While most people duck for cover when storm warning sirens blast, Tammi Elbert grabs her camera and runs out the door.
Elbert, 49, of Washington, recently became part of Missouri Storm Chasers, a group that mostly travels to Oklahoma and Kansas seeking out severe storms in hopes of spotting a tornado.
“I’ve always taken lightning pictures and storm pictures around here,” she said, “and have always wanted to storm chase.”
Elbert, a mother of three, said when her children were little she couldn’t just take off at the spur of the moment and head out of state.
With her children now 15, 17 and 20 years old, Elbert has more time to pursue her passion. So when she spotted a storm chaser online who was looking for a photographer, she sent him a message.
“I’ve always taken pictures of lightning and I’ve always wanted to shoot tornadoes, but I was not going to try by myself,” she said. “I knew it wasn’t safe.”
Elbert, who joined the group earlier this year, has already been within miles of several tornadoes in both Kansas and Oklahoma.
Her first face-to-face experience was with a tornado in Talala, Okla., a storm cell south of the one that devastated Moore, Okla., that same day.
When the group first saw it, the veteran storm chasers said they were a little surprised at Elbert’s reaction.
“I was disappointed,” fellow Missouri Storm Chaser Jeremy North said. “The first time she saw a tornado, I expected her to scream like a girl. She didn’t. She just took off running down the road with her camera. You couldn’t tell that she hadn’t done this before.”
“I was more excited to see a tornado,” Elbert said. “I never even gave it a thought of what was physically going on around me. I took off down the road taking pictures and yelled at them to pick me up down the road.”
Elbert said the Missouri Storm Chasers had come close to heading into the EF5 that hit Moore, and had actually seen that storm form over the city.
“We had actually debated as to which cell to chase,” she said. “We were closer to Talala. But as we went south we watched the storm form over Moore.”
The team knew it was going to be bad as the huge storm beelined toward the city.
“It was pretty somber,” she said. “We had live feed as it happened and saw photos of the school within minutes. It was an emotional trip for us all. No one wants to see that.”
Elbert said joining the group has given her a lot more opportunity to see and photograph tornadoes and severe storms in a relatively safer manner than she would get on her own.
She said she has learned a lot about storms from the four other team members, including what types of clouds are most likely to produce tornadoes.
But still, when sirens go off, she can’t fight that urge to dash out the door.
Elbert headed across the Missouri River into Augusta when severe storms ripped through Franklin County Friday, May 31.
She didn’t realize that the storm would produce the tornadoes that damaged parts of St. Charles and St. Louis counties before continuing on to Gillespie, Ill.
“She freaked me out that night when she said she was going out,” North said. “I saw a squall line coming and was worried about her. I was texting her and telling her that might not be a good idea! I don’t think she got my messages.”
Elbert said she thought the storm had already passed over as she headed over the river to shoot some lightning photos.
“I turned around and looked and saw a shelf cloud come over,” she said. “All of the sudden, it picked up and came really fast. It was not a good place to be.”