Chase Accounts

May 5, 2002
Pictures from this day.

Going into this day, I knew two things for certain. One, I would be taking off work the next day since there was no way I was going to make it home to Conway, Arkansas after a Sunday chase in the Texas panhandle. Two, this day held a lot of potential with a set-up similar to June 2, 1995.

After reviewing the ETA Friday night, it was obvious that Saturday and Sunday would provide chaseable supercells, and I sent the following e-mail out to fellow chasers Eric Nguyen, Scott Blair, George Hoelzeman, and Blake Michaleski:

...Also, been looking at the latest ETA for this weekend. Saturday looks interesting for
Central Texas along the warm front, but I think I'll pass on tomorrow and save my money.

However, Sunday has me interested in going out. Still pretty far out but a general area
along the triple point from Lubbock to Childress looks good for now. Anyway, guess
we'll see what happens.

Not feeling well Saturday and considering not chasing, I reviewed the models again, and with only hopes of seeing a decent supercell, I decided that I might as well give it a shot. Besides, I felt getting out to the flat land of the plains where the horizon meets the sky would be good for me. I shifted my target to an Amarillo, Texas to Clovis, New Mexico line and left Conway at 8 p.m., arriving at a hotel bed in Weatherford, Oklahoma at midnight.

Sunday...the day of reckoning had arrived. Awakening early and quickly perusing the latest data, I left Weatherford at 8 a.m. and arrived in Amarillo at noon, where I stopped at the Love's truck stop and made my first and only true data stop of the day. At this point, I also called Scott Blair, and after surprising him with, "I'm in Amarillo," he graciously offered his nowcasting services. Upon first review of the surface obs, I knew I was in the "hot zone." South of a line from Amarillo to Childress, the winds were backed to southeast, while north of that line, the winds were veered to southwest. The models were forecasting the dryline, which was located near the Texas/New Mexico border, to quickly move east of Amarillo, but upon reviewing radar, satellite, and surface loops, it was easily apparent that the dryline wasn't going to mix eastward that rapidly. In fact, I was certain it probably wouldn't be approaching Amarillo until 21z (4 p.m.).

Towers began going up ahead of the dryline at about 2:30 p.m., and I stayed put for another 30 minutes before making my decision to jog west on I-40 toward Vega. A tornado watch was broadcast over NOAA at 3:20 p.m.

While at Vega, a cell to my northwest began showing supercellular characteristics. At 4 p.m. I moved north toward Channing on Hwy. 385 to intercept, and during this time, Dave Lewison called and also graciously offered to nowcast for me. However, upon arrival in Channing, the storm appeared quite linear and outflow dominant (this complex later developed into a tornado producer near Pringle). With my hopes dashed and knowing I was in surface winds not as conductive for supercells and tornadoes, I returned south to my original target as I began hearing reports of cells developing southwest of Amarillo.

Severe warnings were now being issued for the cells to my south, and while going east on I-40 toward Wildorado, I entered a hail core at 5:20 and experienced much golfball-size hail while making my way through slow traffic to my south option, Hwy. 809. After waffling around for a few minutes just south of I-40, I continued south on Hwy. 809, then east on Hwy. 60, approaching a tornado-warned cell near Umbarger from behind. The meso was heavily rain-wrapped and appeared to be located over Hwy. 60. Not wanting to drive into a reported "large, destructive tornado," I continued east on an unmarked farm road south of Umbarger that connected with Hwy. 87. I had a good view of the Umbarger storm during this time, and I was skeptical of the report since the cell was quite high-based. As it turned out, the "large, destructive tornado" was merely an area of large, low-hanging scud.

