Top 10 Storm Chases of 2014
#1: Nebraska (June 16th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 550 miles
Having arrived in the Great Plains two days prior, I was now ready for what was projected to be a potentially significant tornado day. I started the day in Lincoln, Nebraska, a city in which I would find myself spending a lot of time in over the coming weeks.
Some elevated convection was ongoing by mid-morning across northeastern Nebraska and the Storm Prediction Center upgraded the area to a Moderate Risk for significant severe weather at 13z. I left Lincoln early to be out on the road with plenty of time to spare. Up until this point in the season, there had been too many cases in which I was rushing to get into place, but I was not about to let that happen here.
The early activity was marginally severe at best and mostly non-severe. I wandered a bit to the north of Lincoln and watched some weak storms fire, but nothing was impressive yet. I was hoping this morning convection would move out quick, especially after seeing how impressive the 12z sounding was from Omaha. Some storms, which I like to call decoys, were firing to my east, in the direction of Omaha, by late morning. (Decoys are storms that fire either before the expected severe weather window, and/or outside of the target area.) One storm in particular had an appendage on radar and was showing some weak, albeit disorganized rotation. I zeroed in, but saw nothing impressive, “Remnant inflow band, low clouds, scud, dark horizon. Creepy looking, but nothing more at the moment.”
Now in the city of Omaha, I stopped for lunch and took some time to review more data. I was encouraged that conditions were beginning to clear out and and the air-mass was recovering. I also really liked what I saw on satellite imagery. There were plenty of boundaries to serve as focal points for supercell initiation. There were two boundaries in eastern Nebraska, at least one that was a remnant outflow from the morning convection. A warm front was draped near the Nebraska/South Dakota border and a dryline was slowly advancing east through central Nebraska. This kept my focus on the northeastern third of the state.
Around 2 p.m., I left Omaha to drift west and it wasn’t long before an anvil could be seen in the distant northwest sky. I had at least an hour drive ahead of me, so it was all blasting west from there. A semi-discrete supercell was gradually organizing in Madison County. Shortly after 3 p.m., rotation was tightening and a Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued. I was still to the east, getting myself into a position. A PDS Tornado Watch was issued and I had complete confidence that this storm was the one to keep my focus on. It was gradually becoming a monster and I was set to drop south and then west to intercept, while avoiding the core. Something I was not able to do in Arkansas earlier in the spring.
Heading down NE-15, chaser traffic was beginning to increase and chasers could be seen on radar lining up on some of the main east-west oriented roads. I made a decision to cut west on a road that had no chasers. This was going to bring me relatively close to the core, but I could take my time getting in to chase the storm. As I’m driving, a Tornado Warning alert went off on my phone and moments later I wall cloud is lowering in front of me. I started to get hit with some hail, so pulled off the road. The hail wasn’t big, but once again, I was being cautious in order to not screw this chase up.
I’m watching the wall cloud continue to lower and rotation quite clearly. A funnel forms and rotates around the cloud and eventually lowers. We have a tornado on the ground. I stayed put and watched the tornado grow and cross the road in front of me. I was about a mile or two away form the tornado, but it wasn’t until it wedged out and crossed the road that I got back into drive to catch up with the storm.
I drove through Stanton and the navigation wasn’t easy, being a rural area with some trees blocking view. I came up to a clearing with numerous cars pulled over and a rain and dirt-wrapped tornado was spinning to my immedaite northwest. I got back on the road and paralleled the storm up NE-57. Chaser traffic was excessive now, with vehicles pulled over and people driving erratically. I was very calm and focused on driving to keep up with the storm in a safe manner. With this being my first wide open chase, I was in no position to get greedy.
Debris was flung into and dangling from power lines on the road. I came up to US-275 and turned east. I pulled over and adjusted my cameras. The first tornado was roping out to my north, but I quickly noted a new area of rotation tightening up on radar to my southeast. I managed to snap off one panoramic photo and it’s tough to make out, but you can see tornado #1 on the left, tornado #2 to the southeast, a third funnel cloud about to touch down and another funnel cloud attempting to lower.
At the same time, I saw a car drive off of the road. Another motorist and I went to check on the driver, who said he was okay and that help was on the way. After this momentary break, I got back into my car and went east. A new dominant tornado was wedging out and a second tornado was intensifying in close range.
