May 18, 2013 Chase

This day had been on our radar for some time, along with the few days that followed it. Adam Reagan arrived the night before to start his ten-day chasecation, which under normal circumstances would've been a good excuse to stay up late drinking. However, after missing a tornado that night to go pick him up at the airport, I was more focused and determined than ever, not to mention a bit peeved. My target was Greensburg, KS, which is quite a haul from Fort Worth. I wanted us up early and on the road with no delays.

We took off northbound on I-35 to Oklahoma City, where we then took the standard northwest Oklahoma route of 240 west and north around the metro, then I-40 west to the US270 exit. As we traveled northwest to Seling, I started thinking that maybe Greensburg would be a bit too far west. With this in mind, I decided to start backtracking slightly and took US281 north-northeast through Alva and into Medicine Lodge. We hadn't seen any other chasers all day, until we arrived there. A few groups were set up on the west edge of town, along with others we saw in town during a pit stop. While we were there, Adam mentioned that Wes Carter was just down the road in Pratt, with another group of chasers. Wes, another Tennessee chaser Adam knew, wanted to try and meet up if possible so we could finally meet face-to-face. Because I liked the area we were in and we had the time, I decided to head to Pratt.

As we drove northbound, I started thinking we may as well go on and head to Greensburg since it was only thirty miles west of Pratt, the atmosphere seemed more primed to the west the further north we went, and lastly because I have a rule of sticking to my original target town if I can reach it before initiation. So, when we got to Pratt, we just turned west onto US400 and kept going. Along the way Adam mentioned that Wes had also headed to Greensburg, so it seemed we weren't the only ones who liked that spot. As we got into town, it became apparent that basically everyone had targeted that town, as it was overrun with chasers.

I knew the area well, and decided to head to the west side of town, at the intersection of US183/400. As we were pulling over, Adam spotted Wes. We parked next to him, got out and introduced ourselves, and then sat there watching as a fledgling storm began to develop. We sat and watched it slowly organize for over half an hour, glancing at radar to see what it looked like compared to the other storms in the area. There had already been severe storms to our north, including one which was tornado-warned with a big hook. However, I don't drop everything and run after the best looking storm out of the gate, and it looked very messy and HP. I was quite content to sit and watch our little storm do its thing, right in my target area.

Another storm cluster had developed southwest of us into northwest Oklahoma, and these storms too had gone severe. Still, I liked our situation and I liked the fact our little storm had persisted. Though it still had not been warned, it continued to look decent on radar, and exhibited signs of continued growth and intensification. Eventually it began to move far enough away that we were starting to lose contrast, and it was time to move if we wanted to stay with it. The decision was not a difficult one; I looked at radar, saw the messy HP tornado producer to the north, the severe cluster to the southwest, and then back to our little isolated cell. This was our storm.

We headed north on US183 towards Kinsley, and before long the base came back into view, only now it had organized well and was starting to look formidable. I began to get excited, because we'd been on this thing since birth and had a great jump on it. Its motion had been mostly north-northeast, which was working perfectly with our road network. I checked the map as we drove, and saw that we had roads to stay with this thing for several miles. I just kept driving, started smiling, and wondered what amazing things we might be seeing before long. The base kept looking better and better the further north we went, and once we had our northeast road option within easy reach, we stopped about a mile south of Kinsley.

The base was becoming nicely rounded, with cyclonic inflow bands evident in the mid levels. Not long after we'd stopped and gotten out, a mid-level/shear funnel developed on the northern flank, just right of the main base. It looked fairly intense and continued to grow, by far the most impressive I'd ever seen. It lasted several minutes, and just as it began fading away, another one, just as impressive, developed south of it, right next to the main base. This one, like the first, eventually stretched out and lasted several minutes before fading away. I wouldn't have been surprised if either had actually made ground contact, but there was no debris observed by us and I never heard another chaser report either as a tornado.

By this time we were needing to get back on the road, so we drove into Kinsley, followed US56 northeast eight miles until it met up with US183 again, and blasted north. While we were in town and along US56 we'd gotten away from the storm a bit, and had been losing contrast. But, like before, not long after we went north on 183, the contrast began to improve dramatically. We found a nice open spot south of Sanford and pulled over. All of us grabbed our tripods, vidcams, and cameras, then walked across the road into an open field, where we all stood or sat, and prepared for the spectacle.

Violent rotation was now evident in the base, and a large bowl-shaped lowering started to form. Seconds later, tornadogenesis began as a large funnel descended and became a tornado. Over the next several minutes it continued to grow, becoming fully-condensed. Just afterwards the tornado began to get much larger, taking on a tree shape of sorts. A lone CG strike ripped through the funnel, just before a large debris cloud began to appear as the tornado continued to widen. With the sun beginning to set, this beautiful storm and tornado continued to churn. The tornado maxed out for a few minutes, before beginning a slow breakdown. The funnel started to narrow, then over the next few minutes began what seemed to be a typical decay/rope stage until it was seemingly gone. The entire process had taken twenty minutes, and they were some of the most magical I've ever experienced in my chasing career.

Overloaded on tornadic bliss, we packed it up and headed north on 183 a mile or so, until we found a picnic/rest stop. We pulled over to assess the situation and reflect over the amazing experience we'd just shared. Visually the storm looked rather benign, and because there wasn't much daylight left, we decided to head back south and start planning for a place to stay for the night. Just as we were getting ready to turn back, we all looked back at the storm and saw a large tornado in progress. Suddenly I was a fool and the chase was back on, as we simply drove back to the north end of the rest stop, then got out and started shooting video. At the time we all assumed this was a new tornado (although we briefly mentioned the possibility it might be the same one), but other chaser accounts and the Dodge City NWS survey revealed this was actually a continuation of the original tornado (ground circulation was observed throughout the entire time after the original funnel disappeared and the new one appeared, although we never saw it from our vantage point). The tornado continued for the next several minutes, fully-condensing as it became more and more slender, eventually roping out (for good this time).

After the tornado ended we all stood around laughing at ourselves for being so oblivious as to nearly miss the last six minutes of a tornado we'd already been watching for twenty. That turned into more ooohing and aaahing about what we'd just seen. At this point, I should have learned my lesson about letting your guard down after witnessing something amazing. But as I stood there shooting the bull with Wes, I looked north over his shoulder and saw a stovepipe tornado, well underway, just east of the highway. I said "Is that another one??!!" Laughing, we all jumped in our cars and raced north, trying to get a glimpse of this very low-contrast tornado in the imminent twilight. As we neared Sanford, the tornado finally started coming into decent view. Beautiful and snake like, it began to move west as it slowly started to decay. We had been driving right up to it, because I wanted to see it up close. However, when it seemingly disappeared, I did not let my guard down a third time; I told everyone we needed to get back south a bit as I had a feeling the tornado was not done yet. We drove back south maybe a mile and pulled over. Not a minute later, near the area where we'd just been, the tornado reappeared as a brown rope. Clearly the tornado hadn't been done, and had been invisible for a time as it started to decay. But it was visible now, and quite impressive, easily a top-five all-time rope out for me.

We continued east from Sanford with the storm, but by now darkness was nearing and the storm (for real this time) seemed to be on the downward spiral. We stayed with it until Larned, where we decided to call it a day. We headed northeast up US56 to Great Bend, where we stopped for the night. Once we were settled into our rooms with Subway and cold beer, the four of us sat around eating, drinking, and generally making merry. It was one of the best chases of my life, followed by one of the most enjoyable celebrations. A day for the ages. But it was just the first of a three-day chase.