By May 19th, the entire production crew was on adrenaline. After prepping and shooting for 12-16 hours each day, the shooters needed to organize their data cards, clean their equipment, and hand everything to Terry Rosema. Terry, who had been shooting and chasing each day, also had the job of labeling and securely storing all of the audio/video data. All of a sudden, this chase season was in full swing.
Because today looked like a major tornado day in central Oklahoma, it would be the biggest production day yet: all three Dominators in the field, Reed reporting live to KFOR, and Jim Cantore riding with Reed to report live on the Weather Channel. Add another wrinkle to the scenario: Cantore, who needed to be at Reed’s house in Norman, OK, was anxiously sitting in the Atlanta airport as of 11am thanks to a plane delay.
Reed donned his blue KFOR polo shirt, and downed copious amounts of caffeine (as seen at the beginning of Episode 5 “Warning, Part 1”). This might seem extreme – and it was – but keep in mind that everyone had slept a total of 7 hours in the past 3 days.
By happy coincidence, today was also Ray Bohac’s birthday. He had just seen his first tornado two days ago, but we were all hoping to get Ray another tornado for his big day. We even stuffed some balloons in Dom 1. If Cantore managed to arrive for the chase, he might see his first tornado as well.
By 2pm we couldn’t wait for Cantore any longer. Storms were about to initiate and KFOR’s chief meteorologist Mike Morgan needed Reed to be in the field. The crazy caravan of Dominators pulled onto the highway, shocking all of the surrounding drivers who fumbled to take snapshots with their smartphones.
When we approached our developing supercell northwest of Oklahoma City, I started getting text messages from Cantore’s Weather Channel producer, Michelle. They had just landed and rented an SUV at the airport – the plan was to meet up with us on the road and get Cantore into Dom 3.
What followed was a mad dash of trying to guide Cantore to Reed in the middle of the chase. Their cell signal didn’t allow for a sustained phone call or data – they could only communicate via text. Through a stream of about 300 text messages I tried to give them directions down rural roads with names like “N2830.” My biggest fear was that they’d drive down a dirt road in the middle of a rain core and get stuck.
Our supercell quickly went tornado-warned, and miraculously Cantore caught up with us. He jumped into Dom 3 right as the atmosphere kicked into high gear. What followed was sustained tornado event which we couldn’t have anticipated. While live on KFOR and The Weather Channel, Dom 3 (along with Cantore) intercepted its first tornado – an EF-1 – just east of I-35 in Edmond.
All cameras were rolling in all cars, and all of our shooters were in top form. Mike Scantlin used the top hatch on Dom 3 to shoot the tornado crossing I-35. The toughest part of shooting good tornado video is keeping your emotions in check and not allowing yourself to “feel” anything. You have to concentrate on framing, focus, and exposure instead of the excitement (or fear) of the moment. As shooters, we knew we could trust our chasing partners to look out for our safety.
The same supercell put down a second tornado, which Dom 1 (my vehicle) intercepted. With Kevin Barton driving, and Bill and Ray watching up close, we drove through a wide area of airborne debris. We didn’t know at the time, but Reed was screaming at us to slow down. Soon enough, Sean and Reed took matters into their own hands and sped around Dom 1 to intercept in front of us. In the span of 30 minutes, Dom 3 had intercepted two tornadoes.
Terry Rosema, as we discovered later, had captured these stunning moments on video by hanging out his passenger-side window. However, this tornado wasn’t finished and it wasn’t dissipating. Within minutes, this tornado – without a fully condensed funnel – was tearing buildings apart. The funnel started to extend to the ground and broaden into a mile-wide wedge.
The next part was especially difficult – we crossed the tornado’s damage path and observed homes that were either partially or fully destroyed. The first instinct was for everyone to abandon the chase and conduct search and rescue. We shooters followed to document the search, which for me was a highly unnatural act. I wanted to put my camera down, however I’ve always felt that it’s just as important to document a tornado’s damage as the tornado itself. There’s a tendency to think that tornadoes are exciting and thrilling, but viewers need to understand that tornadoes have a very real dark side.
Everyone pitched in, including Cantore, and thankfully there were no injured people. However, there were tragic injuries to livestock, including a cow that was trapped under a metal fence (as seen in Episode 6, “Warning, Part 2”). We were able to get the cow on its feet, but it had a punctured lung and probably didn’t have much longer to live. I debated about whether to include this scene in the final episode, but in the end I decided that it was important for the audience to see everything we witnessed.
KFOR quickly needed us back on the chase – Shawnee, OK was now tornado-warned. We drove as fast as possible to Shawnee, and arrived just in time to see a white stovepipe tornado crossing I-40 into Shawnee. The news was not good. This EF-4 tornado had destroyed many homes and caused one death. We dropped Cantore off so he could cover the story for the Weather Channel, and planned to meet him the following day.
As eventful, draining, and tragic as this day had been, the following day, May 20th, looked even bigger.
To be continued next time.
Executive Producer, Tornado Chasers