I drove for quite some time and after going up and down a few hills, I eventually had a clear view of two violent wedge tornadoes a couple of miles in front of me. Already being behind, I kept driving, even though many drivers were pulled out of their cars to get photos. As I pulled into Pilger, the two tornadoes were crossing paths and becoming rain-wrapped. I turned north onto NE-15 and drove by a farm that had been devastated by the storm. I didn’t continue much further, as the storm was dissipating and I was a bit concerned about what I had seen. I pulled off the road to check on a mother who was holding a baby in her arms. They had been in shelter when the tornado struck and were okay. The farm across the street had been destroyed, but I was told that no one was home. After spending some time to check on this part of town, I got back in my car to head east.
That was the last of the tornadoes for a while. Even though I saw a funnel cloud with the same parent storm trying to drop another tornado just west of the Iowa border, I was not impressed by what I was seeing. While all of this is happening, I had virtually no radar data, and there was significant emergency vehicle traffic, so that made things extra difficult.
Later that afternoon, I saw a new supercell firing out west ahead of the dryline, but I was going to struggle to get to the storm in time before dark. That did not stop me and I sped west, going along roads that suddenly turned to dirt. It was almost like a game at this point. I was still processing what I had just seen over the previous few hours and the fact that I had another intense supercell to head after was incredible.
The storm was passing just north of Burwell and was showing intense rotation on radar. The probability of another significant tornado was increasing, but I still had a lot of ground to make up. By the time I made it to Bartlett, the tornado was occluding. I did get to catch quite view of a monstrous “spaceship” shelf cloud ahead of the storm. I passed by one of the Dominators a few times and kept changing the direction of my driving, due to getting hit by large hail.
As the sun was setting, the chase was winding down and I remained pulled off of a road for a while to gather my thoughts and start reviewing footage. A police officer pulled over and I let him know that I was okay. He began to share stories of the “Night of the Twisters.” Little did I know that a similar repeat event would happen the very next night, just a couple of hours to the northeast. See Storm Chase #3 for more information on that.
When the day was over, I had not only my most successful chase to date, but I had an overall experience that may never be topped. The next two tornado chasing days had aspects that rivaled June 16th, but not twin EF-4 wedge tornadoes right in front of me.
To recap, I watched the first in a family of violent tornadoes frm, an EF-4 in Stanton. As I watched that storm rope out, the twin EF-4 tornadoes were forming on the horizon. I watched those tornadoes reach peak intensity and then peter out. I did not catch the fourth EF-4 tornado in the family, but I caught a funnel cloud later that afternoon and watched another photogeneic supercell before sunset off to the west.
This chase was life-changing and was a milestone in my chasing career. I watched a tornado form for the first time, witnessed rare, twin, violent tornadoes, saw three EF-4 tornadoes within about 15 to 20 minutes and for the first time, was actually able to chase a tornado with good visibility and a workable road layout.
#2: Lane-Alpena, South Dakota (June 18th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 500 miles
The multi-day tornado outbreak continued and the initial target was southeastern South Dakota. The prior day had featured several tornadoes, some strong, not far to the south in far northeastern Nebraska. On the 18th, A surface low was moving through South Dakota and the focus was going to be near the triple point.
By early afternoon, the focus point was relatively narrow and it was clear that the setup could support a strong tornado. Dew-points had surged into the mid-70s and surface winds were sharply backed to the southeast. In addition, there was an extreme amount of instability in place here, with the SPC mesoanalysis indicating upwards of 7,000 J/kg of SBCAPE.
Shortly after 6 p.m. local time, some cumulus clouds began to bubble, the early stages of supercell development. A Tornado Watch was issued and storms quickly organized. There was a little bit of a rush northwest as the best activity was getting going in central South Dakota. Jason, Chandler and myself arrived in Wessington Springs and there were multiple couplets on radar, indicating the potential for multiple tornadoes once again. Despite closing in, we didn’t see much besides some impressive cloud-to-ground lightning and wall clouds. Rain started to come down and we adjusted eastward. After some debate, Jason decided to go west into the storm, but it was too rain-wrapped for me to take the risk. Not to mention we were dealing with dirt roads again and I wasn’t about to get stuck.
I moved slightly east to US-281 and stopped for a moment. I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be a bust with a bunch of un-photogenic high precipitation supercells, as time was running out and the storm mode was getting messy. Shortly before 8 p.m., I found myself practically underneath a new couplet in Lane, SD and a Tornado Warning was promptly issued. Initially I only observed a wall cloud, but things quickly changed.
