Capturing the Storm

A tornado photographer flirts with the danger zone

El Reno was massive, the widest twister in recorded history. Due to its unprecedented wind speeds in excess of 295 mph, it was initially rated an EF5, the indicator used by the National Weather Service to forewarn total destruction. At two and a half miles long, it was the largest storm chasers had ever seen. By the time the vortex dissipated, the El Reno tornado was responsible for eight fatalities, 151 injuries, and an estimated $35-$40 million in damages.
Jennifer Brindley, a professional photographer and amateur storm chaser, watched the ominous structure form from the southeast. She and her chase partner, Skip Talbot, were clear of it at that point. She looked over the flat, grassy plain and said, “I hope all the chasers are safe.” Her words were recorded on the video Talbot was shooting, but she remembers them as though they were hanging in space, printed in a bubble. Fear and the catastrophic atmosphere of storms do strange things to the senses.
“When you think of a tornado,” Brindley explains, “you think of a little funnel, like the Wizard of Oz. But if you imagine the parent structure of the storm touching the ground, that’s what El Reno did.”
As Brindley watched the rapidly expanding cone, she knew her friends Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and Carl Young were headed straight for the tornado’s path. All three were professional chasers working with Twistex, a tornado research experiment founded by Samaras. Their job required getting close to the structure and dropping weather pods in the “bear’s cage,” the part of a storm where a tornado is most likely to touch down. They died that day—the first recorded fatalities in the history of storm chasing as the result of a direct hit by a tornado—when El Reno took an unexpected turn.
The death of the Twistex crew was devastating to the chaser community, though not totally unexpected. The three often put themselves in harm’s way. But the thirty-two-year-old Brindley isn’t a researcher, and she can afford to keep a little distance. She’s a photographer—one of a group of chasers who head out each season, seeking bad weather in exchange for breathtaking photographs.
“I’m not that photographer who says I’ve been taking pictures since I was four years old,” she says. “I didn’t grow up dreaming of this.” When Brindley speaks, there’s a sharp energy in her face, framed by chopped red bangs and art school glasses. In fact, she took only one photography class in junior college, pursuing instead a career in property management. Through that job, she met a local cameraman, Tony Laubach, who worked for Channel 7 News. On the weekends, Laubach chased. Brindley begged to come along, and from the very first trip—which happened to be a bust, with no tornado sightings at all—she was hooked.
Eventually, chasing led to her first tornado, a small one that popped up right on the path in front of her. Her instinct was to capture what she saw. But her technical skills lagged. Early photos were shaky, dark, and out of focus. To get better, she joined a MySpace photography group, posting pictures in exchange for comments. The feedback was brutal. Brindley kept coming back with her latest experiments. Slowly, she improved.
“I learn best by failing,” she says. “If I look back at my work from three years ago and I’m not disappointed in it, I know I’m not growing.”
Now, almost a decade after her first chase, Brindley is a professional photographer, earning most of her money by shooting weddings or boudoir photos out of her studio in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. Chasing and photographing storms is her passion. She drives upwards of 25,000 miles each season, searching for tornadoes. In 2015, she cleared the entire month of June—passing up valuable wedding season income—so she could chase with Talbot as the weather demanded.
“I started out chasing because I really wanted to see it with my own eyes. I didn’t want to drop probes or run from storms. A tornado is one of the rarest things a human being can see. There are very few places they even occur on the planet. The fact that I live in the United States—immediately that makes me lucky.”
There’s no irony—only earnestness—when Brindley mentions luck. She’s seen tornadoes take out whole towns and level buildings into a spray of splinters as though a bomb was dropped. And then, there are her friends killed by El Reno.
Not many people would put themselves in a cyclone’s path, much less call it luck. But for some, the danger is an unfortunate side effect to capturing the storm.

