Chris Kridler's Sky Diary: storm chasing, photography and rainy-day tales

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storm gallery: chase diary 2004

Here are some bulletins from my 2004 storm-chasing quest.

May 3: Salina, Kansas

Greetings from Tornado Alley! Or should I say non-tornado alley. I'm beginning to think that I have an anti-tornado force field around me that prevents me from seeing them.

Some of you who were used to getting my storm-chasing bulletins in previous years noticed that I didn't send any last year. There were reasons for that. For one, I had to go to Russia and Kazakhstan last spring to cover the International Space Station crew exchange by Soyuz spacecraft for the newspaper. It was a fascinating trip, but it occurred when all of the intense tornadoes ripped across the Plains. It was no fun sitting in a Moscow hotel room, watching the footage on CNN Europe. I got out to the Plains just after the last of these monster storms went through, and just when my mother had a head injury that, after a few days, showed itself to be quite serious. I went back east to Pennsylvania and spent my "chase trip" there.

This year, my family is as well as can be expected, and I have two weeks to roam in search of storms. But none are happening, and we're under a dry, high-pressure pattern. There's some hope of action next week. Meanwhile, I'm in Salina, Kansas, with Dave Lewison from New York state and another crew of three guys from New York, including Scott McPartland, who shoots a lot of video for The Weather Channel. Brian and Pete are the others.

I left Florida early Friday morning and, for the first time, drove straight through to Norman, Oklahoma. That was 22 hours, sped along a bit thanks to some of the trip occurring at night, when traffic was light. The weather was heavy, though - and I hope not the last storms I will see this spring.

East of Dallas Friday night, I heard severe-storm warnings come over my CB/weather radio. It was late in the evening, and the truckers ahead of me were buzzing on the radio about the increasingly rapid and vivid lightning in the clouds around us.

Just about the time when I thought it might be a good idea to stop and take some lightning shots, the rain started. It was too late to take good pictures. And then, wham! Forked lightning bolts on either side of the car and the flash-crrrrack of a close strike heralded the start of the deluge.

This was one of the worst rain squalls I had ever driven through, and in fact, I couldnŐt drive through it. Visibility was near zero, and the National Weather Service warning clocked the winds at 70 mph. The truckers said they couldnŐt see where they were going. One trucker stopped several cars ahead of me, apparently halfway up an off-ramp, and a whole line of cars stopped behind him, all parked, not very safely, in the driving lane.

There was nothing to do but stop, too, though I sort of pulled off on the shoulder. It was fortunate the hail was only nickel-size (the warning called for golf balls). By the time the rain had lightened enough for people to creep forward again, it was clear what had happened to the truck. In the blinding rain, the driver had pulled off not onto a ramp but right up a grassy bank. Large, muddy ruts marked his path.

We haven't even seen any good tacky tourist sites, yet, though we are staying at a Super 8. And you know what? This year, life really is great at Super 8! Even though this traditionally low-rent hotel chain has gotten rid of the Super 8 discount cards I have so abused in the past, this one actually has wi-fi. That's right: Free high-speed wireless Internet. This year, my Macintosh laptop has a wireless card, so I'm really in business. What's funny is that the computer also "sees" the wireless network next door at the Holiday Inn Express. More and more hotels and truck stops are getting wireless this year. It will really help when we're trying to get weather data on the road.

It's the fifth anniversary of the 1999 tornado outbreak in Oklahoma and Kansas. I wasn't in the Plains for that one, either.

May 7: Westbound I-80, Iowa

There's a song by Haywood Banks about Interstate 80 whose lyrics go like this: "Interstate 80, Iowa. Mississippi River ... Davenport ... corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, What's that smell? Corn, corn, corn, Iowa City. Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, look, a tree! Corn, corn, corn, Des Moines. Corn, corn, corn, corn, corn, there's that smell again. Corn, corn, corn, Council Bluffs ... Missouri River!"

It's a short song.

