Chase Accounts

November 23, 2001
Pictures from this day.

This was the first of two severe weather outbreaks that occurred in Arkansas during the last week of November. That morning, Scott Blair met me at my apartment in Conway, Arkansas, and after reviewing the latest data, we decided to target I-40 from Sallisaw, Oklahoma to Clarksville, Arkansas. An unstable air mass would set up across much of Arkansas as a low moving northeast from the Oklahoma panhandle to north-central Kansas dragged a warm front across the state. It appeared that supercells would initiate along a dryline, which was forecast to move out of Oklahoma into Arkansas during the early evening hours, as the nose of a 300 mb jet streak entered the target area. Forecast instability and shear ahead of the dryline were favorable for a few supercells and tornadoes, and SPC had placed the target area under a 15% hatched probabilistic tornado outlook. However, with the early setting of the sun, it also seemed plausible that initiation might not occur until after dark, which would make for a difficult night-chase in the horrible terrain of western Arkansas.

We departed Conway just after 9 a.m. and headed west on I-40. Overcast conditions were prevalent since the warm front had yet to pass the interstate. However, as we neared Fort Smith by noon, clearing began taking place as the warm front advanced past our location.

After making a quick data stop, we noticed that dryline wasn't advancing as quickly as progged, but several boundaries were draped across eastern Oklahoma ahead of the dryline. Convinced that the dryline would still provide the focus for initiation, we shifted our target area west to Henryetta, Oklahoma.

Arriving at Henryetta, we met up with fellow chaser Eric Nguyen and waited…and waited…and waited for something…anything to happen. Without data and with no convection in sight by 5 p.m., we figured the day was a bust and decided to eat dinner at Pizza Hut. However, an hour later while we were finishing dinner, the NOAA WX radio alert tone sounded indicating the issuance of a tornado watch for eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

After quickly paying the bill, receiving nowcast updates from Dave Lewison and Philip Flory, and checking radar images at a hotel, it was obvious we now had a chase as supercells rapidly developed just before 7 p.m. near Ft. Smith. After kicking ourselves for not sticking with our original target area, Scott and I said goodbye to Eric, who decided to head back home to Norman, Oklahoma, and began blasting east on I-40.

Re-crossing the Arkansas/Oklahoma border at 8 p.m., the supercells that fired near Ft. Smith had moved off to the northeast into bad terrain. However, by this time more supercells had developed further east in Franklin County and were training over the same area. Just as we crossed back into Arkansas, the first of these supercells was producing an F2-rated tornado as it crossed I-40 near Altus. Unfortunately, this tornado not only caused quite a bit of property damaged but also caused one fatality in a mobile home.

As we continued east, a second tornado-warned supercell passed over the Altus area and crossed I-40. We weren't in position to intercept the second cell as it crossed the interstate, but a third supercell, which we would be able to intercept, was following in the tracks of the first two cells.

With Dave and Philip doing fantastic nowcasting jobs, we carefully proceeded east. At 9 p.m., we positioned ourselves just southwest of Hunt at the Franklin/Johnson Counties border, which was quite near the path of the oncoming meso that was to our south. The supercell was under a severe-thunderstorm warning, and in the warning statement, the NWSFO in Tulsa stated that it was a "dangerous severe t-storm with some signs of rotation."

Bolts soon began striking in close proximity, and one particularly close CG burned a temporary ghost image of the bolt into my retina. Moderate rain and 10-15 m.p.h. northwest winds were prevalent. The supercell's core soon overtook our position as quarter-size hail started pelting us and the northwest wind increased to 25 m.p.h.

At 9:10, conditions rapidly intensified. The meso began crossing the interstate just east of our location. Wrapping rain curtains became visible and started pelting us. The inflow into the meso abruptly shifted from northwest to west and filled with mist (condensation?) while suddenly increasing to a sustained 55-60 m.p.h. for about 30 seconds. A few seconds after the event ended, the wind shifted to southwest and the precipitation ended. A tornado warning for the cell, which placed the indicated tornado over Hunt, was issued for by the NWSFO in Little Rock at 9:11 p.m.

Once the event was over, Scott and I got out of our cars and immediately noticed that the intense winds/possible tornado had jack-knifed and slammed an 18-wheeler into a guardrail. The bowl-shaped meso was visible as it moved off to the northeast.

There were two confirmed tornado tracks confirmed near Hunt, but neither was attributed to our cell. However, given the abrupt shift and increase in wind, the jack-knifed semi, and chaser Jeff Piotrowski's observation of a funnel with the supercell as it crossed I-40, I believe it's quite probable that what Scott and I experienced was inflow into a brief and weak tornado. Because of the amount of damage caused by the previous two supercells in that area and the severe squall line that moved through later that night, I imagine a small tornado track would've been difficult to find.

Continuing east on I-40, we intercepted two other tornado-warned cells near London, Arkansas. However, neither showed much promise, and we ended this bust turned wild and successful chase around midnight.

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