October 24, 2010 Chase

This had been a busy chase weekend for us. We'd chased Friday in northwest Texas, and although we saw some pretty good structure, there were no tornadoes. On Saturday, we chased southeast of the DFW metro area, along the I-45 corridor, culminating in a tornado-warned storm intercept in the town of Rice. However the storm was quickly undercut, and again, no tornadoes. I got up early on Sunday, went out with some friends to play flag football, and arrived back home just in time to catch the Steelers game. After it was over, I had resigned myself to staying more or less horizontal on the couch for the remainder of the afternoon. After all, we'd just spend the past two days chasing, busting, and now I had half a day left of my weekend. The day's chase prospects didn't look any better or worse to my eyes than the previous two days. So, in total laziness and relaxation mode, I scoffed at the opportunity to chase a third straight day.

The day wore on, and I was semi-unconscious with a half-empty bag of Cheetos resting comfortably on my stomach. Life couldn't get any better. Suddenly I hear Bridget from the back patio: "Baby come look at this storm!!!"  I instantly thought "Crap. She's not gonna let this go now until I can prove to her it would be a waste of time."  Essentially, I was about to be fighting for the rest of my weekend off. I got up and walked out to the patio. To the not-so-distant northeast loomed a very impressive tower, rock hard and still climbing into the atmosphere. The only problem was, it was already northeast and moving away. I was just interested enough to make a deal with Bridge; I told her we'd go inside and look at radar. If the storm was moving 35mph or more, we'd stay home. If it was moving 30mph or less, we'd go after it. After a quick glance at radar, the storm showed to be moving right at 30mph. There went the weekend.

We went into instant chase mode, grabbing our gear and hustling out to the car. It took only a minute or so for me to be completely absorbed into the moment, as I was already bitching and screaming about stoplights and traffic before we were even out of our neighborhood. However, it didn't take long to realize that, despite our efforts, we were not going to catch this now-beastly looking storm to the northeast. Since we were already out, we decided to keep trying anyway. We made our way out onto TX114, still trying to catch the original storm. After about ten minutes we both knew it was hopeless. I thought about the orientation of the dryline relative to our position; it was situated at an angle, from southwest to northeast. Despite the fact we'd never catch the storm in front of us, it was still close enough that I knew the dryline itself was cutting back towards us the further south it was. Instantly I had a plan: we'd just start making our way southeast out of the DFW metro area, and come out ahead of the dryline, about twenty miles east of it. This would (1) put us in position for any new development further south and (2) take us out of the DFW metro area and its traffic. I hopped onto TX183 at the Loop12 interchange, and headed east towards downtown Dallas. The chase was on, even though we had no target storm....yet.

As we approached downtown, a new blip popped up on radar, in the area I was hoping new development might occur. We continued into downtown, jumping onto I-35E southbound, as the new blip began to blossom into a full-fledged storm. We raced south, briefly entertaining the idea of jumping onto I-30 eastbound and heading towards new storms that were developing east of the Dallas. This thought quickly vanished though, as I was taking dead aim on my original target area and the intensifying storm that was in it. As we turned east onto I-20, the storm became severe-warned, and was now a maturing supercell. We continued eastbound until we came to I-45, where we turned southeast and headed right into the area I'd first targeted after we gave up on the original storm. After just a few miles on I-45, the storm came into view. It was a classic supercell in a tornado watch, and it had formed in the exact spot I'd hoped one would. Our road was a major interstate, and it was taking us right into the path of this severe storm. Things were working out perfectly.

We raced closer and closer, as the storm got bigger and bigger. We passed through Ferris and Palmer, as we entered the outer core. Rain began to fall and visibility started to decrease. As we neared Ennis, the storm was tornado-warned. Things were working out exactly as planned. The warning had been based on a funnel cloud sighting, so we were stoked. But now it was starting to become a situation were we were in some danger. Our angle of approach was from due north, and would take us through the heart of the storm before we broke out into the clear air. Any tornado would be obscured by rain and impossible to see until we were very close, and we'd likely be in its path when we did. I was telling this to Bridget as we approached, to make her understand the gravity of the situation. This was her first blind core punch, and I wanted to make her as prepared - yet as comfortable - as I could. I could tell she was nervous, but she was also much more excited...just the way I'd been on my first blind core punch back in 1997. I took a few seconds to embrace the moment, as it seemed we were on the brink of one of our most incredible chases since being a couple.

We passed through Ennis and Alma, as a new tornado warning statement reported the circulation was near Emhouse, just about five miles southwest of Rice. We were just a few miles north of Rice, so despite our lack of visibility, we started looking to the west and southwest. We'd caught a huge break with the storm, as its precip body had sagged well to the south, giving it an orientation more like a storm moving southeast as opposed to northeast. What this did for us was eliminate having to drive through a massive, miles-wide area of rain and hail. Because the main body of the storm had slipped southward, we were now faced with just the narrow, northern band of precip that made up the north side of the hook echo. However, the flipside to this was, though we'd have far less hail to deal with, it would likely be much larger now, being so close to the main updraft/tornadic area of the storm. We continued on, taking random large stones in what was mainly just heavy rain. Just as the rain was beginning to thin and we could start to see the storm's base, a random hailstone, which sounded about tennis ball size, somehow hit us from the north, taking out our passenger's side rearview mirror as we drove southeast. We heard the bang, but neither of us realized we'd lost the mirror until later on, probably because of what was now popping out of the rain to our west.

