It was the last day of our mini-chasecation out to the Plains, more specifically Nebraska. We bunked with Stephen Jones and Kim Howell near the Sioux City, Iowa area and were awoken to morning convection that was severe warned. Adam being Adam, decided to run across the street to the casino just as warnings were being issued. I tried to contact him to come back as we were about to get hit with high winds and hail, but he was a lost cause. Instead I grabbed his keys and attempted to take some photos of the incoming line. I only was able to get one or two bolts of lightning before I gave up. Immediately after the passage of the storm, the atmosphere recovered and the stage was set for powerful supercells to erupt. I was concerned that this convection would “grunge” up the atmosphere and make it hard for thunderstorms to redevelop that afternoon. A quick look at satellite imagery quickly alleviated that doubt. The set up itself yielded impressive parameters [shown below].
To the lay person, what I posted was a bunch of jumbled lines and colors. To storm chasers, forecasters, and more weather savvy people I posted a witches brew of ingredients for a volatile day across Northeast Nebraska. The basic four ingredients for severe weather were present: lift, moisture, shear, and instability. CAPE values as high as 6,000 J/KG, 50 kts of bulk shear, strong surface and H85 flow, an outflow boundary, and approaching shortwave. Questions were if these storms would actually form due to the presence of a strong cap. The four of us went over to Perkins and awaited a group of other friends/chasers.
By 18-19z it was clear that supercell thunderstorms were likely. The earlier day’s convection had laid a nice outflow boundary [dashed in red] that would bake under the strong June sun. The atmosphere was already on fire and all this outflow boundary did was act as gasoline. We had watched a few weak showers form along the boundary and decided that those would be where we needed to be as they would not remain weak showers for very long. All in all those cells were 40-50 miles to our southwest so we needed to step on the gas to make it in time. At about this time, new products were issued from the Storm Prediction Center which further convinced us to step up the pace.
As we continued on, it was clear that these storms meant business! They were barely showing up on radar and the the sky was just filled with a giant updraft and anvil. Along the way a PDS watch was issued and the SWODY1 was updated to include significant to violent tornadoes. 2014 had been a disappointment thus far, would today be the day that Mother Nature takes her gloves off? All signs were pointing to yes as we approached Wayne.
It looked like Mother Nature detonated an atomic bomb across Northeast Nebraska just after 20z. We needed some gas for the chase so we fueled up just as the storm went severe thunderstorm warned. It wasn’t hard to see why as visually this convection was rock hard. I looked up to see the storm’s anvil spreading out with razor sharp edges. Still 30 miles way, we needed to get a move on to avoid missing the show. I tried to pull up NWSChat and other software, but data was sparse out here. We decided to try to by-pass the town of Wayne, but ended up on some less than favorable roads that slowed us down. Looking at the latest radar update, I didn’t need to say a word. I simply pulled up this song and hit play.
As we got back on the main highway, Adam and my phone went off simultaneously. TORNADO WARNING. Here we go! We were still 10-15 miles to the northeast of the updraft area and were beginning to get into some heavier precipitation. Adam had flashbacks as were drove by his infamous intercept in October 2013. This area was decimated by a nearly 1.5 mile wide EF-4 tornado. You can read about his intercept HERE. We made progress south on NE15 until we hit US275. To our west a giant supercell growled and spit out lightning, heavy rain, and dark skies. We had a decision to make. Do we go west along US275 toward Stanton, or do we go south toward Pilger and then go west. My vote was south and then west, but it wasn’t that easy. Just south of Pilger there is a river that basically threw a monkey wrench in my plans. The next question was do we want to be north or south of the river. We ultimately decided to go into Pilger and head west out of town on 840th Road. At this point in time, Mother Nature really decided to get MAD. For the next five minutes her and Thor decided to throw thunderbolts at us and Pilger with a positive bolt of lightning every 2-3 seconds. Everything was getting hit. Trees, power poles, farmland. It was an assault unlike I have seen! I recorded some of it that is linked just below.
As we pressed on in a slowed and cowered state, we began noticing a dark object in the rain ahead of us. There were tornado reports to our west at the time, but being just on the southern fringes of the core was not the ideal spot. As we moved closer, it looked like one giant wedge on the ground. At the time we couldn’t confirm, but after analysis later we in fact viewed the EF-4 that impacted the Stanton, Nebraska area. We continued driving up the road until it dead-ended. Our only option was to go north and further into the core. The storms general motion was to the east/northeast and I was weary of driving north. The last view of the tornado was to our west/southwest, so I figured heading north into it’s path was a bad play. It was either turn around and go back east toward Pilger, or go north up to the main highway and continue west. We decided to slowly head north toward 275. As we approached the highway, we both noticed something wasn’t right. The wind was howling from the north to the south. A lesser experienced chaser may not understand what was going on here, but Adam and I knew immediately. There was SOMETHING else brewing behind us to the south. This observation sent us to the realization that we needed to go EAST on 275 and not west. We traveled little more than a mile before we saw it. In the field to our south by about 3 miles. A large bowl lowering. I commented “This is going to tornado” and sure enough within 30 seconds we were watching as multiple vorticies danced around the center of the main funnel.
We documented the tornado as it began to grow. At one point we thought it was moving more northerly than easterly so we decided to head up the road a little bit. It was clear though that the tornado was moving east/northeast. We turned down 570th Ave and watched as a now large cone tornado was crossing the road 3/4th of a mile ahead of us. I got out and documented it as 60-70 mile per hour winds buffeted us. I looked up and noticed the sky seemed literally 20 yards over us as the tornado continued to churn to the east. I started taking some stills while Adam videoed. All of a sudden I heard this unmistakable and frightening roar. A roar reminiscent of 5/20/2013. I looked up and saw large black objects getting tossed about and noticed a tiny water tower on the tornadoes left edge. It was Pilger. The town we had been through not more than 10 minutes prior. This violent tornado was plowing through it and there wasn’t a thing we could do. Immediately my heart sank and we both let out this groan …. The one thing anyone hates about chasing is the life impact these gigantic beasts possess.
It was also at this time that I noticed another tornado was touching down to the east of Pilger. In this environment, I wasn’t surprised to see a satellite tornado touch down. I was surprised at what happened for the next hour! The tornado that impacted Pilger continued northeast out of town and ultimately was rated a high-end EF-4. It unfortunately killed a small child and basically traveled across the heart of the town.
Meanwhile, the other tornado rapidly strengthened and grew to the size of the former tornado. We were witnessing violent tornadoes ongoing at the same time less than a few miles from one another. Having two tornadoes at once isn’t that uncommon in big set ups. What usually happens is the former tornado will eventually weaken and hand off to the new tornado. What made this event so unique is that the former tornado didn’t weaken. In fact it stayed every bit as violent. This was something that was unprecedented! Never have I seen a case where two violent EF-4 tornadoes were ongoing at the same time within the same storm. We darted down 275 as emergency vehicles darted past us for Pilger. We crossed the damage path on 275 and the devastation was complete. There were already workers and emergency personnel assisting the residents of a farmstead that had been hit. We made it to the 275/15 JCT just as the tornado that hit Pilger briefly lifted. The East Pilger tornado was still going strong 2 miles to the east, but this violent circulation was still putting down vorticies in the trees less than a mile away. Noticing that law enforcement blocked off the road ahead, we did a U-turn and headed back east on 275.
For the next 45 minutes we jockeyed for position with two simultaneous wedge tornadoes as they sped off to the north/northeast. There was even a point where it looked like three tornadoes would be ongoing. Several miles later we lost track of the original Pilger tornado as it seemed to combine with the East Pilger one. To make matters worse, the RFD had wrapped around the tornado and obscured us from a clear view. We needed to head east and then north. A few moments later, another area of strong rotation developed just ahead of the previous tornadoes. Within minutes this rotation was putting down vorticies. This was the birth of another EF-4 tornado near Wakefield. We positioned ourselves 4 miles south of the tornado and watched it’s progress. Suddenly out of the rain, the other tornado was doing a crazy rope out. The new mesocyclone, combined with the RFD winds, were kicking this tornado out at speeds near 90 miles per hour as it revolved around the new tornado. Over time this tornado also grew to massive proportions, but thankfully weakened before it hit Wakefield.
Our pursuit north to the tornado was sidetracked by unfavorable roads and drivers. We had to make a long detour through Pender and up NE9. By the time we got to the storm again, it had visually weakened. No longer was there a menacing wall cloud or signs of rotation. The updraft itself seemed much skinnier as well. It was still tornado warned, however, so we continued on to just south of Emerson. We let the rotation pass directly overhead, but did not observe anything tornadic. We decided to let the storm go at this point and count the our tornadoes with other chasers near us. It was at this time that I noticed a big cone lowering off to our northeast from the departing storm. It looked pretty convincing, but I was unable to confirm if it was another tornado. Others further northeast have stated they saw it touch down, but I haven’t seen much in the way of compelling evidence. Our attempts to go help out in Pilger were thwarted as they put out a message saying they wanted no outside help into the town. I found that odd, but we continued on to Sioux City and ate a nice dinner. After a lengthy dinner, we emerged in Sioux City and noticed something off with the sky. There was a gigantic rounded base overhead with wild cloud turbulence and even some rotation. Was the day not over yet? We watched it as it moved off to the east, but noted no severe weather or threat. We met up with Matt Cumberland and split a room across the river. Another line of severe thunderstorms was set to move in and we stepped out to get some photographs.
