NATION

Photo of twin tornadoes was storm chaser's 'unicorn' shot

Storm-chaser's photo of a rare supercell and two tornadoes was a 'once-in-a-lifetime image'

Hail as big as golf balls slammed into him as drenching rain fell, but none of that mattered. Weather photographer Kelly DeLay sensed this was his moment to capture the kind of rare natural phenomenon that fuels the adrenaline of a storm chaser.

And at 7:04 p.m. on June 4, DeLay snapped the picture.

"I called my wife and mother immediately to tell them, 'I got it,'" DeLay said.

In meteorological storm parlance, what DeLay got was a massive supercell formation, an extraordinary structure so detailed that he was stunned when he studied the photo two days later. One click on social media and a new storm erupted over how he captured the image.

DeLay, who built a box camera in seventh grade to take pictures of weather, has captured stunning images of Mother Nature through the years, including one near Philip, S.D., in June 2012. That photo featured a bright orange sky, illuminated by elements carried by winds from wildfires in Colorado, with a storm above and a bolt of lightning shooting toward the camera.

But this shot was different.

DeLay called it his "unicorn" shot. He had been desperately seeking the elusive weather structure since he started his career as a storm chaser six years ago.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime image for me," said DeLay, 46.

The photo was taken on a Thursday, near Simla, Colo. The day before, DeLay said, he broke away from a group of storm-chaser friends in Wyoming after the severe weather failed to produce good pictures.

Planning his trip back home to his wife and daughters in Dallas, DeLay decided to travel through Colorado, where weather models showed a storm building later in the day around Limon, about 90 miles east of Denver.

Computer-generated data are a fantastic tool to track storms, but knowing how to read the clouds is key to success, DeLay said.

"Experience is important when you're chasing," he said.

A combination of experience and technology led him to eastern Colorado, where an updraft was occurring.

A supercell is a thunderstorm with a deep, persistent rotating updraft.

Photographing the gigantic weather structure would have been enough of a reward — until a tornado dropped from the formed supercell.

Wearing a helmet and rain gear, DeLay rushed as fast as he could to get into a better position to capture his unicorn.

And that's when it happened. A second tornado dropped from the supercell. He snapped a shot.

"It was a highly stressful situation," DeLay said with a chuckle.

The cone tornado on the right of the photo dropped first, DeLay said. He guessed the supercell was a mile wide at the time the picture was taken.

Although DeLay knew immediately that he got the picture, he didn't know just how well it turned out.

"I didn't start looking at them on a computer until Saturday morning," he said. Then he saw it.

To better explain his exuberance, DeLay emphasized that photographing a tornado alone is extremely difficult. Capturing a supercell sprouting two tornadoes is a dazzling feat.

"I drove 19,000 miles last year and didn't get a photogenic tornado," he said.

But in his Colorado image, DeLay said, every nuance of the structure is clear and beautiful.

So, like anyone proud of a picture these days, DeLay shared it on social media. He is still juggling the viral outburst.

"I'm overwhelmed in a lot of ways, but I'm enjoying it," DeLay said of doing countless interviews with people from around the world, responding to usage requests and selling prints.

Despite the joy and fame brought by his double tornado shot, DeLay said, it is only his second favorite picture of all he has taken.

The top spot goes to a family portrait — storm-chaser style.

In June of last year, DeLay, his wife, Stephanie, and their two daughters, ages 8 and 11, took a family photo in Guymon, Okla., with a storm and a massive lightning strike in the background.

The image was captured with a tripod setup, the camera set on three-second intervals, DeLay said. Although the storm looks close, DeLay said there was no danger at the time.

More than an intimate family moment, the picture also represents the end of his "Clouds 365 Project," an experiment DeLay started in June 2009, shooting clouds every day for 1,825 days.

"I got chills up and down my spine when I saw it," DeLay said of the photo. "It felt like Mother Nature blessed us with that moment."

ryan.parker@latimes.com

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