I was facing southeast and I turned a bit to look due east and suddenly a tornado was beginning to form, just starting to kick up some debris near the ground. I got in my car to go north and then east to intercept and then there were two funnel clouds attempting to touch down. It was a race from there, as I wanted to get my cameras set up to catch the action. It was then that I had the brilliant idea to mount the camera with a suction cup mount on the roof, accessible from the sunroof on my car. This way, I could easily change the direction of the camera instantly.
I had a little bit of ground to make up to get closer and with some trees to my right (east), the view wasn’t great. I turned east on SD-34 and finally had a great view of a very expansive, low wall cloud. I could make out the tornado to my northeast, still lifting up and down a bit. I briefly slowed down to pull over, but wanted to get closer. I made a decision to turn north onto a dirt road, completely ignoring my prior concerns about getting stuck. I was gaining ground on the tornado and had a great view with the tornado maybe a half mile in front of me.
Rain started to come down heavier, but I was more concerned about my visibility than about getting stuck. I came to an intersection and the road ahead of me was impassable. I slammed on the brakes and almost crashed into some downed branches. Nothing major, but I did not want to risk going up that road. I continued east for a bit and was now passing through the damage path. Trees were mowed down like fresh cut grass. A short time later, I took a left turn and was now paralleling the damage track, but from the east side. I had a great view of the tornado and got to a position within about a quarter mile. Visibility was poor and I stopped for a moment to try to get some footage out my window. This didn’t last long, as rain drops started getting on the lens and I headed back north. I did manage to send this short video clip out to Instagram:
I took the next left turn and continued to get closer. I came up to a road sign that was upside-down and pointing toward the tornado, so I instinctively stopped. I stayed here for the next 10 to 15 minutes, watching this large tornado gradually decrease in size and rope out. This was the first time that I able to witness a tornado, practically from start to finish, all with a relatively clear view of the storm. The latter portion of the chase was spent simply watching the storm in awe. I could have gotten closer, but who knows if the footage would have been as good, considering that I may have easily gotten stuck in mud, blocked by debris and obstructed by more trees. A local in a pickup truck stopped by and thought it was funny that I came all the way from Connecticut to South Dakota. We snapped off a few pictures of each other and the tornado roped out a few minutes later. The only tiny thing I kicked myself for was when another vehicle came by, I moved my car, but didn’t change the angle of my camera. For that reason, video from the final few minutes of the tornado is missing. I first caught a glimpse of the tornado at 7:54 p.m. and it lifted at 8:28 p.m. A solid 34 minute tornado chase. I can’t complain about the few minor fluffs here. It’s also huge that I had the idea to remount my outside camera for this chase. If I had not, I would have missed a lot of footage due to constant left and right turns.
Best complete footage of the tornado, nearly 23 minutes long:
#3: Nebraska, Cedar/Dixon counties (June 17th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 500 miles
A multi-day tornado outbreak was underway across the Plains/mid-Missouri Valley. I found myself starting the day in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I was interviewed by a previous employer about the severe weather. My plan was to head into northern Iowa, so I got I-80 to head east to Des Moines. Once there, the target was narrowing in on northwestern Iowa into far northeastern Nebraska. An 86/75 ob at Sioux City with a southeast wind really caught my attention as a strongly sheared and very unstable air-mass was in place. A warm front was draped near the SD/NE and MN/IA borders.
This chase day was never set in stone in terms of initiation and I will admit that I was a bit wary as it wasn’t until about 7 p.m. that the first beginning stages of a thunderstorm popped up in northeastern Nebraska. With a discrete storm firing in this sort of atmosphere, it became very clear that this was the storm to target. The first Severe Thunderstorm Warning wasn’t even issued until about 7:40 p.m. as we were crossing over from Iowa into Nebraska. The storm was quickly wrapping up and was taking on the look of a classic tornadic supercell by shortly after 8 p.m. With daylight winding down and a powerhouse storm to zero in on, this was getting very exciting. I was chasing with Jason and Chandler and we caught our first glimpse of the tornado by about 8:15 p.m. or so. We had a nice view of the tornado, which was well-defined and associated with strong inflow from the east. Now, it was all about getting as close as possible.
