MAY 22: Friday - Travel Day:
We left Bernville, Pa. at 1540 EDT under clear skies and a temperature of 70F. We traveled to St. Clairsville, Ohio for the night with the plans of arriving in Indianapolis by noon on Saturday for a visit with my son, temporarily stationed at Camp Atterbury.
MAY 23: Saturday - Travel Day:
We left St. Clairsville via I-70 under cloudy and cool conditions. There were severe storms to our south and clear skies to our north. I remained focused on visiting our son today at Camp Atterbury.
MAY 24: Sunday - Nighttime Storms:
We left Indianapolis around 0930 AM under cool and dreary conditions just as thousands of fans were trying to reach the INDY 500, and yes, we did pay a premium price for pre INDY 500 lodging. Supercell storms were likely today in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. This was latter confirmed via my portable satellite hookup (DSS) to TWC (The Weather Channel) during a quick stop in Springfield, Mo. We got as far west as we could with the available daylight and arrived in Joplin, Mo. (just east of the Kansas border) a little before 2000 CDT. We could see dark cloud towers and lightning off to our west. I've succeeded in putting ourselves directly in the path of possibly tornadic storms that would likely roll through the area after dark...oh boy!
MAY 25: Memorial Day-Bust Day!
For the third day in a row we headed out under cool and cloudy conditions. We traveled southwest along RT44 (Will Rodgers Turnpike) which just happened to run parallel to a frontal boundary located to our south that was draped diagonally across the state of Oklahoma. We were on the cool and damp side of this front. We decided to head into extreme southwest OK or slightly south to near Wichita Falls, TX. At noontime we stopped in Oklahoma City (which was still under cloudy skies and cool northeasterly winds) to download the latest weather data. This revealed the front was moving south faster than anticipated, so we decided to move south fast if we wanted to see any storms on this day. At 1553 CDT traveling south on route 44 near Walters, OK we finally caught up to the wind shift line. Winds from the northeast had stopped and began to shift to the south. Temp was up to 89 F with a dew point of 64 F. Broken clouds were now overhead as things began to look better. At 1600 CDT the SPC (Storm Prediction Center) issued a tornado watch box for our area and included several counties in southwest OK and over the border into TX. The temperature climbed to over 90 F with dew points exceeding 70 F. One negative was the very hazy/smoky conditions, in part due to those damn Mexican fires which had been raging during the last couple of weeks. This definitely limited identification of any cloud structure. I tried to get a radar update on TWC, but I just could not get the DSS to find a satellite signal. It was hot and I was getting bit by various flying insects and ants, and getting more frustrated by the minute. Was I even at the right location!? Just then a van topped with an antennae farm stopped across the road, obviously another chaser. It was Sam Barricklow! We enjoyed a brief exchange and we again tried to find that elusive satellite signal, but the bugs finally became too much for either of us to withstand.
About a mile further west on route 70 during another failed DSS link attempt, the guys from the "First Alert Storm Unit #2", Channel 5 News out of OKC pulled up for a chat. What do you know, these were the same two guys that interviewed me a year ago to the day, right before the Anthony, KS tornado. We crossed paths again over the next couple hours, but nothing strong ever developed, just some light TRW. Some heavy cells formed just after dark and one mean looking cell on radar approached our hotel in Vernon, Texas around midnight. 440 chase miles logged today.
MAY 26: Tuesday - Merging Storms:
Lots of severe activity was forecast to our east, possibly too much activity that would result in an early MCS. I decided to pass up this area in favor of the eastern Texas Panhandle region to our north. This area had a slight risk of severe for later today. We stopped for lunch and a data download at a Love Truck Stop in Shamrock, TX. It was now apparent Supercell development was likely in the southwestern Texas panhandle between Lubbock and Midland. We headed west on I-40 towards Amarillo and got passed by another chaser (license VIP LVL6), possibly thinking the same target area. I studied the data on my WeatherGraphix software, and all indices painted a bull's-eye northwest of Midland. I was sure hoping that this would pan out, because it looked like the entire southern plains would be hot and highly capped for the next several days. Heading south on I-27 at 1610 CDT about 20 miles north of LBB we heard over the scanner that a tornado watch had just been issued for our target area. The temp was now 83 F with a dew point of 60 F. Winds were out of the southeast and gusting to 19 MPH. All conditions looked favorable for Supercell development, but once again a lot of smoke induced haze was coming up from Mexico...what happened to the clear blue skies in this part of the country that allow you to see every detail of cloud structure? I made a note to send a nice thank you letter to the Mexican farmers.