That's where we are now, heading west on Interstate 80 in Iowa, though all the corn is currently in a brown, mowed-down state. We had a disheartening bust day yesterday. The cap just wouldn't break south of the warm front. Overnight, about 3 a.m., there were storms in the cold air north of the front in the vicinity of Iowa City, but I was way too tired to go outside and look at them.

We're chasing again today, but the forecast isn't brilliant. It's getting more promising for the next several days, though ... not that I want to jinx it.

A couple of days ago, we took advantage of the blistering sun in north-central Kansas and played tourist. We saw the Garden of Eden in Lucas, the crazy cement sculpture garden built in the early 20th century by S.P. Dinsmoor in his lengthy retirement. The sculptures surround the house and are a mix of blblical and political scenes, some of them figures high up in cement trees. He also built a mausoleum for himself and his first wife. When she died, the city insisted she be buried in the cemetery. He dug her up, put her in the mausoleum and encased her in cement. Now his mummy is encrypted just above her cement resting place, with a window so you can see his tiny, shriveled, bearded face. (No photos are allowed in the crypt. Sorry.)

We also went to see Cawker City's ball of twine, purportedly the world's largest. Yes, there are others. One of the signs outside it says "thrift + patience = success." The damn thing weighs more than 17,000 pounds. Dave took a picture of himself hugging it. Seeing the ball of twine has long been one of his fondest dreams.

North of there, outside of Lebanon, we saw the geographical center of the continental United States. It was marked by a small monument with a flag, a picnic pavilion, and a tiny chapel that was pretty much a garden shed with a steeple. It was less than exciting, but hey, it was the center. Scott suggested that it might be a good place to be when an asteroid hits the ocean and a huge wave washes over a large portion of the country.

Other than that, we've seen a genuine Danish windmill in Elkhorn, Iowa, and the Mississippi River from Muscatine, Iowa. Woo-hoo. I hope I have more to report soon.

May 11, 1:30 p.m. MDT: Ogallala, Nebraska

We're in a hotel lobby, looking at satellite images, a new severe-thunderstorm watch and indications of potential severe storms later today. "We" is Dave Lewison; Scott McPartland and his friend Pete; Canadian chaser Mark Robinson and his friends Dave Sills and Sarah Scriver; Jim Leonard and the Cyclone Tours group, which happens to be here too; and myself.

This has been a tough chase so far. We haven't seen any storms I can describe with breathless excitement. Briefly, we had a blue-sky bust on May 7. On May 8, Dave and I met up with Kinney Adams in Sioux City, Iowa, and headed east. We happened upon the Tempest Tours group, which decided to turn around and go west, as did Kinney. So Dave and I got into rain, quarter-size hail and lightning in central Iowa. We didn't see the alleged tornadoes of that day and haven't met a chaser yet who has, either, though maybe someone did besides the local sheriff.

On May 9, we met up with Mark, Dave and Sarah in Des Moines and headed north into Minnesota, chasing what became messy, linear storms. Still, we had some decent photo time on an isolated gravel farm road. The big farm dog came out to greet us as we took pictures and video of microbursts and dust being kicked up by the storms' outflow, backlit by an orange sky. We drove all the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that night, barely missing a deer on the road.

May 10 was an exhausting drive, after little sleep, all the way into western Nebraska and even to the Wyoming border. We got some data at a radio station called "The Twister" in western Nebraska on the way. Storms didn't move into our target area, north of Alliance, Nebraska, where we met up with Scott and Pete. There was amazing moisture streaming northwest, in the form of big, log-like clouds all pointing in that direction. But the storms that fired on the front range in Wyoming didn't come our way, and we were nowhere near the tornadoes that happened in Colorado. At least we saw prairie dogs and the beautiful hills of South Dakota, which was a new state for me.

So, here we go, on the most promising days so far. Not that I'm counting on anything. The weather has beaten me into submission. I'll be letting you know what we see!

May 14: Norman, Oklahoma

It's been two days since the most amazing tornado chase I've ever had. On May 11, it seemed like we'd never see a decent storm, let alone a tornado.

