May 12, 2005 Chase

We targeted the southern Texas panhandle region today, and were caught a bit off guard when storms fired much earlier than we were anticipating. We rolled in a three-vehicle convoy; JR leading the way in his Rodeo and ever-present GPS tracker, Chad and Mick in Chad's Taurus, and Jo and I bringing up the rear in my blue POS Nissan. After some rather adventurous short cuts and roads, we wound up south of Silverton on our first storm of the day.

Heading south on TX207, we came through the core of the storm and were able to see the updraft base, which had the look of a storm that had just finished producing a tornado. JR came over the radio saying there was a decaying tornado west of us, but we could never see it. Soon afterwards, we'd cleared the rain and pulled over to access the situation. We had great position on the storm itself, but it looked as if it had spent the majority of its energy before we got there. We stayed put and watched as the storm slowly rolled by to our north, heading due east. Tons of chasers were driving up and down the road, as it seemed a lot of people were trying to figure out what to do. During all of this, we noted another storm to the distant southwest that was coming right to us. We decided to sit tight and wait for it.

As the storm drew closer, we decided to take a back road west a mile or so, to get away from the highway traffic and be a bit closer to the action. As we went, we noticed a debris cloud underneath the base. The first tornado of the day had developed southwest of us, and lasted a few minutes before dissipating. We found a spot next to a small group of other chasers, stopped, and rolled video. Within minutes, a second tornado developed. This one was closer, more intense, and lasted a bit longer. However it too was gone after a few minutes, as the storm continued to get closer. There continued to be much turbulence under the storm's base, and after a few more minutes, a third tornado developed. This one was much like the first two, a dust column underneath the rotating base. After this one dissipated, the storm cycled down and stopped producing for several minutes. We continued to roll video as the storm cycled back up, producing a dramatic but broad rotation just to our southwest, that eventually moved up over our road, a few miles due west of us. By this time the storm was getting close, and with us on a dirt road, we wanted to beat the precipitation back to the paved road. We turned around, headed back east to the highway, then turned south.

As we drove south, the storm seemed to be getting an outflowish look to it, with a tattered-looking southwest flank. I could tell it was very severe, but it wasn't looking tornadic...at least in the classic area I was looking at. After a few miles, I started looking further north, towards the central portion of the storm. Right about that time, Jo said "we got one!" and I immediately pulled over. I jumped out of the car, ran around, grabbed the vidcam from her, and started shooting. A funnel had developed, and was only a mile or two west of us. Within a minute, it reached the ground and became our fourth tornado of the day. Unlike the first three, this tornado was fully-condensed and more intense. At first the tornado seemed to be moving due east in a beeline directly for us, but it quickly became influenced by the parent mesocyclone, and began to shift its track, gaining strength as it swung to the southeast. It began to grow larger as well, continuing on a track that would take it well south of us, by a few miles. Wanting to get closer, I jumped back in the car and continued south towards the tornado.

As we continued to get closer to the tornado, it continued to get closer to the road, growing to near-wedge status as it lumbered towards TX207. As it began to near the highway, it started pulling up huge amounts of dirt into the funnel, becoming a large dusty tornado. Several other chasers had driven past us, and were now gathered in a large group roadside, as this large barrel tornado took aim on the highway itself. By this time we'd stopped again, and were taking in the magnificent view as this large tree trunk tornado extended straight up into the rotating updraft, creating one of the most awesome moments of my chasing career.

After the tornado crossed the highway, we started driving south again, as the tornado rapidly roped out. As this was happening, we happened upon an east road, which we took. I stopped the car to analyze the situation, as the last of the dying tornado's spin whirled across the field next to us, causing a group of cows to flee. By this time it was obvious the tornado had developed on the eastern flank of a high-precipitation storm, and a ton of gorilla hail loomed behind it to the west, still behind us. Because of this, my instinct was to drive east and stay ahead of it. But the problem with this was a new circulation had developed over the road ahead of us, covering both sides for quite a distance. There was no way to accurately discern where the next tornado would drop from this parent rotation, so despite the large hail coming behind us from the west, I was hesitant to drive east.

