Lightning, storm clouds and sunset photos were the goal on what was to be the last day of Greg’s trip, and likely the last planned chase day for me this year. It pretty much worked out like we planned picking up storms in the Southeast Texas Panhandle and following them into Southwest Oklahoma. We ran into and photographed with Vince Miller and Matt Crowther for the better part of the evening. There was never a risk of tornadoes…. but the storms did provide us with many good photo ops as we drove through Harmon, Greer, Jackson, Kiowa and Tillman counties. The return home was interrupted by a badge in Snyder who thought 42 in a 35 mph zone was good enough to add $82 to the local economy. Always nice to have someone out there that can keep us evil law breakers in line. A fun day nonetheless.
The first part of our journey was the drive back from El Dorado to Okarche. We spent a few hours at home before heading toward Southwest Oklahoma. It looked like the best spot for surface based convection would be near the western end of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, which is always a good spot to hang around even if storms don’t form. This was Greg’s first trip to this part of Oklahoma and as luck would have it – no storms – but we did have plenty of good photo ops. By sunset, we had reached Meers and saw elevated storms forming well to our northeast in Canadian County. We drove back up the turnpike and stopped on Red Hill (south of Minco) for some lighting photos before returning back to Okarche.
We left Newton and drifted east with a plan of slow-rolling through a few small towns that we haven’t visited before, and figured we were already in as good of position as any for afternoon storm development. We took the road less traveled and saw some country that very few people see anymore, including a stretch west of Madison that took us to some places like Teterville and Kenbro (Texaco Hill). We went a little over an hour without passing or being passed by another car. In Madison, we stopped by the old rail depot (oldest wooden railroad depot in Kansas) that has been turned into the historical society and talked with Mrs. Isch who took time during her lunch break to tell us stories of Madison’s past. Afterward, we drove north through Emporia and spent a little time in Americus. Storms actually started forming quicker than I expected and we cut our “small town jumping” short and moved west to the area north of Strong City/Cottonwood Falls. Several storms formed and were uninteresting for the most part, before a supercell formed/became discrete and started rotating strongly west of Cottonwood Falls. Events in a year of firsts continued at this point. We were watching and shooting video of this storm when a BNSF freight train hit the breaks next to us. I’ve had a lot of people come up and talk to me before, but never have I had a train stop and the engineer and conductor get out and run across a highway to me before. They told me that their dispatcher said there was a tornado coming and they needed to shut down and find shelter. I told them that their dispatcher had in fact, stopped them IN FRONT OF the storm, and if I was them, I’d jump in and haul it east. I don’t know if they relayed that information to their dispatcher or not, but a short time later the black smoke was pouring out and they were on their way. Our storm went on to try and produce a tornado about three times without success, at least as far as we could tell. Our route back south ahead of the storms took us back through our adopted town of Madison before we made it into El Dorado for the evening.
This was going to be a travel day with the hope that something could be caught while we headed north. We stopped in the National Weather Service office at Dodge City where we had a nice sit down visit with M.I.C., Larry Ruthi. He told stories of all the tornadoes they had verified in their CWA, and we told stories of our chase season so far. We watched as TCU bubbled out his west window. We ended up playing some storms just west of DDC that had skinny updrafts which provided some photo ops, but not what we were wanting on this trip. Closer to sunset, a storm became well established closer to I-70 which eventually moved into Rooks County. We came up on this storm from the south and were treated to some very nice structure and beautiful sunset colors. It ended up being a nice chase day, especially when considering this was mostly to be used for travel.
I picked up Greg at the airport a little later than we expected due to airline delays. Severe storms had already formed across Northwest Oklahoma and we might have missed out on one of the better supercells of the day. Still, we ended up on some pretty nice storms without much of a drive. We went west and southwest out of Watonga, Thomas and Custer City before coming across good storms west of Hammon. One of these storms took on a very nice supercell appearance and likely was producing some very large hail. We stayed ahead of it while we moved east and took some lightning pictures near Foss Lake, and again near Watonga. All in all, not too bad of day for just stepping off the plane.