The Waiting Game

On a typical chase day, Brindley wakes up in a second-rate hotel, chosen for economy instead of ease. Talbot’s meticulous forecasting brings them to New Mexico or North Dakota or Corpus Christi, or wherever the weather models have pointed to the possibility of a big trough riding through. A day or so ahead of time, the team gets on the road. Brindley travels by train from Milwaukee to Springfield, Illinois, where Talbot lives with his wife and daughter. From there, they load into their chase vehicle, a retrofitted minivan nicknamed Bubbles, equipped with an acrylic dome up top for shooting video, a touch screen monitor with map software and radar, and a live video preview so Talbot doesn’t have to dink around with the camera in the middle of a storm. The van is a kind of Pimp My Ride storm chaser’s edition. But unlike some chase vehicles, Talbot’s van isn’t armored. It’s just as vulnerable to pounding hail and flying trees as his neighbor’s Honda Civic.
The morning of a possible chase, Brindley grabs her first cup of coffee and heads outside to check the models and surface observations with Talbot. Often, it’s sunny. But if there’s moisture in the air, if it’s muggy, there’s a good chance they’ll be chasing that day. Scientists don’t fully understand how tornadoes form, but they know they need a set of ingredients: moisture, unstable air, some lift. If Talbot’s predicted trends are off and any of those things are missing, it’s what the pair calls a “blue sky bust.” They’ll spend the day at a local tourist attraction, The World’s Largest Ball of Twine, say, or an Amish antiques store. Both Brindley and Talbot are vegans, and that makes sharing meals together easier. They hang out at Subway. Or go for a hike. Talbot squeezes in some work on his computer. Brindley reads.
But days like that squander a chaser’s precious time and money. If Talbot sees anything in the surface conditions, even the smallest chance, they get in the van and drive, positioning themselves near the most instability. “We’ll say, ‘Storms should pop right here. Let’s sit here,’” Brindley says. Inside the van, the radar constantly refreshes. The window’s down, and Brindley’s got her shoes off and her feet hanging out the window. She plays DJ with her phone. Some waiting chasers throw a Frisbee or toss a football, but Brindley and Talbot are “lazy,” she says. They prefer waiting around in the car until they see a telltale blip on the radar followed by a return.
Sometimes, if they’ve guessed right, the storm pops nearby. Sometimes, it’s ten, twenty, even fifty miles away. “Then we’re driving, driving, driving, saying, ‘Crap! We’re never gonna make it. We’re way behind,’” Brindley says.
Hours—sometimes days—of waiting, and then the van is speeding down the road, rushing to catch up. Even before they get there, Brindley can see the storm forming on the horizon. “It starts with little puffy cumulus clouds, and then grows up and out like a mushroom cloud, flattening on top and making the anvil. Once you’re underneath it, you’ve got rain or hail, depending on if you punch [drive] through the core. If you’re coming up from the south, it’s clear air, and that’s my favorite. I’m a storm chaser who doesn’t like rain, doesn’t like driving through a storm.”
One of the reasons Brindley dislikes rain and hail is because the biggest dangers for storm chasers don’t come from the tornadoes themselves, but from satellite damage like hail, lightning, or, worse, other drivers. With the exception of the Twistex guys, who were killed by a freak turn taken by El Reno, storm chasers in fatal chases haven’t been killed by tornadoes. They’ve died from deer rushing on to the road or from drivers beating it down the wrong side of the highway on their way home. These accidents have taken chasers’ lives—perhaps more senselessly—than cyclones themselves.
Ideally, Brindley likes to set back about one or two miles, watching the twister pass from left to right in front of her, as if it’s on a movie screen. The distance provides a crucial buffer that enables her to scoot back if things get rough or if the tornado takes a turn, which all powerful tornadoes eventually do. Right before such a twister expires, it can sometimes surge forth almost in a panic, make a hard left, and then die, disintegrating in midair. If a chaser happens to be in front of the storm—or if the tornado happens to be, as in the case of El Reno, catastrophically unpredictable—she could be in its path. “But if you aren’t in the path,” Brindley says, “you’ll likely be fine. I try never to get in the path for that reason.”