At 1705 CDT as we were heading southwest on highway 82 towards Brownfield, TX, a spotter report came in about a rapidly growing storm with baseball size hail moving over the border from New Mexico into Andrew County Texas. Skies began to get dark to our south and the Channel 13 Doppler radar out of Lubbock verified this storm was moving to the northeast. We were on an intercept course! We decided to take road 137 south toward Lamesa in hopes of getting ahead of this storm in order to view its southern flank. We encountered steady 40 - 50 mph outflow winds racing north and right into our vehicle's path near Lamesa. There was now a lot of blowing dust, and numerous dust plumes created by micro bursts could be seen to our west. About 15 miles south of Lamesa we went as far as we dared go into the core of what had now become a merger of storm cells. This created a huge HP (High Precipitation) monster. Lots of close CG activity, torrential rain, and ever larger hail in the core prevented us from getting to where we wanted to go. We ended the chase and went back to Brownsfield for the night. Total chase mileage logged at 543.
MAY 27: Wednesday - Non Chase Day:
There was only a slight chance of isolated late day convection in the SE Texas Panhandle, so that was our target for the day. We left Brownsfield during the late morning and drove to Dickens, TX to try some of those famous roast beef sandwiches. They were the best we ever had! At one time there were 5 places in this small town of 325 people (I would question that as being a bit high). You now have 3 choices. We picked the Ponderosa, combination general store, deli with an old west flavor. The BBQ sauce was fantastic and well worth going out of your way for on a down day. We spent the rest of the day chasing dust devils and visiting the Caprock Canyon which is very photogenic. We decided to spend the night in Amarillo with thoughts of heading north tomorrow. A persistent ridge had moved in over the southern plains and was promising day after day of bake oven heat resulting in a mega cap that was not going to allow any convection.
MAY 28: Thursday - Non Chase Day:
We made a desperate attempt to get up into Nebraska which held the promise of late day isolated storms. It was a long hot drive. Clear skies, 90 F temperature and dew points in the 50’s. We reached Scott City, Ks at 1430 CDT and decided to fuel up and have lunch. About 15 miles further north on highway 83 we ran into a road closure and detour. We were routed east and after about 22 miles with no end in sight to the detour, I remembered that we might be getting close to Castle Rock, a picturesque outcropping of cap rock taken to the extreme...especially for Kansas! After navigating 17 miles of dirt roads we found it, thanks to the Delorme Kansas Atlas & Gazetteer. The hours passed and we eventually ended up in Hays, KS for the evening. A check on the DSS revealed that isolated convection had started to take place along an east-west surface boundary in Southwestern Nebraska. It was now 1700 CDT. Could I have made it if not for that detour?...I’m afraid to do the math.
MAY 29: Friday - Bust Day:
A moderate risk of severe storms across most of central Nebraska and a slight risk further west looked encouraging. I opted away from the moderate risk area thinking that this would be more widespread storm activity. I favored the area where more isolated storms might develop late in the day ahead of the approaching dryline. Yuma and Kit Carson Counties in extreme northeast Colorado looked like the area activity would start, later moving into northwestern Kansas and the southwestern Nebraska panhandle. It never happened!
MAY 30: Saturday - The Spencer SD Tornado Day:
We left Ogallala, NE on this morning and headed east on I-80 with a target of NE Nebraska/NW Iowa in mind, possibly somewhere north of Omaha and between Sioux City to Storm Lake, Iowa. With dew points in the low to mid 70’s, moderate south/southeast winds, CAPES between 2000-3000, LI’s around -6, a dryline approaching from the southwest, and a cold front connected to a low in South Dakota moving in from the west, this area looked prime for severe and possibly tornadic storms. This area was also located on the western edge of SPC’s moderate risk area. The only real negative appeared to be a heavy cirrus overcast that persisted across the entire state of Nebraska. A stop at the Bosselman’s truck stop in Grand Island to retrieve the latest data at 1230 CDT was still confirming our target area. A brief hello with Bill Reid revealed that his group was thinking the same general area.
We ventured briefly into Iowa north of Omaha and were still under a cirrus overcast. NOAA weather radio reports were indicating sunny skies being reported to our north. I set up the DSS to have a look at TWC and see what was happening on radar at 1800 CDT. There was a line of developing storms located SSW across central SD and moving ESE. We quickly decided to head north and get back on I-29 at Onawa, Iowa. I plotted an intercept course first to Sioux City, then WNW through Vermillion and Yankton SD via route 50 west, hoping to move north from Yankton and catch “Tail End Charlie”. Approaching Vermillion around 1930 CDT I could begin to see the faint outer edges of anvil clouds to my north and northwest, what I judged to be least 50 miles away. Nothing looked real exciting at that distance. Approaching Yankton we received spotter reports coming in from along I-90 from Chamberlain east to Farmer, SD of a severe storm with 80 MPH wind gusts and large hail. I lost some time getting a room for the night in Yankton and then headed after this storm. Now why oh why did I do this!? I DO KNOW BETTER!, and why did I stop 45 minutes earlier for a bite at a Dairy Queen near Sioux City when we weren't even that hungry. I’ll be analyzing this for a long time, because I now know it cost me BIG!