A fairly long day of driving with a decent little prize at the end of the trip. We left Alva and drove northwest through Western Kansas and far Northeast Colorado. There were a couple of supercells taking shape over Southwest Nebraska about the time we entered Colorado on I-70. We just needed them to hold together the one to two hours more it would take for us to get to them. One did, and moved southeast toward us allowing us a nice view south of Oshkosh, NE. We shot some time lapse of the structure and then allowed the core to pass over us giving us another round of golfball size hail. The storm never looked to have a serious tornado threat, but was worth the drive. We called Julesburg, CO home for the evening
After the events of the previous eight days, nothing else could go wrong, right? Ha ha ha. It took us longer than usual to leave this morning because we had to go to a car wash and vacuum out glass and water from our fun little Aurora, Nebraska experience. We worked our way south through Eastern Kansas and finally came across a few storms to the east and northeast of Independence. After having been stuck in the mud a couple of times this year, I really tried to keep us on paved roads. While on one of these roads, watching a severe storm take on an interesting look to our north, we performed a three point turn around. The back wheels of our van fell just off the pavement and into the soft mud. Yes, it was enough. We were stuck – for me, the third time of the season. This time I wasn’t driving! Gareth came up with the idea of cutting out some seatbelts, and create a tow rope for the Tahoe to pull us out. It worked! I managed to destroy some shoes and shorts with some of that good Kansas mud again, and it was yet another trip to Wal-Mart to replace them. In the end, the storm didn’t really do anything to hold our attention and we shut down in Independence for the night.
The day started so nice, waking up in Concordia we had dewpoints well into the 60s and a nice southeast wind blowing. Things were setting up nicely for a good severe weather day. We rolled north to I-80 near York and watched severe storms go up over the southwest corner of Nebraska/Northwest Kansas. At first, the storms were going up in an area with dewpoints still in the 50s. They were going to have to move several counties to the east before they got into some 68+ dewpoints near Kearney. One supercell did take shape and started tracking toward Elwood and Lexington, I just hoped that it would maintain itself long enough to dip into the better moisture.
We had great radar data and I felt safe running west on highway 30 from Elm Creek through the core of the storm with the mesocyclone well south of us (even south of I-80). We were trying to get Chris some more hail. The mesocyclone was exposed enough that I felt even safer being able to see it, combined with the good radar data we were getting. We only came up with quarter size hail between Elm Creek and Overton, and gradually worked eastward keeping the area of interest in sight to our southeast.
Just east of Odessa, we observed a cone tornado in poor contrast to our southeast. We came across some strong RFD winds (60-70 mph), nothing too bad. But It was strong enough to topple about 80 cars of an empty coal train that was sitting just south of us. I was watching the tornado, but the guys in the car behind us said that they were able to watch the train fall like dominoes as we drove by. They even caught a little of it on video. The tornado wasn’t evident as we drove through Kearney, but there was a considerable amount of EF1 type damage as we went through the city. It looked like the tornado rotated north of Kearney and we dropped south to go east on I-80. We got some golfball size hail for a brief period of time south of Shelton, but otherwise things were uneventful as we shot east on the interstate.
Things really started looking messy on radar (and visually) for the trip toward the Aurora exit. There was probably a couple areas of good rotation well north of the interstate, but besides that, just many – non visually interesting cores forming and moving quickly north toward the supercell system. We decided to get gas, drink and food at the Aurora exit (Loves) and look at data further to see where our next play – if any – was going to be.
My last look at radar showed an increasing core to our southwest, but it looked cutoff by the RFD/outflow spreading east from our original storm. From this point on, I saw virtually no radar data. I went into the store while the guys fueled up the vehicles, got something to eat and drink, and generally thought our day might be over. All in all, it took about 15 minutes. When I returned, I saw that our storm to the SW had increased rapidly and was surging toward us. I guess I should have taken the time to look at velocity data, but even on reflectivity images, it appeared that a mesocyclone was wrapping up to our north or northwest and we were getting ready to be hit with some fairly strong RFD. Little did I know. We quickly discussed our options, and driving away from it was out of the question since rain bands were already starting to hit the property. I told our driver (Gareth) to just point the van to the east and we would ride it out. Our initial gust with the RFD was over 80 mph. Things went to zero visibility quickly. Within a minute or two, winds increased to at least 100 mph. It was at this point, Chris started to open the side door. Did I mention that we were pointed east! Before I could get the words out, “DON’T OPEN THE DOOR!!!!” – it wrapped completely around and slammed my passenger side blowing out the side mirror. Now we had 100 mph winds, rain and debris blowing throughout the van. As I tried my best to cover up things like the inverter, laptop, cameras, phones and myself, the wind continued to increase. The van started to move (and seemingly float) a lot as winds increased again, I’m guessing near 110 mph. The back window blew out and threw a spray of glass throughout the van. Amazingly, everyone pretty much came out alright. Video from the other vehicle showed that the whole event lasted about six minutes. When it was over, we had some RV’s, trucks and several power poles around us laying over. The Loves canopies were shredded and numerous vehicles in the parking lot had missing glass. After spending an hour sorting things out, drying out, picking glass out of our hair, ears and whatever else, we started east on I-80. About a 1/2 mile north of us we could see a lot of emergency vehicles and buildings spread out. Yes, our crazy tale could have ended up much worse had this thing decided to spin up a 1/2 or mile south. National Weather Service survey showed that what we couldn’t see was a 1/2 mile wide tornado that moved toward us and decided to shift north before getting to us. Once again, I was caught in a situation that I haven’t seen before. I took my eye off an evolving storm and combined with the fact that it went through a RAPID evolution, almost cost us dearly. For the first time in my chase career – I was SCARED – and not in control. As Hank Baker put it, “we crossed the line”. We were at the mercy of whatever was going to happen to us. I decided that we would just roll into Lincoln and find a place for the night, calling it good. We were getting outflow from the storms to the south that were easily over 50 mph. Within sight of the motel, a construction sign blew into the road and smashed into the front of our lead vehicle, taking out part of the front quarter panel. A nice end to the day I thought.
