March 23, 2009 Chase

Chad, Bridge, Rick Jarvis, and myself took Chad's new van out for its first chase, headed to north-central Oklahoma. Rick was Chad's regular partner in the late nineties, and was going on his first chase in years. We loaded up and left Norman around 2pm, headed to the US81 corridor between Okarche and Hennessey. The day's setup featured high shear but limited moisture and instability, so we weren't terribly optimistic. After spending days mulling it over, I decided to play north-central Oklahoma early, as the cap was expected to be weaker in that area. As the day wore on, we'd gradually work our way back south, to pick up newer storms later in the day.

I had been leaning towards staying further south, to keep both north and south target options open. However as we drove towards Hennessey, towers began to develop and by the time we reached town, a full-blown storm was in progress. We decided to forego stopping to wait for further development to the south, and continue north to try and catch the storm northwest of us. It was a daunting task; the storm already had twenty miles on us and was moving northeast at 50mph. But it was the only play, so we pushed on. We roared out of Hennessey on US81, through Bison and Waukomis. I really didn't want to mess with trying to drive through Enid, but there were no other options, so we grit our collective teeth and kept north into town. After negotiating several red lights and slow speed zones, we finally made it through, and were once again racing on open highway to catch the storm. We continued north on 81 to US60, where we turned east towards Pond Creek.

I was driving and hadn't gone east or west since taking the wheel, and the crosswinds were making it difficult to keep the van on the road. I white-knuckled us east as we slowly started to gain on the storm along 64. After four miles of this, the road split in Pond Creek, and we jumped back on US81, which was now running northeast and more or less paralleling the storm's track. We were starting to get our first view of the updraft area, which was milky white and ragged-looking. As this was happening, we came to Medford, where we turned east on OK11. We flew east once more, and came upon a large group of chasers, being held up by a slower car ahead. We all fought the intense crosswinds as we conga-lined our way towards Deer Creek. Eventually the slower car pulled off, taking the majority of the other chasers with it, and we flew past them and continued towards I-35. By the time we reached the interstate, we'd made enough progress east to finally be on the inflow side of the storm, to its southeast. We turned north onto I-35, and began racing north to catch the storm.

Now that we were finally in position to see the base, our view was being blocked by huge amounts of red dirt which was being sucked into the updraft. Frustrated, we continued north past Braman and into Kansas. We finally got a view of the lowering to our northwest as we crossed the border, but then realized the more interesting area was the one further south behind us, which had been obscured by dirt. We took the last free exit before the turnpike started, turning east onto US166. As we did, we were caught by the core of the storm, so we jumped east as fast as we could. Within a few miles we were able to break free of the rain, and could see a very interesting lowering to the southwest. We drove another mile or so, then pulled over as the lowering began to cross the road behind us. It was ragged, but was rotating very nicely. However the storm was racing towards us, so we bailed out to the east another few miles. As we drove, the rotation moved across the highway and really started to crank up, as more red dirt was being carried into the updraft. For a second I thought it would become a tornado, as the lowering just kept twisting and cranking away, but trees obscured our view for about a mile before we could see again. Once we could, we stopped and watched this amazing lowering just twisting away. However the show was short-lived, as once again the storm cycled down as quickly as it had cranked up, and the lowering began to gust out. We were getting out of position to the south again, so we abandoned the lowering and raced east to Arkansas City. Once there, we turned north and began the headache of negotiating the town.

Traffic lights and speed zones slowed us down greatly, but as we continued on we caught glimpses of a lowering to the north. We'd heard reports of a rain-wrapped tornado, but assumed it had happened while we were repositioning east towards town. We couldn't tell if it was rotating, but we continued to watch as we slowly began to clear the town. Once we did, it became obvious the storm had cycled down yet again, as the lowering was nothing but a ragged scud bomb being ripped apart by outflow winds. Within a minute, the RFD had wrapped precipitation around the lowering, obscuring it completely. Our winds were starting to scream out of the west as we were about to get cored again, out of position to the south. We found route 242 east, which was a gravel road, and took it despite the fact it wasn't on our map. This was our last chance to keep up with the storm, so we decided to just start taking roads that went the way we needed, and hope like hell they worked out for us.

The storm had begun to crank up again, with a new area of rotation just off to our east. We followed right behind it, hoping our road didn't stop or become mud. Suddenly, about a half mile in front of us, a tornado developed just south of the road. It crossed the road, then meandered into an open field, kicking up dirt and debris as it moved northeast. It became a multiple vortex, with various dust swirls whirling up at random, all around a common rotation. We kept driving as the tornado moved northeast, trying to catch up to it. It continued to move away from us as we came upon a hill. We lost sight of it over the hill, and when we came down the other side, it was gone. Once again, the storm cycled down as quickly as it had wound up, except that this time it had managed a brief, weak tornado while doing so. We continued to take random roads north and east to try and keep up with the storm, but eventually ended up on a long driveway in a field. Our day was done, at least with this original storm. We backtracked to Arkansas City, and decided to drop south on US77 and try to pick up new storms developing further southwest.

We moved back across the border into Oklahoma, to just north of Newkirk, where we intercepted a pair of non-severe storms. The first one looked interesting for a short time, with lots of differential motion and disorganized rotation as scud developed below the base. While this was happening just west of us, another storm to the southwest had its own interesting scud event going on. We watched both for about ten or so minutes, but neither amounted to much. We continued south into Newkirk, stopping on the north side of town to watch the southwest storm a bit longer, getting dumped on by some pea-sized hail. Once that show ended, we continued south on US77.

We went through Kildare and Ponca City, then stopped at a Casino near White Eagle for a restroom break. While we were there, we learned of a new tornado-warned storm southwest of Stillwater. We jumped back on the road and busted south towards Stillwater, attempting to beat the storm there and get position to its east. We crossed the Cimarron Turnpike and US64, opting to get further south before making our east jog. It became obvious we weren't going to beat the storm to town, so we took a paved road north of there that headed east towards Yost Lake. It was raining heavily and I was doing about 60mph to try and stay ahead of the storm. Train tracks were running parallel to us as we continued east. Suddenly, the road just stopped, with a sharp ninety-degree right turn that went over the tracks. There were no warning signs, and there was extra pavement immediately east of the turn, like a small parking lot, that, at 60mph in rain, gave the illusion that there was no sharp turn. I started to apply the brakes just enough to start slowing us, not wanting to lock them up on wet pavement. However we were carrying too much speed to make the turn. Chad yelled for me to just aim it straight, fearing we'd roll if I unsuccessfully tried to steer through the slide. We went off the road straight, caught a bit of air, and landed in the soft, wet dirt about three to four feet below the surface of the road. I jumped out to check for damage, and saw nothing visually. All four tires were good, and no fluid was leaking, so I backed up, turned around, and drove back up the embankment. It was easy enough to get out of, and we were back on the chase.

We finally got in front of the Stillwater storm as it began to weaken, but stayed ahead of it until dark just in case it cranked back up. Right at dusk, the storm's base had great structure, but could never produce while we could see. We threw in the towel at dark, and headed back home.