All in all, Mother Nature woke up in the biggest way possible. Unfortunately it was in the form of violent tornadoes impacting civilization. Luckily there were only a few deaths with the violence these storms possessed. From a personal standpoint this day will probably go unmatched. Two simultaneous violent tornadoes for several miles is something you dream of on a cold winter’s night. I don’t think I will ever witness something as impressive until Mother Nature provides three violent tornadoes side by side by side.
I was hesitant to chase this day. I had to pull some strings at work to stay out and blow off a few obligations back in Chicago. The day looked marginal up until 12-18 hours ahead of the event. By morning, a moderate risk was out for much of Central Oklahoma. There was even talk of a potential high risk. Some well-known chasers were also being typical with hype and making statements such as “this could be the costliest and deadliest day in history.” How could you blame them? Just 11 days after an EF-5 tornado destroyed most of Moore, Oklahoma again. The potential was there, but the target area couldn’t haven’t been more obvious. See below:
To set the stage for the day, an excellent mixture of shear and instability would combine to produce violent supercells across Central Oklahoma. By 4:00 P.M., extreme instability with CAPE values near or above 5,000 J/KG created an explosive environment. Bulk shear greater than 50 knots would promote storm maintenance and organization. The big X-factor for the day would be the progged surface low development near Childress. Supecells were likely all along, but storm mode was unclear due to unfavorable low level directional shear. Veering winds would really hamper any tornado threat had this surface low not developed. As the low strengthened, winds began to back just to the northeast of the low. By peak heating, dew points pooled just to the northeast of the surface low. Basically all the ingredients for violent supercells and tornadoes were pooling in an area just west of the Oklahoma City metro area. Everyone’s target was El Reno and for good reason! Some sample social media excerpts below:
We spent the better part of the day at Ben Holcomb’s place. The target area wasn’t that far away from us so we didn’t feel the need to waste gas and drive around. You could feel the energy in the air. From the explosive atmospheric energy to the nervous human aura. This area was raked for the past two weeks by severe thunderstorms and devastating tornadoes. By 3:00 P.M., a MD was issued for Central Oklahoma mentioning that a PDS [Particularly Dangerous Situation] tornado watch would be needed soon. Parameters [mentioned above] were pretty well-established and it was only a matter of time before the cap was broken. Looking outside from Ben’s, a very established area of low level cloud streets were streaming north-northwest. This signals the resurgence of low level moisture and is easily viewed on radar products. By 3:30 P.M., the Storm Prediction Center pulled the trigger on the watch. Watch probabilities were very high and the discussion was equally as daunting.
...THIS IS A PARTICULARLY DANGEROUS SITUATION...
* PRIMARY THREATS INCLUDE...
SEVERAL INTENSE TORNADOES LIKELY
NUMEROUS VERY LARGE HAIL EVENTS TO 4 INCHES IN DIAMETER LIKELY
NUMEROUS DAMAGING WIND GUSTS LIKELY WITH SEVERAL SIGNIFICANT
GUSTS TO 80 MPH POSSIBLE
DISCUSSION...AN EXTREMELY UNSTABLE AIR MASS HAS DEVELOPED ACROSS
MUCH OF CENTRAL/EASTERN OK THIS AFTERNOON. THIS WILL LIKELY RESULT
IN RAPID DEVELOPMENT OF SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS THIS AFTERNOON AND
EVENING ALONG THE DRYLINE OVER WEST-CENTRAL OK...AND ALONG A WEAK
BOUNDARY EXTENDING NORTHEASTWARD INTO NORTHEAST OK. DISCRETE
SUPERCELLS CAPABLE OF EXTREMELY LARGE HAIL AND DAMAGING TORNADOES
ARE POSSIBLE. DAMAGING WINDS WILL BECOME AN INCREASING THREAT
THROUGH THE EVENING.
We switched on over to the local news stations since the Oklahoma City metro is very good with covering severe weather. Almost too good as we will see a little later on…. Surfing through the local media channels, there was already live coverage before any storms even developed! I had never seen that before. A couple channels were even plotting storm tracks on towering cumulus clouds. Chasers out in the field were reporting on cumulus clouds as well. There was definitely a lot of hype surrounding the day. Just after 4:00 P.M., the hype became realized as a trio of radar echoes developed along the US 281 corridor.
Initiation! We set off from Ben’s apartment as a thunderstorms filled the western horizon. It was pretty surreal being in bright sunshine, but seeing giant storm towers 40 miles to the west. The whole western sky from northwest through southwest was filled with anvils and updrafts. It was as if the army was aligning their troops for the invasion into population. Our chase actually started off pretty doomed. We made a slight calculation error by staying in the OKC metro on a Friday afternoon during rush hour. Even more so there was construction on the bridge connecting I 35 across the Canadian River. These relatively infant storms were already severe warned as we struggled to get to Highway 9 in Norman.
By 5:30, several supercells had developed from North-Central Oklahoma south into the western Oklahoma City metro. The NWS was watching two storms in particular. The first one was to the north near Hennessey, while the second was east of Hinton. Storms went up in a pretty large cluster, but the a few dominant updrafts were expected to take over and provide the best chance for damaging tornadoes. We neared Bridge Creek as the sky was filled with intense positive lightning strikes. This was noteworthy considering we were still over 20 miles from the precipitation center. A few minutes later, spotters started to report a wall cloud with the Hinton storm. We were still a little too far away to view any discernible features, but we were on the right track.
It was at this time that a fatal navigation error made by another chaser in Ben’s ride probably saved a near fatal experience for us. Adam and I usually aren’t the “follow the leader” type. We did, however, follow Ben because he lives in the area and has a good idea of the back roads. When we reached Union City, we thought our plan was to head north along US 81 toward El Reno and intercept the storm as it crossed 81. What we did though was turn west on 152. Adam and I couldn’t figure out this move, but we trusted our predecessors and figured it was some sort of short cut. At this time I snapped a few pics of the storm below:
Tornado warnings were issued for the area and anticipation mounted. The storm itself was very menacing looking! PWAT values were greater than 1.5 and it wasn’t hard to notice that as the core of this storm was a deep blue, green color. Lightning exploded at a downright scary rate as we progressed deeper into the storm’s grasp. Our shortcut found us on a windy, gravel road as we approached the river again. We had intermittent views of the storm, but couldn’t really pick out anything interesting. We saw a lowering off to our northwest, but it looked rather unorganized. We found a river crossing and hit Reno Road as the updraft area of the storm was now just northeast of us. We had fallen behind the storm thanks to the river and our westward turn. We had fallen into a data hole, so our observations would be strictly visual. We traveled east on Reno Road as traffic flew back west blinking their lights at us. SOMETHING was brewing.
I thought I made out a white cone tornado a few miles to the east before we were swallowed by the RFD. I couldn’t confirm it, so we pressed on for a closer look. We proceeded to Courtney Road just after 6:00 P.M. Winds were howling out of the north and visibility dropped. Ben slowly pressed on with Adam and I to follow. Traffic from the east had stopped so we were the only ones brave enough to hook slice this supercell. We hit Heaston Road and Adam and I started to smell this really foul odor of natural gas. An audible howl/roar was heard at this time and I commented “I think we are in a pretty bad spot!” Adam agreed and I think Ben subconsciously heard it as he slammed on his brakes and turned around. We retreated out of the bear’s cage and met on the side of the road where we both said “NOPE!” *Upon further review of video and radar data, it was determined that we drove into the outer circulation of the now violent tornado; it passed just 1 mile to our east and grew to a width of 2.6 miles wide*
It was at this time that several chasers were hit by this tornado. A very powerful beast, this tornado developed rapidly and deviated from the storm’s east/northeast motion. It accelerated southeast and caught numerous chasers off guard. You can search any Youtube video out there from the event. Thinking back to our navigational error, I have some reflections. Our chase style is typically aggressive in nature. We probably would have been one of those chasers that were right up in the bear’s cage and likely impacted by the tornado. As fate or luck would have it, that error likely saved us from impending doom.
