“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”

“If it could happen to him, what chance did the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”–F1 driver Chris Amon, on the death of Jim Clark, 1968.

Jim Clark was about five years before my time, but being a motor racing enthusiast, I knew how I felt on the days that Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died.

Before Facebook and Youtube took off, a stormchaser got their news from wx-chase and Stormtrack.  In those days, after every chase I busted on, I’d see photos and video from geniuses such as Mike Hollingshead, Shane Adams, Mike Peregrine and Tim Samaras or find explanations from Samaras, Tim Marshall ,among others detailing why they stayed home.  After every chase that I got crappy video from, I’d see better images from them.

Tim Samaras was one chaser who I knew chased the right way, every time and got all they could from a setup, every time.  After an event, I knew the story wasn’t told completely until I saw what Tim had to say about it.  Kirksville 2009 was the best example of when I wandered around half-assed when TWISTEX got it right and did good science, besides.

And more importantly, from my interactions with Tim, I knew he was a gentleman and I have no doubt that Paul Samaras and Carl Young were the same.

Another thing is that they did all this without self-promotion.  You’d see their video and wonder why you hadn’t seen them all afternoon!

Anyone who has heard the infinite monkeys/infinite typewriters/infinite amount of time theorem know that one day chasers would die, and discounting random events such as drunk drivers, bluehairs and deer, I at least thought in vague detail about what ‘type’ of chaser it would most likely be.  I put myself nearer to the top of that list than the bottom…but graybeards like Marshall, Doswell, Rasmussen, Bluestein were at the very bottom and so was TWISTEX.

31 May.  Rick Burriesci said “Everything about that day went wrong”.  Every post on my Facebook feed from 5:30PM CT on was more bewildering and desperate than the one before it.  And the Youtube video that began showing up after 8:00 PM made no sense whatsoever–it was no hyperbole to say that people were driving like their lives depended on it.  And these posts and these images were from people who have done this for years and are good at it.  People who I would trust with my life in a car around a tornado.  None of these people were in control of any aspect of their lives, and a)  I knew them and cared for them, and b) all of them were at least as good as I am in maneuvering around a storm and in most cases far better at it.   Fully half the name-brand chasers were in OKC that afternoon, and most of them are lucky they only have severe damage to their cars.

Friday is not a ‘reality check’…it’s just sad.

“Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”–William Wordsworth

I used to believe in this statement like no other.  Now I don’t know what it means.  Despite the rationales of disparate stormchasers, their motives, their attitudes, their demeanors, no one loves Ma Nature more than a stormchaser.  Now three people who loved Her died, and speaking for myself, I feel a lot of things and some sense of betrayal is one of them.

So, what to do?  I’m going out chasing, hopefully this week.  It needs to be done.  But perhaps now Ma Nature isn’t a benevolent recipient of good thoughts and harmony like I had portrayed Her.


2007: Hattiesburg, MS.

During my Gulf Coast vacation that year, Wifey and I pulled in to Hattiesburg for dinner, Outback.  She asks for a Wallaby Darned.

“Sorry, we’re all out of the mix!” our wait staff replied.  (Up until that point, I didn’t know you needed a mix…)

Wifey asks for a tall glass of Vodka, short glass of peach nectar, and ice.  Puzzled waitstaff looked on as Wifey mixed it up and took a slug.  “Just like home!”

It was a lot of vodka.  I tipped well and let them clean off the table early, because, “There’ll be some table dancing later on, whether this establishment permits it or not!”  and “We’ll name the baby after you if it’s a girl!”




An hour later, a typical Mississippi summer gulf thunderstorm popped up.  Yeah, I’m a stormchaser, but I can honestly say that this was one of the top ten gullywashers I’ve ever seen.  The parking lot of the Baskin-Robins was flooded, had to wait in the car for a time until we could get in to the hotel…turned on the Jackson 10 PM News and they spent thirty seconds during the weather on the ‘scattered showers’…

2011-05-25 Poplar Bluff, MO Doppler-Indicated TOR

What am I doing? (Or:  Captain Ahab was a stormchaser…)

Woke up Wednesday morning in Tulsa, spent an hour in the hotel hot tub trying to work the tennis elbow out of my right arm, with limited success.  Internet still sketchy, so TWC told me that southern Missouri was the place to be, but also hedging by saying that you should keep an eye on northern Kansas…western Missouri…western Kentucky and Tennessee…Illinois…Indiana…yikes.

I came this close to cutting bait, heading back to Omaha.  Might have even seen something…  But the siren song of PDS watches sent me east.  By the time I got to US-69, I was committed to heading east some more, because there was no way I was driving on US-71 north.  Through Joplin, no stopping.  I could still smell shredded trees…

Between Joplin and Springfield, I started hearing tones on the radio, and at first I couldn’t figure out why.  Turned out they were for TORs in the KC metro, I probably would have been in KC by then, but no guarantee off seeing anything (I haven’t seen any storm vid yet) and the storms were crossing the whole state, doing damage all the way to STL.

