Author Archives: Tony Laubach

Storm chasing: pushing the safety envelope

Storm chasers are a unique group of individuals who spend most springs driving across the most rural areas of the country in search of severe weather. The mentalities of such people driving thousands of miles and spending hundreds of dollars to see a phenomenon that may literally last seconds would have many people questioning their sanity. Most chasers say their passion to see such amazing weather is what fuels these quests, although a certain level of insanity plays a role.

While storm chasers come from a variety of backgrounds, all are weather geeks. A few have degrees in meteorology or atmospheric science, but most are weather geeks with cars. Their reasoning for being out is what separates them from others. Some are out doing scientific research, others are out for public safety, a few take groups of people out on “tours”, but many simply want to fulfill their desire to see the weather.

Even with the recent decline in gas prices, storm chasing remains an expensive activity. The costs of logging thousands of road miles and living out of hotels leads many to narrowing their ventures to a few weeks a year. Many take personal vacation time to make a set trip in hopes of seeing whatever they can within their allotted window of time. However, there are a few who offset those costs by selling videos to news organizations. While most will never make a living shooting weather video, many are able to recoup most of the costs, where breaking even is considered the goal.

As the popularity of storm chasing has increased, so has the number of people shooting weather video. The market has been flooded with imagery of severe weather and as a result has increased competition and driven down the price of those videos. Ten years ago, a good tornado video would easily net a thousand dollars per network whereas now that same video may only net one-third of that. Even as the quality of video has increased, the price continues to decline.

For chasers to be successful, they need to utilize the services of a video broker, someone who can do the legwork to sell the video while the chaser is in the field. A broker is usually responsible for notifying the networks of the incoming video and handles any licensing paperwork for a sale. To the broker, those chasers are called “stringers” or “freelance” video shooters. Once those stringers shoot the video, they edit it into a several-minute package and send the video over the Internet to the broker, and the broker handles the rest.

As a comparison, the movie “Night Crawler” follows an independent videographer or stringer working to sell footage to a local news station. In the movie, the pressure to make the sales is escalated when the station pushes the stringers by threatening them with the loss of their contract. While the real life weather stringers are not faking scenes, as in Night Crawler, they face an escalating need to get better, more dramatic video as storm chasers put themselves in dangerous situations to shoot high-quality video.

With the storm-chaser market flooded, competition can make selling video very difficult. While the sheer number of chasers on a single event can make the field difficult enough for any one chaser to make a sale, the other storm chasers aren’t the biggest source of competition. The general public, most of whom are unaware that their video can be worth money, will hand over their video to see their name on TV. That free video, regardless of quality, will more times than not get the airtime over any video that would cost the network a couple hundred dollars.

To stay ahead of that competition, storm chasers have pushed the safety envelope, often putting themselves closer to danger to get more extreme video footage. This has led to numerous incidents in recent years from chasers taking direct hits from tornadoes to causing auto accidents. As a result, the extreme chaser video has taken over the general market for storm video and led to criticism.

Over the last few years, extreme videos have aired publically, often sold to networks and aired to millions. These videos depict incidents of dangerous and questionable tactics by chasers. This has included dramatic footage taken of tornadoes yards away. In other cases, chasers have shown themselves taking dangerous risks such as hiding under overpasses or breaking traffic laws.

Storm chasers have a certain level of experience, usually much more so than members of the general public viewing these videos. Chasers are equipped with computers, mobile radar and various other tools that help them navigate severe weather. They also have experience and enough knowledge to make some of the calls they do. The public does not see this, but only the extreme video showing a chaser staying safe from a tornado. Without that context, it leads viewers to think they, too, can safely be close to tornadoes.

The catch-phrase these days is “saving lives,” which many chasers claim they are doing. Yet they will willingly release video that demonstrates unsafe or questionable behavior, which the public digests and sometimes imitates, unaware of the danger. As a result, members of the public continue to perform unsafe practices for the sake of better video. And the problem is compounded when such video is what producers seek.

Thus, chasers likely will continue to unknowingly endanger the public by showing these extreme encounters because that’s what gets on TV. Unfortunately, safe behavior simply cannot compete in today’s infotainment marketplace.

 

Photo by Tony Laubach

(Photo by Tony Laubach)

Wartime photojournalist — the professional side

It’s What I Do, a Photographer’s Life of Love and War

Author: Lynsey Addario

Publisher: Penguin Press, New York, 2015

Hardcover: 368 pages, $29.95

Photographing war is nothing new. People with cameras have gone into zones filled with death and violence for years, bringing back imagery to tell the story of the horrors of war. What are often lacking are the stories of those people who go down to shoot with cameras. Stories of these brave men and women get buried under the imagery they capture on their harrowing journeys. But they, too, face the same dangers as do soldiers fighting in those battles.