The Scariest Day

An early chase in 2014 took Brindley and Talbot to Tupelo, Mississippi. The chasers were still shaken by the El Reno tornado and the deaths of the Twistex crew. Nerves were running high. To make matters worse, Tupelo is in an area of the south known as “Dixie Alley,” a 151,500-square-mile half-circle that stretches from East Texas across to Georgia, bending up in an arc with southeastern Missouri at its top. Brindley is leery of Dixie Alley and admits that some of the most avid chasers refuse to work there. She calls it “chasing in the jungle.” Like much of the south, Dixie Alley is lush and overgrown, with tall trees in all directions. In some areas, it’s also mountainous. The topography stands in stark contrast to the flat, open plains of Kansas or Oklahoma, a terrain that chasers prefer because they can see across it for what seems like forever. If a chaser is stupid enough or brave enough or just plain unlucky enough to chase in Dixie Alley, the accepted wisdom is it’s best not to actually chase. Just find a perch and watch from there. Wait for the tornado to cross in front of you, click off a few dozen shots, and then pack up and go get dinner.
Brindley and Talbot ended up in Tupelo on April 28. Conditions were ripe for a big storm. The day prior, an EF4 tornado, part of the same system, had taken lives in Arkansas, and the weather service had issued a PDS, a “particularly dangerous situation” warning, which is rarely put out. Brindley and Talbot planned to minimize risk. They decided to conduct a “freeway chase,” sticking to the highway rather than getting trapped on little back roads where the trees reach to heaven and where they could end up blocked with no escape. They parked the van on an off-ramp. Rain beat the roof in a hard rhythm. From across the river to the east, they could see the supercell forming in a gray, gaseous whirl over the city. It was a massive wedge, wider than it was tall. The same type of tornado as El Reno.
“We wanted to go farther east and let it pass right in front of us,” Brindley remembers. “So we drove down the highway a few miles and stopped. We got out of the car, and I looked up at the structure. Well, that’s a good clue. I’m looking up instead of out, and it’s just this massive bowl. But I’m thinking: pictures, pictures. I have my wide-angle lens on, and I start snapping. Suddenly, Skip’s yelling. He’s screaming, ‘Give me the motion! Is it moving left to right?’ Only it’s so loud with the rain falling and the wind flow into the tornado. There’s freeway noise, too. I yell that I think it’s moving right. But it wasn’t. It was expanding.”
Brindley tries to keep an eye on distance to determine safety. “But the things human beings are worst at judging are speed and distance,” she says. “I’m looking at buildings and billboards, but I don’t know. Is that building a mile away? Is it two? Does it seem like the tornado is moving fast? Yeah. It looks very fast. I see it taking over, so I start screaming, ‘We gotta go! Now!’”
Brindley describes tornadoes as “growing, breathing things,” “wet amoebas with huge saggy bellies,” or “a giant morphing spaceship.” She notes that tornadoes, like people, have their own personalities. She knows twisters intimately because she’s witnessed the births of so many, lived their life cycles, and watched them die. The Tupelo tornado was nowhere near death when it began to pick up speed across the river and run straight for them.
Talbot threw the van in drive and took off down the highway. The whole time, his video camera was running. The twister loomed dangerously close, moving at an almost unbelievable rate. On the video, Brindley can be heard shouting, “Go! Go faster! Go!” as she rocked furiously back and forth in her seat. They drove about a mile or two down the road when, suddenly, the tornado moved in a massive sweep across the spot where, moments before, the two had been sitting. Did she still feel lucky?
“I was mad. Mad we waited as long as we did,” Brindley recalls. In the end, though, staying had its rewards. The two got the best footage of the day. They ended up on Good Morning America. Talbot’s video was featured in the spot. The money they made paid for a lot more chasing.

Adrenaline Junkie

“There’s a misperception out there that chasers are adrenaline junkies. But I’m not. I’m the opposite. I have to fight fear to get the shot. The more I learn about chasing and storms and the reality of it, the harder it gets,” Brindley says. She’s a newlywed, and her husband Dan—a reedy ginger who runs tech for UPS—doesn’t like watching her head out for yet another chase. “He worries about me. He makes many a threat to Skip,” she laughs darkly. “But Dan and I have been together a decade. He knows this is what I love.”
And then there’s the evidence: those remarkable pictures. Dusky yellow funnels hunkering in diffuse puddles on the ground. Thin fingers twisting balletically in an almost blue sky. The more she chases, the better the work gets.
Brindley’s not content just to chase and make art. Along with Talbot and other concerned chasers, she contributes to Storm Assist, a nonprofit that turns photos into assistance for storm victims. Storm Assist sells calendars and videos from donated chaser footage, which puts money directly in the hands of communities destroyed by storms. In 2013, the organization gave $15,000 to the public schools in Moore, Oklahoma, after an EF5 killed twenty-four locals there. But sometimes, the gesture is smaller, closer to home. A $50 VISA gift card for canned food or diapers slipped in the hands of someone in line at the Red Cross. Not much, Brindley says, but it’s something. The locals appreciate it, and it helps combat the public perception of chasers as mere thrill seekers.
Brindley says she’s not an adrenaline junkie. But her breath quickens, and her words speed up as she recounts “feeling for” a tornado by stepping outside while the winds shift around her. There’s the shrill whistle through power lines. There’s the hard drag at her back as the tornado sucks air in like a crushing vacuum to build its mass.
“The best thing about chasing to me is . . . every single time I wake up and there’s a possibility for a chase . . . that could be the greatest day of my life,” she says. “It could be a bust where I’m sitting in a parking lot all day. But it could be the greatest day ever.”
That uncertainty, she says, will keep her chasing for a very long time.

About the Author

Laura Jones

Laura Jones is a journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Madison, Wisconsin. She writes for the alternative weekly The Isthmus and Madison Magazine. Currently, she’s an MFA student at Northwestern University, studying creative nonfiction.

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