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storm gallery: chase diary 2002

Here's a collection of bulletins from the field, written during my 2002 storm-chasing trip in the Great Plains. They are slightly edited. Dates reflect when each bulletin was written.

Want more? See the journal I wrote for Florida Today.

May 21: North Platte, Nebraska

After one real chase on a really weak storm day, I'm exhausted. There's been way too much driving and pizza over the past few days. But at least we were chasing today, despite marginal chances and marginal storms.

The first couple of days of the trip were spent sitting around in Norman, Okla., watching storm video with other chasers, reading technical manuals so I can learn to work my gadgets, and duct-taping things, including the toy Power Ranger on the front of my car (this is his third chase season).

The weather pattern has been rotten - one forecaster says it's the worst for storms since 1987. Early in the month, when I wasn't here, there was a great week, and then it all went to hell. Well, finally, a big storm system is pushing out the high pressure, but the moisture hasn't yet returned from the Gulf of Mexico, and without moisture, there are no decent storms.

I'm chasing with Dave Lewison of New York state and Bill Hark of Richmond, Va. We've seen lots of tacky Americana so far, including the big Indian at the Cherokee Trading Post in Oklahoma and the giant Van Gogh sunflower painting in Goodland, Kansas, a hub of the sunflower industry. It sits on a giant easel in a dusty vacant lot and is about the size of a billboard, only vertical.

Today we headed northwest out of Goodland toward our target area in eastern Wyoming. Every time we stopped to take a reading, the anemometers showed higher and higher winds - 20s, 30s, 40s, 50-plus miles per hour. It was difficult to stand against it. Our clothes whipped around us, and the car was hard to handle as gusts pushed it all over the road.

And then there was the dust. Everywhere, it poured off the fields and into the air, streaming across the road, creating a choking haze of fine silt that got into everything - our hair, ears, eyes, cameras, car, clothes. The fierce winds punctuated each gust of dust with skittering tumbleweeds that seemed to float on the fields of wheat, bouncing across the waves, and then lofting across the road, sometimes nailing the cars in the process. The Dust Bowl must have been something like this.

By the time we got into eastern Wyoming, we'd had data and phone calls from friends and fellow chasers who told us what we didn't want to hear: There were storms where we were headed, but they were weak. On top of that, they were almost impossible to see.

We decided to intercept one. After all, we'd driven all the way to Wyoming. We were in mountain time and everything.

At last, a storm loomed out of the haze, a great, mushy monster trailing virga - rain that wasn't hitting the ground - and the raggedy edges we call scud clouds. It was linear, not spinning, part of a long line of storms that had formed a gust front, pushing walls of dust in front of it.

We played tag with the storm, watching it spin up gustnadoes - weak tornado-like spinups on the edge of the gust front - and even being hit by some. One piece of debris took out one of my antennas. We stopped briefly to put it back up. Another peppered us with tumbleweeds.

After yet another pizza dinner with some chasers from Arkansas and south Florida, we enjoyed a lightning show while driving an enormous number of miles, still being buffeted by fierce winds. We're in position to head east tomorrow for more chasing - and, we hope, better chasing.

May 30: Norman, Oklahoma

It's been nine days since I've sent an update. This will be a more succinct summary, I hope, especially since there hasn't been all that much fantastic weather to talk about. We've been driving all over creation, with not much to show for it.

On May 22, Dave Lewison of New York state, Bill Hark of Richmond, Va., and I ended up chasing storms that quickly evolved into a messy line, a story that was to repeat itself far too often. Yet, in Smith Center, Kansas, the tornado sirens went off and we saw what looked like a healthy wall cloud on the storm. We got out of the way of the supposed tornado - or tornadic circulation - but didn't see anything too impressive.

May 23 was much better - in fact, the best chase day so far. We began the day with some good, old-fashioned Americana, the world's largest hand-dug well in Greensburg, Kansas. Underground, there are stairs and platforms, several feet across. You can look in from ground level, outside the de rigueur gift shop. There was a honkin' big tornado siren on top of the water tower right next to the well, and I hoped that would bode well for later in the day. The water tower was labeled, helpfully, "BIG WELL."

By the time we checked data, no thanks to the library Nazis in Woodward, Okla., where we had to sign our lives away to use the computer, we had just about given up hope. The atmosphere seemed contaminated by ongoing storms, cold and cloudy. But Bill got information after lunch that the atmosphere was clearing to the west, so we decided to play the dryline in the Texas panhandle.

