The tornadoes March
By Harrison McClary
March came roaring in with deadly storms leaving a trail of destruction across the mid-western states. I was covering a Rick Santorum campaign stop when picture editor Bob Strong called to ask if I could head over to Crossville, Tennessee to cover an area hit by the tornadoes the following morning.
I arrived on the scene to find the access road closed. I looked at my GPS and saw a small road that appeared to parallel the main road, so I turned on it and followed until trees blocked the road. I could easily see where the destroyed homes were, so I got out to walk. I climbed over, and crawled under fallen trees and foraged through the mountainous countryside until finally getting to the bottom of the valley. Once there I discovered the road was washed out.
Not long after getting back to my car they re-opened the main road and I headed into the damaged area, photographed the destruction and transmitted from my car.
The following morning editor Mike Fiala called to ask if I could head down to New Market Alabama to cover more tornado damage. As I covered the storms I kept an eye to the skies and an ear on the local news radio as severe thunderstorms were constantly in the area. In my search for a dry place to transmit from I stopped at a local church, the Locust Grove Baptist Church. They were kind enough to not only let me borrow an office but to also use their WiFi network. Once I was through transmitting the pictures Bob determined that my best course of action was to head back to Nashville, not Chattanooga as we had originally discussed.
Saturday morning started with another call from Mike, this time tornadoes had devastated several towns in eastern Kentucky. I grabbed my gear and an overnight bag and hit the road to London, KY. I got on the scene around 4:30pm EST. I was stopped by a National Guardsman who checked with a KY Highway Patrol officer, who happened to be the local media liaison officer. He cleared me for all access to any areas I wanted to cover. He also told me how to find the hardest hit areas. I headed into the first area where a family had died in a trailer. The destruction of the trailer was total, strewn over an area several football fields in size.
After covering this I once again transmitted from my car, from the middle of a local farmer’s field. It was cold. Friday in Alabama the temperature was near 80, Saturday night in Kentucky to temperature dropped to the mid 30’s. I only had a light jacket on. I left the car idling with the heat blasting to try to keep warm.
Sunday I transmitted from the Hampton Inn lobby, happy to be much warmer and headed home. It was a wild few days. As always, when covering stories such as this, the transient nature of life is really brought home. Seeing the devastation caused by a tornado really makes one realize how rapidly things can change.
By Chris Keane
Covering a natural disaster is never easy. As a photojournalist we are asked to enter situations where the people we photograph have lost everything they own. I don’t take this task lightly, this is hard, you try and put yourself in their position but that’s impossible.
After spending time making pictures that showed how powerful mother nature can be, I came across a neighborhood hit hard with a lot of trees that had fallen onto houses. Walking down the street trying to make sense of everything visually, I met Susan, who woke up moments before the tornado arrived at her house. She told me the story of how she quickly woke her teenage children and rushed everyone downstairs. I followed her as she walked through her house, showing me where her daughter had been sleeping, which now had a tree limb through the ceiling. After she gathered a few personal items we talked some more. I think what impressed me the most was how upbeat she was about the whole situation. She and her children were alive and that’s what matters most.
The following day, I was asked to follow up on a story about a young boy had been sucked from his house by the tornado. This led me to Jamal. Jamal is seven years old and was found by a neighbor shortly after the tornado destroyed his family’s home, 350 feet from his house on the embankment to a nearby interstate.
I went to his home hoping to talk with neighbors and friends to find out who this boy is. I met with an employee with Microsoft, Lex, who heard Jamal’s story and wanted to help. He showed up at the house looking for Jamal and his family. Lex heard Jamal had received an Xbox for Christmas and wanted to give him a new one. Lex was able to direct me to Jamal’s family.
As I was driving to Jamal’s grandparents home where he was recovering after being discharged from the hospital, I tried to think how to approach this young boy and his family. As I rung the doorbell and spoke with his aunt I told her I wanted to show the world this boy and share his story; a good story out of tragedy.
She brought me into the home where I was able to talk with Jamal. He didn’t have much to say and was still very sore from the incident. During the short time I spent with Jamal where he was surrounded by family, he played video games with a cousin, but mostly rested. Again from the previous days events I took away what matters most: life and being surrounded by family and friends.
I waited a little while longer for Jamal’s parents to arrive home from the hospital with his two sisters who were also found thrown from their home after the tornado. I could tell from the way they interacted what a traumatic experience this had been. Before I left I thanked everyone for letting me share some time and share their story.
By Eric Thayer
I arrived on the outskirts of West Liberty, Kentucky after dark, the town having been ravaged by a deadly tornado. State troopers had closed off the road into town but they told me I could walk in to the town center about a mile up the road. There was no electricity, so I wasn’t able to see the true destruction all around me, houses and cars reduced to unrecognizable shapes in the darkness. It was mostly quiet, an occasional car or National Guard Humvee passing, but as I got closer to town, I could hear heavy equipment moving debris in the distance, wood cracking and the scrape of the metal blade against the asphalt as bobcats worked feverishly into the night clearing the roads.
It was nearly impossible to make pictures, there was very little light, save the headlamps of the heavy equipment that cut through darkness, illuminating only parts of the damage to the town. I made a few long exposure frames, my camera better able to see in the dark than me. I spent a few hours walking around town then decided I would try again at dawn.