Lynsey Addario is a war photographer who has documented most of the wars of the 21st century and details those adventures in this memoir. Her travels have taken her all over the Middle East and Africa, including multiple trips to Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, the Congo and Haiti. This book is more of a diary of those adventures as opposed to the stories of those she is photographing. But she also writes about life away from the action and how she deals with herself, privately and professionally, as she dedicates her life to her work.

The book starts out very intensely with her description of her own kidnapping and that of three of her male colleagues in Libya in 2011. She talks about how the situation unfolded with her and her colleagues going against the advice of Mohammed, their driver, who was killed at the checkpoint where they were captured. Mohammed tried to warn them numerous times during the event of the dangers, and his growing concern went largely ignored by the rest of the crew and that ultimately lead to them being captured at the checkpoint. During those few days while they were held captive, she described the beatings, threats and molestation by her captors. The intensity of this experience immediately stirs emotions and highlights the dangers of her work.

From there, the book goes into more of the journaling of her career starting from being a kid with her first camera all the way to the present. She shares experiences of covering the women of the Taliban in 2000 where she worked undercover. After the terrorists’ attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, she began to freelance for the New York Times, eventually culminating in the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.

The capture saga in the first chapter is the peak of an intense emotional pull as the rest of the book documents her life and career. Thus, the post-first-chapter is where things become more relatable, as now you’re getting a look into something more real to the average reader.

One of the notable struggles she faced was risking her life to gather images, only to have editors choose not to run them. The decisions were often left in the hands of those behind the scenes who did not appreciate the story behind the story. Addario often dismisses their reasoning of simply wanting to keep harsh imagery from the eyes of the public they deemed unable to handle the raw, and sometimes graphic power of her images.

While most of the story is about her war coverage, it is easy for professional photographers to relate to the struggles of balancing professional and privates lives. This is where her story relates to any number of people in the field, regardless of their particular subjects. The time away from loved ones, the dangers associated within the work environment and even bringing that work back home interfere so much with her life.

Addario talks about balancing the photography of war with her current life as a married mother with one child. She married in 2009 and had a baby boy a couple years later. The struggles associated with such a balance are easy to find in society these days as careers have taken the front seat over families.

The book closes by returning to the capture, talking about Mohammad and his decision to be the driver for the crew and bringing up a very big question. Was it worth his life? Mohammad’s desire and passion to pursue the story cost him his life. But that question brought up not only in Mohammad’s death, but also in Addario’s life as a wartime photographer.

Living vicariously through Addario in this book stirs many emotions. Both the struggles and triumphs of her work make for incredible stories of overcoming adversity. “It’s What I Do” shows how passion and commitment can be the foundation for going after what you want from life. After reading through the pages of her memoir, the reader gains an immense respect for the stories not seen in the imagery.

In Kansas forever more

Kansas is known for more than just wheat. It’s known for tornadoes, and that started long before the Wizard of Oz. As Kansas is in the middle of Tornado Alley, an area of the central United States that sees the highest number of tornadoes annually over that of anywhere else in the world, it is also the storm-chasing center.

Earlier this year after an early season severe weather event in southern Kansas, one of the Wichita-area news stations published two stories regarding storm chasers and how they were getting in the way of emergency vehicles and over-crowding roads. Another story published online by a second Wichita station interviewed a sheriff in Barber County, Kansas who is concerned with the crowding of roads.

Both stations employ or contract storm chasers for weather coverage in Kansas during severe weather events, and both stations used in-house storm chasers to give their views. While it is unanimous among chasers and law enforcement that there are more chasers than needed on any given event, the stories seemed skewed against storm chasers.

Law enforcement members claimed traffic laws are being violated, one official interviewed going threatening arrest for those not obeying traffic laws. During a storm early last month, the Barber County sheriff drove down the freeway with his loud speaker, telling chasers to “move their cars.” This was heavily covered on social media.

But storm chasers feel cops are being too aggressive, reporting that they witnessed most chasers obeying traffic laws and not blocking parts of the roads as law enforcement indicated. Many chasers said rural law enforcement agencies overstated any hazards the chasers posed.

One storm chaser used the power of video to provide a counter-argument to law enforcement’s claims that chasers were behaving dangerously. He posted two timelapse videos of significant tornado event days from 2014 and in his video, the number of incidents he captured showed no chasers blocking roads. Several other chasers posted videos from the early April day and showed the sheriff driving down the highway with his loud speaker while passing vehicles that were fully off the highway, or in pullouts and driveways near the road.