On our way to the border, we stopped in Shattuck, Okla., where a mesmerizing park sprouts a number of old-time windmills, in a variety of designs. Every time the wind blows, there's a haunting creaking and whispering from these beautiful mechanical trees, giant metal flowers that tower above the colorful wildflowers at their feet.

We noticed cloud towers starting to go up, so we broke off our tourist stop to head west. Over the border and into Texas, we waited, seeing other chasers as we went, watching the towers climb and topple until, finally, they broke through the cap. The explosion of convection was what we were waiting for, and we headed toward the storm.

It was very high-based, thanks to the lack of moisture in the air, but it was rotating. To our surprise, it put down a dusty little tornado. As we followed it, it put down about three more. At one point, we were literally across the road from the main area of rotation as it majestically spun itself into a large, sideways funnel shape and spun apart again, not quite ready to do it. Soon after that, the storm began to die.

We were hearing reports from nowcaster Jason Politte, an Arkansas storm chaser, of a much better storm near Borger, Texas, west of Pampa. The hitch: I had to be in Oklahoma City the next morning to play airport taxi. I reluctantly agreed to go after the storm.

On the way, we saw another storm that suddenly looked very impressive, with a wall cloud that looked like it was about to put down a tornado. Indeed, it did put one down briefly, as fellow chaser Scott Blair captured on videotape ... though we couldn't really see it. As the sun set, we left that storm and headed toward the Pampa one. Once we saw it, I had no doubt we had made the right decision. It was a beautifully sculpted storm; my one regret is that there wasn't much light left to enjoy it. In fact, Bill captured a tornado under it using the low-light setting on his video camera, but it wasn't visible to the naked eye.

The storm was sucking in 40-mile-per-hour inflow and spitting out amazing lightning. We watched it for some time, snapping pictures, before giving in to the late hour, a quick meal and a marathon drive back to Oklahoma City.

The next morning, I picked up George Jenkins at the OKC airport. He'd never been chasing before, and I was hoping to show him some "good" weather - better than what we were used to in Florida - but the pattern still wasn't all that cooperative. On May 24, our hopes for isolated supercells were dashed as messy storms again exploded all over the Texas panhandle and eastward. We briefly chased a storm with a tornado warning on it, then found out a short tornado occurred on another storm near the town where we were staying the night. The only thing that redeemed the chase was a pretty sunset and some pouchy mammatus clouds lit orange in the twilight.

The next day, we played tourist, exploring the magnificent Palo Duro Canyon south of Amarillo and eating steak with other storm chasers at the Big Texan that night, then watching each other's video. Some of it was Scott Blair's latest encounter with hail. Since he was with Dave and I during the trashing of my car during a hailstorm last spring, he's been determined to take his core-punching to the limit. A couple of days later, he would smash his windshield further by driving into spiky, baseball-size hailstones.

May 26 brought several possible target areas. We decided to play the area where the dryline was pushing into the Oklahoma panhandle and southwest Kansas, but soon after we got on the storms coming out of southeast Colorado into the Oklahoma panhandle, it was the beginning of the end of our supercell hopes. The storm was filled with the green light that often indicates hail, and its forward edge started roiling. We realized it was gusting out, or becoming an outflow-dominant storm. In other words, it would not be a sustained supercell, but a blowout with high, unidirectional winds.

We kept up with it as it kicked up massive plumes of dust and saw some fantastic gustnadoes - tornado-like circulations that often form on the edge of a storm. Some of the gustnadoes looked meatier than the tornadoes we saw a few days before. Huge, rotating bowls of dust formed on the desolate plain. One gustnado crossed the road right in front of us as tumbleweeds bounced past.

We were feeling cold outflow winds the whole time, and then, briefly, we got warm inflow, the sign that at least one part of the storm was still trying to stay alive by pulling in warm air from the east. About that time, a huge gustnado - could it have been a tornado? - spun up red dust in the field right next to us. The dust churned and rose, almost in a tube shape, to the edge of the storm clouds.

I had to split off from Dave for a day so I could take George back to the OKC airport. I was sad to see George go and also sad not to chase, but in keeping with the pattern, I didn't miss all that much, stormwise. I was in a melancholy mood when I got to Abilene that night and met up with Dave, Bill and Jason Persoff of Jacksonville, Fla.

The four of us ended up chasing way into south Texas on May 28, maybe 50 miles from the Mexican border, and all for storms that were struggling to stay alive - though the lightning got incredibly hot and close at one point. To top things off, I hit a deer with my car - a glancing blow, but I'm sure the deer didn't think of it that way. It shook me up as well. Fortunately, it hit the hail-dented side of my car, so it's hard to notice the impact.