The landscape opened up in the morning, though the town was still occupied mostly by work crews, emergency personnel and National Guard troops, and a couple of television crews. I walked down a road and saw a family sifting through their home, which had been leveled by the storm. A woman talked about riding out the storm, as her home collapsed around her, under a table that the family had just purchased.
Watching people sift through their home, ravaged by any sort of natural disaster, trying to salvage any belongings they can is always surreal. The power of nature takes their home and lays its contents bare. It exposes so much about a person’s life. Pictures, clothes, books, movies, and so many other objects, are out in the open and rearranged by the power of the storm.
I talked with a woman who lost her business, a pizza place near the city center. She stood in the middle of the destroyed restaurant, as her family helped her sift through to find anything they could salvage from the structure, which had its roof torn off. She said she planned to rebuild, “I have to, what will they do otherwise,” she said, pointing to her daughter, niece and their friends, who work at the restaurant. “We all have to rebuild, otherwise the town will die.”
By Aaron P. Bernstein
I was initially assigned to cover Rick Santorum’s campaign stops in Ohio ahead of the Super Tuesday primary, but as I was leaving his event in Chillicothe reporters were already talking about the intense weather system moving into the area. Before I reached Cincinnati, site of the next day’s campaign event, tornadoes had touched down in southern Indiana and neighboring parts of Kentucky. I spent the night in Seymour, Indiana and arrived in Marysville, IN before dawn the next morning. Even in the darkness I could see that the tiny town was nearly obliterated. Every structure had sustained at least some damage, and many were completely destroyed. As the residents came back to their homes for the first time since the storm, I photographed them going through the remains of their homes, looking for whatever was salvageable.
Although the scale of the destruction seemed evident from ground level, I didn’t get a feel for the true power of the storms until I flew over the area in a helicopter. Departing from nearby Sellersburg, IN, pilot Jim Robinson and I flew over Marysville, Chelsea and Henryville. The path of the tornadoes’ destruction was unmistakable. Huge swathes of each town were destroyed, and hundreds of trees were uprooted where the tornado had traveled through the countryside. Homes could be seen lifted off their foundations and dumped nearby. Entire wings of the Henryville High School caved in and school buses were thrown into nearby buildings.
Finally, I spent Sunday morning photographing a mass at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Henrysville and traveling to Crittenden, KY and Moscow, OH.
In Crittenden, the tornado struck the edge of a large subdivision, destroying a few homes but mostly ripping off shingles and siding. Moscow, OH, a tiny village along the Ohio River bordered by the Zimmer Coal Power Station, suffered a more direct hit. The entire center of the downtown was devastated, as were many of the historic homes that lined the waterfront. Although some of its buildings were damaged, the power plant avoided a direct hit.
Throughout my experience covering this tragic story, I was constantly struck by the openness its victims had toward me and my colleagues. We were welcomed into homes and churches and offered food and water by people who had lost everything only hours before. Though these towns were undoubtedly battered, it was clear their tight-knit nature and reliance on their neighbors will help them rebuild.
By John Sommers II
The tornadoes that struck Southern Indiana hit less than twenty-five miles from my own home in Louisville, Kentucky. The local and national weather services had been warning our community for several days that the severe and dangerous weather risk for our area was great. I have to say that like most local residents, I really didn’t believe we’d have it here. Most of us say, whatever it is now, wait ten minutes and it will change or just go around us. Well, it didn’t and we were hit with many powerful tornadoes. They just seemed to keep coming over the same areas over and over. The results were over 38 dead in Indiana and Kentucky.
I left my house around 3pm as the weather warnings were blaring and the local news stations were starting to report the location of damage; painting a real picture of just how bad the situation had become. I was very uneasy about what I was getting myself into driving to the damage area as the storms were still active and rolling through the area. No matter what the weather services said, it could not have prepared me for what I saw when I got to Chelsea Indiana late in the afternoon. This is a very small community and they already had four confirmed victims. So many of the homes were just unrecognized piles of debris. I photographed what I could during the last of the daylight hours, sent what I had and went home for the night. I still had no idea of just how bad the day had been.
It wasn’t until the next morning when I was sent to Henryville, Indiana that I really grasped just how bad the damage was. This small community was just leveled. It really hit home to me just how close it came to my own home and family and it was a very uneasy feeling for me all day as I shot pictures of the damage. As I walked around the damaged homes and was busy shooting pictures, I got to talk with so many of the people looking for what was left of their belongings.
Yes, they were very upset and some I believe, still in a state of shock as to what had happen less than 12 hours ago, but their attitude about it was so strong. They all said we’re alive and they only lost things. They have their family and friends and they can get new things. I was just amazed how strong they were faced with what had just happened and knowing how long the road would be to get back to some kind of normalcy. Their only community school was destroyed. The electricity was out for who knows how long, and people were being warned not to drink the local water along with so many other things that we all take for granted. They had lost friends and family members but they still stood so very strong together as a community. They worked together for their community family.
It was amazing how fast they and other nearby communities came together to start the process of rebuilding together. The amount of donated goods to the community and the speed of which it came was just surprising. The number of volunteers helping was so great that they had to tell some to wait and come back another time. I have to say that I too learned something about the strength of people, our communities and our neighbors by watching and being able to cover this disaster. It gave me a renewed faith that we can work together for our own community.
(View a slideshow of images here)