Most people run away from tornadoes. Roger Hill goes toward them.
For 28 years he has chased after and photographed extreme weather, and at last count had come face to face with 655 tornadoes. "It's the adrenaline," he explains. "The object is to get close and see the power and beauty and document it."
But there are ways to go about it that are safe—and ways that are definitely unsafe. "Think of the photographer looking to document grizzlies. You can approach and take a picture. But if you make a wrong move you can get killed."
As the director of Silver Lining tours, a company that specializes in extreme-weather travel, Hill spends about four months on the road. When I caught up with him by phone, he was running a tour and keeping an eye on a storm developing just north of Dallas.
First of all, how do you find a tornado?
When I get up in the morning, I look at the computer models to find the best potential for a severe storm. We have wi-fi, weather instrumentation, and live Doppler radio in our vehicles. By mid-morning, we're on the road. In fact, we were in Oklahoma City yesterday.
Did you see the tornado that hit Moore?
No, but we saw the storm develop. Usually it takes a few hours for a storm to develop a tornado. But as soon as this one went up, it started rotating and was ready to produce a tornado. I had a really close call in Joplin, Missouri, two years ago and decided I would never get stuck in a storm in a city. So even though we saw the storm develop, we decided to head south and chase another one.
What's the cardinal rule when trying to photograph a tornado?
Stay out of its path. If you've never chased a storm, best to find somebody who is experienced in doing so. You can approach a storm from the wrong direction and run into it without knowing.
How do you avoid doing that?
Most severe storms move in an easterly direction. You want to position yourself to the southeast, looking west/northwest. Also you will be out of range of the hail and you can clearly see [the storm]. Not only does hail obscure your view; a baseball-size projectile of hail traveling at 120 miles an hour can kill you.
Always park where you have an escape route. When I am photographing a tornado, I want to have a road that will take me away from it. I'll always park at a four-way intersection.
Stay away from cities. People get crazy. Traffic stands still. When the power goes out, so do the traffic lights. Also, although lightning is phenomenal to take a picture of, if you get within three or four miles of it, it's time to get out. Obviously you don't want to be the highest object around. And stay away from trees. If a bolt hits a tree, it can bounce off a tree and hit you. My tripod was hit by lightning in 1995, and even though I was ten feet away it knocked me down. If you don't have respect for storms you can get yourself in trouble.
How did your passion for tornadoes develop?
I grew up in eastern Kansas. What got me interested was a mile-wide F-5 tornado that went through Topeka when I was nine years old. I had a close call. We were in the basement of our house and it was destroyed. We moved in with my grandparents in Missouri while we built another house.
Wouldn't it have been more prudent to move to another part of the country without tornadoes?
Every part of the United States has some weather or geology that is bad for your health.