Flashes of red and blue light strobed over Arlington and Rossyln. My storm chase partner, Ian Livingston, and I were setup to photograph the approaching storm from the eastern bank of the Tidal Basin. We had a beautiful view, facing west, of the Jefferson Memorial and the Virginia skyline.
As the flashes of light increased in frequency, Ian remarked that exploding transformers could be causing the blue light which we saw illuminating the clouds. I expressed my doubt. I said the flashes were probably just distant lightning.
Without visible lightning bolts or audible thunder, I felt the storm was still many miles to the west, probably over Loudoun County or western Fairfax County. I was in no hurry to seek cover. I was hoping to photograph a distant lighting bolt over the Jefferson Memorial or the Rosslyn skyline before escaping to the Jefferson Memorial for shelter during the storm.
Within a few minutes, a scary site became clearly visible across the Potomac River. There were distinct ground explosions occurring across much of Arlington. Ian was right, the flashes of light were from exploding transformers. The explosions, caused by the storm’s strong winds, were only a few miles away and they were occurring at an alarming rate.
I realized that Ian and I did not have enough time to take cover. The storm would overtake us in a minute or two and we were at least five minutes away from the Jefferson Memorial and ten minutes away from my car.
We were completely exposed on the waterfront, cameras still on tripods, as the derecho began to cross the Potomac River.
The sequence of events that followed next was one of the most bizarre, painful, and unique experiences of my storm chasing career. Ian and I both lost camera gear during our scary run along the river bank to the Jefferson Memorial. We were blasted by 70+ mph winds, blinding rain, and flying debris. The trees around us appeared that they could crash to the ground at any time.
During the run, I lost Ian. I heard him call for me and I went back to look for him. I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of me because of the blinding rain. We were on the edge of the water with nothing to shield us from the wind and rain.
I briefly took a knee and set my two tripods and cameras flat on the ground. The cameras were still mounted on the tripods and they were absolutely soaked. I looked and listened for Ian.
The wind did not diminish and I did not hear Ian again. I decided to continue my run to the Jefferson.
As I neared the Jefferson, I ran into a chain link fence. The National Park Service must have put it up for crowd control with the upcoming 4th of July celebration. For a second, I stopped again in the storm and felt trapped.
I worked my way down the fence line parallel to the Jefferson Memorial and found a section of fence that had been blown down by the wind. I crossed the fence and sprinted up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, a tripod and camera in each hand.
Inside the Jefferson, tourists were huddled against the inside walls of the Memorial. The wind was still roaring and sheets of rain blew horizontally through the pillars, buffeting the statue of Jefferson. I heard one tourist ask, “Is this a hurricane?”
I was happy to see Ian arrive a couple minutes later. We had both survived the storm. I could see that Ian was not happy. His new, full-frame DSLR camera appeared to be ruined by the storm. Ian’s iPhone was also soaked and not working. To add additional pain, Ian had lost a lens during the run. It had bounced out of his backpack.
After about 15 minutes, the winds diminished and I inspected my two cameras. The video camera was not working but my Sony DSLR seemed to work fine. I removed the UV lens filter and I had a dry lens surface underneath. I quickly began taking still photos of the storm from inside the Jefferson Memorial.
In the end, I salvaged a few unique storm photos with my surviving camera. My video sequences of the exploding transformers and crazy derecho winds may be lost. Days later, my video camera will still not power on. If I can salvage the video data, I’ll do a future post.
Ian and I ended the photo shoot before the lightning had stopped. I was very cold, soaked, and shivering. I noticed Ian was shivering too. How ironic: On Washington’s hottest day in recorded history for June, a day that hit 104 degrees at National Airport, we stopped our photo shoot because we were too cold.
What went wrong with the storm chase? The answer is very simple. The storm approached very quietly, without the sound of thunder. In addition, there was no visible lightning on the leading edge of the storm. The transformer explosions appeared to be distant lightning flashes, leading me to believe the storm was many miles away when in reality it was only a few miles away.
Ian and I were not alone in being fooled by the approach of the storm. NOAA’s Scott Rudlosky was also outside for a storm photo shoot Friday evening and was surprised, just like us, by the rapid approach of the storm. He was also caught away from his car and soaked.
Why did the storm move in so quietly? Much of the lightning was behind the leading edge of the storm. Also, perhaps the turbulence of the initial gust front dampened or muffled the sound of thunder. I would be interested to hear other opinions.