In the shuffle of pulling over, rushing to get pictures and figure out our next move, I got back in my car and got separated from them in our two-car convoy. With the tornado slowly moving toward the southeast, it was my goal to get into a field and setup an intercept for the storm. I found myself on Route 59, on the southeast side of Coleridge. I was in a field, seemingly alone, with a large tornado less than one mile to the northwest. I stopped in awe to take a few photos, before I finally started running video with a handheld camera and a wide-angle camera attached to my car.
I was really hoping, in all honesty, to be right in line for the tornado’s approach. I noticed that after a few minutes, this beast was barely moving.
It actually slowed down and became nearly stationary. At the same time, the tornado was beginning to wedge out and multiple vorticies started spinning around the parent tornado. I stayed there for something like 20 to 25 minutes, before I started to re-position myself. The tornado was a now a large, rain-wrapped wedge and in my location, I was getting pegged by occasional hailstones. I drifted east, then went back west. I didn’t have an exact gameplan, but I wasn’t about to cut north into the tornado on one of the many dirt roads. After a close call with getting stuck on a muddy road in Nebraska earlier in the spring, I wasn’t going to have that happen again.
After a quick turn north on Route 57, I found myself approaching the storm and bumped into a lineup of storm chasers, including Jason and Chandler. We reconnected and watched a the rain-wrapped storm, which had now turned back around to the northeast. We were under a large, rotating wall cloud, which started spitting out several tornadoes and funnel clouds. It was an incredible sight, combined with obscured visibility and swirling winds. There were two distinct tornadoes (confirmed through storm surveys) to the immediate east, but around a large rotating wall cloud, there were multiple brief funnel clouds. The winds continued to increase and it was after 9 p.m., so there was virtually no daylight left. We decided to get back into our cars and head southeast. Radar showed a huge blob spinning toward us and it was clear that there was a relatively high threat of multiple tornadoes, some strong, so it would be best to back off.
It wasn’t more than a few minutes later that we caught this glimpse of a stovepipe tornado to the east. Again, we were within one mile. The difference here was that you could only see the tornado when lightning lit up the sky. Another well-defined tornado and this one was even kicking up some dust and debris near the ground. It began to lift a few minutes later and we continued on. We actually spent the next couple of hours dodging the storm’s erratic movement and assessing some of the damage. It was a “night of the twisters,” much like the title of a movie that was based on the similar nighttime tornadic events of June 2-3, 1980. That event was a bit more significant than this one, with fifteen tornadoes, three of which were of F-4 strength. This June 17th, 2014 event shut down fairly quickly before midnight. When all was said and done, six tornadoes were observed at relatively close range, with three of them being EF-2 or stronger. The main tornado, the initial one over Coleridge, was an EF-3.
The top three events in this recap are all very tough to put into order. This particular night was very memorable for many reasons. First, it was my first time witnessing a tornado at night. Also, I saw no less than four tornadoes, which to this day remains to be the most I have seen in any single day. Finally, it was the first time that I was able to get close enough to a tornado to actually watch and photograph it at relatively close range for a decent period of time.
#4: Nebraska, Saunders/Dodge counties (June 28th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 400 miles
After an active day on the 27th, it was looking like the 28th would be a relatively quiet travel day. I booked a hotel in Lincoln, Nebraska to set up for a chase day on the 29th. Around 7 p.m., I checked into the hotel and was watching a squall line develop to the north. I wasn’t sure if the storms were going to do much, but I gave it a shot and headed north.
It wasn’t long before I could see the storms in the distance and even though they were not particularly severe, structure was what I was focused on. I could clearly see a nice shelf cloud to the northwest and as I got closer, the structure was becoming more and more impressive. There were some reports of large hail, but I wanted to actually stay far enough back to be able to catch the incredible view of the approaching squall line.
As I made it to North Bend, it was getting dark, but the view was getting more and more breathtaking. The sun was beginning to set and it was filtered by rain shafts below the shelf cloud. I found a good place to pull off the road and just sat on my car watching the whole storm evolve. It was slowly moving, but just as the sun had set, it was time to move on.
I headed back southeast and found a field to watch the storms continue. Very few chasers were out and I found myself in a very rural area. I watched the squall line drift toward me and with each flash of lightning, the sky lit up and exposed the continuing structure. Fireflies began to pop up between the storms and myself. If that wasn’t enough, some fireworks were also going off in the distant. This was one of the most surreal and peaceful experiences in my entire life.
