In search of the perfect storm

The race for ever more sensational "torn porn" is on 

The hazards faced by those attempting to shoot close-up video footage of tornadoes cannot be overstated. Tornadoes can form suddenly and with little warning, and photographers who turn down the wrong road at the wrong time can find themselves discomfited by 200-mph winds containing jagged bits of automobiles, sheets of razor-sharp aluminum siding, and lancelike sections of splintered fence posts.

Yet as anyone who watches television knows, the potential consequences have not stanched the flow of tornado videos. Nothing, apparently, boosts ratings like nature out of control, and in recent years blurry scenes of tornadoes hoovering up subdivisions, livestock-filled barns, and blue-sparking electric substations—examples of a genre sometimes referred to as "torn porn"—have become a staple on broadcast and cable networks.

Supplying the tornado-video industry is a coterie of camera-toting semi-professional storm chasers who converge on the Great Plains each spring, during the height of tornado season. Many drive cars elaborately accessorized with multiple antennae and inscrutable meteorological devices; when they meet up at a parking lot, the gathering can resemble a fleet of landlocked fishing trawlers. Although some pursue storms for the sheer fun of it, a good many hope to cover the cost of their obsession, and perhaps even to turn a small profit, by selling footage to television documentarians, local news outlets, or The Weather Channel. Chasers say that they typically earn $20 to $50 for each second of video aired, although this can go as high as $200 a second, depending on quality, quantity, and exclusivity.

One might assume that the ongoing film festival of tornado carnage would translate into heady times for freelance storm videographers. Surprisingly, that's not the case. Storm chasers who just a few years ago could count on pocketing a few hundred dollars or more for a well-composed, in-focus video of a twister are today uniformly gloomy about their prospects.

For one thing, supply now outstrips demand. What the televised videos don't show is that the person shooting the scene is often just one of a dozen or more photographers parked haphazardly along the side of the same road, all shouting "Tornado on the ground!" and all getting basically the same shot.

What's more, the sorts of roadside videos historically obtained by the semi-pros have fallen out of favor. "In the early 1990s producers wanted steady tripod shots, smooth pans, artistic footage," says Greg Stumpf, a meteorologist and an experienced storm chaser and photographer. "Today they want the thrilling, shocking, Cops-like video—handheld and all jerky, with the focus going in and out, and a lot of screaming." This kind of footage is as often as not obtained by camcorder-owning amateurs—storm chase-ees rather than chasers—who impulsively grab their cameras as a tornado approaches and, through either bravado or stupidity, shoot well past the time they should have taken cover. (Aficionados often identify these clips by the incidental comments made during the filming. Among the better-known amateur videos are "Get Away From the Window!" and "God, I Hate Oklahoma.") The amateurs tend to be honored to have their tapes run on TV and often provide them to producers at no charge.

The upshot of all of this is an effort among some veteran storm videographers to get hard-core footage that amateur photographers could not possibly stumble on. Footage, say, from inside a tornado's vortex. Of course, no matter how motivated a storm chaser may be to obtain such a shot, certain tactical and safety problems present themselves. But what if one could deploy an impregnable video system—in essence, a small, heavily fortified bunker containing a running video camera—directly under a tornado?

Norman, Oklahoma, is the home of the National Severe Storms Laboratory and a favored layover spot for storm chasers waiting out lulls in bad weather. I visited the town last May, because I had received reports that several storm chasers had in fact developed military-strength tornado cameras, and that a sort of small-scale space race to obtain usable footage with them was under way. The reports weren't hard to confirm. Wandering around the parking lot of my motel one sunny morning, I came upon four storm chasers who had been crisscrossing the Plains with their tornado cams in tow.

Much of the inspiration for these would-be pioneers has come from the tantalizing near success of one of the people I spoke with there—Charles Edwards, an enterprising Oklahoman who built and deployed the first tornado cam. (Edwards is also a groundbreaker in storm tourism, and has been leading vans of waiver-signing tourists in search of severe weather since 1996.) Edwards constructed a camera housing out of fiberglass and lead; it was about the size and shape of the portable gas tanks commonly used in boats with outboard motors, and was painted the same bright orange, a color chosen to make the device easier to find after a storm.

