April 14, 2012 Chase

Bridget and I had been out for the previous two days, which included a cap bust on the 12th and missing tornadoes we were near on the 13th. Driving home that night, I became very frustrated when Chad called to say that he and Mickey had seen a brief tornado from the same storm we were on. We'd been in a serious drought for well over a year, and the pressure I was feeling to get back into my old form was mounting...but only because I was allowing it to. We spent the night in Ardmore at my Mom's place, and I told Bridget that we were just going to forget the past eighteen months, wake up on the 14th, and just do what we do. I was more relaxed that morning as we were preparing to leave than I'd been in a long time; I had been letting myself be psyched out by the drought, which in reality was due mostly to pure bad luck. My own mistakes weren't any more frequent than usual. So I was in a great state of mind as we headed north on I-35.

We decided to target northwest Oklahoma, thinking storms in that area would be a little less-influenced by the main jet streak and thus, would be moving somewhat slower. We made it to Blackwell, our usual stopping point on chases carrying us northbound, where we ran into Chad and Mickey (which was also becoming fairly normal procedure). We gassed up, chatted a bit, and grabbed some lunch. They passed us shortly as we headed westbound on OK11 towards Medford, and we never saw them again the rest of the day. Bridge and I had decided to drift casually west, because the western edge of the deep moisture was still lingering out by the Texas panhandle/Oklahoma border. I couldn't shake the feeling that something might form further east of there, deeper into the warm sector, which is why I keep us slowly drifting west instead of just blazing out to the border. In hindsight, this was a rather silly instinct, as the upper level jet was also lingering out west.

Storms were beginning to fire well to our west and northwest, so we continued along OK11 until we got to Alva. By then, several severe storms were occurring, including a few that were tornado-warned. We had to make the first big decision of the day as we entered Alva, choosing between two potentially-tornadic storms. The one that looked better was to our northwest and further away, but we had an approach angle that would eventually put us right in front of it. The other one was to our southwest, coming our direction, but didn't look as good. I decided it was still early, and we didn't need to make hasty decisions based solely on a few radar images, so I did the practical thing and choose the storm to our southwest, feeling it had as good a chance as the other one.

Thanks both to Sprint killing off all coverage in the western half of Oklahoma, and the fact northwestern Oklahoma is one of the worst data spots in the Plains, we lost internet coverage for most of the event from this point on. It didn't much matter, because I was already in old school mode, basing 90% of my decisions on NOAA radio while using a road atlas; it's nice to have the experience to fall back on when technology fails you. Still westbound on OK11 west of Alva, we came to OK14. I wasn't wild about the approach angle we had, because our road options weren't really ideal. I decided to turn south onto OK14 and drive south, hoping for some better terrain than what we'd been dealing with. We lucked out, and found a paved road that went straight west to Freedom, which is where the storm seemed to be heading. As seems to be the norm in recent years, there were many low clouds obstructing our view of storm features, and it was hard to place where the storm actually was relative to our position. Based on NOAA radio and the dark sky to the west, we continued west on this unmarked road towards Freedom.

Not long afterwards, the storm finally came into view. The base looked classic and suspicious, so we were anticipating the show starting for us very soon. There had already been tornado reports with it, so we watched closely. The only issue was, we were still quite far away. After a few minutes of tripoded video, our contrast became too murky, so we packed it up and continued west. During the time we'd been there, only one other vehicle passed by. It was a rare moment of solitude that today's chasing doesn't often produce. As we continued west, the contrast began to improve dramatically, as did the storm. A rapidly rotating wall cloud loomed, and just as we rounded a curve, a small tornado began to snake down. It formed from a higher portion of the wall cloud, then quickly moved in front of the lower portion, obscuring all of the funnel except for the bottom tip, as the tornado continued to fully condense towards the ground. We watched it as we approached the east side of town, until it dissipated just as we entered town proper.

We wormed our way through the middle of town, which was set up kinda cool (though at the time, thinking as a chaser, I found it rather annoying), and headed north on OK50. The wall cloud that had produced the tornado was still looming, and it was obvious this thing wasn't done yet. We cleared town to the north, weaved our way through scores of other chasers (and mostly locals) and pulled over to get a look. After a minute or so, we decided to move further north. We found a decent spot a half mile up the road and pulled over. Not long afterwards, another brief tornado developed rapidly, moving quickly from west to east around the southern periphery of the wall cloud/parent rotation. It lasted less than a minute and was gone.

We raced north on OK50 to Camp Houston, where we turned east onto US64. The storm seemed to be cycling down and, despite the fact the tornado warning was continued for it, we decided to move east and let it go to the north, both because we anticipated new development to the southwest, and for fear it would start moving quicker as it neared the main jet core in Kansas. We drove back to Alva, where we stopped for gas and a bathroom break. While we were there, we decided to regroup, as the sky was still littered with low clouds, and our internet connection was non-existent at this point. Using the road atlas and NOAA radio reports, we plotted an intercept for new storms that were developing just east of the Texas panhandle border and moving into northwest Oklahoma.