That day, the last time I wrote, we had great potential, a tornado watch, the works. And nothing fired in our target area in southwest Nebraska. The stuff that fired outside our target area didn't do much, either. So Dave Lewison and I; Scott McPartland and Pete Ventre; and Mark Robinson, David Sills and Sarah Scriver headed south to Colby, Kansas, to get into position for the next day. On that nighttime drive, with Dave behind the wheel, I looked over my shoulder and saw lightning storms going crazy - on the far northwest horizon. We parked on the edge of an empty grass field, turned off all the headlights, shivered in the wind and watched the distant flashes and the hazy stars, half-obscured by blowing dust. Still, there were a couple of shooting stars, and the hissing, eerie quiet of a windy Kansas night.

The next day, we were all agreed about southwest Kansas, though with variations on the exact target, from just east of Liberal on the Oklahoma border all the way to Dodge City and Pratt. We stopped a couple of times to get data on the way, the last time in Meade. It was clear we were behind the dryline/front, with low dewpoints in the mid-50s. The storms would fire on the dry push bulging out east ahead of us, we were sure, and a few CU (cumulus clouds) were starting to go up there. Once we headed east and saw the small line starting to form, we were encouraged - and then we were ecstatic. At least, we were seeing the kind of explosive convection we were longing for. One of the cells began to dominate, bubbling upward and outward in hard, white billows. Then a tower to its south began to swell, too, soon becoming a rival storm. It appeared the northern storm was splitting as we tried to reach them both from the west side, not the best way to intercept an east-moving storm. Plus, with the explosive upward development, we felt sure we would be tangling with some big hail as we tried to get through.

We stopped briefly on route 160, our road for most of the chase, and got a couple of shots of the hard anvil on the back side of the northern storm. Then we resumed our pursuit. We were starting to see storm chasers everywhere, as well as mobile Doppler radar trucks. Some chasers were doing that dumb thing where they barely park off the road and then stand in the middle to take pictures. Mark had to swerve to avoid one who walked into the middle of his lane as he was cresting a hill at 60 mph.

Then, things started to get interesting. The storm to the north appeared to have some nice rotation at its base, possibly even a funnel. We heard that a storm spotter reported a tornado, though I didn't see it. Mark and his crew dropped back to check it out. The rest of us were farther east, filming the northern storm, when I heard someone say over the scanner that there was a tornado. I was kind of puzzled, then saw the DOWs (Doppler on Wheels) and other cars screaming eastward. Dave L. turned around and saw that the storm to our south was producing a slim, white tornado!

We weren't very close to it, but we rushed to that side of the road and started filming. It lasted several minutes, sending up a plume of red dust at its base. We realized that this was the storm to pick, and we had to get east so we could catch its next cycle. Mark was unreachable by radio. There was nothing to do but go on. Dave and I went forward in my Honda Element, followed by Scott and Pete in Scott's Nissan.

It was clear immediately that we were in for some stress, to put it mildly. First, there was a core to contend with, the part of the storm that contains most of the rain and, in the big boys like this one, the hail. Over the cell phone, our nowcaster, Jason Politte, suggested the core was mostly north of the road - but he could be off by a mile or two. Oh, boy!

There was a lot of rain, at first. Then the big hail started, golf balls and baseballs. Some of the baseballs were spiky. As we came into the town of Attica, Kansas, the sirens were screaming. I was making little fearful exclamations, as mentally I was reliving the 2001 hail-trashing of my CR-V. For about a block - literally, we circled the block - we tried to find a hail shelter, then realized that with the big, black mesocyclone to our south, we almost had to go on. Either we would sit there and get trashed by hail, possibly in the path of a tornado, or we would try to get out of the "hook" of hail wrapping around the rotating meso and also try to get ahead of the meso itself. (See the great map constructed by Dave Lewison of our sightings east of Attica.)

As we came out of town, we heard Charles Edwards of Cloud 9 Tours talking about a tornado over the scanner. It soon became clear that there was a funnel, with dust on the ground, as we got to the east edge of town. Now, which way to go? If we sat on the west side of the meso, we'd be crunched by hail and even more hail as the storm moved east, possibly blocking our view, not to mention trashing our cars. We chose, perhaps a bit unwisely, to go farther east.

