2008-05-22 Healy, Quinter, a brace of Centers, a host of Citys, and one Etceteraville, Kansas Tornado

Five day weekend, courtesy of the Pelosi/Reid economy. My man Dubya handing me money and telling me to go stimulate…something. And the first legit outbreak progged this spring in the upper midwest. Time to Head Out To The Highway.

Given all the woofing on the Stormtrack.org message boards for the previous ten days, I had the feeling that if I could get to a storm, I’d see a tornado. Didn’t matter that my drive from Omaha to Kearney to Holdredge was drizzly and cold. The promise of the south side of the warm front awaited me. Literally as I crossed the Kansas border the skies cleared, the temp went up 15 deg and the dews up 10. Limbaugh on the radio with an ever-increasing backdrop of static.

One thing that hacked me off was that not only did the Marriott Fairfield in Hays not have any friend-of-employee rate rooms, but they wouldn’t take my points, either. I tried up until the last second to find a room there, but no dice. (The ballers with the government grants got the good hotel!) I did use Fairfield’s wi-fi to check the 3PM SPC update, once again confirming that I was where I needed to be. (Neenerneenerneener.)

Storms were expected to start on the dryline from a Colby-Garden City line about 4-ish, so I moved west to WaKeeney then south, looking for towers to go up. Yep, here came the Red Box, followed by towers right on schedule. Took US-283 south to KS-4, in no great hurry, enjoying the oilfields, and abandoned rail lines, soon the sun was blocked by building thunderstorms. So flat, so beautiful…

I would rather that the storm vectors were a little more reasonable, all the warnings I heard mentioned speeds of 40-60 MPH. And storm motion practically straight north, instead of northeast. Not so much a chase day, rather a ‘get-in-front-of-something-and-let-it-corepunch-you‘ day. Done it before, no sense whining about it.

Still pinballing along KS-4, decided to check out one of the few working drilling rigs only to find that oilfield roads are even worse than ‘unimproved’ roads, a realization that I didn’t make until I was stuck on one as the rain…and hail…started. Finally, a SVR for this storm, which I understood, this was a little high-based for my liking. But still, there was some handsome cloud motions, spotters in town thought so, too, because within five minutes the SVR was updated to ‘mild rotation’ then further to a TOR! That’s why I’m here, baybee…

Wall cloud parked right on top of KS-4 in Healy, I finally had something to use my new digital camcorder on. Taping straight up, I remembered to keep my head on a swivel–and the storm must have found some lower-level moisture because as the storm moved north the wall cloud got lower and began rotating! Ho ho…

(Listen to that siren. Worth all the $4 gas just for that!) It didn’t produce then, I looked for my first north option. In retrospect, I should have given up some ground and headed east to KS-23, but I found a gravel road and headed north. I didn’t think it had rained that much, but apparently the rain that did fall, combined with the pea-gravel made this road all mud and nearly impassible. They must oil the road down with straight crude oil, I thought.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time I had to face twenty miles of muck. I had to keep up a certain speed or else gravity would have aimed me toward the ditch, and it was white-knuckle to keep the car straight. There are live-cam videos of others on similar roads that didn’t make it, so I feel a little better. My DeLorme atlas was less than it could be, road names on my map didn’t correspond to real life!

Made it to a marked crossroad, which took me to KS-23 just south of Gove, which had been under a TOR from the storm I was trying to chase 20 minutes previous. Blasted north on 23, made it to I-70 at Grainfield, which had been under another TOR 10 minutes before! I didn’t want to chase north of 70, because I wanted the dryline rather than the warm front and there was more stuff southwest still coming. (On both days, tornadic storms crapped out within seemingly a mile north of the interstate!)

However, my nerves were shot from all the wheelwork on that gravel. These weren’t ‘unimproved’ roads, this is what you get for a gravel road in western Kansas! There were still a number of chasers at I-70 intersection at Grainfield, I ran into Dr. Persoff, he and his buddies showed me pics of the hose I had just missed. Everyone I ran into at the Grainfield exit was giddy, imploring me to be patient, stay in the area…A look at their radar confirmed we were nowhere near done, they mentioned that they were heading a little east, so I decided to drift that way.

It didn’t take long for the next storm to show up, me and about twenty others ducked south on a county road at the Park, KS exit to check out another wall cloud. To my eye, and apparently most of the others, it looked like this storm had gusted out–I looked behind me and the others had left! To the next exit east, Quinter, I got gas while the patrons in the C-store wrung their hands about the storm that had just missed them.

Back on I-70 east. While there was that same gusted-out storm off behind my right shoulder, I was planning on heading to WaKeeney to spend what I assumed was a few hours waiting for the dryline to move east. I saw a group of cars on the side of the road, I took a look over to my right again…and hello Mister Mesocyclone! Not so gusted-out after all…Lazarus risen to tell us all…to head for the shoulder, NOW!

Listen to that wind. Damn near sucked my glasses off. I drove through a freakin’ tornado. (Like a Texas Tech professor told me the next day, “I tell my students, ‘Do as I say, not as I do…'”) Some kind of psychological warfare, aural overload. I had been bracing myself on Tony Laubach’s car, he said “High five! Gotta run!” but I knew better than to think I could chase that bad boy north and, as I mentioned, it soon crapped out.

At the next exit there was the largest chaser convergence I’d ever seen (Mike Hollingshead was apparently on the north side of I-70 here, but I never saw him). Still, the wind was out of the southeast, meaning that the dryline wasn’t coming east at all. Long night ahead, but I was done. I had storms in my bank, so to speak, so I could afford avoiding temptation by not chasing through the night. Indeed, there was at least one more tornado that night in the area, at WaKeeney. One of the hundreds of meteorology students told me that Friday’s storm motion should be in the twenty MPH range, which made me feel better.

I drove to WaKeeney, ‘borrowed’ the Super 8’s wifi to get a room at the Days Inn in Russell (!). I wanted to hit the Oil Patch Museum in Russell the next morning, and after all, Russell is the birthplace of Bob Dole and Arlen Specter (Represent!). There was a tractor-trailer in the parking lot hauling tanks of catfish, Mississippi plates, wish I’d taken a photo. Pizza Hut next door for dinner, good stuff.

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Author: Damon Hynes

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

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