I stayed there for a while and snapped off a few photos and then planned on heading back to the hotel. I didn’t get far before I pulled off the road again and continued to see incredible storm structure. I set up my DSLR camera on delayed shutter and snapped off a bunch of pictures. Once the bug bites started to get excessive, I finally called it a night. Oh, what a night it was.
It’s easy for storm chasing to get chaotic with chaser traffic, destructive tornadoes and cities along the way. What was really special about this chase what that it was so quiet. Not only were few chasers out, but once the sun went down, I was virtually alone with the storms. Those moments in the fields watching the storms evolve right before my eyes will never be forgotten.
The opening video was just put together today, as I collected hours upon hours worth of footage this spring and summer. There is still footage to this day that I have not even watched yet, although this Top Chases of 2014 series has encouraged me to go back and review some of the missing pieces.
#5: Missouri (September 9th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 900 miles
I left Connecticut around midday on the 8th and essentially drove straight through to Lincoln, Nebraska. I arrived by early afternoon on the 9th. There was a muddled tornado threat, but nonetheless, enough of a threat for me to give my 5th trip of the year to the Plains a shot.
The target area was around the tri-state border area of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. I was banking on the northern end of the threat, due to more sharply backed winds and a much flatter chase territory. After a bunch of junk convection fired, a lone supercell developed in far southeastern Nebraska. I rushed to dive down ahead of the cell, which was showing an impressive hook on radar. Storm chasers were catching some insane structure and a very low wall cloud and I was hoping the storm would hold together as I approached.
By the time I got to the Nebraska/Missouri border, I was zeroing in on the storm and the sky was turning a dark, greenish color. As I was about to get onto the I-29 ramp, I saw an expansive, rotating wall cloud, which was partially obscured by trees. Note that the lower Missouri Valley is not the best terrain for chasing with fairly dense forests and a poor road network. I parked on the side of the on ramp to get a few photos and tornado sirens began to fire. Radar data was going in and out, but there was a Tornado Warning on the storm. Radar wasn’t much help anyway, as I was at such a far distance from multiple radar sites, that the velocity scans were a mess.
The ever-growing supercell was slowly drifting southeast and I went down I-29 a bit to stay ahead and
hopefully get a better view. At the intersection of Highway W and I-29, I finally had a decent view of a very ominous looking, low and rotating wall cloud. I stopped to watch and take a few photos. I sent out the above photo to Twitter and it was picked up by Jim Cantore and several other media outlets. To this day, I think it’s the most-liked and most retweeted storm photo on my Twitter account. There were unconfirmed reports of a tornado embedded within the storm. I didn’t have much to lose, so I drove up into the storm. Visibility was reduced to near zero, with swirling winds, no radar and dirt roads. I eventually dodged back southeast to get ahead of the storm once again.
The next hour or so was spent trying to find clearings to view the storm structure. I captured a few more pictures, but none of them do a justice to what it felt like being so close to this massive storm. The lightning show was incredible and I had several close calls with lightning strikes. I finally had a wake up call when I pulled over to a farm area with two large silos. I got out of my car to take some photos, when all of a sudden there were cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in all directions within just s few hundred feet of me. I literally froze for a moment (it felt much longer than it was, but it couldn’t have been longer than a few seconds.) I finally got back in my car and drove south again to get out of the way of any potential danger.
At one point, I was parked in the Nodaway Valley Conservation Area and was watching the storm with some fair visibility. The cloud structure was very intriguing. I watched a mini wall cloud form, lower and begin to rotate. There was an odd appendage streaming out of the wall cloud as well. There was a confirmed tornado within the supercell supercell at this time, but any tornado was a couple of miles to my north and was obscured by rain.
This was one of the most unique and interesting storm chases I had in 2014. I found myself over an hour away from a lone supercell that afternoon and I was able to not only catch up to the storm, but watch it evolve at close range for at least three hours. There were four (weak) tornadoes that this supercell spawned and even though I didn’t have a view of any of these tornadoes, I still witnessed insane structure and quite a display of lightning. I had little to no useable radar throughout the event and a very unfriendly road network to work with. This was a clear case of structure trumping seeing any tornado, especially considering any tornadoes here were weak, brief and rain-wrapped.