The precipitation had finally let up enough to reveal a cone tornado next to a beautiful late day sun. The contrast of the spinning and upward motions were incredibly enhanced by the sunlight, which cast them in a brilliant golden lining. We sat there mesmerized for a few moments, just taking it all in. Snapping back to the situation at hand, it became suddenly clear to me that we'd need to move to avoid being possibly hit by the tornado. This was the first time I'd managed to get an approaching tornado to hold together as it neared the road I was on without dissipating; I was in uncharted territory, but a situation I had been planning and going over in my head a million times over the years. Because we were on a major interstate (that was six lanes wide on that particular stretch), our choices were limited. We could either go forward to the next exit into town, or simply back up along the shoulder. At first, it seemed as though we'd need to back up, but traffic had stopped behind us and we were blocked. We sat there watching the tornado maybe a minute longer, when I glanced up into the rearview mirror and realized the vehicles behind us were now gone. We started backing up as the tornado seemed to grow larger, full-condensing for the first time since we had a visual. This prompted Bridget to say "It's getting bigger" to which I responded "no, it's getting closer."

We backed up a few hundred yards, until we hit a tree line which obstructed our view. By this time, it was fairly obvious we'd probably be okay sitting where we'd been. We slowly drove back south down the shoulder, stopping in pretty much the same place we started from. The tornado continued to approach our setup location, as cars on the service road just west of us seemed to either not care or not understand the impending danger. Many of them just kept driving south into the path, but one car, with a full family inside, panicked and tried to make an abrupt u-turn. However, they got stuck in the rain-soaked dirt shoulder, so they all piled out. The mother ran across the ditch and up the embankment to us, grabbing Bridget's door handle and desperately trying to get in. Bridget tried to calm her down, and when that didn't work, she just said "We're not leaving." I don't think the woman knew what to think at that point. By this time she was starting to annoy me, as the rest of her family milled about in the service road around a few other vehicles that had stopped, all while the tornado continued to approach. I had gotten out of the car by this time, and yelled across to their group "It's gonna go south of here."  I don't know if they didn't hear me, didn't believe me, or didn't understand me, but regardless they continued to look panicked and disoriented. Finally they all piled in to the two vehicles that had stopped, both of which drove straight south into the tornado's path.

During all of that, the tornado siren (which had been audible since I'd gotten out of the car) stopped, as the tornado hit power lines on its march towards town. The twister's position relative to the sun was beginning to change, which caused the color to gradually shift from darker brown to eggshell. It had become more or less steady-state, with a smooth, fully-condensed funnel which was largely a single vortex, save for small, random multi-vortex fingers near the very bottom. It was becoming very beautiful, despite the fact it had now hit structures and had a large debris fan below the funnel. As the tornado neared the interstate, it moved behind a group of trees, which obscured the bottom portion from our view for a minute. Unfortunately, the Rice high school was behind the tree line, as within seconds it was obliterated, as the tornado sent the roof flying out from behind the trees and across I-45 just ahead of us. By this time we could hear the roar of the tornado, and seeing this just a quarter mile in front of us was the most amazing moment of my chasing career to date.

Once the school was just airborne debris flying around in a circle, we now had a front row seat as the tornado began to cross the interstate itself. The debris cloud had become orange, with a lot of wood and metal swirling about. For whatever reason, several cars had kept on driving ahead of us, and were now regretting that decision. For several seconds the scene was pure chaos; cars slamming on their brakes, others doing full u-turns and driving back the wrong way towards us, and even one pickup that cut hard right and piled through the ditch, desperately trying to escape the whirling mass of dirt and debris just a few hundred yards ahead. I yelled for Bridget to move away from the car, fearing a motorist might slam into it, mesmerized by the spectacle or in a blind panic because of it. The tornado continued its way over 45, as debris - some large - began falling at our location. When a 4'X4' piece of half-inch plywood landed about thirty feet behind us in the road, we retreated back inside the car.

The tornado was now turning white, having moved completely past our position, and was continuing to do damage on the east side of the interstate as it entered a residential area. It became more and more incredible, as it got brighter white. Simultaneously, the upward motion in the funnel increased dramatically, seeming to almost match the rotational motion. As the RFD began to cut into the backside of the rotation, it created an almost sculpted look at the top of the visible funnel, the tell-tale sign the rope phase was beginning. It took a while, as it twisted and contorted, seemingly alive, until at last the most spectacular tornado of my career performed its last amazing pose before vanishing into nothingness.

Once the show was over, we began to think about our next move. We continued slowly south, driving past the damage path before emergency personnel had set up a roadblock, allowing us to pass through quickly. However, with not much daylight left and no good direct route to follow the storm, we decided it was best to just pick our way back out of town and head home. Unfortunately, by the time we found an exit and got turned around, authorities had set up a roadblock, which meant our chase was over whether we wanted it to be or not. We sat in traffic with everyone else, while we slowly filed northward through the damage path.

I learned a valuable lesson this day from Bridget. She's still a new chaser but gaining experience with every outing. She still has that newbie enthusiasm that I sometimes lack, owing it to my "experience" which sometimes tells me it's just not worth the effort, because I've seen the situation too many times before. That was how I was going to handle this day too, until Bridge (and her enthusiasm) willed me off the couch and into gear. I can't imagine how angry we both would've been (especially her) if we'd sat at home and missed this incredible event. So despite what knowledge and experience might tell me, it's also just as important to remember that when you're a chaser and there's something to chase that holds any possibility of a tornado, you chase it. You don't analyze it to death based on past experiences or try to justify not going because you're lazy. You just get up off your butt and go chase it. Lesson learned baby, lesson learned :-)