To get back on track, we bailed back to 152 and caught glimpses of what we thought was the t0rnado to our northeast. As we hit US 81, the storm was well off to our northeast and the road toward El Reno was blocked off by police. We thought we would get ahead of the storm and head east toward Mustang. The storm looked to be along the I-40 corridor. We figured if we got out ahead of the storm we’d have a clear view into the notch as it entered western Oklahoma City. The supercell was in a transitional phase. The tornado occluded and the storm itself morphed into a cluster of supercells centered on I-40. We headed into Mustang just as destructive winds slammed into the town from the north. The RFD was wrapping around a newly developed tornado near the Will Rogers Airport. It was eerie driving through town as winds howled, shingles flew off roofs, and power poles snapped. Our data wasn’t working so we turned to local radio. Wall to wall coverage of the situation at hand. We headed south on Highway 4 until we hit the river bridge…. that’s when perhaps the scariest and most frustrating moment of my chasing career occurred. *Photographer unknown*
You are definitely not seeing things. 4 lanes of traffic + 2 lanes feeding onto SR4. All of these people were evacuating south out of the storm’s path. We couldn’t figure it out! We crawled south for 30 minutes and only made it to the end of the bridge. Being stuck in traffic is frustrating enough on a good day! The local media personalities were telling people to evacuate south out of town and effectively helped clog the roads. This advice actually harmed people even further. The overall storm motion this day was east to east/northeast. Any weather savvy person, however, knows that supercells generally want to deviate and turn right. So telling everyone to flee in the middle of a metro area with violent weather just to the north is a recipe for disaster since these storms in fact deviated and started heading toward the southeast. At this time we had a tornado to our northeast and another strong couplet to our northwest. With traffic moving at 5-10 MPH, we were sitting ducks now stranded on the Canadian River bridge. Visually I could observe this large wall cloud out my window to the northwest, at any moment a big tornado could set down and end the lives of hundreds of people. We creeped onto the opposite side of the bridge and then bolted along the shoulder for the nearest west road. Our plan was to get off the main roads and head toward the storm since everyone was heading away from it. We made it to our road and only had to deal with a couple of people. We wanted to head south a few miles to 152 and then blast west to Tuttle and Minco where we would reevaluate the situation. Traffic was packed again at 152, but we were able to turn west after a couple of minutes. It was at this point where our worst fears became realized. The aforementioned circulation to our northwest had rapidly lowered to the ground. I commented to Adam that those clouds were moving really fast and before I could finish my sentence a big vorticy slammed to the ground. A tornado was developing just 2 miles to our northwest. Since storm motion was to the southeast, we floored it and tried to get west so the circulation would pass behind us. The tornado churned in the field northwest of us and didn’t appear to be moving from left to right as we anticipated. It just got bigger. The first rule of chasing is knowing the direction of the tornado… if it isn’t moving side to side and is getting bigger it means it’s heading right for you. We were in big trouble. *Watch terrifying video below*
After our narrow escape, the three of us had enough. We bailed west to Minco just as another circulation was developing west of town. Not taking any chances we floored it south on US281 and planned to head to Chickasha. Traffic had other ideas and we finally blasted west to Anadarko and waited for the severe weather to exit the area. During the experience, our phones kept blowing up with people very concerned about us because some chasers had been hit and it was plastered all over social media. One storm spotter even rolled his vehicle into a flooded creek and nearly died. This was this spotters 2nd close encounter in that general area with a near death experience. This is why it is very important to utilize proper training and common sense. We limped back through the damage path after dark as a horrific flooding situation was taking place across the metro. The supercells transitioned from a tornado threat to a heavy rain threat and produced several inches of rain. Our drive up I-44 looked extremely bleak with several hours of heavy rain producing thunderstorms. We wondered if we would even get home or would the roads be flooded out. We made it a good 7 hours before we realized a big problem… *shown below*
While driving through the damage, we encountered a flat tire in rural Missouri. Luckily Adam had a spare so it was only a minor setback. We limped home and I was back in my house by noon. I tried to take a short nap before work, but I was too tired to sleep. I sucked it up and went to work that day and returned back to my house by midnight. It had been well over 36 hours since I last slept and I was overdo for a fatigue induced coma. Just as I crawled into bed, my phone started blowing up asking if I had heard the news. That if it was true? I was out of the loop so I had to find out what they were talking about…. Apparently three storm chasers had been killed by the tornado that we bailed from near El Reno. Not just any three chasers though. 2 powerhouse, famous names in our community and another up and coming chaser/photographer.
Over the years, there’s been some nasty rumors after a tornado where people see a Spotter Network icon very near the tornado and assume the worst. In this case, though, these chaser’s were not using Spotter Network publicly. For the next several hours there was a lot speculation, rumors, and facts being whirled around social media. It wasn’t until the next morning that it was confirmed. Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and researcher Carl Young were impacted and instantly killed by this tornado. The impact of that alone is staggering from a chaser level. No storm chaser had ever died by a direct impact from a tornado before. The community was reeling, but it hit at a much deeper level for some of us. While I can’t say I was best friends about any of the individuals that are deceased, I did have casual conversations with Tim on Stormtrack as well as Paul on Facebook. In fact, Adam and I had talked with Paul and Carl a few days earlier at a local Walmart. Human impact aside, losing a few of the most recognized and respected chasers to an event like that really makes you think about what you’re doing out there. While not the safest chasers out there, they certainly had the talent and ability to put themselves in the best position to get their research. The tornado of May 31st was just so different and epic in proportions that even the best were taken by surprise. The chasing community will never forget May 31st, 2013.
A day that will forever live in memory. Started the morning in Ponca City after another successful chase yesterday. Our plan was to head south into the Oklahoma City metro area as a base location until things became clearer. We met up at Ben Holcomb’s place with several other chasers just after noon and monitored mesoanalysis. Things were primed across Central and Southern Oklahoma. The higher probabilities were to the south, but we still hung around the metro as we saw a very faint boundary laying across the southern metro. We got baited down to Purcell as supercells developed and started moving into the area. One storm in particular looked like an atomic bomb going off and quickly stopped us dead in our tracks as we made it to Purcell. Upon further analysis this storm could not be ignored so we turned around and went after it. We met up with in Newcastle just as it began to produce a violent tornado. Over the next hour the town of Moore would be hit with their 2 EF5 in 15 years and 5th overall tornado. We watched in horror as this tornado chewed through town. We dipped south and intercepted another storm that produced a weak tornado near Stratford. We returned north to Shawnee where we stayed the night with other chasers who were in shock at what just unfolded.
I woke up around 10 A.M. after staying up way later than I should have. Thunderstorms kept developing overnight across Northern Oklahoma and I was overdosing on the idea to shoot some more lightning pictures given the display Mother Nature put on yesterday evening. Another moderate risk was issued for Central and Southern Oklahoma. Risk for some tornadoes, but mostly a large hail threat with any supercell. Hi-res guidance and wind profiles were not advertising a big tornado outbreak, but a few strong ones would be possible. We gassed up in Ponca City and headed south toward Ben Holcomb’s house in Norman. We made it down into the OKC area by 12:30.
On the trip down, I started getting this awkward feeling. It was almost like really bad anxiety. It doesn’t quite make sense to me, but I felt like something bad was going to happen. I didn’t know what that feeling was or why it was there. It was a nervous energy that I haven’t felt very often while chasing. I had chased hundreds of storms before and never felt nervous (except for my very first chases.) Going back to my first chase log (here) I was terrified of storms and was anxious any time one would be predicted. Those same feelings started flooding back to me as we neared the Oklahoma City area. It wasn’t a high risk or a day where an outbreak was likely, it just didn’t feel right.
Meteorologically speaking, it was a fairly typical severe weather day for Spring in Oklahoma. A stationary boundary was draped from west southwest to east northeast up the I 44 corridor. A dry line was progged to develop and intensify as it mixed east to near the I 35 corridor. A triple point was also forecast to develop near or just west of the Oklahoma City metro area. Very warm moist air was in place across Central Oklahoma with a series of disturbances ejecting out of the Southern Plains. Low level shear was a little bit lacking, but that would be overcome with the presence of boundaries. 0-6 KM shear of 50-60 kts more than supported supercells to form. As we got to Ben’s house a mesoscale discussion was issued (below) stating the risk for some tornadoes and the possibility of a watch.
Ben and I were looking over the special balloon launch sounding and one of the close matches was the May 20th, 1957. This is when a violent F5 tornado plowed right through the Kansas City suburb of Ruskin Heights. Ben and I both looked at each other and chuckled “Heh, yeah right.” By now it was just after 1 P.M. and the first few storms started to fire near Lawton. Once the first echo intensified, the Storm Prediction Center pulled the trigger on a tornado watch (below).
Upon closer look of the special sounding and satellite, we noted a very subtle boundary laying east-west across the metro area. Low level directional shear was pretty dramatic near this subtle boundary. Ben and I both noticed this and went “hmmm.” By now the tornado watch had been blasted all over social and local media. The Oklahoma City area does not take severe weather potential lightly. The NWS in Norman also put out a strongly worded Hazardous Weather Outlook at this time:
ALTHOUGH SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS WILL BE POSSIBLE FROM 1 PM THROUGH
MIDNIGHT...THE PEAK HOURS FOR SEVERE WEATHER...INCLUDING TORNADOES...