After sunset, our last storm began to weaken, but its snowy updraft - where the billowing clouds grew to meet the sky - spit out lightning as dusk fell. We ended the night joking around and looking at fireflies and the canopy of stars on the side of a rarely traveled road, among the mountains and mesas, where no artificial light polluted our view.

The storms were weak, but the universe is still spectacular. Even if we did have to eat a burger at midnight on the Interstate at Fort Stockton or go to bed hungry.

Since then it's been goodbyes and relaxed traveling under sunny skies, hoping for the next storm system. Dave and I saw some bison today at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, relics of a past when there were 60 million of them roaming the Plains. Tonight, we joined the Cloud 9 Tours folks for dinner in Oklahoma City and saw the International Space Station go by overhead, a tiny dot of light. Later, a few of us went to a spot east of Norman where we could see an Iridium satellite flare at the precise time it went over our location, reflecting sunlight for one lovely moment in the dark sky.

I haven't posted pictures on my Web site, but I probably will sometime tomorrow. I'll send a quick note when I do. Meanwhile, check out a hilarious sign we saw yesterday. Dave posted it.

I have another week of chasing ahead. At least, I hope it's chasing ... and not more suntan.

June 5: Paducah, Texas

This is only my third and probably my last bulletin of this year's low-key chase in the Plains. The only big events were before I arrived, but I'm sure there will be another big one after I go home.

Still, I got to see a few fun storms, the kind I would never see in Florida, and that's why I'm out here. I also had a couple of close encounters with hail that convinced me I'm not quite over last year's hail attack - the one that really messed up my car. Post-hail stress syndrome. I now have some dents on the "good" side, too, but they're more subtle.

I had a couple of down days since I last wrote. On June 1, I went to the storm-chaser party at Rocky Rascovich's house northwest of Oklahoma City, which was fun - the usual mix of burgers and amazing storm video. The highlight (admittedly, I left early so I could do another marathon drive) was Tim Marshall's footage of the Happy, Texas, tornado in early May. In his footage of this monster, you can see the twister ripping roofs off.

Then Scott Blair from Arkansas and I drove our cars all the way to Kearney, Nebraska, to meet up with Jason Politte, also from Arkansas. The idea was to get into position for a chase the next day, which took us up into northeast Nebraska. Though there was a small cap - the warm layer of air that can keep storms from going up - we were optimistic that if a storm did occur, it would be a monster.

The only outbreak we got was of horseshoe vortices, the little horseshoe-shaped clouds that show there's shear in the air. And I learned to play ground curling, a game Scott & Co. have played in the dirt on roadsides while waiting for storms. It's a little like horseshoes, but more complicated. Usually you roll rocks, but road debris was permitted. I used a most excellent giant bolt.

After that, we had to drive some more - this time to western Nebraska, to get into position for the next day's chase in eastern Colorado.

June 3 we left North Platte, Nebraska, under the grungy, cloudy skies north of the cold front to head for Colorado. We decided to check computer data in Last Chance, where we got a snack at the Dairy King. The Dairy King is about the only thing in Last Chance, which is in the middle of some of the most desolately beautiful, empty country you're likely to see.

After I ate some fries, I went to my car to get my computer and came back in fast. "Initiation has occurred," I said. And how. It was a big supercell with a crisp anvil to our southwest. Jason pulled up some data on his computer with a cell modem, and I did so inside the eatery ... it turns out there was already a radar-indicated tornado warning on the cell.

We headed onto some somewhat challenging dirt farm roads to get a better look at the burgeoning storm. It was attempting to form a wall cloud, and it already had pouchy mammatus clouds. We realized we'd have to get south to Limon and get gas fast if we wanted to stay ahead of the core, which clearly had some meaty hail in it.

We hauled butt south to beat the hail core - a high-adrenaline, somewhat scary drive - and as we filled up at a gas station we were blasted with wind, rain and dust as the storm began to move in. We got east on I-70 just in time and got ahead of this increasingly impressive storm.

We pulled off the interstate at Arriba, where Scott and Jason decided to go north on a farm road. I hung back, since I had a good view - and didn't want to get that close to the hail. Charles Edwards, Jim Leonard, John Guyton and their Cloud 9 Tours folks pulled up in a few minutes, saying they'd narrowly escaped baseball- and softball-size hail, and we all watched as the storm rolled in, appearing as a massive, toothy gust front. It still had a tornado warning, but the area of rotation was not holding together very well.

