Chase Accounts

May 4, 2003
Pictures from this day.

I along with David LaRue, who was tagging along for the weekend on his first storm chase experience, began the day by oversleeping until 9:00 a.m. west of Dallas/Ft. Worth in Weatherford, Texas. Immediately after awakening, I began downloading data. I knew the day had potential, but I certainly wasn't expecting to see the high risk issued by SPC with the wording of long-track violent tornadoes. Having no time to go through my normal routine of forecasting, I quickly decided that we just needed to head northeast toward the Tulsa area ASAP. With no specific target in mind, we finally hit the road and began our trek at about 10 a.m.

At 12:35 p.m., a PDS tornado watch was issued for east Oklahoma, southeast Kansas, northwest Arkansas, and southwest Missouri. I was already nervous about the day, but the early watch issuance only served to increase the activity of butterflies that were already buzzing around in my stomach. We were in McAlester, Oklahoma, well out of position in the southern edge of the watch.

Not knowing what exactly was occurring and not sure of which direction to go upon reaching Henryetta, I decided to stop and download data through my cell phone. This data stop was going to either make or break the day. Nothing yet was going on, but by 2:30, a rather large tower developed ahead of the dryline near Ponca City. That was my cue to continue north toward Tulsa. Reaching Tulsa at around 4 p.m., a severe warning was issued for a cell in northeast Osage county and towers were going to our west and northwest.

By 4:15, we were heading north out of Tulsa on Hwy. 75, and a cell had exploded significantly to our northwest. Within five minutes, a severe warning was issued for the cell, placing it 9 miles south of Barnsdall in Osage County. After going through the core near Ramona and getting pelted by quarter-size hail, we turned east on EO270. At 4:54, a tornado warning was issued for the cell, which was about five miles to our east. However, the rain wrapping around the west side of the updraft obscured our view, and with the cell racing to the northeast at 50-60 m.p.h., we were having a tough time of getting into position. Upon reaching Hwy. 169, I probably should've gone north to Hwy. 60 east, but because the warning placed the storm's movement to the east (it was actually moving northeast), I instead decided to continue east on the county road to Route 66, which put us well out of position to see anything. It was obvious that we were going to have to make up some serious time. Blasting northeast out of Vinita on the Will Rogers Turnpike, we made up a sufficient amount of time on the storm to get back in the game before exiting onto Hwy. 60.

At 6 p.m., we finally got our first look at the updraft base in Fairland, OK. A rapidly rotating wall cloud hung low under the base and took on a funnel-like appearance as the RFD began blasting around the meso. We were blasted by 60+ m.p.h. RFD winds as the wall cloud became heavily wrapped in precip. A new meso formed to the east. I just couldn't believe that our storm was taking on HP characteristics in the extreme shear that was present. Continuing to track the storm on Hwy. 60, we neared the meso, but our progress was soon stopped three miles northeast of Fairland as 80+ m.p.h. RFD winds pounded us, sending a 55-gallon drum across the road and almost into the right-front fender of my car while trees broke all around us and small limbs flew through the air. Driving past a line of trees to an area that appeared relatively safe from falling trees, I immediately stopped the car as small limbs continued slamming against the car while a large tree was felled directly in front of us. It was an amazing event to experience but also quite unnerving.

Knowing the storm was moving at a fast clip, we quickly regained our composure and continued northeast behind the supercell. At the Missouri/Oklahoma state line, we finally began closing in again on the supercell as it continued racing northeast. However, a left-split was seriously interfering, and the meso was still heavily rain-wrapped. As we neared within a mile of the meso, the intensity with which the rain curtains were wrapping around the meso was incredible. It was the most incredible display of wrapping rain curtains that I've yet observed. Southeast of Ritchey, the storm underwent an amazing transformation from a monster HP to a classic supercell with a rain-free updraft base.

Reaching a area somewhat clear of trees at 7:02, a large funnel became noticeable about 1/2 mile to our north-northwest. The funnel quickly became a tornado and raced off to the northeast while the debris cloud lagged behind. The tornado grew rapidly, and soon, a large amount of debris became airborne. The 1/4-mile wide F3 tornado had entered Pierce City and begun the unfortunate and total destruction of the small town. Blasting northeast, we were able to catch glimpses of the large cone through breaks in the tree line. Once we reached Monett though, we finally got into an area more favorable for observing, and the tornado had become a menacing wedge with a 1/2-mile wide debris cloud. Violent motion was noted within the inky-black debris cloud as the tornado moved northeast of Monett.

At 7:20 northwest of Aurora, the tornado underwent a noticeable transformation. Gone now was the large debris cloud, but in its place was an impressive ballet of vortices that danced around each other like cobras writhing to a snake charmer's tunes. We followed the tornado as it continued its show of mulitiple vortices past Marionville where the tornado finally crossed Hwy. 60.

Cut off from using Hwy. 60 for our pursuit, we took the tree-lined Hwy. 173 east out of Marionville. We were able to catch glimpses of the tornado through the trees for about ten more minutes, but with the tornado's fast forward motion to the northeast, we soon lost sight of it. We took Hwy. 14 east to Nixa, where we ended the day at 8:10 p.m. The weakening supercell to our northeast was now only a cumulus tower glowing orange with the setting sun; a beautiful way to end one of the most intense chases I've had.

Unfortunately, this tornado affected many communities along its 43-mile path from Pierce City to Battlefield. The utter destruction in Pierce City is eclipsed only by the seven fatalities and numerous injuries caused by the tornado's wrath. My thoughts are with the victims.

Also, much thanks must be given to Scott Blair for providing excellent nowcast updates throughout the chase.

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