In May of 1997 Edwards placed his camera in what he hoped would be the path of an oncoming tornado outside Wichita, Kansas. He had planned well: the tornado scored a direct hit. When he recovered the device, the following day, the paint had been sandblasted clean off one side of the housing, and the camera had been so badly mangled that it took him three days to extract the videotape.

The footage is spectacular—up to a point. A menacing if somewhat murky wedge-shaped tornado vectors toward the camera, but at a critical juncture—when the funnel is all but upon the camera—the storm's fierce winds slop a thick coat of mud across the lens, fully obscuring the tornado from view. (Edwards nevertheless sold the footage to a producer for $8,000 and licensed the audio to a museum for use in a facsimile storm shelter.)

The following year Edwards built a new camera housing with several refinements, which he described to me when not lamenting the day's disappointingly pleasant weather. These included a recessed lens, a mud trap, and a grenade-pin-style power switch; he added the switch after debris from a tornado turned the camera off. Edwards has deployed the new device four times, but each attempt was thwarted by a technical glitch or a dissipating storm.

Also in the parking lot was Jim Leonard, of the Florida Keys, who assists Edwards on his storm tours and is one of the original auteurs of storm video. Leonard has been chasing tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons for twenty-eight years. He recently produced a six-hour, three-video compilation of tornado-chasing highlights, which he sells by mail order for $50. But because storm videos are aired so liberally on television these days, the direct-to-consumer tornado-video market—a once lucrative niche—has pretty well tanked. Leonard told me that so far he has sold "about four copies."

When the subject of tornado cams came up, Leonard disappeared briefly into the back of a minivan, emerging with his version. In truth, the device is not all that impressive—it's really just a camera inside a waterproof housing of the sort used for underwater video photography. (It's particularly handy for filming hurricanes, Leonard pointed out.) His plan is correspondingly simple: "Just lay it out in front of a tornado" and hope somehow to find it later. This may be an overly optimistic strategy, given that items sucked up by tornadoes are often located great distances from where they started. (The longtime record is held by a canceled check that traveled 225 miles, from Stockton, Kansas, to Winnetoon, Nebraska, in 1915.)

The other two storm chasers I met in the parking lot had given more thought to recovery plans. Dave Lewison, a mechanical engineer from upstate New York, worked with a friend last spring to weld together a sturdy tent-shaped steel structure containing a Lexan window three eighths of an inch thick—a contraption that looks like a Habitrail accessory for protecting gerbils in the event of nuclear war. The housing, which weighs about fifty pounds, contains an alarm attached to a trip wire, which is to be staked in the ground. "If the device decides to take off or whatever, it will make a really piercing noise for an hour or so," Lewison said. "Hopefully, that will make it a little easier to find."

Lewison tapped on the window of the housing, to draw my attention to its strength. "Supposedly, it will stop a twenty-two," he said. It hadn't yet been tornado-tested, but earlier in the year Lewison had used a homemade potato gun to fire a spud at 160 mph directly at the Lexan-shielded lens. "It didn't do any damage," he reported. "And we got some pretty interesting video."

The housing constructed by Mike Theiss, a storm chaser based in Key Largo, is lower and more aerodynamic than Lewison's. It consists mostly of heavy-gauge aluminum; a twenty-pound weight in the bottom compartment brings it to about sixty-five pounds. Theiss is currently soliciting corporate sponsors and hopes soon to add a $5,000 state-of-the-art GPS locator, of the sort used to track stolen automobiles. If this pans out, he'll remove the weight so that the camera can fly off and perhaps be wholly ingested by a tornado, which he believes would enhance the value of the footage even further.

The community of storm chasers is, of necessity, highly nomadic, and it's impossible to know just how many other people with similar aspirations might have been congregating last spring in other parking lots throughout the Plains. But it's a reasonably safe bet that if any of them gets what Theiss calls "the money shot," it will be hard to watch television and not know about it. It's also a safe bet that once such footage is aired, the ante will rise again.

Sitting at a Texas Panhandle bar a few days later, I was told by the lavishly bearded man next to me that a black SUV had recently passed through town, customized with interior roll bars and thick steel screens on all windows but the windshield. The driver's plan, he said, was to motor right up to the vortex of a tornado, with cameras running.

Such risk-taking would be very foolish, we agreed. We agreed on another thing as well: it would certainly make for must-see TV.