I felt bad for Chris because I knew that he felt bad about opening the door. The cameraman in him took over and he wanted to get the outside shot. He also lost two of his HD cameras in the interior monsoon, but not before having filmed all of this experience.
The best shear for supercell storms was located near and north of the Kansas/Oklahoma border. While headed that general direction, we came across some storms that formed near Woodward. We played with the left split on the west side of the city and then the right split near Sharon. Neither storm was very impressive and we headed north to check out a few storms between Buffalo and Alva. We still did not find anything very interesting, and we moved back south for lightning. We were able to set up near Foss Lake for about 1/2 hour of lightning before returning to Okarche.
I left from Great Bend, Kansas this morning at 6:30 am in order to pick up a rental SUV in Yukon, Oklahoma that was to be called home for two arriving guests and ITV cameraman (Chris Terrill). The plan was to get a little rest, meet Chris, load the SUV and pick up Lorraine and Gareth in the evening. Seemed simple enough, until I noticed that we had been included in a Tornado Watch. So much for the needed nap. I couldn’t argue against something pretty good happening based largely on the mesonet plot and degree of instability. I held off just a bit longer before the Tornado Warning was issued which included the county that I live in. In a mad dash, I threw what I thought I would need in the truck and started north on highway 81. Making it through Hennessey by way of dirt roads, I was able to see one of the final set of early cones that occurred west of Highway 81. I continued to work my way north on roads that were not the best in the world, but seemed to be doing fine without recent rain. They still had that feel that they had been moistened up the night before, but managed to kick up dust as I drove. So all is well I thought.
I turned east from Highway 81 about 1.5 miles south of Bison. The road was paved and all was good to keep me in position for the next tornado event. At least for a mile. I was a little worried about the road changing to dirt, but much like the others, little recent rain made it fine to travel down. I pulled down to a nice oil lease road and watched. About the time things started to look interesting to my east, I heard the sound of the rain coming. It only lasted a couple of minutes and wasn’t very heavy, but the damage was done. My road had become an ice rink. I tried several attempts at getting out of the valley I was in, only to finally end up in the same spot I was about 48 hours earlier. Once again, I was walking, ankle deep, carrying my shoes up a bunch of slop they used to call a road. I was lucky that my crap AT&T service actually let me call Hank Baker who was only 1.5 miles from me at Highway 81 where I started. Telling him I was stuck, he said he would be right there and would pull me out. I repeated several times “DON’T COME DOWN HERE!” He tried anyway only to stop about 50 yards in, use full 4 wheel drive and reverse, and barely managed to get himself out. You have no idea some of the things that were going through my head as I once again made that walk. I would stop about every 50 feet or so and turn around to see the nice cone tornado that had formed about the time of my incident. It took 28 years to get stuck the first time, and two days for it to happen again. I could barely walk up this hill, carrying gear would have made it worse. So, all was left in the car. I jumped in with Hank at the top of the hill and the chase was back on.
This time without any type of camera at all and riding shotgun. We got to watch a beautiful evolution of a very large tornado between Douglas and Marshall. Then shifted east of I-35 where we watched a couple of solid tornadoes occur at the same time we believe somewhere near Orlando. To the defense of being useless, it was quite amusing and somewhat soothing to watch the others around me stress out, cuss and fumble with various tripods/cameras and vidcams. The decision was made easier for me since all of my stuff was sitting in a ditch about 25 miles to the west. I kicked back and watched and repeated several times – serenity now. In all, I ended up with five tornadoes on the day. First time ever for me to land tornadoes on 3 consecutive days, but I paid the price to do it. Despite a good scrubbing in one of the greatest showers ever, if I looked close, I could tell the difference between black Kansas dirt and red Oklahoma dirt under my toenails.
Alvin (the tow truck driver) was able to get our SUV out of the ditch the following morning, only to find out that it wasn’t big enough for our upcoming trip anyway. It went right back to Enterprise Rental – with a bit more mud than it had when I picked it up – and was replaced with a 12 passenger van. Thanks to Hank for throwing me a lifeline, thanks to Bill Wasinger for the airport pickup in my absence, and thanks to Alvin for the quick work with the tow.