We had lost JR during the previous tornado, and Chad and Mickey weren't responding to my radio calls. They had driven ahead of us and were now driving right underneath the new circulation. I desperately flashed my lights over and over towards them, trying to get their attention. Unbeknownst to us at the time, they had stopped about a quarter mile ahead of us, within a group of other chasers. By this time we were starting to feel the effects of what was coming, with intermittent large hail chunks and howling RFD winds rocking the car. I decided to try and thread the needle between the new circulation ahead and the massive hail wrap coming from behind. I crept east cautiously, as the wind and hail began to intensify. Suddenly a new tornado started to form, just south of our road. It began as dust whirls being kicked up and pulled into the center of the parent rotation. We stopped, as the tornado continued to develop. As the tornado fully-condensed, large hail started falling more heavily, with occasional loud bangs and dings as the larger stones found their targets. Within seconds we were being slammed by hail up to baseball size, as the tornado intensified and became a stout stovepipe.

Just seconds after the tornado matured, we heard a loud crash as our entire back window exploded in a shower of glass, which blew in towards us as the roaring RFD winds instantly filled the car, trying to lift it for a split-second. Fortunately for us, our backs were to the window and nothing got in our eyes. It was wicked feeling the car shift and try to raise under the force of the wind, which filled the entire vehicle instantly after the window failed. My immediate concern now was us, because we had nothing between us and baseball hail flying in at over 70mph. As I was dealing with this particular problem, another series of loud bangs rocked the car, and the front windshield was severely-shattered, right in my line of sight. By now the tornado was getting obscured by the rain and hail, so I was much more worried about our safety. I told Jo to pull her hoody over her head and scrunch down in her seat, while I tried to cover the back of my own head with my right hand, using my left to steer as I slowly backed us out of there. My plan was to back up west and try to get away from the largest hail. The plan worked, except the hail got more dense the smaller it became. We were still getting pounded with quarter to golfball sized stones as I would make occasional glances out the back to make sure I was staying on the road. With the back glass already gone and the front one badly-cracked, I wanted to keep the rear of the car faced into the hail.

 

Eventually the hail started to let up as we got back to TX207. We turned around, and suddenly Chad and Mickey were behind us. We turned south and stopped at the first farmhouse we saw, to try and regroup. The rain hadn't let up at all, so we used the radios to try and communicate our next move. JR showed up as well from out of nowhere, and suddenly our original convoy had found itself again. We had agreed to move north, so JR started that way, with Chad and Mickey in tow. We started north to follow along when the hail suddenly increased again. We took another big shot to the front glass, which cracked it even further. I was afraid it wouldn't take another hit, so I immediately turned around and headed back to the farmhouse. The others continued on, and with the radio not working again, we were separated for good.

We tried to take refuge under a tree in the driveway of the farmhouse next to another chase vehicle, but it wasn't doing much good. Fortunately for us, the second barrage of large hail had been brief, and the stones returned to a more manageable size very quickly. After a few more minutes, we decided it was time to try and get away from the storm altogether, for better or worse. This plan took a quick detour, as we rolled up on downed power lines not long after we turned south on TX207. We were able to negotiate them eventually, but encountered a new problem. As we reached highway speeds for the first time after the hail encounter, all the shattered glass I'd forgotten about in the past ten or so minutes started flying all around the car, especially after we passed a semi. I was able to get it slowed down quickly before any of it could get in our eyes, and we limped the rest of the way into the next sizeable town of Floydada.

Once there, we made a pit stop for gas, ourselves, and to analyze the situation. There was still a lot of daylight left, and three different tornadic storms to choose from within reach, but I wanted no part of rain or large hail with a missing back glass and a severely-broken front one. We borrowed a broom and dustpan from inside the store, and began cleaning out what glass we could. I couldn't believe how much was left over from a simple back window. As we cleaned, a man and his young son walked up, gave us a roll of quarters, and pointed us to a truck wash where we could vacuum out the rest. We were blown away by their generosity, but in hindsight the people of the Great Plains have always displayed a kindred spirit for helping those in need. We thanked them over and over, and then drove to the truck wash to clean out the car.

On the way home, we drove up on a slow-moving chase vehicle. It didn't take long to realize it was the same car we'd been parked next to in the farmer's driveway. After a while of following them, they signaled to pull over, and we decided to stop with them. The chaser who was leading the group was Ben Vassmer, who's front windshield looked worse than our back one. He said they were driving slow because they couldn't see out the windshield. I offered to be his eyes for as long as we were on the same course, and it turned out he too was from Norman. We convoyed to the WAL-MART in Vernon, where we made our final pit stop before the long stretch home. I took some video of our damage, including the back window, the front windshield, and the hood. Because Ben had a HAM radio and I only had a scanner, we created a simple communication system for the ride home: he'd only ask yes/no questions, and I'd flash my lights once for "yes", twice for "no". Together we limped home, us being their eyes so they could see, and them being our cover so we didn't get stopped for the missing glass. One of the wildest and most memorable chases of my career.