WILL BE BETWEEN 3 PM AND 8 PM THIS AFTERNOON AND EVENING.
TORNADOES...POTENTIALLY STRONG WITH LONG TRACKS...ALONG WITH BASEBALL
SIZED HAIL AND DAMAGING WINDS ARE LIKELY WITH THE STRONGEST STORMS
WITHIN THE MODERATE RISK AREA. PING PONG BALL SIZED HAIL AND WINDS TO
ABOUT 60 MPH ARE EXPECTED WITH THE STRONGER STORMS WITHIN THE SLIGHT
STORM SPOTTER GROUPS AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT PERSONNEL ACROSS THE
RISK AREAS SHOULD PLAN FOR SEVERE WEATHER OPERATIONS FROM 1 PM UNTIL
THE WEATHER SITUATION TODAY VERY MUCH RESEMBLES YESTERDAY. WARM...
UNSTABLE AIR WILL AGAIN LIE EAST OF A COLD FRONT/DRYLINE COMBINATION
THAT WILL BE OVER WESTERN AND CENTRAL OKLAHOMA...AND WESTERN NORTH
TEXAS. VERTICAL WIND PROFILES WILL AGAIN SUPPORT ROTATING UPDRAFTS
AND SUPERCELL THUNDERSTORMS...ESPECIALLY IN THE MODERATE RISK AREA.
A SLIGHTLY WEAKER CAPPING INVERSION IS INDICATED...WHICH SUGGESTS
A SLIGHTLY EARLIER BEGINNING OF STORM DEVELOPMENT...COMPARED TO
YESTERDAY. STORMS ARE EXPECTED TO BE FAIRLY SPARSE EARLY IN THE
EVENT...THEN MERGE INTO SMALL CLUSTERS DURING THE EVENING.
Things started to happen fairly quick here. Echo tops on the storms to the southwest were rapidly growing and moving into an environment increasingly favorable for supercells. A few chasers at Ben’s started to get antsy and took off south after the storms. We plotted their course and figured they’d end up around Pauls Valley near 3 P.M. We held off a little longer. The northern most storm near Chickasha started to weaken while the ones further south near Duncan intensified. At 2:00 P.M. OUN pulled the trigger on a pair of severe thunderstorm warnings (below).
Alright, it was go time. Adam, Joe, and I took off south from Norman and gassed up near Riverwind Casino. The time was 2:10 P.M. A new storm started to develop to our west over Bridge Creek. It immediately went severe warned for damaging winds to 60 MPH (below). We didn’t necessarily pay attention to those storms as closely as we should have. We were focused on the supercell near Rush Springs as it was headed in Purcell’s general direction. We wrote off the Blanchard/Bridge Creek storm because we figured the inflow would be cut off by our storm to the south.
We fueled up and made the short drive down to Purcell. At 2:25 P.M. I happened to look over my right shoulder out the window and my jaw hit the floor. The most atomic bomb looking structure I had seen since June 7th, 2009 in Oregon, Missouri. This is where we almost made a noob mistake that would have cost us the day. I pointed out the cell to our northwest and the low level circulation that appeared to be developing on the TDWR. It caught Adam’s attention as well so we pulled off in Purcell to decide what we wanted to do. If we continued south, we would have completely written off the first storm which probably would have led to a night of heavy drinking. Radar and a quick picture of the storm is provided below.
The Storm Prediction Center issued another meso-scale discussion mentioning the tornado threat increasing in vicinity of the triple point and then further up the stationary boundary. We cut west to the Dibble area just as our storm was upon us. It was just after 2:30 P.M. and our target storm was not doing so well. The core dropped in intensity, there were no more hail reports being received out of it, and no low level rotation. We really had a decision to make at this point. The storm to the north was looking really good to me. It had the classic “three cell alignment” that I feast over. Any time storms develop in that explosive environment and they develop in threes, I always target that southern most storm. It was developing great low level rotation, but remained unwarned. (Our position below.)
Joe and I didn’t want to go south. I don’t think Adam did either, but if we made the decision to blast north we’d be putting ourselves out of position for anything to the south and ran the risk of encountering metro traffic which would hamper our efforts. Using the TDWR was invaluable. Every minute it updated, the low level structure became more impressive than the last. I think seeing this finally convinced everyone that we NEEDED to get north as quick as we could. We took off toward Blanchard up State Route 76. At 2:40 P.M. Norman issued a tornado warning for Newcastle, Moore, and southern Oklahoma City. They also issued one for the storm to our south, but that one looked far less impressive. We were plenty satisfied with our choice to head north.
Rotating wall clouds were being reported on both storms now. TDWR looked amazing. We were only 12 miles south of the storm and detoured around Blanchard. It was becoming clear that a tornado was imminent, but we were just far enough away from the cell that we couldn’t see it. At 2:50 P.M. we were just south of Newcastle at the H.E Bailey Spur. We could see a giant updraft ahead of us, but it was too hazy to see the base. Funnel cloud reports started coming in as we pressed on toward town. It was about to show time. At the current time it had not occurred to me what was happening or where it was happening. (below)
Joe had the live feed from a local news station up and we watched as a slender cone shaped funnel descended from the cloud base. We were about 6 miles south of it and couldn’t see the horizon now due to the trees and buildings of Newcastle. We listened intently as the helicopter reported the circulation touching the ground and debris starting to be picked up. Here we go! As we got into the center of Newcastle, police flew by us just as a large wall cloud came into view to the north. We knew exactly where they were going and what they were going to. Block the road. We came up to SR 130 where we went east off the main highway. The river was two miles east of us, but Portland Ave extended north to near the I-44 exit. We thought we would get a better view that way, avoid the roadblock, and not get caught in traffic. Our position shown below at 3:01 P.M.
Joe was giving us a play by play as we went east on Fox Lane. This was a heavily residential area and our view was blocked by homes and trees. The last we heard there was a fairly sizable cone tornado just north of Newcastle. The radar presentation was intense. Gate to gate shear was highly indicative of a powerful tornado in progress. Again, it still didn’t register to me what was happening or where it was heading. We had a one tracked mind and it was to get into position to see it. Our phones went off in unison of a tornado warning. Upon reading the text, we knew how dangerous the situation had truly become. Tornado Emergency for Southern Oklahoma City. Our position below at 3:05 P.M.
By now a very pronounced debris ball was apparent on base reflectivity. We turned north on Portland Avenue and saw the giant meso hovering over a random hill. Was Mother Nature really going to keep us from seeing this tornado? Every single time we think we will get a view, something happens. If it’s not police road block, it’s buildings and trees, and now a random hill. Spotter network reports were coming in of a large tornado, but that could mean anything. Tornado size is so subjective to the person and many times a slender cone is reported as large. Piecing together the clues, however, we knew something significant was probably occurring. We just couldn’t get in position to see it. I jokingly said we should pull over and run up the hill to try to get a better view, but Adam pressed on past a grove of trees. That’s when everything came together in my head. It finally dawned on me what was happening and where it was going.
“Oh my God, that’s going to nail the metro!” Those were the first words out of my mouth. I was in shock.
We stopped right as the road curved at the river. The time was 3:08 P.M. and a mile wide wedge was crossing less than a mile in front of us. It all hit me at once. This was going for Moore. Of all places for it to hit it had to be Moore. What gave me an even more eerie feeling was that it was following almost the exact same path as another famous Moore tornado. On May 3rd, 1999, a violent F5 tornado developed near Amber and traveled northeast along the I-44 corridor through Newcastle, Moore, and Oklahoma City. It was such an infamous tornado that residents and meteorologists alike only reference it by date. Everyone that lived in the area knows what “May 3rd” means. I couldn’t believe it and still had hopes that it would somehow miss the metro altogether. A tornado of that size and power doesn’t just disappear.
From our position, the rear flank downdraft wrapped around the tornado and obscured it. We never saw the tornado again. What we did experience though will send chills and still gives me goosebumps. I can tell you the exact minute this tornado plowed into Moore. From the time the tornado passed across the northern sky a waterfall sounds was present. Pretty typical sound from a tornado in the open land. At 3:10 P.M. that whooshing sound changed into an audible ROAR. This was a sickening roar. It didn’t sound like jets or a freight train to me, it sounded like a giant bulldozer scraping asphalt off the ground. Louder and louder the roar grew even as the tornado moved further away. All this told me was that it was now in Moore and something catastrophic was happening. I began to worry about my friends now. I have several friends that live in Moore, most of them are chasers. I worried about their families and their homes. We watched there for the next five minutes as the roar began to lessen. We were in shock.
