Things are supposed to change in 20 years. But milestones really give you a chance to see just how much they have changed.
One of the biggest areas where change is obvious is in storm chasing.
On May 3, 1999, I left the Chickasha Express-Star office a little early to go grab an extra camera battery and my flash and see what the severe weather was going to do. I never chased storms for a scientific reason. Unlike Bill Paxton and Heather Hunt in one of the worst movies ever, I’m not trying to make Dorothy fly so we can get great data on the storms. (Editor’s note: Tying yourself to something with a leather strap inside a barn that takes a direct hit by a tornado isn’t a great survival plan. Also, don’t try to drive through a house that a tornado magically rolled onto the road in one piece. That movie is so awful in so many ways.)
I was a young editor when I realized the weather affects everyone. As Jesus said in Matthew 5, “God makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
I took a storm spotter class at the local technology center when I first started working for a newspaper. I have gone either in-person or online almost every year since to be a storm spotter.
When I chase a storm, it is to capture a news event and set up follow-up stories. I’ve seen about a dozen tornados in 25 years. From the smallest dustup to one of the biggest tornados ever recorded, from tiny ropes that touch down and immediately go away to another one that I tracked with a friend for more than 80 miles across south-central Kansas, I’ve seen almost everything.
On May 3, 1999, I knew something was brewing. As I started to leave to go check it out, my wife got home from her job at a preschool. I told her to jump in.
She had no idea how to use a Nikon FM2 camera with no automatic settings, but she was going anyway. I assumed I would get to park and get out and shoot my own photos anyway.
No one had mobile phones with weather apps back then. We tuned in weather reports on local radio stations and hoped they would talk about the storm we were interested in. On that day, our storm was getting a lot of talk. When I first parked on an outcropping near Verden, Oklahoma, waiting for the wall cloud to drop a funnel, I was expecting a picturesque tornado ripping through a wheat field with the sun in the background. That wasn’t quite how it happened.
When the first funnel dropped, it was a lot further east than I expected listening to the radio forecasters. After the first funnel dropped, two more soon followed and they began circling around under one large rotation. It made great photos. Unfortunately, they were coming right at us. Storm chasing is a lot safer from behind the storm.
We jumped in the beat up old Buick and flew down a muddy section line road in golf-ball size hail hoping that we wouldn’t get caught. We made it to Highway 62 and darted East and allowed the worst of the storm to pass behind us - but not before we saw homes taking direct hits. I got us out of the hail core and behind the storm in time to see the one now quarter-mile wide funnel ripping through the Chickasha Municipal Airport and other homes in the area. We followed the storm as it became a mile-wide monster tearing home foundations out of the ground and leaving a swatch of red mud where it swept through our county.
Beyond the manual camera with a roll of color film inside, that is when today’s technology would have been helpful. I had to try to find my staff. One hid in a basement. Another came out of her closet and shot the huge funnel from her front porch. Another had photos as it went off in the distance.
To find my staff wasn’t as easy as a group text from a cell phone. I was using pay phones and calling homes. Some phone systems were knocked out. It was crazy. I only had a little over an hour to get back west to Anadarko where the only one-hour photo center was open until 8 p.m. If we wanted these photos in the next newspaper, I had to get everyone’s film and get over there.
Somehow, we got it all together and the weird thing was, as that storm continued to travel on a path into northeast Oklahoma, another tornadic storm set up west of Anadarko. We were able to sit in the parking lot listening to the radio broadcasts and watch the other storm on the horizon while our photos were developed.
The next day, we had to shut down access to the newsroom. We had to have eight pages of tornado coverage ready to print by 10:30 a.m. Storm stories, damage stories, human interest and clean-up stories were all being written.
We made that deadline and served the community well with information looking back at the storm and looking ahead to how the area could help those affected.
It would have been a lot easier now. Instead of my wife who was an untrained photographer with a manual camera, my storm chasing wingman is my 15-year-old son, helping me read the radar on his cell phone. Just this week, we were behind a rotating storm and watched it fizzle out while we were chasing it.
If a funnel would have formed, we could have uploaded photos and videos of it to our website from the side of the road before we even returned to the office.
A lot has changed in 20 years, but the weather still affects all of our readers and we will still be there to tell the stories when it does.
Kent Bush is publisher of Shawnee (Oklahoma) News-Star.