I proceeded north on highway 81 and stopped just 3 miles to the north of Yankton in order to decide on continuing north after the distant (never make it by dark) confirmed severe activity, or pursue some rapidly building isolated towers going up to my immediate southwest, which I can easily intercept! After about 3 minutes I opted to continue north since this new convection just did not appear to be getting well organized, and did eventually fall apart. The time was now 2035 PM. Little did I know that people would soon be losing their lives in a ravaging tornado just 57 miles to my north in Spencer, SD.
I drove another 16 miles north on highway 81 and stopped on a hilltop with a good view to the north. I needed to make some decisions. I could see a good deal of CC & CG lightning to my north, but no sign of any Mid level rotation from that distance, it was getting dark and I was still too far south to see the base of the storm. The sun was about to dip below the horizon (2053 CDT) and I judged the base of this storm to be about 25-30 miles to my north (I later learned it was 43 miles). After driving 524 miles to get to this point the storm seemed so close, yet I knew I had run out of time. All I could do was enjoy the beauty of the retreating cloud towers reflecting the colors of the setting sun, the first and only real storm structure I had witnessed on this chase vacation. I lingered for awhile taking slides and video, all the while enjoying mother nature's lightning show. Lessons learned: #1. Never become complacent and assume your chase efforts will more than likely end in another “bust”, just because similar patterns yielded no storms, or ones that occurred after dark. #2. Being humbled the next day while witnessing the destruction these storms can cause and knowing lives had been lost. I had only lost a photographic opportunity and a notch on my belt.
MAY 31: Sunday-Non Chase Day:
We traveled north to witness the destruction that took place in Spencer, SD the night before. Even from a distance of a mile you could see the devastation of the F4 (207-260 MPH) tornado. We met up with Bill Reid again and we talked briefly. Bill had positioned himself perfectly and got several minutes of excellent tripoded video of this tornado (his footage was shown on TWC) It can take an enormous amount of planning, doing everything just right, and a certain amount of luck to capture quality footage of such a powerful tornado, a feat that can take years for even the most dedicated storm chaser. But this was not a time to celebrate, people had lost their town, their homes, and for some, their lives. About a half mile from town there was a sign painted on the side of a truck welcoming all to the town of Spencer...but their was no longer a town of Spencer. We headed west on I-90 wondering where to go and what to do. The storm system that created this destruction was now heading for the East Coast. Who would have guessed that an F-3 tornado would soon sweep across Berks County and cause devastation uncomfortably close to my own hometown.
JUNE 1: Monday - Non Chase Day:
We finished up yesterday visiting the Dakota Badlands. Today we visited the Crazy Horse Monument, drove through the Black Hills, and then headed south to Nebraska again. Hopefully, this would position us for possible convection forecast for the Central Plains through mid-week. We finished up the day visiting Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff National Monuments in Nebraska.
JUNE 2: Tuesday - Non Chase Day:
Only a very slight chance that some isolated late day thunderstorms would develop in the Nebraska Panhandle. With that in mind, we hung in that area and visited the Agate Fossil Beds north of Scotts Bluff. We spent a good deal of the day there, taking a hike, enjoying the open plains, and taking advantage of the many photo-ops. We decided to head south as the stationary front that was positioned to our north began its trek southward. This would bring the promise of storms, but also the promise of days with cool and cloudy conditions on its north side. We spent the night in Kimball, NE.
JUNE 3: Wednesday - Non Chase Day:
We woke up to dreary conditions. I was in for a bit of a shock when I walked outside and discovered it was only 38 F! The cold front had moved much faster than anticipated and was now well to our south over southern Kansas. It was snowing in the Rapid City. SD area and the Black Hills got up to 10”, it’s hard to believe we were just there under spring like conditions two days ago. I decided to head directly south through the eastern plains of Colorado and then jog eastward into Kansas, and eventually towards home. I didn’t want to think about it, but my 98 chase vacation is over, there is not a chance of any severe weather set-ups anywhere in tornado alley within the next couple of days. I kept thinking "maybe next year...maybe next year".
JUNE 4: Thursday - Travel Day:
Abilene, Ks to Richmond, In..753 miles.
JUNE 5: Friday - Travel Day:
Arrived home around 1930 EDT. Total mileage 6848.
Numerous supercell storms and tornadoes roamed across the central and/or southern plains day after day during the week we returned home, from Sunday June 7th until Thursday June 11. Worse, the pattern looked great for this activity to continue on for for following week. Timing is everything...If only I had the time!