May 12, 2004 Chase

Back in February, I'd met a quiet chaser from Bridge Creek named Mickey Ptak. And in March, I'd attended a party hosted by J.R. Hehnly, whose name I'd seen for years online but had never met until that night. I hadn't known either long, and had only chased with Mickey a handful of times, but I hit it off well with both, and they became good friends very quickly. An old friend, Dwain Warner, was back in town for the first time in three years to chase with me, after an all-night drive straight from southwest Ohio. Mickey was bringing along his brother-in-law John, who had never chased before. Once this new crew had been assembled at my place, we loaded up in two cars (Dwain and I in his rental, Mick, John, Chad, and Jo in Mick's car) and headed towards northwest Oklahoma.

We took the usual route northwest, using I-40 to the Calumet exit onto US270. We passed through Calumet, Geary, Watonga, Seiling, and eventually Woodward. We found J.R. sitting at a Day's Inn on the southeast edge of town. We pulled over to say hi, and discovered he was using something called wifi, which was new to me. J.R. is a technical wizard, and introduced me to the wonders of live radar in the field, via the use of a wifi network. We sat round for the better part of an hour, watching radar and satellite. The satellite image interested me the most, as a sharp dryline punch was evident to our west. At the time, it seemed we were perfectly-positioned to catch any storm that might fire under the influence of this bulge. However, after a little while longer I felt we needed to drift north out of Woodward. J.R. wanted to stay where we were, so we said our goodbyes, wished him luck, and took off.

We went through the heart of Woodward, and headed northwest out of town on US183. However, after a mile or two, I started to notice it had cleared to the west of us, and the clouds were starting to erode both in front and behind us, while meanwhile to the east, it looked like a cotton field. Dwain and I looked at each other, and at the same time we said "we're going the wrong way, we need to go east."  We turned around immediately, and headed back to town. We went through Woodward a second time, this time taking US412 east from town. Dwain asked me how far east I wanted to go, and I told him I was just gonna drive towards the biggest towering cu I could find. We continued east on 412 to US281, where we turned north. From there our road took us to Waynoka, jogged back east for twelve miles, then turned north again into the town of Hopeton. Somewhere near there, we decided to pull over and stop, to take a look at the situation. Tons of towering cu were everywhere, but it only took a minute or so to find two legitimate storm towers to the north, hiding behind the lower clouds. We jumped back into the cars, and took off north again. The chase was on.

We continued north on 281 through Alva, jogged east on US64  a few miles, then turned north back onto 281. The two storms were becoming easier to see the further north we got, and soon it appeared the one furthest north was the better of the two. We decided to forego the closest storm, in favor of the one to its northwest, about twenty miles further from us. We kept moving towards them, crossing into Kansas as the road jogged east again. As we were going around the curve that took this winding highway back north, I saw David Hoadley standing roadside, next to his car, just watching the storm. It was like time-traveling back to 1960, if only for a fleeting moment. We rounded the curve and were heading back north, realizing we were going to have to drive through the southern storm to get to the one northwest of us. As we started to drive under the storm's base (which neither of us had paid much attention to while concentrating on the storm to the northwest), we noted a lot of turbulence. It was interesting enough that we decided to pull over and have a look.

We watched as the turbulent base continued to churn, despite the fact there was no wall cloud. Suddenly a rearflank downdraft blasted the ground near us, sending Jo flying into me as orange dust was kicked up and blown rapidly to the southeast, just north of us. Dwain and I both smiled, as we knew this storm was already throwing out RFDs, despite the fact it was very high-based. Just a minute or so later, I looked up to the east and spotted an area of enhanced anticyclonic rotation. Just as I pointed it out, a dust whirl spun up below it. A rare anticyclonic tornado was now just a mile east of us, appearing as a dust whirl underneath the spinning base. This tornado lasted about two minutes, before slowly dissipating. As it did, the cyclonic side of this figure-8 rotation began to crank up, just to its northeast. Not long after the anticyclonic tornado ended, a second tornado rapidly developed just northeast of it from the cyclonic couplet. This one too started out as a dust whirl underneath the spinning base, but soon a nub funnel formed over it. It began to intensify and become cone-shaped, as the ground circulation became more vigorous. Within a few minutes, the condensation funnel had stretched all the way down to meet the orange debris cloud, creating a classic tornado in open country. Over the next several minutes, the tornado began to gradually pick up dirt and raise it towards the cloud base, eventually becoming completely shrouded in red dirt. After a few more minutes, the tornado became clear of the dirt and started to narrow, becoming a slender white snake as the surface debris whirl intensified. The tornado had been moving slowly, but now it seemed to stall even more, going into "drill bit mode" as it anchored itself and spun wildly. The surface debris whirl churned rapidly, as the tornado continued to slowly meander across the open countryside. As it began to dissipate, the debris cloud began to glow bright pinkish-orange, a surreal scene just a few miles east of us. After fourteen amazing minutes, the tornado finally ended. We shot the entire lifecycle of both tornadoes from one spot.

Once the tornado was over, we jumped back in the cars and raced north to Medicine Lodge. The storm was continuing to move east-northeast, but we had to leave it until we could get to our next east road. When we arrived in Medicine Lodge, we hopped onto US160 and burned it east towards Sharon. We were in good position to come into Attica from the west and catch the storm again, but made a fatal error: we stopped along the way to look at some giant hailstones that had fallen, and wasted too much time doing it. We ended up seeing a large cone tornado to the distant east as we looked towards Attica. We jumped back on the road and hauled east as fast as we safely could. As we drove, the tornado became easier to see as our contrast improved. However, we had squandered the majority of its life playing with hail, and were now getting a distant shot of it as it moved through the east edge of town, eventually roping out ahead of us.

We continued into Attica, but were stopped by a police roadblock on the eastern edge of town. We were being forced to turn around, so I sifted through my memory of Attica's back roads and remembered a route we'd taken a few years earlier on the north side of town. As I pulled forward to start my turn around, a fat cop came running towards us, yelling and screaming for us to turn back. I said "I'm trying to get turned the fuck around!!" as I did a quick uie, spinning the tires on purpose, trying to throw gravel on him. I was already pissed off because our chase was being ruined for no reason (the house that had been hit was under construction and wasn't being lived-in), and I was in no mood for some rent-a-cop with an attitude, when I was already doing what I was told to do. I turned us around, found the road I had remembered, and flew north. Unfortunately, all the roads east from my shortcut were dirt, and had turned to mud from all the heavy rain. We, along with a host of other chasers, stopped in a huge convoy, still seeing rotation from two different areas. However, the main area slowly lumbered off to our east, and with the road block cutting us off, we missed another three to five tornadoes that we would've been all over. A bitter ending to what was an overall great day.