2009-06-17 Grand Island / Phillips / Aurora, Nebraska Tornado

Took long enough, I was resigned to not bagging this year…

Wasn’t the perfect setup, but I had taken off work at 3PM, by that time there’d been tornadic storms along the NE/KS border around Beatrice and Fairbury, and I was worried that I’d missed the show. Especially since upon leaving work and getting my eyes on these storms, they looked like crap and getting worse by the second.

So, I went home, changed, took a nap. Bill on Channel 7 said ‘north of Omaha’ and Jimbo LeFleur on Big Six really didn’t have much to say but took five minutes to say it! SPC issued a new MD which widened the area of concern, which meant to me that they were uncomfortable with picking an area or even if anything would happen! At least they were being honest…

So, by six-thirty I wasn’t really happy, but the general consensus was that something might get going around Kearney, I could intercept around York at eight o’clock with 90 minutes of light left. That ain’t much of a drive…

Between Lincoln and York, I could see towers trying to get going and Grand Island radio told of SVR warnings in the area, and TORs west of Kearney…and in the Sand Hills well north of I-80. I don’t want to drive to effing Kearney…when I have to work tomorrow, I thought. My plan was to get to York, like I had promised myself, borrow some internet or see if there was a chaser convergence.

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Check out the bottom of the anvil!

That G.I. radio station was letting me know that the TOR west of town had been replaced by a SVR and according to them, the storms were getting weaker. In the back of my mind, I was aware that storms can cycle and maybe that’s what was happening, but here was my exit, let’s get some Shell and head back home…

Guess what: The storm did cycle, good ol’ All-Hazards tones interrupting the radio broadcast, TOR for just west of G.I.! Got my gas, and decided that if I didn’t drive that last forty miles to G.I., I’d have until next May to kick myself in the ass. The southernmost tower–and the warned storm–was right ahead of me, over I-80, and even better, US-34 was four miles north of the Interstate, both roads ran west-east and so was the thunderstorm! Moving at ten MPH. If it held together, I could pace this bish on a Segway, LOL.

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Look at that inflow band! Getting close…

I was worried for a second that it was beginning to gust out. I’ve seen so little structure this year that I couldn’t be sure…

Turned off at the Giltner exit, pulled up to a VFD who was on spotter duty, we could see the wall cloud, rotating, about five miles away. I allowed how I was going to keep going up to 34, they wondered, “You’re going to drive into it, aren’t you?” I mentioned that the photos aren’t so good that close to it!

West a couple more miles on 34, where at least one-hundred chasers had the same idea as me. Sky boiling above me, and in a couple of minutes several rotations had made their way to the ground. I was parked with Tony Laubach, with whom I had shared a Interstate shoulder last year. There were two spinups to the north of 34, and one right on the highway, then a fourth started up further to the south, all within a quarter-mile of us. Tony told me he was bugging out, and that was good enough for me. I wasn’t worried about the forward speed, but I was concerned that I had multiple rotations and didn’t want to be boxed in. So this was how I spent the next twenty minutes, drive a half-mile, shoot a minute of video, repeat. And 100 other chasers did the same thing, leapfrogging each other, but all of us watching out for each other.

(This was very fortuitous. How often to you get a storm that’s moving W-E, not SW-NE, moving so slow, NOT rain-wrapped, on flat river-bottom and 1×1 gridded roads? And Vortex2 had called it quits earlier that week. Two weeks ago, there would have been twice as many chasers, plus Weather Channel and their attendant leeches.)

The storm had consolidated, a huge dusty tornado just south of 34. Still moving dead east, I was comfortable in being 100 yards to the north of it, confident that it wasn’t going to get closer and that I could keep up with it–and keep in front of it. Never chased a tornado from the front before, I can’t see it happening too often!

(Another hundred chasers did stay back near the Interstate interchange and got some jaw-dropping structure shots from the wider perspective. This storm had something for everybody!)

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Can barely see it, but here’s a center-pivot in need of an insurance claim. I could hear it getting wrecked over the sound of the tornado!
Sorry about the raindrop. I got ten drops and no hail until well after I had intercepted.

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One-hundred yards away.

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Moving east, I was starting to pass light industry, and went over railroad tracks–I was getting to Aurora. Being 100 yards to the side of a tornado that’s doing nothing other than whip up dust is one thing, but I didn’t want to be within a block of the same tornado as it was demolishing houses and bouncing them off my car! Similarly, it would have made for great video to see the tornado derail the train that was parked west of Aurora, but you can’t compose your videography in the middle of the damn tornado! Discretion being what it is, I sped up, made it to a county road in Aurora and went north a mile, just to get out of the way of the path. Found a hill and upon looking west I found that the storm had dissippated into ‘just’ a wall cloud.

I turned off 34 between Hampton and Bradshaw, got out and let the rain wash the dirt off me while I caught my breath. That was half an hour of hard work! The storm was looking less worrisome, but it had cycled before…now on I-80, I kept my eye the wall cloud as we passed Bradshaw, York, Utica before it finally dissipated.

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Author: Damon Hynes

Used to chase tornadoes, until Ma Nature ran out of them...

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