Thursday, June 05, 2008

5-29-08 Kearney Tornado Photos

Note: for those of you who want art prints or want to license anything shot below, you can order them here.

Prints will be printed in Kodak Metallic Pearlecent paper (very nice stuff) and arrive matted on matteboard, meaning that they will be professionally mounted on a hard surface.

On May 29th, I chased and photographed a storm in central Nebraska. It looked from the get-go like it was going to go gangbusters, and it didn't disappoint, Sadly, the storm produced several tornadoes; a multivortex F2 that struck Kearney, and a F2 that ran over Aurora. I photographed the storm from around Elwood, Nebraska, to just east of Kearney, Nebraska, before breaking off of the storm to check on family living in Kearney. Below are the photos I shot; all can be enlarged in a new window/tab by clicking them. If you are interested in getting prints of any of them, toss me an email at digicana at gmail dot com. I'll put print prices (pretty cheap) at the bottom of this post. Note that there are a ton of photos with this post, so if you're low bandwidth, you'll probably want to mosey along and get a cup of coffee while this loads. So, let's begin...

I started out from Lincoln and drove west to Lexington, Nebraska. From there, I dropped south on highway 283 to try to get ahead of a developing storm to my west. By "get ahead", I mean that I wanted to get to an east-west road option somewhere on the south side of the storm before the storm over ran it. Doing this meant punching rather close to the core of the storm; it was a good three solid minutes of driving through dime and nickel sized hail. When I popped out of the hail, I saw this:


This is the inflow area of the storm, where the warm air is drawn up into the storm like a giant vacuum cleaner on the prairies. To the right, you see the updraft base, which was rushing quickly east (left, in the photo). My goal was to get to the east/west option and jam it east before the updraft base and the mesocyclone (i.e., the rotating part of the storm) arrived; the mesocyclone is a perilous thing to be driving directly under, especially in a tornado warned storm, such as this one. As I made the east/west option at Elwood, the inflow winds (winds flowing into the updraft of the storm -- i.e., the vacuum cleaner winds) were quite strong and actually rocking the car, and I drove through a few waves of what chasers sometimes call "atomized rain" -- a very fine mist that makes the senses perk up a bit as it seems to pop up from time to time near tornadoes. A little hotfooting on highway 23 and I got enough ahead of the storm to snap a few photos:





These are taken at various points along the journey; I kept darting ahead a bit and then letting it overrun me before darting ahead again. You can see in the last couple of shots the sort of horseshoe shape the storm was taking on; here's where I think it began to evolve into an HP, or "high precipitation" type supercell. An HP supercell is the type of storm that produces rain-wrapped tornadoes that are hard to see; very frustrating for photography, of course, but usually far worse for the people in the path of such a storm, who often don't realize there is a tornado bearing down on them until a split second before they're sandblasted by debris.

Now the problem is that highway 23 runs southeast, and the general storm motion at this point was east-north-east. So the storm was getting steadily farther and farther away. It seemed to be accelerating a bit, as well, and I found myself on the back end of the storm. I didn't want to be behind the storm; shooting a storm from behind it -- or from west of it, in this case, is not usually as photogenic as shooting it from ahead of the storm. So, I took a left and jotted up a county road somewhere west of Overton, Nebraska, and then followed east on a somewhat paved road named "747", and then "748". The problem with this is that the rain and wind was getting pretty intense as I went east and was slowing me down quite a bit. Eventually, I made it to the road that intersects with the Odessa interstate exit. It was a tough choice, but rather than linger behind the storm I decided to hop on the interstate and punch the hook, drive under the mesocyclone, and get in front of it. At this time it did not seem to be visibly putting down a tornado, and radar wasn't showing very tight circulation, so this seemed like a safe idea, as I felt I'd likely see any circulation forming before it landed on me. (In retrospect, this was probably a bit too presumptuous on my part, considering the HP nature of the storm.)

I booked it down interstate 80 towards Kearney. I wish I had a picture to show you what this looked like, but this was far too white-knuckle driving to document. Imagine driving into what appears to be an apocalypse, with black as soot clouds overhead, every vehicle on the interstate going half speed with their flashers on through buckets and buckets of rain, before finally exiting the rain and trying to keep your car driving straight through the inflow winds, which were ripping in from the southeast. I even hit a tumbleweed, if you can believe that. Definitely not time to try to snap off a photo!

Now, as I was booking down I-80 and got within 4 miles of Kearney, I noticed something distressing ahead of me. Thin... very thin curtains of rain were falling. This, in itself was not a problem. But the rain curtains were moving very, very, very quickly from the south to the north. Following them with my eye, I saw that as they got north of the interstate, they began curving left, or to the west, in a very large arc. There was clearly a broad, very broad circulation on or very near to the ground, and I was driving right under and in it. I wasn't sure what was going to happen when I hit the rain curtain, as it was really moving. I slowed down a bit and as I popped through the curtain, I got a sudden staccato blast of very strong wind from the south that rocked the car a bit and was gone as fast as it came. And then everything calmed down. I was ahead of the mesocyclone.