A sickening debris ball was plowing right through downtown Moore. We wanted to go up I-44, but knew that would be impossible. We were trapped on the wrong side of the river. I wanted to go to Moore and help. I didn’t care about chasing anymore, but there was no easy way to get there. We had to backtrack through Newcastle and down to Highway 9. I turned on the radio as it was simulcasting the live television play by play of the tornado. As we made it to Highway 9, the tornado was approaching I-35. From all accounts the tornado was still going strong. Reports of a large tornado at 4th Street and I-35, then 4th Street and Bryant, and 4th Street and Sunnylane. It was plowing right through central Moore. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but it was 3:20 P.M. on a Monday. As we were passing through Newcastle I saw a yellow vehicle that sent chills up and down my spine. School bus. School. Violent tornado. Dismissal. Children.
At 3:30 we made it to I-35, but noticed no one was going anywhere. You couldn’t get north if you tried. We saw Ben submit a spotter network report: Tor — — Spotter is 4 miles E of MOORE, OK ( county) [35.329/-97.424] — Big cone shaped tornado about to cross sooner and SE 134th. We crawled up to Highway 9 in Norman and went east. There was nothing we could do to get to Moore, we decided to try to blast east to get out ahead of the storm again in case it was still ongoing east of Lake Stanley Draper. By now the tornado had begun to weaken and we actually listened live on air as it dissipated on the western bank of the lake. Traffic in the metro was horrible. Nothing we didn’t expect though. We finally maneuvered our way around Norman and went north on a road just outside of Pink. By now our storm was north of I 40 and had dramatically weakened. We debated on what to do. Emergency vehicles, utility trucks, and other vehicles were flying east toward the tornado stricken area. We didn’t want to interfere so we headed east to Shawnee. Another supercell was strengthening 50 miles to the southwest and headed for Stratford.
We blasted south out of Shawnee. It was 31 miles south to Stratford. The tornado was 34 miles west of Stratford and moving east at 20 MPH. We knew the environment of this day and just witnessed a historic tornado. This storm would be treated the exact same way. We stepped it up a notch and wanted to beat the core to US 177. We barely beat the core to the highway and now had a slight visual of the updraft base at 4:50 P.M. Our position and radar image is below.
We made it into Stratford as the updraft area was still 7-10 miles to our west. This area of Oklahoma wasn’t so chaser friendly in terms of terrain. Trees and hills peppered the land, but we were able to find a flat spot just north of town. The storm was headed in our general direction so we waited for it to come. A well defined wall cloud with alligator mouth appeared to the west. A confirmed tornado was reported at this time, but initially we couldn’t see it. Photo below.
We started to notice some rapid motion on the left side of the wall cloud. I zoomed my camera in and saw a funnel dangling down. Another tornado was in progress, but quickly dissipated. Photo of the tornado below.
We watched for several more minutes as the tornado dissipated. The storm was on it’s way out as well. It quickly weakened and dissipated. We met up with other chasers on the side of the road and all caravanned back into Shawnee to a local Applebees. On the way a sobering LSR was released from Norman: Local Storm Report by NWS OUN: Newcastle [Mcclain Co, OK] broadcast media reports TORNADO at 02:56 PM CDT — lifted around 336 pm. estimated path length of 20 miles thru newcastle, moore, and south okc. preliminary damage rating of at least ef4. I looked on social media and saw some pictures of the damage. I had no doubt it was an EF-5. There appeared to be entire neighborhoods flattened and it looked like a school with very heavy damage. No word on a death toll, but I knew there were deaths. We made it into Shawnee just as another supercell blew up over Oklahoma City. We briefly debated going after it, but decided against it. It was headed in the general direction so if something were to happen we’d be position already. We met up with some good friends at the Applebees and discussed the event. Instead of the usual celebration of seeing a tornado, we were all in awe at the aerial footage of Moore. They were focused on an elementary school where there were reported children trapped. We ate and then decided our next move. It was a long drive back to Chicago, so we decided to stay in Shawnee the night and get a good nights rest. Throughout the night the death toll continued to rise. From 12 to 25 all the way up 92. We thought this tornado would claim more lives than the Joplin one a few years prior. Thankfully there was a huge discrepancy and that 92 figure was erroneous. Unfortunately 24 people did die including 7 children at Plaza Towers Elementary School. A terrible day and a tornado that I will never forget. I knew I had a bad feeling about the day, I felt something bad was going to happen, but I never would have guessed another EF-5 would hit Moore.
I almost didn’t chase this day. Almost. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I had a family obligation on Friday, the 18th, at 7 P.M. My usual chase partner Adam Lucio and I talked about this set up for a couple days and decided it would be well worth the trip. However, I needed to make it a one day affair and he had plans of chasing multiple days in a row. Rather than risk going solo and then marathoning it back to Chicago (already on no-sleep) I decided to sit this one out. It was hard to do but in my eyes family comes first. I made that decision on Wednesday night at 5:30 P.M. I signed on AIM to tell Adam that I don’t know if I could make it when Skip Talbot IMs me and asks if I was going to go. He was going, but his Verizon aircard broke, his phone broke, and his robotic camera dome was giving him issues and wanted to know if I would be going. I told him the situation and he made an offer I couldn’t refuse. We all agreed to meet at Skip’s house, caravan up to his cottage near Montello, WI, chase Thursday, and then we would take turns driving back Thurs night/Fri morning. Rather than giving up a potential great chase day, I immediately agreed. Adam and Deb came and got me at my place and we were on our way. It was only 30 minutes to Skip’s house; we loaded up the gear and headed north for Wisconsin. It was around a 4 hour drive from Chicago to Montello. We arrived there around midnight, looked over data, and went to bed.
From the get go I liked southwestern Minnesota. No convection moving through, nice Theta-E ridge, clear skies, 3-4k CAPE, great moisture return and it was a little more removed from the dryline/cold front. Adam pondered if we should go north toward Fargo. I liked my southern target, but could certainly see and understand why he would want to go north. My big caveats with going north were A.) I didn’t bring my passport and didn’t want to risk being cut off by the Canadian border and B.) I just felt that the window up there would be very small due to the front overrunning the convection and quickly causing it to become linear. I felt southern Minnesota was the best chance to get a long tracked supercell before a squall line from the west overtook it. Turns out Adam, Skip, and I all were right on.
The next morning we woke up at 6 A.M. and grabbed a bite to eat at Sparks grill in Montello. Usually Adam and I never stop and eat breakfast before a chase as we like to be on the road early in case the storms decide to fire quickly. This breakfast place was spectacular. I ordered the corn beef hash and it was just scrumptious. We were in and out of there in 25 minutes and on the road. We wanted to leave early, because everything pointed to convection going up north at noon and the rest of the dry line blowing up by 2 P.M. We were 5 1/2 hours away from Worthington, MN and knew if we left by 8 we would be there by almost 2. We drove west the length of Minnesota only stopping to fuel up in Austin. By the time we got near the Worthington area we started noticed a Cu field to our west and south. Encouraging! Since Skip and I had no data and Adam’s AT&T wouldn’t allow him to use roaming, we were strictly visual this chase. Skip and I led the charge with Adam and Deb following us all the way to Luverne. It was here that I finally got signal on my cell phone and decided to look at the COD analysis page. The satellite showed 3 distinct bands of TCu stretching from Fargo to Omaha. We thought we were in a good spot; the SPC even MD our area. It was getting close to show time. After only 20 minutes sitting in Luverne, a big cell popped up 100 miles to our north. Adam and I usually have this philosophy that the first cell that goes up is the sacrificial lamb if you will. By that we mean when towers have been fighting the cap for a while and one finally breaks through, the cap eventually wins the battle and the storm never really establishes itself. But having broke the cap it creates a weakness and allows other storms to fire at will. May 22nd, 2010 was an exception. That storm that day blew through the cap and was up to 50,000 feet in 30 minutes.
Anyway, we figured the dry line would light up south along it and we would be on the tail end charlie. We sat and waited, huddled around my cheap radar on my 2 inch droid screen. As the next update came in, the storms to north grew and expended in coverage eventually become tornado warned. Meanwhile we were sitting under a baking sun with TCu still firing all over. When would one of these become established? Skip was looking for WiFi so we hunted all over town searching for a hotspot to no avail. We finally gave up and decided to sit and watch the sky. Adam’s AT&T finally regained service and we actually had data. The storms up north in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota were making our hearts sink. 9-10 tornado warnings with confirmed tornadoes on the ground 160 miles to our north. To our east a band of showers developed off the supercells in northern Minnesota. At first we thought nothing of them, but when we looked to the eastern horizon we could see massive towers going up from northeast through southeast. I was confused at this point. We were sitting directly on the convergence boundary with good moisture aided by a strong 20 kt southeast surface flow. CAPE was up to 3,500 and the cap was virtually gone according to mesoanalysis. Nevertheless we sat and watched as tower after tower to our east went up and anvil-ed out. Finally we threw in the towel on the Worthington-Luverne target and decided to make a run at the now severe warned line developing.