Here’s the first blog I wrote about this storm chase:
#6: West Texas (May 24th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 800 miles
After setting aside a week to chase with a co-pilot (Jackie, a previous meteorology student), my third major trip of the season, May 24th was the first day with legit potential. We left the Oklahoma City area first thing in the morning and originally planned to book west and chase in the Texas panhandle. We quickly saw that stratiform rain and junk convection were limiting instability and that we’d need to race much further south to get in on any supercell action. To this point in the season, I think I logged more miles chasing this day than any other day. (Not counting days that were specifically set aside to travel)
We made it to the Midland area by mid-afternoon as a line of supercells began to fire to the southeast. A few intermittent tornado warnings were also issued and we blasted east to get out in front of the lead cell. By the time we got to the storm, which was in a very rural area near Big Lake, we lost virtually all radar data. The storm was clearly rotating and we saw a very expansive wall cloud with a lowering in the distance. After watching this structure for a while, we eventually headed back south to a few approaching cells.
It was shortly after 7 p.m. that we were driving directly into a severe storm with large hail. Visibility was near zero and both Jackie and I thought the hail was going to bust through the windshield. I pulled over a few minutes later and crazily ran into the storm. Water with chunks of hail were gushing down the road, lightning was flashing everywhere and winds were swirling. Looking at the storm reports, there were multiple reports of a tornado in our vicinity around 7:04 p.m. Due to intermittent radar and poor visibility, we did not catch the tornado. Regardless, we spent the remainder of the daylight driving around and catching glimpses of rotating/low wall clouds and the bluish-green tint that was indicative of hail. There were multiple reports of large hail, some of which were as large as baseballs. We narrowly, but thankfully missed out on that.
Why does this chase rank higher than some other chases? This was my first time in Texas and it was a thrilling day for us. We both saw parts of the Plains we had never seen before. We also caught great structure and had the challenge of chasing with little to no radar data to work with. For Jackie, it was her first time really storm chasing and she’ll never forget it. It’s also a good day when you can drive through large hail and not have your windows destroyed.
Here’s a previous blog about this event with a supercell time-lapse:
#7: Mayflower, Arkansas (April 27th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 650 miles
After my first chase day in the Plains back on the 23rd and not much to show for it in the subsequent days, I was ready to go for the first day in what was expected to be a multi-day significant severe outbreak across Dixie Alley into the Southeast.
I left the Oklahoma City area around 8:30 a.m. on the 27th and headed east. The threat zone was fairly clear, Arkansas into southern Missouri. I initially favored southern Missouri, due to the trajectory of I-44 (following storm motion), an overall decent road network and a terrain that was more manageable than in Arkansas. However, while on the road, I decided to take a gamble and continue east on I-40. There was talk about the SPC moderate risk being upgraded to high risk and if that was going to happen, it would likely be somewhere in Arkansas.
I made good time and despite driving through a strong to marginally severe squall line, made it into Arkansas before noon. I stopped near Fort Smith to review data and decided it would be a good idea to keep heading east. I familiarized myself with the Arkansas Valley, which runs along I-40 from the Little Rock area, westward to the Oklahoma border. I wasn’t thrilled by the visibility, but with such a volatile setup developing, I knew I was going to stay here.
A quasi-warm front was draped in the valley by early afternoon with strongly backed low-level winds. I actually passed through Little Rock and circled around to the southwest by 5 p.m. At that time, several discrete thunderstorms were firing to my northwest. At 5:15 p.m., with two potent tornado-warned supercells on both sides of I-40 in the vicinity of Russellville. I raced back in that direction, but within an hour, the storm mode became a complete mess. My attention then went back south, to where it had been for most of the afternoon. In the Little Rock area.