This was a most amazing place to be. People don't usually choose to chase a storm on the north side of a mesocyclone, since there is often hail (and believe me, there was - it's a miracle we didn't lose windows or have bigger dents), blindingly intense lightning like the bolts we saw, and, to make things worse, potentially north-moving tornadoes. We stopped directly north of the bulging funnel under the meso. Dust swirled beneath it. We could actually HEAR IT. A tornado doesn't sound like a freight train when it's not full of debris. It sounds like a waterfall. It was quiet, and beautiful, and scary.

Image courtesy Dave Lewison
The funnel elongated, then filled in. The tornado was moving our way. We zipped east, then got out of our cars for a few minutes to try to film it. Baseballs were still whizzing by us now and then. I actually put on my pith helmet (I almost keep it in the car as a joke for hail - but it was no joke this time). Suddenly, Scott shouted that the tornado, now so huge it would not fit into our video frame, was going to hit a house on the other side of the road. As we faced west, the tornado crossed the road, and the house just exploded in the ripping winds. What appeared to be the roof just flew off and was sucked up. Debris flew everywhere, though not near us; we were less than a mile away. All of us were filming. We zoomed in on the destruction and caught it on video. (You've probably seen Scott's video; it aired all over creation, but that's another story.) The next day, we heard no one was inside, but we have since learned the family was at home and survived in the basement (thank goodness). Right after it happened, Dave called Jason to have him call in the event to the Harper County emergency managers.

At that point, we had to move on. The big hail was catching up to us again. We had a dilemma - retreat through the giant hail and debris, or attempt, again, to go forward. On my video, I say something like, "We're going to do this again?!" The meso was staying south of the road, so we zoomed east. I cried out that dust was already on the ground under it, behind a row of trees. It was the start of the next tornado.

We got just north of this one, too, and parked in a tiny gravel road so that we could face it and videotape it. It formed an elegant funnel with a cloud of debris underneath, in a bright green field next to a red-earth road. It was backlit and looked almost black. It crossed some power lines, so gracefully, and suddenly, too close for comfort. We feared that it, too, would move north and on top of us.

I turned left and sounded the alarm. A satellite tornado was blocking our escape route, to the east of our cars, right on the road and coming our way! Satellite tornadoes can spin around the outside of the area of rotation and can move much faster than the main tornado. I put on the brakes, trying to figure out which way, if any, was safe to move. That tornado sort of evaporated while another satellite formed behind it, ripping into some trees, a thin but powerful swirl of red dirt. As soon as it moved off and dissipated, I hit the gas and we got the heck out of the bear's cage.

Dave got some impressive footage of the main tornado - again, about a quarter-mile away - outside the passenger window as we sped east. Obviously, I couldn't film that and drive at the same time. We finally got to a north jog in the road and paused a moment to look back. The meso was smoothly sculpted, a fat, round, spinning top with a tornado beneath. The funnel was half-hidden in rain curtains. Yet the baseballs were still falling, and the lightning was still hitting around us. It was getting dark. We were exhausted and grateful to have escaped safely and with some of the most amazing images we'd ever witnessed. So instead of sticking around, we pressed east, east, east, and south, out of danger.

Behind that cell, to the west, another beast was coming through the same territory. It also was tornadic. But we were seeing the more subtle show from the east. Our cell, with a broad, mammatus-lined anvil, was sparking continuously with lightning in the last, dwindling twilight. We took some pictures, went on to Caldwell, stopped for gas, spoke with some chasers and officials who passed through, and finally met up with Mark and friends.

That was really the last chase of the trip, and in some ways, the first. The next day we made a short and poor attempt at chasing a line of rain-dumping garbage and soon gave up. I wish I could stay on to see what other storms May will bring, but I'll just have to seek out some lightning at home in Florida, taking with me the memory of my fearful brush with nature's awesome power.

- Chris Kridler

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