Chase Accounts

June 12, 2004
Pictures from this day.

The first day of my chase vacation had arrived. The Spring chase season has already been incredible for many with days such as May 12, May 22, May 24, and May 29 yielding an unusually high number of photogenic tornadoes. I had been greatly disappointed just a few weeks earlier as the May 22 south Nebraska chase resulted in failure, but just one week later on May 29, my confidence level received a huge boost with the intercept of the Jamestown, Kansas supercell and tornadoes. I went into the first day of my chase vacation with hopes high.

I awoke in the wee hours of the morning, and after perusing the data, the day’s potential became obvious. By mid-afternoon, a surface low was progged to be near Hays, Kansas with a dryline extending east from the low to west of Salina before curving south. Several shortwaves were evident embedded within the mid and upper-level flow over the plains and would aid convective initiation ahead of the dryline bulge apex, which would be just southwest of Salina mid-afternoon.

A juicy air mass with dewpoints in the mid 70’s would be in place ahead of the dryline, and with a strong cap allowing an abundance of insolation, I expected CAPE values of 3 - 4000 j/kg. It appeared mid-level flow would be a bit weak at 20-30 knots but with storm-relative helicity values progged at around 250 m/s, any storm that persisted would rotate and perhaps produce a few tornadoes. I left my apartment in Conway targeting Salina for initiation and embarked upon a rather uneventful 7 hour drive.

Having become quite accustomed to Salina this year, I arrived at my destination by mid-morning and drove straight to the Wi-Fi hotspot I used during both the May 22 and 29 chases. After a check of the most recent data, which showed an early convective event taking shape in northeast Kansas and southeast Nebraska but also reaffirmed the previous forecast for my target, I caught a couple of hours of on-and-off sleep before the arrival of chase partners Scott Blair and Marcie Martin.

During the next few hours, we continuously monitored data while waiting – patient yet anxious as to what the afternoon and evening held in store. A tornado watch box was already in place by 4 p.m. as puffy cumulus boiled and grew into three large towers, the tops glaciating and being sheared downwind as the young storms developed their anvils. We watched the radar closely, looking for the signs as to which of these cells would become dominant. We finally opted for the southernmost cell near Hutchinson and moved to intercept.

Intercepting the cell just after 5 p.m. on the rural Kansas roads, we watched as the cell split and eventually died. With the cell falling apart, we happened to meet up with Eric Nguyen and Scott Currens and hung out with them for a while trying to figure out what to do. Within a few minutes, a tornado warning was issued for a cell near Wichita, and we had a new target. Making our way back to I-35 and blasting south, I, by this point, had fallen behind Scott and Eric due to traffic and was no longer in radio contact. With live radio reports though, the intercept route was obvious.

Passing through Wichita at 6:55, the storm was now southeast of the city approaching the Mulvane area. I dropped southeast on K-15 and headed directly for Mulvane. Fortunately, I encountered very little precip. and hail while flanking around the west side of the storm and having to deal with the horrid road construction traffic through Derby. Once through Derby and just inside the city limits of Mulvane, the meso became visible. The storm was a striated beast with an ominous updraft base displaying intense rotation. At this point, I also caught up and rejoined Scott and Eric as we began pulling off onto the shoulder to observe the small funnel now forming at 7:22. Just as I was about to stop, a large hail stone (probably softball-size), slammed into the driver’s side sliding glass door window just behind my head and shattered it (WARNING: Video clip [306 kb] contains a harsh expletive). As I turned around to look at the gaping hole in my window, I muttered an expletive in disbelief that I shall not repeat in this account. If not for the lexan coverings I installed a few months earlier to protect from wind-propelled small rocks, my chase may have been halted for a significant amount of time, but the Lexan held firm, keeping out the hail and rain and allowed me to continue the chase unhindered.

Now stopped, I quickly assessed the damage and determined any action regarding it could wait, as the small funnel continued growing larger and began reaching toward the ground. With my dash cam recording the event, I quickly hopped out and warned Scott in front of me, “Watch out for big hail!” as I quickly snapped off a still and retreated to the safety of my van. Large hail and close bolts pounded the ground around us as the tornado formed fully, a beautiful white condensation funnel in contact with the ground and extending from a swirled cloud base. This was all only about 1/2 mile away and was truly a remarkable sight. After last year, my goal was to get close enough to a tornado to fully experience the three-dimensionality of the debris cloud, and I was now fully realizing my goal as clods of dirt and debris were kicked up and rotated violently about the base of the tornado.

