The Untold Chase Story: 9/4/16
Chases are filled with “untold” stories. Sometimes these stories are insignificant or unrelated to the chase itself, but other times the experiences reach another level. Today’s chase fell into that latter category.
The chase day itself included one of the longest non-overnight drives I’ve had to get into position. After starting the day in Fargo, ND at daybreak, it was a race to the clock south to reach southern Nebraska. Once there, the setup was very complicated. A supercell cluster formed in far northeastern Colorado, but this storm complex struggled to ground itself in the boundary layer. The result was a messy storm without much to see, structurally.
With this system moving northward and other cells to its northwest, the plan was to circle around the complex from the north, in hopes to see something from the back side, and/or catch other storms approaching from the northwest.
There was not much room for error with this maneuver, as the leading edge of the complex was quickly approaching and was front-heavy with hail. It looked like I was going to narrow avoid the hail core, but traffic began to slow as heavy rain overspread US-26. With vehicles moving at under 40 mph in a 65 mph zone and no room to pass, this could have turned into a disaster. (hail larger than baseballs had been reported with this storm) As the rain became heavier, winds picked up and hail, small at first, started to fall. Luckily, this caused the vehicles to pull off the road, but the potential for disaster still existed.
Winds became so strong that when combined with the rain and hail, literally caused zero visibility. I had never experienced something like this while driving (excluding snow) and I came to a complete stop in the middle of the two-lane highway. Hail was getting larger though, so I had to push on. With no idea of what was in front of me, as I could not even see the road’s surface, I inched “forward” at a slow pace. I opened the passenger window to get a better idea of what was going on and I saw what looked like a pond and I realized I had slid off the right side of the roadway, nearly into the water. After turning back on the road, I still had no visibility, so I opened the driver’s side window. This caused rain and hail (as large as nickels) to flood the inside of the car, soaking myself and the inner side of the windshield. This made seeing anything even more difficult.
The frenzy to get west and out of the hail was not working very well and the next thing I knew, I had ended up about 10-15 yards off the road and in a field next to an abandoned barn. Hail was getting bigger (roughly quarter-sized by now) and I backed up the car, managing to get back on the roadway. Sitting with pieces of hail in my lap, rainwater everywhere and pieces of hay stuck to the inside of the car, I was just glad that the car was undamaged and able to continue on.
Once back on pavement, I could finally see the road’s surface, and before I knew it, I had, at last, escaped the hail core. Through the ordeal, I somehow ended up off the roadway twice, but because of driving at a slow pace and keeping the windows open, I was able to avoid getting into a collision, or even worse, stuck in a pond or flooded field. This is an example of why it’s critical to have time to spare while chasing. You ever know when traffic, or something else can cause an unexpected delay.
I’ve had my share of close calls while chasing…
The first that comes to mind was Mayflower in 2014. With some quick thinking, I was able to turn away from a violent EF-4 tornado, with only about three minutes to spare.
Over the years, I have gotten stuck on impassable minimum maintenance roads many times, but always managed to get out.
Last fall, I ran over telephone poles while chasing a tornado outbreak near Pampa, TX, but was able to get the tires fixed just in time to get out of the way.
Today’s close call reached a new level. With no visibility in wind-driven hail, I had two options. Either ride out the storm and likely have the car totaled by hail, or try to press on. Despite driving off the road twice, I managed to inch far enough west to gradually regain visibility and escape the storm. It was definitely a nerve-wracking experience.
Once exiting the storm, there was still time left to chase, but nothing was within striking distance. The hail-producing supercell was still elevated and had no distinguishable base from my vantage point. A pair of storms in northeastern Colorado were moving into an increasingly hostile environment, so that was off the table. Other storms in Nebraska were also elevated and cells in Kansas were out of reach.
Ironically enough, the best photo from the chase was captured up in North Dakota first thing in the morning. It’s not often that one can say they chased storms in North Dakota, Nebraska and Colorado, all in the same day.
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