Now targeting the southern storm, I blasted south on Hwy. 87 toward Happy at 6:15. I intercepted the tornado-warned cell two miles north of Happy and had an orange backlit view of the meso to my west from the supercell's vault while golfball-size hail pounded the ground. However, the ragged meso was being undercut severely; one encouraging sign though was the base was much lower compared to the Umbarger storm. While pushing about a mile further south to get out of the hail, the meso rapidly organized 2-3 miles west of Happy with cloud-base motion reminiscent of a carousel. At 6:31, the black rotating mass reached to the ground as the first dust-whirl spun up. Much dust was quickly kicked up and rotated slowly under the barrel-like lowering, eventually forming a large dust bowl. The now half-mile wide tornado soon filled in and intensified as rapid motion was noted along the edges. Within only 5 minutes, what started as a small dust-whirl had grown to a full-blown wedge. I was in awe of this spectacular phenomenon, but I was soon brought back to reality as a barrage of close bolts forced my retreat to the safety of my car, and I repositioned a bit south to avoid getting cut off by the tornado as it approached Hwy. 87.

As the tornado moved within a mile of Hwy. 87, it lost its wedge status and weakened considerably as the debris cloud became translucent. Just before crossing Hwy. 87, the tornado dissipated at 6:40 leaving only a thin cloud of lingering dust. However, a new wall cloud was rapidly organizing just east of the old meso and just west of Happy. With the developing meso looming closer, I blasted east on FM 1075 through Happy, where I was shocked to see residents standing out in the their front yards while the intensifying cloud-base rotation approached the town.

Stopping just east of Happy, I observed a brief dust-whirl tornado form under an area of rapidly rotating scud. I bumped east a few hundred feet to stay with the meso that previously produced the dust-whirl, which I was sure would be the new area to watch for significant development. Emerging from my vehicle at 6:45, I looked west, and to my surprise, a large, Pampa-like stovepipe emerged from the dust to my west and churned the ground. The sight was breathtaking as I lifted my eyes nearly straight up toward the top of the smooth, white funnel that was within a half-mile. Shortly before, this destructive F2-rated tornado unfortunately moved through Happy and killed two people who didn't abandon their mobile home for better shelter.

Once again, a close CG forced a hasty retreat back to my car, and I pushed east to stay ahead of the tornado. With the tornado now about a mile to my west and moving closer, the debris cloud was much larger and shrouding the lower half of the funnel. Within a minute, the RFD slammed me, bringing wrapping precip. and blowing tumbleweeds with it. Once again, I repositioned a bit further east with the tornado again about a mile to my west. The funnel was now somewhat narrower, but for a few seconds the RFD allowed enough lighting to transform the low-contrast tornado into a highly visible white funnel with a dark, dusty debris cloud. As the tornado moved closer, the contrast once again lessened. Being slammed by the RFD and tumbleweeds again, I bumped further east, but after finally finding another place to pull over, the tornado had dissipated and only dust lingered under the occluded meso. However, at about 7 p.m., another meso just to my northwest produced a brief but slender and sinuous-looking tornado, which unfortunately didn't contrast well against the dark precip. core.

The cell displayed jaw-dropping structure with a long beaver's tail and wall cloud that seemed to scrape the ground, but at 7:30, it moved into the Palo Duro Canyon, which contained no roads to continue tracking the storm. The only option available was to drop south on Hwy. 207, east on Hwy. 86, and back north and east on Hwy. 256 while making a couple of stops for photo opportunities of the supercell being illuminated by the setting sun.

With nightfall firmly entrenched, I finally began catching up with the cell from behind west of Lakeview when a large tree limb plummeted from the sky and smacked my windshield before bouncing over the roof and taking off my antennas. After a quick stop to reattach the antennaes, I continued east on Hwy. 256, but my and many other chasers' progress was significantly slowed by numerous downed power lines and tree damage near Lakeview. Getting off Hwy. 256 in Memphis and taking a dirt road to stay south of the tornadic portion of the storm. I eventually joined up with Eric Nguyen, Dave Fick, R. J. Evans, and Bobby Prentice as we observed what was either a large tornado or funnel-shaped lowering illuminated by lightning. Finally returning to paved roads, I continued tracking the storm east on Hwy. 62 to Hollis, Oklahoma where the cell finally began weakening and I decided to end the chase at 11 p.m.

I'm obligated to extend my sincerest appreciation to both Scott and Dave for providing excellent and timely nowcast updates throughout the day. They were certainly a key factor in making this the most successful chase day I've had to date.

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