The tornado would soon cross K-15, seizing the opportunity to get a bit closer, I pulled and began driving toward the point where the tornado would cross. Scott and Eric were a bit ahead of me, but my view was incredible regardless. Dirt filled with shiny bits of what I assume was aluminum siding churned violently around the small yet powerful ground contact point. Small vortices condensed, dissipated, then reformed around the outer periphery below the now truncated cone above. It was truly a mesmerizing sight – one that I’ll never forget.

With the tornado now across the road and debris now lofted high into the air, a rainbow materialized fully as the sun shone through the wrap-around hook precip. It was a remarkable sight, this truncated cone above with a perfectly formed rainbow intersecting the funnel’s tip – a truly surreal moment. I pulled off across from the Angelic Care Adult Living Day Care Center as the multiple vortex action continued setting off power flashes and lofting debris.

With the hook precip. now engulfing my position, I pushed further southeast, tracking the tornado as it once again condensed fully to the ground uprooting trees and lofting them high in the air in the process. The rainbow had become even more colorful by this point displaying the full range of primary colors and now spanned across the sky in an almost full arc. The powerful white vortex snaked across the sky moving swiftly across the terrain and approaching the rainbow. The tornado crossed the color spectrum and revealed itself in the sunlight turning bright white – the two marvels of nature creating a giant “X” in the sky. Narrowly missing and passing behind a small brick house, the blindingly white tornado stretched into the rope-stage and moved toward the Landis home, which was obscured from our view by a small tree-line. Unfortunately, the home took a direct hit and was obliterated within a matter of seconds into a shroud of wood-laden debris full of paneling and trusses. At this point, my stomach dropped. I couldn’t believe that while I was witnessing most beautiful spectacle I had ever seen, I was also witnessing the complete and utter destruction of someone’s home. Fortunately, the family had taken cover and came away from the incident unscathed, and because of the incredibly speedy response of emergency crews, a rescue team was on the scene in a matter a minutes.

An interesting observation - just as the home was struck, a vortex ring formed near the top of the tornado and was stretched around it. The ring became elongated and partially eroded the tornado's condensation funnel.

After hitting the Landis home, the tornado continued to rope out, stretching out long against the blue-black sky behind, kicking up a spray of water as it crossed a pond. The vortex continued stretching and thinning kicking up one final plume of dirt before dissipating into seemingly nothingness at 7:32. It’s wrath was spent.

Scott Blair, Marcie, and I were awed at what we had just witnessed, but we soon began repositioning as the storm cycled, continuing on K-15 to a tree-lined county road east of Udall paralleling closely the new meso that looked to produce at any time while small bits of debris and insulation occasionally fell from the sky. However, the meso was cycling through stages becoming disorganized before reorganizing as it approached Rock. We continued east on our county road just north of K-15 to Hwy. 77. There our east options to continue east turned to mud, and we were forced to drop south to a paved east option, CR-8. We then bumped north on CR-9, then a bit east on a county road that led to Wilmot before stopping to observe. From this position and with the meso a bit more distant than the Mulvane tornado had been, we were able to set up out tripods and observe in a more relaxed state. The RFD began cutting around the periphery of the meso and the wall cloud tightened up into a truncated cone at 8:22 that was more than likely a tornado as it moved slowly west before dissipating. The storm wasn’t through though as the tornado quickly reformed and condensed fully to the ground, a black elephant trunk contrasted sharply against the orange backdrop of the setting sun. The tornado lasted for five minutes before performing a graceful rope-out.

As we continued east toward Wilmot with darkness quickly setting in and north on CR-1, another tornado formed at 8:52 – a small funnel occasionally lit by lightning. Continuing north, then east on CR-2 toward Atlanta, I dropped south on CR-5 while Scott and Marcie continued east. The Lexan holding the earlier shattered window in had loosened a bit and I opted south to stay out of the rain and keep water leakage to a minimal. While dropping south, another tornado formed at 9:03 just to my east, a nice cone with a small debris cloud underneath. It persisted for a couple of minutes before dissipating. Unfortunately, I failed to get any worthwhile shots of these last two tornadoes because of the terrain and the darkness. With night now fully entrenched, I called it a day and contacted Scott and Marcie who were also doing the same.

We ended the day with a nice dinner reminiscing over the day’s events and removing the shards of glass from my van while reattaching the Lexan with duct tape to serve as a window. The window cost $450 to replace, but that was a small price to pay for the opportunity to witness the most incredible spectacle of nature I’ve seen to date.

Also, I must extend my appreciation to Dave Lewison for his excellent nowcasting. Be sure to check out these incredible radar loops(reflectivity;velocity) he saved and stitched together. Also check out Jon Davies' excellent case study of this day.

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