After a few miles, I pulled off onto the Kearney interstate exit and parked for a moment. A few other chasers were set up along that road (one was one of the Discovery Channel camera units) and were packing up. I hopped out of the car long enough to snap this photo of the storm rolling into Kearney:


It was a bit hard to reconcile that five minutes before I was actually driving underneath that thing. I didn't linger long in Kearney; the sirens were blasting at full tilt, cars were scrambling to either get out of town or find cover, and a general sense of "Oh No" was radiating from everyone nearby. I booked back onto I-80 and called some family members of mine who live in Kearney and told them not to come up from the basement until the radio told them it was all over. This turned out to be somewhat fruitless advice, as the radio station went off air only a few minutes later and only would play the occasional creepy "boing" sound as multple tornadoes tore through town, exploding power transformers, ripping down buildings, overturning almost an entire 100 car train, and bending dozens of power poles to the ground.

I followed the storm east on I-80, stopping at the Gibbon, Shelton, and Wood River exits. Most of the following photos were taken from the Gibbon exit, with a few of the later shot from the Shelton exit (or somewhere near it.) I kept running into the Discovery Channel guys; they're all over the place this year.










Speaking of the Discovery Channel, I ran into what I suspect is Sean Casey's (a storm chaser featured in Storm Stories who is trying to penetrate a tornado in an armored truck) new vehicle, the TIV 2, which looks like something out of Mad Max:



This is quite an amazing looking vehicle; judging from the rear markings, it appears to have been custom built by a military armored vehicle company. I know the TIV 1 is still out there in service; I've seen it this year while chasing. I haven't watched Storm Stories in a while, so I have no idea if this has been worked into the documentary yet, but if not, I suspect that it will. It's quite a strange sight. And as for roads, well...


I finished off the day by going back to Kearney and surveying the damage and making sure my fam was okay (they were fine, though a tornado did apparently go right down the street of their neighborhood, and destroyed an apartment building and a house and stacked a couple cars on top of each other a few blocks away.) As the sun set, a rather spectacular display of mammatus clouds burned orange over Kearney:



Some time in the next week or so, I will post damage photos. I had a chance to survey and shoot damage inside a destroyed home in Aurora, Nebraska (and offered the shots to the Lincoln newspaper.) It's quite a heartwrenching thing, and it's difficult to understand the kinds of damage that tornadic winds can produce without seeing it yourself.


Husac said...

verry cool journalism...i really love them; thanks for sharing!

Husac @

Tim G, said...

very cool.

BStruthers said...

Absolutely fantastic! Hope all is well for your family members!!

John Painz said...

What an incredible series of photographs. And that car is AWESOME. Thanks for posting this!

Schenck said...

WOW... kickass.

Anonymous said...

I live in northeast Nebraska. My daughter and husband live in Kearney. She sent your fascinating photos of the tornado. It was like I was right in the middle of the tornado. S.H.

Angger Bondan said...

I luv picture no. 5, simply amazing.

mjbns-list1 said...

Excellent photos!

My wife and I drove through this area on I-80 the next day on our way home from Wisconsin. We hadn't heard about the tornado at that point, but knew there had to have been one by all of the destruction we saw.

I'm glad you didn't get tossed off the interestate when you drove under it!

Rock on!

Matt Granz said...

Seeing these photos at flickr, I had no idea that Kearny was where your family was located... and there I was blabbering on about how cool the photos are and definition etc... Your blog brings in the humanity behind the photos. I dig it all. I still dig your photos big time too... both storm related and otherwise. Hope the family is doing well...



Kim Schoneman said...

I have seen many, many photographs of the tornados in the Kearney area and these are by far the most impressive.
I viewed every photo contained in Kearney Hub links and they have nothing of this quality!

Anonymous said...


Daniel said...

Hello Ryan,

I would like to say your work is amazing. These shots of the storm in Kearney are fantastic! I will definitely keep an eye on your blog as I found some of your articles very informative.


Liz D-M said...

Hi! Beautiful work. I live in Kearney; that storm was terrifying to go through.

djsosumi said...


Anonymous said...

I found your blog from a link you posted in a facebook photography contest and let me say- just looking at your pictures scared the heck out of me. I dont know how you can do that!! They are gorgeous though : )

Ryan McGinnis said...

Hi Elisha -- actually, I don't use Facebook and haven't participated in any contests there. But thanks all the same -- glad you like it!

Debbie said...

WOW, I was scared just looking at those pictures. We have some amazing cloud formations here in Florida but nothing like that. I did watch the whole sky rotate one time, it was wild.

Anonymous said...

Your pictures are amazing! I live in Kearney and was at work during the tornados. It just blows my mind how something so terrible and terrifying can end with such an amazing sky. Keep up the good work.It seems you will be very busy this summer.

Anonymous said...

Grew up in Kearney - amazing photos!

wxman said...

I've been following your blog posts and now wow...another set of breath taking photos..those are one of a kind..amazing!!

Miriam Celia Gordon said...

those are so cool! great work! :)

Chris Lemmen said...

Fantastic Photos! We don't get many storms like those up here in central Alberta. I look forward to seeing more of them.

Thanks for posting them.

Anonymous said...

It's amazing photos but it called Tornado Killer and I grew up in North Platte and used to it all my life.

dragonfly888 said...

excellent shots... isn't mother nature something !

Marcsi said...

awesome photos, great journal.

Anonymous said...

Those are both scary and beautiful pictures of the tornado in Kearney. I saw the Storm Chasers on Discovery. That was a very scary storm. My ex called me while it was all going on too.

Poet said...

Awesome photos! It must have been really something to see it in person (provided you survive, which apparently you did).