We took US281 south out of Alva through Hopeton and eventually Waynoka. As we moved south from there, we began to get a view of the storm to our southwest, which was tornado warned. We found a brilliant viewing spot at the intersection of US281/412, and by now the lowering/wall cloud was clearly visible. However, as we watched and waited for several minutes, the storm never produced. We decided to move back north on 281 to beat the storm back to Waynoka, so we could jet east and stay out ahead of it. This plan proved rather difficult, as hordes of locals and some chasers had since invaded the area from the first time we'd come through. We watched as the hail core edged closer and closer. We were well enough ahead of any potential tornado, but the idea of baseballs slamming us from the west was rather unappealing. We got stuck in slow traffic as we re-entered Waynoka, where some type of outdoor festival was taking place. Cussing and shouting our way through the catacomb-like downtown area, we finally made it through, as dozens of citizens were outside just milling about as if it were a perfectly sunny day.

Once we'd cleared Waynoka (and the storm's precip area) well to the east, we pulled over and stopped. The storm looked messy, and the areas around the storm did as well, with low clouds still ruining any chance at serious visual analysis. Little did we know at the time, the second storm, looming just southwest of the one we were looking at, was beginning to ramp up and would soon become the storm of the day. Not realizing this, we continued to focus our efforts on the Waynoka storm, which seemed less and less impressive as time went on. We drifted east, staying ahead of it, eventually crossing 281 and heading east onto OK45 west of Carmen. By this time, I didn't know what to do. We still didn't realize the storm to our southwest was beginning to be a monster, and the one we were on looked like crap to our eyes. Then NOAA radio came to the rescue.

We'd been sitting on OK45 west of Carmen when a new tornado warning came over the radio, saying a confirmed tornado had been reported five miles southeast of Waynoka. I looked at Bridget and said "That's right where we just came from. We should be seeing this."  So, we blasted west a mile or two, beyond a grove of trees that was across from us, and came into view of a rain-free base. I felt silly that we'd been sitting just out of view of this storm, but going visual, we never saw anything to our southwest while tracking the Waynoka storm. However, now that we were finally seeing it, the chase was on. We quickly found a spot, stopped, setup up the tripod, and rolled video. An RFD cut was already clearly evident, and the base spun rapidly. Not long afterwards, a tornado developed, as the first dust swirls began on the ground underneath the rotating base. The base began to lower slightly in the middle, becoming saucer-shaped as the tornado continued to intensify. It morphed into a large bowl, with intermittent dust whirls below it, as it moved fairly quickly to the northeast. As the RFD cut in deeper, a funnel started to descend. Within a minute, it fully-condensed and became a classic tornado, moving across the open prairie. Eventually the funnel receded a bit, as rain began to wrap heavily around the circulation. The tornado was beginning to move behind some trees, so we packed it up and took a back road north. I didn't like the road we were on, but I wanted to get clear of the treeline for a quick glimpse before we went back east. As we drove north, the tornado fully-condensed again. When we reached a clearing, I jumped out with my tripod to get a quick shot. However, by now the tornado was almost completely obscured by rain, and was weakening. I grabbed my gear, and we headed back south to the highway, where we blasted east to keep pace with the storm and catch the next cycle/tornado.

A few miles west of Carmen, Bridget spotted a brief multi-vortex tornado from the lowering east of the tornado we'd just observed. I tried to get video, but due to driving and the angle I had, it was impossible. We kept racing west into Carmen, then hit OK8 northbound towards Cherokee. As we drove, another tornado developed to our northwest and grew rapidly. We shot video as we drove, looking for a place to stop in heavy traffic with no shoulder. Finally we found a spot to safely pull over, got out our tripods, and rolled video. The tornado had now grown into a large stovepipe, moving majestically across the landscape. As it began moving behind a group of trees, a second tornado developed rapidly to its north. Now we had twins spinning wildly to our west. The large tornado to the south began to shrink while the smaller one to the north continued to churn. Before long, the southern tornado was nearly as skinny as the northern one, which showed no signs of stopping. I began to focus exclusively on the southern tornado, as the northern one had moved behind a group of trees. The southern tornado continued to narrow, as it passed behind a barn and then a farmstead. As the tornado began to rope out, we decided to move north. As we drove, we shot video of the tornado in its final moments, one of the most brilliant ropes I've ever witnessed.

Driving north towards Cherokee on OK8, the second tornado from the set of twins re-appeared north of us. At first we thought this was a separate tornado, but other chasers' video confirmed it was one constant tornado. It had an intermittent funnel, which was fully condensing then disappearing at random. Eventually it condensed right in front of us, over the road, as we neared Cherokee. It vanished shortly afterwards, and we never saw it again. Working our way through the heart of Cherokee, dusk began to set in. Happy with what we'd seen to that point, we were content to call it a day, as by rule I don't chase at night because, in my opinion, the reward isn't worth the risk. We drove north through town until we hit OK11, where we turned east. Just a mile or so later, a tornado rapidly developed to our north, and quickly grew into a large stovepipe. We quickly pulled over to shoot tripoded video, as the tornado grew into a large barrel, achieving near-wedge status as it loomed in the growing darkness. Rain began wrapping around the tornado, completely obscuring it from view within thirty seconds. As we were searching for the large barrel, a flash of lightning revealed another tornado to its east, a stout-looking elephant trunk. This tornado displayed crazy, erratic motions, as it twisted and contorted into several different shapes, eventually becoming a large stovepipe as the previous one had. We watched it for several minutes between lightning flashes, getting our last look at this stout tornado before losing it for good.

Afterwards, we headed east to I-35, and cruised towards Ardmore to stay at my Mom's place. After a horrible year and a half, we had finally busted back onto the scene with a major tornado event/intercept. It was a feeling we'd not experienced for a long time, and the drive back that night reminded us that one great day can take away a year and a half of misery.