Visually they looked linear from behind. There were so many rock hard updraft towers in such a confined space along the eastern horizon. We thought for sure the dry line had advanced much further east than thought and was now just firing off one big squall line. We had great low and mid level flow, but the upper level flow was wacky. We started getting that sinking feeling in our stomach that we drove 9 hours from Chicago only to bust on linear storms that were 50 miles to the east of us and heading to the northeast at 50. Instead of pouting and throwing in the towel we all decided to floor it east on 90 back to Worthington before going up toward Windom. Along the way, the northern most cell in the line became tornado warned and broke away from the trailing convection. It was a good 100 miles to the north and we figured we wouldn’t have a chance at it. On my phone radar it looked like the stuff to the east and southeast had become one big severe warned QLCS. After getting to Windom, we continued east in hopes of punching through the back end of the line and reappearing out ahead of it just to get a shelf cloud shot to somewhat salvage the chase. I didn’t know what was warned and what wasn’t so I pulled up COD’s severe weather warnings page. As I figured the cells we were on were severe warned with a plethora of tornado warnings for the storms way up north. After a couple of more refreshes I was shocked to see a tornado warning pop up in extreme northern Iowa. Hmmmm. I pulled up Des Moines radar (on COD’s 1 km radar site) and was pleasantly surprised to see a cell pop up within the last 30 minutes and become supercellular. I wasn’t sure if Adam was aware of it and told him that Skip and I planned on dropping south and east for that storm and ditching the cells in front of us.
He was on top of things and too noticed the cell and already figured out a route to it. Getting to this storm meant core punching one of the severe warned ones. Not a big deal. We hit it from behind just southwest of Mankato and noticed a lot of turbulent motions going on with a rather high base. Scud was being inhaled almost off the tree tops while CG absolutely littered the emerald prairies. The storm we were core punching was become surface based. We didn’t want to hang around and play with it though. We knew that the tail end charlie was 25 miles to our south southeast and that the current cells inflow would contaminated by the outflow from that storm. I had lost cell signal just north of Blue Earth and called Adam for an update. We said the core of the tornado warned storm would be over I 90 in 45 minutes. We were 3 miles north of I 90 so I wrote it off and encouraged Skip to continue on to 90 and then shoot east. Well little did I know was that Adam’s radar had timed out on him and it was nearing a half hour old! We got on 90 and went east about 2 miles before we got slammed from south by a 50 kt crosswind. Almost immediately heavy rain and small hail was peppering us on 90. We needed to punch it east and get ahead of it. Not an easy thing to do while battling 50 kt winds, blinding rain, scared motorists and a storm moving northeast at 50 miles per hour. For 10 minutes we battled this thing and finally won just north of Kiester.
We pulled off at exit 134 and followed that east a mile until we turned south on SR22 and headed south for Kiester. Upon arriving in town a lowering was evident 5-6 miles to our west. We nudged up the road a bit to get a better look at this lowering. I actually got out of the car and attempted to stand on the bumper to get a better view, until a CG barrage unlike any other started raining down near us. Not the most ideal setting to film needless to say I quickly retreated back into the car. After a few minutes it was clear that this lowering was not rotating and was actually being pushed out at us by outflow. However, we noticed a new cell merging with this storm from the southwest. I never got a picture or video of it (I should have) but it was a beautiful little LP structure with a tiny rounded base that was 2-3 miles removed from the former storm. We went back north through Kiester and back east on County Highway 46. Upon doing so Adam, still behind us, texted me saying Roger Hill had a tornado out of that merging cell. I looked back and couldn’t see anything as precip was now falling and obscuring my view. I told Skip to punch it east and we did. Out of the rain I began to see the base again and a nice little lowering. I yelled at Skip that we may have something but needed to get east for a better view. He obliged and we made it to 640th Ave. before turning south.
As we traveled a mile or two I began seeing what I thought was a cone funnel coming down. I couldn’t be sure since we were dodging trees and houses and only could get a brief glimpse of it. Finally as we crested a hill, we saw a magnificent cone tornado 7-8 miles to our southwest. We continued south on 640th watching the tornado get a little bit bigger. A couple of more trees blocked our view of it and when we re-emerged the cone had changed into a slender stovepipe to the left. That tornado dissipated and another cone lowering started to descend. The lowering immediately came down as an elephant trunk tornado. At first I thought it may have just been the same tornado, but as we approached the circulation it was CLEAR that there were 3 areas of intense rotation. The tornado was on the left side of the meso with a new cone lowering coming down on the right. After 30 seconds we had both tornadoes on the ground at the same time. We witnessed three tornadoes in a matter of 10 minutes. We knew the storm wasn’t done. Not by a long shot.
The former tornado lifted while the new cone churned away several miles to our southwest. The contrast was poor and we contemplated moving toward the west on one of the county roads. I thought the way to improve contrast was by continuing south and this was certainly the case. The cone lifted after a minute or two. We pressed on and noticed a very large wall cloud was now evident. At this time we made it to 650th Ave. and 140th St. and were looking at a tornado very near Kiester. We set up shop here for well over 20 minutes as these circulations approached. As the multi-vortex moved just to the north of Kiester it wedged out into a very large tornado directly west of us. Tornado maxed out to almost a mile wide as it moved east northeast very near Kiester. The motions were violent as violent can be. CG’s were crashing down everywhere with multiple bolts striking very close to us. The tornado continued to approach our location and continued to be extremely violent. This will be a very high rated tornado I am sure. As the tornado approached it began to inhale and absorb its own tail cloud on the north side. Cumulus clouds were being thrown into the wedge as it neared our location. I called 911. We didn’t have data or a ham radio so I couldn’t make Spotter Network reports. The only thing I could do is dial 911 and report everything I could and I did for the majority of the chase. Nevertheless, despite the warnings I was giving the wedge continued to move northeast away from Kiester.
As the wedge approached, it lifted but there was still a multiple vortex circulation on going so in my mind it was still on the ground. I zoomed out to try to get a perspective of the structure just as a fat cone fully condensed underneath the left side of the wall cloud. The old circulation that produced the wedge was still producing a multiple vortex tornado. A new circulation developed very close to us just west of us. This photo illustrates the older circulation in the background and the never circulation in the top left-center. We watched both circulations spin violently with the old circulation still putting down fully condensed tornadoes. These were not separate tornadoes, rather spin ups from the same circulation. At this point we tallied a total of four tornadoes. CG’s were still pouring out of this storm. What a crazy/intense supercell; we knew it was going to produce something nasty. The old circulation dropped another large condensation behind the trees (still parent circulation – still counting it as same tornado) while the new circulation kept dropping a cone funnel. I couldn’t see behind the trees, so risking getting hit by lightning, I ran out of the car and down the road to see what I could see behind the trees. Once I got to the edge of the trees I was AMAZED at what I saw 3 miles down the road. Still part of the same Kiester circulation and was fairly long tracked although with intermittent damage. The old circulation was still producing while the new one was still rotating violently. This new circulation dropped an amazing white cone while the old circulation was a multiple vortex cone.
The cone was brilliantly churning in the field across the road from us as the old circulation finally occluded. This tornado was number 5 on the day, but quickly retreated back into the cloud base all the while the ground circulation was still evident. We sat there and watched for two minutes waiting to see if this cone would come back down. The rotation was definitely supportive of this. Finally all at once a massive stove pipe crashed down just behind a farmstead a mile to the north northwest. I zoomed the camera in here as I wanted to see the perspective of it to the farm stead. Very close call but this property was spared. The tornado quickly wedged out underneath some of the most jaw dropping structure known to supercells. I was in awe. A day so busted on our part turned into something so treasured. As the wedge moved to the north northeast the structure just continued to get better and better. I couldn’t believe it. I again called 911 to tell them a large tornado was on Conger’s doorstep. It was obvious that they probably knew about it since the area was littered with law enforcement and emergency vehicles but I wasn’t taking any chances. We hoped in the car and went back to 140th and took that east one mile to 660th Ave. As we turned north the tornado had morphed back into a big cone funnel with debris whirl. The tornado then turned back into a fat cone just southwest of Conger. The tornado became stationary for a while, with power flashes and whirling debris. We nudged north another mile as the tornado widenedeven more. We noticed a road block up ahead and decided to turn around and take SR 15 east until it curved north into the town of Conger. We had hoped Conger wasn’t hit but that large tornado was perilously close. As we moved into town it was clear that it missed Conger, barely, to the north.