Scott and Jason soon returned from their foray north, but as they tried to find hail shelter among slim pickings at Arriba, I decided to go a little further east and try my luck. In Flagler, I found the perfect thing: a tiny airport with carport-like, tin overhangs to house airplanes. I got into an empty one and waited, watching the storm's mesocyclone start to look impressive. But I didn't want to go after it; I wanted the hail.

I managed to contact Scott and Jason, and they happened upon me just as the storm began moving in. They barely got under the overhang as buckets of golf-ball-size hail began to drop from the sky, bouncing high and banging like gunfire on the tin roof. The noise was incredible, and the ground was soon covered. It was suddenly a winter wonderland.

The guys left a few minutes before I did. I decided to make my way down the interstate access road, which, like the interstate, was slick with hail. The land was covered in white, and hail fog seriously limited visibility. By the time I caught up with Jason and Scott again near the Kansas border, the meso was gone, and the storm had weakened considerably.

We headed south to Liberal, Kansas, to get into position for June 4. We picked a target around Lubbock, but storms were going up everywhere on the front as we moved south. We separated again as they chose to go first through some hail that I went through a few minutes later, and once I got out of the core, I found myself facing a storm, just to my south, with a distinctly rotating mesocyclone. A tornado warning had been issued, and I was sure this would be it. This would be the storm that would produce the big one. It appeared to have a wicked rear-flank downdraft kicking up dust, and I paralleled it east on a ranch road as it sucked in huge amounts of brown dust from the farmers' fields.

When I got close to it, north of Idalou, I saw what I didn't want to see - a little outflow, showing the storm was teetering. And then - tornado on the ground! Ooops. Actually, I soon realized, it was probably a gustnado, a tornado-like spinup on the leading edge of the storm, which was starting to gust out. For a few moments, it was chaotic - several fast vortices were on the ground at once, and I almost thought I had a developing tornado on my hands. But no ... after filming a few impressive, persistent gustnadoes, I again met up with Scott and Jason. They had had a great view from the south of the meso with rotating swaths of dust under it.

We were about to give up on the day when one of the linear storms began to reorganize. Dave Lewison, nowcasting from home, alerted us that it might have a meso, and once we got closer, we saw it had a beautiful structure. And hail. The white curtains of hail were wrapping around the meso, which was moving east as we drove north ... it was a lot like our May 30 hail encounter of last year, the one that trashed my car. "Not again!" I kept saying.

Scott was in the lead and warned us that we needed to beat it, but there was no way to do so. When the first golf balls fell, I bailed almost immediately after spotting another perfect hail shelter south of Floydada, a cotton gin with an open, high tin roof. More loud hail! There were a few golf balls, but most stones were quarter-size, and after a few minutes, I proceeded east. I got into some more hard hail, but it was small. When I got ahead of the storm, I was treated to some intense lightning. But then I got into the Caprock area, full of canyons and hills, and very low clouds began to obscure all visibility. When Scott and Jason caught up with me, we headed northeast some more, but the storm had weakened, and our chase was pretty much over.

We had a good dinner at Billie Dean's Cafe in Matador, a great little place that's been around for decades, then decided to hunt some lightning. Dave told us that one storm was dropping 3-inch hail. Scott, hail magnet that he is, decided he wanted to go into it. After all, most of his lights are broken, and his windshield has more cracks than the sidewalks of New York.

Jason and I got into perfect shelter under a car wash, which guaranteed that we wouldn't get the hail core. Still, as we watched the storm approach our location in Dickens - and slip slightly north - the lightning and the sound of the wind in the wires was eerie. At times, the sound was like music, a keening wooden flute in the darkness.

Scott emerged from the core, saying, "You do not want to (mess) with this storm." Only, he didn't say "mess." His car was further damaged, and the chase was over - we made it to a funky hotel in Paducah, Texas, before giving in to exhaustion.

Go to this year's chase accounts and photos:

  • May 17-22: A chase to Wyoming is a magnificently windy experience
  • May 23-24: A handful of tornadoes in the Texas panhandle
  • May 26: A festival of gustnadoes in the Oklahoma panhandle
  • May 28-29: Storms lead us on in southwest Texas
  • June 2-3: Horseshoe funnels in Nebraska and a blast of hail in Colorado
  • June 4: A rotating storm, gustnadoes, a pretty supercell and a race against hail
  • July 23 & 25: Triggered lightning at Camp Blanding, Florida

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