At 6:40 p.m., a couplet was tightening just to the north of Hot Springs, or about an hour or so west of Little Rock. By 7 p.m., this storm was developing an impressive hook and went tornado-warned a few minutes later. I found myself in the forward flank core of the supercell and knew that time was limited. I raced east on I-40 and was in awe at what I saw on radar. The supercell was developing a debris ball and it was moving toward Mayflower. At 7:23 p.m., as I neared the Mayflower exit, I could see a low, partially-obscured wall cloud in the distance. This was the tornado, wrapped in rain and debris. I turned off the exit and vivid lightning strikes appeared before me with booming, car-shaking thunder. I continued down Route 365 and made it to a stoplight at about 7:25 p.m. Here, I could see wind picking up and had my view of the tornado obscured by trees. I stopped and turned around. At that time, the sky was getting dark and I received an eerie text message from a former meteorology student. He said that this was turning into another El Reno situation and that I needed to get out of there, fast. Being on a solo chase with very little knowledge of the area or what I was facing, I immediately turned north. As I got back to another stoplight near the entrance to I-40 west, the lights blew out. The sky was nearly black and winds were getting stronger. I raced on I-40, which in that stretch went north-northwest. Even though I was north of the debris ball, there was a very strong cross-wind and the sky was as dark as night. I went north for a few miles before I turned off the interstate, as I was getting pegged by dime to nickel-sized hail.
After a few minutes, I decided to get back on I-40 east and see if I could catch the backside of the storm. As I got back on the interstate, I quickly saw vehicles pulled over and trees down. I got off the Mayflower exit again, but headed east toward the storm. I did not get very far before there were trees and powerlines down in the roadway, along with uprooted trees, debris everywhere and a foul stench of gas in the air.
The chase quickly turned into a plan to assess damage and help with any rescue efforts, but that idea was thrown out in an instant. My car hit a low-hanging powerline (that I apparently did not see in the chaos) and I turned around after the roadway was completely blocked near Lake Conway. Emergency vehicles were flying by and I pulled over to clear the road. I slipped into a ditch and thought my entire day was done. The residents from the house in front of which I was stuck came out to see if I was okay and I told them my story about being a storm chaser from Connecticut. They were seeking shelter in their home and when they saw my headlights, came out to see if I was okay. They asked if I was dodging debris and I said no, I was just letting emergency personnel through. Apparently I wasn’t the first car to get stuck in that ditch. It was less than 15 minutes later when a neighbor kindly tied my car up to their pickup truck and towed me out of the ditch.
The chase day was over as the sun was setting, but a tornado threat still existed. I later met up with storm chasers Jason Cooley and Chandler Sullivan. We reviewed footage and stayed with family in the area. On the way to their house, we found ourselves driving through the Vilonia area, which like Mayflower, was hit by EF-4 tornado damage. Although it was pitch black, I could tell that major damage was widespread. Trees were shredded and people lined the roadways with flashlights. It was surreal and I don’t think that the whole event had fully set in yet.
In this chase, I found myself core-punching a storm and dropping down from the north and that was not a good idea. At the same time, I wasn’t going to sit around and wait for a storm of this magnitude to just run its course. When I came down I-40, could I have kept going and maybe made it past the tornado, in order to get a look from the south? It’s possible, but with very little data to work with and only moments to make a possibly life-threatening decision, I believe I made the safe decision. Trees greatly obscured the view of the tornado and to this day, I struggle to find any clear footage of the tornado. There is one video on YouTube and a few photos, but many chasers had similar stories. Either view was distorted, the sky went pitch black, or they also had to flee from the storm. (Or all of the above)
Considering I did get a glimpse of the tornado, the first tornado I witnessed goes down as an EF-4. Only 3-4 minutes after I turned around, the spot at which I made a decision to bail was struck by EF-3 tornado damage. This chase will remain forever etched into my mind. I replayed the events dozens of times in my head. I continue to look at this chase as a huge learning opportunity and not so much about the “what-ifs”. This was a learning lesson of what to do and what not to do when storm chasing.
Here are some earlier accounts of this chase:
#8: Kansas (June 27th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 550 miles
June 27th was an interesting day with some tornado potential across the central High Plains. A surface low was cutting toward the Colorado/Kansas border and a lot of chasers were out. A cluster of quasi-supercell thunderstorms fired in far western Kansas between 3 and 4 p.m. I came up to one storm near Sharon Springs and caught an impressive shelf cloud with a ragged lowering. Winds became very strong and as I got back in my car to head east, dust was kicking up. Numerous gustnadoes were reported in the area and I intercepted at least two of these features.
As I was racing back east, something happened that I was always wary about in the back of my mind. All of a sudden, the suction cup camera mounted on the roof of my car was flown into the air. I circled back multiple times and could not see the camera lying on the side of the road. In a moment of desperation, I parked the car and ran along the side of the road in the vicinity that the camera was lost. I finally found it lying in the grass and surprisingly enough, not only was the camera in one piece, but it was still recording. I set everything back up and continued east.
