Tornado near Hutchinson, Kan., provides incredible photo and video opportunity

Debris starts to rise as a tornado increases in size northwest of Hutchinson Monday evening, July 13, 2015. "The moment I knew it was getting bigger," Milburn said.
Debris starts to rise as a tornado increases in size northwest of Hutchinson Monday evening, July 13, 2015. "The moment I knew it was getting bigger," Milburn said.

Most people in the south-central Kansas city of Hutchinson know to take shelter when a tornado approaches.

Although the city has been grazed by twisters, it hasn’t taken any direct hits in recent years. But early Monday evening, it looked as if that good fortune was about to run out as a large tornado just northwest of Hutchinson seemed to bear down on the city.

While the tornado sirens wailed, many residents took shelter, but some pulled out their cell phones and cameras to capture the storm. Moments later, social media filled with photos.

Many of the photos and videos were the usual shots of the twister off in the distance shrouded by trees and power lines , but one video and one set of photos stood out.

Justin Watkins had just arrived home to Hutchinson after spending the day in Junction City on his job working on cell phone towers. He noticed the big storm cloud forming northwest of the city and tuned into the local television weather broadcast to see if the city was in danger. No warnings had been issued.

Watkins said he thought the storm looked like a big hail-producing cloud he had experienced recently, so he went outside to take another look. He didn’t have a clear view because of trees and structures. He thought he could see a funnel cloud but wasn’t sure until he sent up his drone with its video camera.

Watkins used a live-view feed from the drone to his smart phone to compose his shot while the drone hovered above the trees. A police scanner helped him keep track of where the twister was heading. He was never more than 20 feet away from his basement door, he said.

“I’m not the type to shy away from driving into a storm,” he said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “I told my wife and kids to get to shelter.”

The final product was several videos Watkins posted on YouTube and Facebook showing the bird’s-eye view of the storm. One takes viewers on a ride that climbs out of his neighborhood, with the view obscured by trees, to a clear shot of the giant tornado churning up soil miles away.

The shot he produced is reminiscent of a scene from any great monster movie where the actors are terrified by something they cannot see and do not understand just how much danger they are in until the director gives the viewers a full shot of the terrifying monster and everyone knows just how doomed they are.

Fortunately, in this case the monster left without injuring anyone or causing widespread damage.

By late Tuesday, Watkins’ video had received more than 24,000 views on his YouTube post and thousands more on other sites that picked up his video.

▪ Sandra Milburn is a veteran photographer for The Hutchinson News and had photographed tornadoes and their wicked aftermath before. On Monday, she said, she had just finished up a visit to her dentist and was hoping to go home and rest when she saw the large cloud that had formed outside the city.

Her first thought was to check the radar app on her phone. She thought by the general location of the storm that McPherson to the northeast was getting hit pretty hard. She ran a few errands and kept being drawn to the cloud, which she soon determined was moving toward Hutchinson from the northeast, not the usual direction that thunderstorms move in the area.

Milburn tried to drive around to find a good vantage point to make a shot of the unusual cloud but then decided to head home instead. She just couldn’t leave it alone, though, as she watched the cloud change second by second.

She stopped and shot some photos and some video on her phone. A bolt of lightning passed over her. She saw other people curious about the storm pulled over to watch, and that is when she noticed a funnel dropping out of the cloud. It quickly went back up, she said. She found another vantage point, and another funnel dropped. This one reached the ground and started throwing debris as a fully formed tornado.

Milburn said she had never seen a tornado from its very beginning. She had seen a fully formed tornado and the damage tornadoes caused, but this was a first.

Her first thought was to call her family to make sure they were safe. She consulted her husband, Bruce, a trained weather spotter, over the phone on what she was seeing. When she said she really couldn’t see the tornado moving in any particular direction, he told her to move, because the perception that a tornado is not moving means that it is likely moving directly toward you.

She took his advice.

She kept moving, making shots along the way, as the twister slowly drifted along a path for about 25 minutes. In its final stages, it turned into a rope tornado. Milburn gave up the chase when she was told hail and heavy rains were on the way.

When she returned to the newsroom, she said, she was amazed at how many people had seen or photographed the tornado. She said Hutchinson News readers sent photos of every shape and size. Other staff photographers had been out shooting the storm and its aftermath, too. In the end, the damage was confined to a house, a garage and some power poles.

Milburn’s series of photos show the unusual tornado from the moment it was born to its very end. The Hutchinson News published one her photos across the front page of the paper.

“As I was taking photographs I was thinking of the people and the towns that would be in its path. I’m just glad it dissipated long before it could do that kind of damage,” Milburn said in an email.

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