We turned east out of Conger as the tornado wedged out again. A satellite tornado danced around it as it moved in the general of Albert Lea. It turned back into a big white Manchester-like conebefore wedging out again. As we were looking for roads, I zoomed out and too my horror realized this tornado was dead set on hitting the west side of Albert Lea. We continued up the road where police had blocked the road. We sat there for 3 minutes waiting when suddenly the police officer started waving us through yelling the tornado had turned and was heading for us. There was a grove of trees blocking our view so I had no idea if this was true or not. Nevertheless we made the ominous drive through Albert Lea. When we re-emerged out of Albert Lea on the east side we realized that rain had obscured our view of the tornado and we need to head back west and south a little. We set up just southeast of the town of Hayward and saw another lowering. The Albert Lea – Conger tornado had lifted in the 20 minutes we were in town, but this new lowering was near if not over Albert Lea. Suddenly another tornado dropped and we had our 7th of the day! We decided to go north, but the tornado dissipated. We figured it would be a great idea to keep up with this circulation as it headed north in case it dropped another tornado. Little did we know amonster was already on the ground in the rain. Lightning sparked out of this great beast as it grew up to 3/4 of a mile wide. We advanced on the tornado as it neared Hollandale. The tornado then transitioned into a slender tilted stove pipe and finally roped out. We followed the storm north into Blooming Prairie unable to see anything else and called it a chase!
May 22nd, 2010 – Northern South Dakota Tornado Outbreak/Field Incident
We had been watching tCu for a little over an hour up to this point. Each updraft tower would reach higher into the sky before ultimately collapsing. Very discouraging since the main caveat to today’s chase was a pretty stout cap. We knew that IF a storm broke it it had the opportunity to go insane in an extremely favorable environment. As we were gassing up in Gettysburg, SD, our persistent updraft finally exploded and became QUICKLY tornado warned.
The cell was exploding before our very eyes! It went from a large mass of cumulus congestus to a full blown monster in 25 minutes time. The storm finally tapped into the cold air aloft and continue growing tapping into all the cold air aloft. The anvil soon reached across the whole eastern sky!
We went east out of Gettysburg and turned north toward Hoven. As we got to Hoven the base was in clear view off the west near Akaska. NWS surveys confirm a tornado touchdown at this exact time and this certainly looks like a funnel cloud. However I do NOT believe this was a tornado because there isn’t a well defined wall cloud. I think what we have here is the initial lowering that would become the storms first wall cloud. Beautiful landscape!
Pretty insane structure at this point. This supercell, still in its infant stage, had text book structure! We sat and watched the supercell mature for 20 minutes! A wall cloud tried to form in the image to the right. I sat and had this evolution tripoded which I plan on timelapsing as time permits!
The next several images (viewed from left to right) shows the evolution the first sustained attempt at a wall cloud. In image 1 rising motion was noted and inflow into the storm was around 15 kts. In images 2 and 3, more scud is drawn into the cloud base and a beaver tail is trying to form on the right. Images 4 and 5 show the wall cloud slowly getting its act together and a quickly developing beaver tail. Also in image 5 you not more scud tags rising into the cloud base. In the last image you can make a well defined beaver tail on the right feeding into the mesocyclone. There was only broad rotation noted at this time
As time progressed (matter of 5 minutes) the supercell really started to get its act together. The wall cloud was now very pronounced. The first image shows a beautiful beaver tail feeding into the mesocyclone with a well defined wall cloud that started to exhibit strong rotation. The second picture notes a very ominous looking wall cloud that we could tell was on the verge of producing. The bottom images depict a strong RFD wrapping around the mesocyclone. Because of this Adam, Ben, Scott, and I decided it was time to move north to try to keep our visual and to get a closer look at the ground.
While we traveled north on SR 47, it was evident that a tornado may drop at any time. We found a dirt road and turned onto it and faced west to tripod the intense rotation located about 2 miles to our west. In picture two, Andrew Pritchard is seen standing outside his vehicle with a large funnel cloud descending for the ground. I guess technically at this point it could be considered a tornado as evidenced in picture three. The middle block of images show the rapid development of a fully condensed tornado. Andrew actually vacated his spot for SR 47. As he did this the funnel dropped and a tornado was born. Pictures 7 through 9 show a beautiful cone tornado at close range. At this point we are looking due west. The tornado was only a mile down the road from us. The RFD was quickly wrapping around the meso, so we jumped back into the car and floored it up SR 47, paralleling the tornado.
The tornado started moving more east northeast than due north at this point. We pulled off about a mile up from where we were previously sitting. We watched as the tornado weakened as it occluded near 47. Apparently at this time the TIV made a successful intercept without Sean Casey in command.
Not wanting to drive under the violently rotating wall cloud, I got out and filmed as vorticies danced underneath. As I mentioned before, this storm featured an extremely strong RFD. Winds ranged from 40 to 60 kts! Waves of windblown rain rotated around the mesocyclone and blasted us from the west. It was at this time that the initial touchdown of the infamous Bowdle wedge occurred.
Once the tornadic circulation crossed the road, we continued north on SR47. Now looking northeast, I saw what appeared to be a large wedge tornado in progress. I wasn’t sure due to the fact I was trying to look through a wet RFD. Once we cleared the wrap around precipitation, a clear view of a white cone tornado came into view. It was at this time that the tornado was crossing US 12 and Tim Samaras was deploying his turtle probe!
The tornado was now well east of the highway and we had a great intercept route planned out. All of a sudden there was a line of brake lights in front of us. We couldn’t believe it. After three minutes people started turning around and we did the same. The tornado damaged power lines and we needed to turn around and find an alternate route. This greatly hampered our efforts to get a good shot at the wedge.
We found an east route and picked our jaws up off the floor of the car. The sculpting of the updraft was lit up by the sun and allowed us to see into the jaws of this storm. A wedge tornado was in progress at this time, but it is tiny in comparison to mountains of clouds involved with this beast. In the pictures above imagine the right side of the image pulling toward the left and the left side pulling toward the right. It was all wrapping up in the center of the image. Even from this distance, violent rotation was noted. Everything was in constant motion.
As we made our way north on the dirt roads east of SR47, the beast was lurking underneath the monstrous supercell. Although it was not the view of the wedge I had desired, I am just thankful I was able to capture it. It was also at this time that we realized how close to disaster the town of Bowdle really was. As we drove through town, with sirens blaring, the view to the north was just filled with MASSIVE tornado. Had this tornado hit the town of Bowdle it could have reached EF5 status. I have no doubt in my mind about this.
As we passed through Bowdle, we saw a line of chasers coming south with the faint image of a wedge tornado back there. As we continued east on US 12, we got ahead of the RFD again and easily make out the 3/4 of a mile wide tornado. In our minds we thought this tornado was hauling due to the fact that the first tornado we saw was easily moving 30-35 kts. As it turned out we floored it east while the tornado seemingly stalled 1.5 miles north of Bowdle. We didn’t exactly get the money shot of this tornado, but we got a unique shot from Bowdle that only the residents of the town would have received.
We were 5 miles east of Bowdle at this time and realized we were outrunning the storm. The wedge in these photos was either dissipated or dissipating. If it were to still exist it would be back in the far bottom left corner of the set of images. As we drove toward Roscoe we noticed what could possibly be another tornado dropping. I think it was just a nice lookalike though. The supercell was an odd beast. It transitioned from classic to HP at least 3 different times. At this time it was trending more HP. Because of this we decided to drive north a little bit to position ourselves in the notch.
The next several images are of the most beautiful tornado I have ever seen. As we turned north off of US12 the rain cleared out from the base and a slender cone funnel began to descend. The tornado snaked its way to the ground and moved slowly to the east a few miles away from us. Simply a breathtaking view. Hard to believe a storm that produced a tornado so sinister could also produce a thing of beauty minutes later.
The tornado started to dissipate but the supercell exhibited the “mothership” appearance. Scott Bennett was definitely enjoying himself! The storm started to transition back to an HP. This is partly because this beast of a supercell would inhale anything else that tried to develop anywhere near its environment. Whenever a storm went up it would be drawn into the supercell and get absorbed into the updraft. So the storms this supercell was inhaling would rain into the updraft area and appear that storm was wrapping itself up in precipitation.
As another storm was being absorbed into the circulation, tornadogenesis was occurring again. This is a prime example why storm chasing and tornadoes in general can be so dangerous. As evidenced in the last shot this tornado was now completely wrapped in rain. Unsuspecting motorists or residents would see a giant rain shield moving in and be completely unaware that a tornado was again lurking within. We jogged back south to US12 and east to the town of Roscoe where we attempted to once again jog north to get into the notch.