The storm mode was messy from the start, so no truly discrete supercells were able to gain their full potential. Even though many considered this day a bust, it was quite memorable for me. The low shelf cloud/supercell interception near Sharon Springs was the most intense thunderstorm I have witnessed in the high plains to this day. Driving through two gustnadoes was also something new and exciting, as I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. I also learned from that chase to reinforce the suction cup camera on my roof, especially if I am driving at very high speeds. When all was said and done, I’m not sure any tornadoes were confirmed, as there were just three suspect reports of brief tornadoes.
#9: Mississippi (April 28th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 500 miles
This was my first chase in a major tornado outbreak and it was also my first chase with some partners. I started the day with a chase team in Arkansas and after a somewhat late start, we blasted east and made it to Mississippi by 1 p.m. local time. Tornado Warnings were already beginning to fire and our target was north-central/northeast Mississippi.
After finally intercepting a line of developing supercells, we got close to one storm in particular around Europa. The tornado sirens in town were blaring and we caught a glimpse of a low wall cloud and tail cloud. Looking back at the storm reports, there had been a tornado about 20 minutes earlier, but it had lifted by the time we got there.
Later in the day, we setup further south and watched supercells form to our northwest. There was an impressive lightning show. Tough road networks and limited visibility made this another challenging chase, but we finally got close to a tornado near Crawford. This was the first time I actually got decent footage of a tornadic supercell up close. We watched the rotating storm develop and sporadically drop a tornado. Our visibility of the tornado itself was somewhat obscured, but it was still quite a sight.
As the storm lifted and passed us by, we followed it a bit longer before dropping south. Although numerous tornadoes continued into the night, the chase quickly turned into a mess as we were then trying to dodge possible tornadic storms as we headed to a place to stay.
The highlight of this chase for me was the thrill of chasing a high risk event. Mississippi is not a chaser friendly state, for the most part, at least in terms of roads and visibility. This challenge was rewarding in a way, even if we missed out of the most significant tornadoes of the outbreak. In hindsight, there were two key errors. First, we started far too late. As much as I would like to chase with a team, one of my personal preferences is to start a chase as early as possible, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar area and a high risk outbreak is anticipated. Second, the target was a bit too far north. If the target had stayed further north in Mississippi, we would have had more time to play with. Instead, we found ourselves rushing to intercept the line of supercells and then still needed to re-position several times. Most of the tornadoes verified on the southeastern edge of both the moderate risk and high risk outlooks. April 28th proved to be the most significant tornado day of 2014 in the U.S.
Here are some original accounts of the chase:
Short time-lapse video
A rough video cut of the Crawford chase
#10: Kentucky (June 4th, 2014)
Estimated daily distance driven: 600 miles
I started the day in Grain Valley, Missouri, for what would be the final chase day of my 3rd major storm chase road trip of the year. The day featured a “questionable convective setup,” but as I had to head east anyway, I gave it a shot. My initial target was southern Illinois, but then I shifted east to Evansville, Indiana and ended up dropping south into Kentucky.
After starting the afternoon with a line of marginally severe storms with weak rotation, a supercell with a nice hook formed in northwestern Kentucky. I raced against the clock toward the storm, which was a long-tracked supercell. Several tornado warnings were issued, but I found myself fighting against terrain and road network issues. After being in an unfamiliar valley with dense forests, I could not get to the storm in time. By the time I intercepted the storm, there was only a low, but gradually lifting wall cloud. I chased the remnant storm as other areas of rotation began to show up on radar. I snapped off a few interesting photos just before sunset of a low, rotating wall cloud. I intercepted this storm multiple times and although there were strong, swirling winds, there was minimal damage and nothing conclusive. Daylight gave way to nightfall and I eventually had to call the night off. Storm reports were coming in of a “large wedge tornado,” but the National Weather Service concluded straight-line wind damage with sporadic EF-0 to EF-1 tornado damage. One of the storm reports to this day still claims there was a “very violent wedge tornado,” but I honestly think that terrain blocked view of what was just a large wall cloud.
What made this chase memorable was the sheer thrill of watching radar. Just because there are impressive looking returns on radar does not mean that there is a tornado. I saw several rotating wall clouds and drove through some very strong winds. This was my first and only storm chase in the state of Kentucky.
Here are some original accounts of the chase:
2,592 total views, 0 views today