On May 22, 2011, a powerful tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, killing 158 people.
The 200 mph winds of the category 5, multi-vortex devastated the small town, tearing through buildings and wreaking havoc upon everything in its path.
Daryl Marshke, a senior photographer with Michigan Photography, almost drove straight into it.
A few days before the storm, he and his wife departed for a trip to Arizona. On the road, they heard news about an outbreak of tornados creeping across the Midwest. On a whim, Marshke said, “If we come across one, let’s try and chase it.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by and have a passion for weather. I just love it,” he said.
Marshke’s interest in weather started at a young age. As a child, his home in Brighton was hit by a small tornado with winds topping 80 mph. While the storm caused minor damage to his house, Marshke found his interest piqued.
He started watching Discovery Channel and following meteorologists like Ginger Zee and Reed Timmer, who starred in the television shows “Storm Chasers” and “Tornado Chasers.”
So when Marshke found himself years later on the road to Arizona near a tornado cluster, he couldn’t resist driving toward them to get a better look. But as he and his wife passed through St. Louis and approached the edge of Tornado Alley, he got an uneasy feeling.
“There were a couple of storms that kept popping up and were progressing a lot faster than I could drive on the expressway ahead of it,” he said. “It started becoming more and more violent, and it was rain that I had never seen or experienced before.”
At the last minute, he decided to turn onto a northern route to drive around the storm rather than straight through it.
“The day that Joplin got hit, we would have driven through exactly at that time,” he said. “It was kind of like a gut feeling said, ‘Let’s not do this one, you don’t know the terrain.’”
Following his close call in Joplin, Marshke dove into the world of storm chasing and hasn’t slowed down since. He is now equipped with phone apps and ham radios to alert him to any developing storms in nearby counties. When he hears a certain type of storm might hit, he packs up his gear to go check it out.
“I just love chasing storms and taking pictures of the lightning and seeing how the storms build and the different types of clouds that are involved. So that’s what really I am passionate about,” he said.
In 2021, Marshke enrolled in tornado chasing courses with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and became certified in storm chasing. The courses covered the basics of storm chasing: how storms build, how to identify the different categories of tornadoes, how to create an escape plan when chasing a dangerous storm.
Safety is an essential component of storm chasing, and Marshke said he continues learning about first aid, GPS systems and weather patterns to be prepared.
“I haven’t put myself in a position where I felt I was in danger,” he said. “I tend to want to err on the safe side.”
As a photographer, Marshke has been able to combine his two passions to capture shots of storms on film. Whenever he tracks down a storm, he brings wide-angle lenses, tripods and other equipment to try to perfectly capture the storm’s elements.
While Marshke enjoys traveling around the country to chase storms, he mainly focuses on storms in Michigan. Although the state hasn’t had a category 5 tornado since 1953 in Flint, Michigan still experiences an average of 15 tornadoes each year.
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Some of Marshke’s favorite photos from his collection are from storms around campus with lightning surrounding the Burton Memorial Tower and Michigan Stadium.
Earlier this year, Marshke almost made a trip to Florida where his mother lives to photograph Hurricane Ian. The storm — which displaced more than 40,000 people — proved too dangerous to pursue, and Marshke said it’s important for storm chasers to know their limits.
“You’ve got to be respectful of everybody else,” he said. “If you put yourself in harm’s way, in danger, you become one more person who needs help.”
In the future, Marshke hopes to travel out west and join a community of fellow storm chasers.
“I don’t want to get up and close, I don’t want to be in a tornado. I’m more about stepping back and just capturing the beauty of storms and the lightning and the colors,” he said. “A lot of times at sunset, you get these really beautiful purples and peaches, and then with a bolt of lightning going down, it’s always beautiful and what I enjoy.”