was no guarantee of safety.
Monday morning I got a call from one of the wire services asking if I was
available to drive down and cover the rescue efforts. I was, but they decided instead to send a second staffer in from Chicago. They did have another request for me – could I try to find a way to get aerial photos of the scene? After many, many calls I found a pilot who could do it, with the right kind of plane. For shooting aerial photos you need an above-wing plane (above the cockpit, so it’s not in the way), a window that opens to shoot out of and one that can fly slow (less wind with the window open). Now it was a matter of waiting for the weather.
The area continued to be pummeled by storms, and while some photographers there were able to get airborne briefly Tuesday, we set our sights for Wednesday morning. It looked like we’d be able
to get in and out then and there was a good chance of broken clouds over Joplin. We needed that because we had to stay high. To help the relief efforts that involved helicopters, the minimum ceiling (altitude) for non-emergency craft flying over Joplin was raised from 1500-ft to 3500-ft. And at that altitude the distance wouldn’t be the only problem – there could easily be clouds between us and the ground.
Flying down that morning we had broken clouds beneath us, but as we got close, they became solid. Not good. So we landed in Joplin and waited. And waited. After about 90-minutes, the forecast said the clouds were breaking up, so we took off to take a look. We got lucky. As we reached the area the tornado hit, the clouds had
moved much higher, so we had an unobstructed view. And what a view! I hope I never see what a nuclear blast looks like, and that this is the closest I come to something like that. From a distance you could tell the path the tornado took by the brown. That brown was the wood from destroyed buildings. As we flew over the main area, there was almost nothing left standing. For pictures, I was better off shooting at the edges of the swath, where some buildings were still standing. Without those structures for reference, it just looked like piles of wood and masonry.
Because of the high altitude, I needed a lot of lens. I used a Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 and 70-200mm f/2.8 with TC-14e attached. Both have VR (image stabilization) which would be critical because of the wind blowing through the window and the bouncing of the plane. I shot with Nikon D7000 and D3S bodies, in NEF (RAW) format, trying to keep the shutter speed above 1/1000 (ISO around 400). The 70-300 actually worked better because I could keep it mostly inside the plane. The longer lens would stick outside the window, getting buffeted by the wind, making it harder to get sharp images.
After 30-minutes overhead, it was time to go home. I downloaded the photos, about 800 in total, while flying. I’ve learned in the past that when shooting from the air in a vibrating, bouncing aircraft, shoot LOTS, because you’ll get a lot of blurry photos. Then started picking out the best to transmit. As we neared home there were heavy storms moving through again (and more tornadoes, it turned out), so we had to land at a small airstrip to wait them out. While on the ground I transmitted 13 photos by tethering my HTC EVO Android phone to the Lenovo W510 laptop, and as we took off for the last leg, transmitted the final four while in the air.
It was a relief to get back on the ground at home. And next time I hear storm and tornado warnings, I’ll take them more seriously. I hope to never see that kind of destruction again.