We passed through Roscoe with sirens blaring and positioned ourselves 3 miles north of town. We were in the notch with strong inflow from the northeast. This may or may not be the continuation of the rainwrapped tornado above, but there was definitely a multiple vortex tornado on the ground during this time. The circulation itself was very tight. Rain was wrapped around the entire meso, but it wasn’t heavy. The most interesting to note during this time was the inflow gusting to 50 kts out of the north. I have never experienced this before. The airflow around this supercell was just insane. Our route back south to Roscoe was now cut off by the RFD, so we analyzed our dirt road options. We figured we had three options. Option 1 was just to brave it and punch back south to US12 through the RFD. Option 2 was to go north to the next paved road. That road was 4 miles to the north and would have put us in the core. We weren’t really feeling that due to the fact that heavy rain and large hail were likely contained in there. So option 3 was follow the dirt roads and zig zag our way the 5 miles to the next paved south option, then back east on US12. The storm was moving at 15 mph so it seemed like a no brainer that we could execute option 3 to perfection.
We reached a T in the road. Once again we were faced with the decision to go north into the core or south out ahead of the circulation. We had given ourselves enough distance that we thought we could safely dart south a mile before heading east again. We met up with L.B. LaForce, Bill LaForce, Bob Hartig, Mike Kovalchick, and the Oosterbans at this intersection. We all had the same general idea. The storm was again featuring classic characteristics so it was clear where the area of interest was. As we sat at that intersection L.B. had returned Adam’s tail light that was blown off by the intense RFD of the earlier tornado. In doing so L.B.’s hat blew off. Adam chased after it and eventually tracked it down and returned it to him. I noticed that a new wall cloud was forming VERY close just off to our south southwest. I recommended we get out of there to our south option two miles to the east. This is when disaster happened.
We got 1/4 of a mile down the road when we saw headlights heading back at us. We thought “that’s odd, who would be coming back toward this area” The line was led by Bob and crew, then Scott Bennett, and then us. The vehicle turning around was an English chaser by the name of Nathan Edwards. The road was sloppy but drivable. As we got a mile into the road all of a sudden we see Bob and gang turning around. Well that is odd. Why are they turning around? Almost instantaneously Ben screams “TORNADO BEHIND US.” So Scott and I continued on only to find out…. THERE WAS NO ROAD! It went from dirt road to green grass to crop. #@$@#!!!!!!
In a state of confusion 6 more vehicles piled up at the dead end of this “road.” We were all screaming at each other “WHAT IS GOING ON!!!” All of a sudden Ben screams “ANOTHER TORNADO!, TWO TORNADOES!” To my horror I turned around to see this beautiful drill bit tornado (seen below) to our west northwest and a menacing stove pipe (also seen below) to our west southwest.
We were in a crisis. There was no where to go and no where to hide. A second later, headlights appeared on the horizon. It was NWS DDC meteorologist Mike Umscheid. He is an excellent photographer and was getting amazing pictures before he plotted the same escape route that we had. Unfortunately the road had other thoughts. As we all bottle necked at the end of the road, it was TVN Team Thunder that decided our best option to survive was to bail into the farmers field and cut across to the main road a mile to the east. It was now or never, do or die. We did. We were sliding all over the place having a very hard time navigating the the swampy field. As we reached the end of the fence line, we all turned south knowing the tornadoes we moving east north east. We had to get south and out of the path. As we got into the field a quarter of a mile south of where the road was “supposed” to be, another magnificent rope tornado dropped very near us. Luckily it was to the east of us and moving away.
As we were heading south, we noticed a pond was blocking our egress. It was time to sit and wait it out and pray for the best. I nervously filmed out the window as a wall cloud was clearly visible rotating directly on top of us. Within minutes a scary tornado dropped no more than 50 yards to our east. TVN Team Thunder was closest to this tornado and I am sure got magnificent footage if they weren’t taking shelter under their seats! Multiple vorticies danced about all over the field just around to our east. The most terrifying moment imaginable. Thankfully we came away unscathed. The last image shows the velocity couplet at the time of our field experience.
After the tornado, flooding rains fell for almost 45 minutes as we all tried to free ourselves from the field. That was not happening and we all called for help. After a long wait we were finally saved by Bart Comstock. We ended up paying the farmer 400 dollars a person for the damages we caused and walked away with out lives! An unforgettable day!
The chase that started it all. My father, grandfather, and I set off from the south side of Chicago early that morning. We didn’t know much about weather and storm chasing, but saw that The Weather Channel had outlined Central Illinois under a risk of severe weather. After slowly making our way into Central Illinois, we positioned ourselves in front of a rapidly evolving squall line. This squall line produced wind damage and a few tornadoes much further south in the St. Louis area. To the north, we intercepted the line near Havana, Illinois and were treated with torrential rain, occasional lightning, and non-severe winds. We followed the line back to the I-55 corridor before going home. It wasn’t much, but my very first storm chase was complete!
Severe weather terrified me. For years I would cower at the very thought of severe weather impacting the local area. I had to get over it somehow, but at the time I didn’t think it was possible. My grandparents and parents tried their best to get me over that fear, but nothing would work. A few years prior the movie “Twister” was supposed to be coming out. My family knew my interest in severe weather, but would never allow me to see the movie. As I progressively got older my fear became less and less, but they would not jeopardize their hard work by letting me see a movie that could potentially cause a setback. It was the summer of 1997 and storms continued to roll through the area and I would continue to get scared. Day time storms didn’t scare me so much as night time ones did. I don’t like getting jolted awake in the middle of the night. Some of my most terrifying memories would be having a bad dream about storms and waking up terrified to the loud clap of thunder and blinding flash of lightning. I would run and scream hysterically into my parent’s room. This wasn’t a normal life for a ten year old. My parents did everything they could and noticed my distinct interest with the weather. There was fear, don’t get me wrong, but through that fear they saw a small flickering flame of pure interest.
Rewind to May 18th, 1997. The Chicago area was pummeled with severe weather. I had been on edge all day because I could just “feel” it in the air. That day as the storms neared, my dad convinced me to ride with him and my brother up to a local park to watch the storm come in. I reluctantly agreed. As the storm approached around 7 P.M. the sky grew very dark. The tornado sirens were set off as a gust front loomed on the horizon. All of a sudden several power flashes were evident along the horizon. I had a wide range of emotions. I wanted to scream, cry, and run. I was panicked, but something drew me to it. It was terrifying, but I couldn’t say a word. I sat there probably pale as a ghost, but my eyes were fixated on this incoming storm. I think I may have uttered I wanted to go home a couple of times, but for the most part I sat there hungry for details and to understand what was happening. I think my dad saw this in me.
Throughout the summer of 1997, storms would come and go and my fear and anxiety would remain, but my desire to learn was highly apparent. My grandfather and father would do their best to try to explain what was happening when storms would come and go. I watched The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and other shows about tornadoes and people who chased them. One of my favorite VHS tapes was “Twister: Fury on the Plains.” This documentary was filled with tornado footage from pioneers such as Tim Marshall, Gene Rhoden, Jim Leonard, and others. I thought going out there to see tornadoes was cool, but my family brought up the very simple point. How can I possibly think about chasing tornadoes when I am so terrified of non-severe thunderstorms? That was a good point. It prompted a deal my dad made with me in late 1997. He told me that if I went the rest of the summer without being afraid he would take me out and try to find a tornado.
That leads us back to April 15th, 1998. I had accomplished the challenge and felt like I was ready to go out and see a storm. It’s ironic, because my mom used to tell me I always felt safest in a car when storms came. The only way they could calm me down was to put me in the car and drive me around in it. It seems funny to me now that everything sort of led me into storm chasing.
As April 15th approached I began noticing The Weather Channel displaying graphics on the television of potential severe weather for the area. Being an annoying 10 year old I badgered my dad to take me out chasing and the stars aligned and he agreed to it. I knew absolutely NOTHING about forecasting storms. I didn’t know about the Storm Prediction Center, the National Weather Service, or the internet. All I knew was what TWC was showing and that it was really red over Central Illinois in their forecast. My dad asked my grandfather if he wanted to go with and he jumped at the opportunity. My grandpa was the type of man to give anything for his child and grandchildren. He knew how scared I was of storms and he wanted to be there to watch me get over the fear. It was figuratively becoming a man much like a Bar Mitzvah is in the Jewish religion. I was eager to leave that morning. I didn’t know where we would go or how long it would take to get there, but I was ready!
Several hours later we were positioned across Central Illinois ahead of a darkening sky. The feelings of fear started coming back, but they were replaced by the feelings of anticipation. As the dark leading edge of the storm passed overhead, these very dramatic looking clouds appeared on the backside. They looked like knuckles in the sky! I didn’t know what these clouds were called at the time, but I was amazed by them. My grandpa and dad tried to lure me out of the car unsuccessfully. After 20 minutes of asking me to get out of the car and take a picture in front of the storm, I agreed. I made it about 10 feet away from the car before a giant bolt of lightning struck the field next to us. Almost as fast as the bolt of lightning hit the ground, I was back in the car. This was not before nearly decapitating myself on the top of the car getting back in. THAT was scary. My overall experience with storms was exhilarating, but nothing prepares you for a bolt of lightning that close. The storm hit with heavy rain, a few strong wind gusts, and some more lightning. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in love with the weather.