Storm chasers are sometimes judged as reckless thrill-seekers who will do anything for the shot. And while it is true that there are incidents involving careless behavior of some, these recent video releases show there is at the very least some exaggeration in the stories depicting careless chasers.

These Kansas stations that posted the stories focused heavily on the side of the law enforcement even as they contract out their own storm chasers to go and cover the same events. It wasn’t until storm chasers brought to light the lack of incidents on video that the news stations gave the chasers a chance to voice their side of the story.

While some storm chasers have stated they will stay out of Kansas due to issues with law enforcement targeting storm chasers, most chasers say Kansas is one of the best places to follow and report on storms, and no matter what how the media depicts them or how targeted they are by law enforcement officials, storm chasers are determined to be in Kansas forever more.

Tony Laubach is a meteorologist with more than 17 years of storm- chasing experience.  He has been featured on TV programs for the National Geographic and Discovery channels and his severe- weather videos have been featured on news networks around the world. 

Perfect storm reporting

Several tornadoes hit the state of Oklahoma on March 25 in a regional outbreak of severe weather. In addition to the well-televised tornado hitting Moore, a city hit nearly half a dozen times since 1999, another tornado hit near Tulsa in northeast Oklahoma. This tornado was noteworthy largely due to the actions of a well-known storm chaser who took shelter beneath a highway overpass when the tornado got too close and he was unable to safely flee. His video of this event was posted within a couple hours and went viral almost immediately. In addition, the chaser sold his video to several major news organizations across the country.

Highway overpasses are one of the most dangerous places to be during a tornado.  An overpass affects the winds interacting with it in such a way it creates a wind-tunnel effect, often increasing the wind speeds under the overpass to extreme levels. In addition, debris is often siphoned beneath the overpass where it collects and can trap those seeking shelter.

What is not being shown in the video are the results of these dangerous actions. Parking under overpasses creates a bottle-neck of traffic, leaving many motorists stranded in the path of potential danger. This not only leaves people out in the open, but it prevents emergency crews from using the roadways.

The most notorious video captured from beneath an overpass came in April 1991 when two photojournalists attempted to outrun a tornado along the Kansas Turnpike and eventually sought shelter beneath a highway overpass. The tornado made a glancing blow of the structure, and none of the nearly dozen people hiding there were injured. This video gave the impression to the public that overpasses are safe. This was brought to light during the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado in May 1999 when a massive tornado, the strongest on record, struck an I-35 overpass and killed one and injured nearly everyone else seeking shelter.

Since then, it has been hammered into tornado safety talks, booklets and webpages that overpasses are unsafe. Not hiding under overpasses is the second-most mentioned tip behind getting into a basement in terms of safety information conveyed to the public.

When the March 25 overpass video was posted, the backlash from chasers and meteorologists began almost immediately. While the overpass shot made for dramatic, television-worthy video, the chaser shot plenty of newsworthy footage away from the overpass that would have easily been salable. And while his decision to be close was brought into question, it was the editing of the video that took most of the criticism, particularly the inclusion of the overpass scene.

The chaser responsible for shooting the footage stated that his options were limited only to this one, mostly due to being too close and not allowing himself more chance of escape. He went on the Weather Channel the following morning to discuss the video and contradict his actions by saying overpasses are not safe places to take shelter. However, that isn’t the message people will remember.

It is essential that storm chasers demonstrate safe practices during severe weather because their footage is what is distributed by the media. Public awareness of tornado chasing has increased in the last decade due to popular TV shows and media coverage. This has inspired the public to become involved in their own chasing endeavors using the chasers’ videos as a guide to “how to chase,” even if the practices are unsafe.

Chasers have been posting close calls and “being hit” videos for years, which the public sees and digests, leading them to make similar dangerous decisions. Had this tornado, or any of the dozens that have been captured, been stronger, lives would have been lost or adversely affected by these choices. As storm chasers continue to post such close calls, the public continues to lose respect for the true danger of these events, leading them to take chances and put themselves and others in great danger.

With storm season in full swing through the end of June, more and more chasers will hit the road to document these forces of nature. Their videos will keep showing up across news sites, social media and TV specials documenting not only storms, but chasers’ own procedures. Inevitably, when something goes wrong, these chasers will be left with a choice of what to do with their video. They may not be able to fully control the circumstances around them in the field, but what they do in the editing is something they can control. That choice will be between the sale of an entertaining, yet foolhardy video, or the responsibility of keeping those unsafe practices out of the viewing of the public.

Tony Laubach is a meteorologist with more than 17 years of storm chasing experience. He has been featured on TV programs for National Geographic Channel and Discovery Channel as well as had his severe weather video featured on news networks all over the world.