2004-05-22 Western / Swanton / Dewitt / Wilber, Nebraska Tornado

Left Springfield at 2:15, heeding a number of other chasers who posted that they wanted to get to US-136 between Tecumseh and Hebron. Took NE-50 to get as far south as soon as possible, then west on 136 with an initial point of Beatrice (good NWS radio coverage, and a good place to kill time if things took longer to get going.) I was smack-dab in the middle of the Red Box that was issued at 3:50. Hit Walmart for Rain-X, Dasani and M&M’s, then I headed a little WNW to wait for the towers to go up.

Ran into a bunch of chasers (KS/OK/TX peeps) and I played data-ho like usual. Sure, a laptop would help, yeah—cell phone modem—of course…got $5000 (in 2004 dollars) you’re not using? Looking at the data showed TORs in far SW Nebr which was a bit too far…but more TORs leaving Columbus heading toward Fremont—and that was pi$$ing me off! By the time I got through Lincoln on US-77, those storms would be near the Quad Cities! So by default, my target remained the same—and the other chasers more or less agreed that there were no glaring negatives in the BIE area.

They headed back to town to hit the library one more time, and I went looking for high spots for photography. Another Red Box for N KS—another reason not to leave. Still the towers wouldn’t go, still the TOR’s were in far SW Nebr. One way to cause initiation—head to Burger King. Twenty minutes later, towers were going up! Back onto NE-4, lightning coming out of anvils—lightning coming out of fractus! And finally, TORs for Fillmore/Thayer counties, to my SW!

I just knew paydirt awaited me just one or two hills to the west, but I had to stop in Plymouth to take a couple pictures of an old ALCO switcher at the town grain elevator, then back on NE-4—which detoured onto gravel roads! Son of a puppy…however, the gravel isn’t like it is back home, more like pea gravel—and it was dry! Good for 60 MPH…

Made the end of the detour at NE-15, south of Western, SE of Daykin, SW of Swanton. Ran into whom I guess to be Angie Norris (Tennessee plates, at least), who was watching what she termed a cyclic supercell about 5 mi. west of us. After about two minutes, it…ahem…cycled…and I headed about 3 mi. west on that good gravel:

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(Note to self: Next time you use your camcorder, make sure there’s a cassette innit! Missed taping this ‘nader, and it was getting too dark for digital stills.) Why couldn’t this have happened an hour earlier?

This TOR got wrapped; just in time I remembered to ‘check the southeast for another tube’ and this was durn near in front of me!

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Switched to video, finally:

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The wall cloud became this dusty monstrosity, angled about 30 deg to the NW:

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First time I had actually been in an RFD. Wow. There’s still a tornado in there, along with a gustnado to the south:

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Sixty MPH RFD deposited pea gravel in my front seat…Quit this area, trying to head NW, generally following the meso but also in the general direction of home! The staties had other ideas, closing NE-15 south of Western.

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Here was another chaser convergence, ran into Doug Kiesling with mud all over one side of his truck; and at least one of the caravan from my first convergence. I remarked that I should have gotten my ass kicked for staying southeast of a RFD occlusion, we clucked about that for a second…

This was the end of the day for a lot of chasers. Only a couple of people got photos or vid further north, and what they saw made me glad I got trooper-screwed.

I took NE-4 back to Plymouth, then county roads N to Dewitt. I pulled over to take a last few shots, not knowing a tornado somewhere in this mess was whacking the area between Dewitt and Wilber:

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Amazing how you drive for hours in your own world, then suddenly you see corn cribs where they shouldn’t be—on the shoulder of NE-103, a Labrador dog walking down the road wondering what the hell hit him, the smell of propane, a score of tractor-trailers on their side, sheetmetal caught in fencing along the highway.

And one power line down on the road is interesting, but twenty is sobering. Interesting societal observation—one would make the assumption that a line down with no one official on hand telling you not to drive over it means that the line is dead—but in reality there’s no way of telling whether it’s live or not—because all of a sudden there’s more disaster and not enough officials! Similarly, the danger of driving into a meso is the same on a state highway as it is on a gravel road, but the staties can turn more people around on the state highway. They’re picket fences—trying to save as many people from themselves as they can, while knowing some people aren’t going to take no for an answer…like me…

Tried to take NE-41 east to get out of Wilber, even though broadcast radio said it was closed…! Before I could get to Clatonia—in other words, in the middle of nowhere—I got turned around by a VFD because of another power line—but this one was a transmission line! 50kv is nothing to screw with…but when I turned around, I got my first rain of the whole day, followed by hail and 40 MPH wet inflow! That meant another tornadic storm off to my SW…heading NE…a fatalistic attitude helps in times like these, I suppose…

Made it to Crete, then east on NE-33 to Roca, then just outside of Bennet I came across my fourth damage path of the day. Between Bennet and Syracuse along NE-2 the power was out. Even as close to home as NE-50 betweeen Louisville and Springfield, power poles were bent over the highway.

What a night. Equal measures boredom, satisfaction, tedium, with a sprinkling of panic thrown in just to keep the arteries clear…

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Author: Damon Hynes

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

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