For all the time I’ve lived, vacationed and chased in Missouri this was my first time in the south.  Springfield, and the Steak ‘n Shake franchisee pours Pepsi products!  I recoiled in horror.

US-60 east for the rest of the day.  Really, a beautiful road.  Yeah, it’s hilly, but not mountainous like I’d been led to believe.  I felt that if things fell right, one of these mile-wide wedges that I was promised could be intercepted.  There are plenty of examples in Grazulis’ SigTor of southern Missouri /northern Arkansas outbreaks of huge tornadoes, and it was a high-risk PDS day–and I was in a Red Box soon after noon.

This is when the road network began to bite me.  Not much was forming to my south, and chasing the odd TOR to my north would have put me out of position for anything that did develop.  Too many cumulus, hard to get any feel for the structure, though it was a beautiful, bright, hot, humid, glorious day.

Mountain Grove, MO–Doppler-Indicated TOR, no way to catch it but very pretty.  Radio was doing a decent job, considering what they had to work with.  By now, I was feeling that this was getting bust-ish, and radio resorted to asking for reports from the public–“Yeah, we got some dime-sized hail for about ten minutes”…”We had a bit of a west wind for a minute”…”It just got done raining”…

Stuff started to get a little more organized in northeast Arkansas, and I could start to see it, but warnings weren’t forthcoming and there was nothing for me to park under.  Still east on US-60, missed an EF-3 by I’d guess ten minutes in Ellsinore, MO.  Problem was, that there was no one to nowcast, no one to report this nowcasting to local radio, not that many chasers to call what they saw to EMS, and I was staring right at the storm and saw nothing notable–until I crossed the damage path and by that time, help was there and nothing else to add.

If I can just get to Poplar Bluff…named that way for a reason, it’s where the Ozarks end and the Mississippi floodplain begins.  Add to that, a couple supercells were just across the Arkansas line, right on the edge of the bluffs and heading toward Poplar Bluff.  Found the Mickey D’s and used the restroom just at the sirens went off.  The McManager was going to lock the doors, so I had to sneak out the one he hadn’t got to…and their Wi-Fi was working just fine.  Even though the sirens were going, no one in town gave a rat’s–not even the radio station (which went back to music even thought their county was warned!) or an ambulance that was getting gas when I was, shooting the breeze with other customers.

Well, I really didn’t want to be in town, anyhow…US-60 to between Poplar Bluff and Fisk, beautiful floodplain and a wall cloud passing over those oblivious people in Poplar Bluff.  No road grid, so this was going to be it:

I don’t know how close, but no cigar in any case.  Ten years ago, I would have chased this puppy to at least Paducah and with a few days off, maybe even Louisville.  But I don’t chase squall lines anymore.  Back to tha STL, Residence Inn in O’Fallon.  Fourteen hours in the car turned me into a cripple, hot tub helped a little bit.  Seven more hours to home, then time to ponder what could have been.

Chase southern Missouri again?  If I was starting in Tulsa and it was another High Risk / PDS day, sure.  I still think I could make the topography and roads work.  Would I drive 1+ days to get in position?  No.  I’ve seen too many tornadoes to chase that far to see another.  I know, heresy…

2011-05-24 Pawhuska, OK TOR

Left town on Tuesday morning after looking at the 1300 SWODY1, on my company-mandated week off, with nowhere to be until my daughter’s wedding on the 29th.

It was clear that I had to head south–way south–optimistically hoping for west of just Wichita but expecting northern Oklahoma.  From southern Nebraska to south of Topeka on the Turnpike I was in high-based rain and lightning, disconcerting to turn your back on a sure thing to get in the way of something hopefully better.  This was two days after Joplin, and not only was local radio on edge already, but the SPC was coming this close to guaranteeing the same deal somewhere today–PDS watches a certainty.  Thankfully, the government-funded armadas were taking the year off, but that was made up for with boatloads of chasers, stringers, and rent-a-satellite-feed syndicated-media companies.  There is so much data available now, that as my friend Shane Adams says, you have to work hard at not finding a tornado on days like this.  But I was going to try, lol…

I don’t know what’s worse–being the only chaser on a storm, or coming across a hundred chasers at the same interchange, rest area or gas station.  Back in the day, I knew everyone who was out, and even if they were too busy to talk, you knew you were in a good area.  There are a lot of people now with good intentions, but anyone with a laptop and a McDonald’s hotspot can at least find a storm, and then promptly get themselves in a hail core, or get road-screwed, or worse:  In Tuscaloosa, at least one car with fatalities was found with a camcorder in it.    So, me and my laptop blasted south on I-35, hitting the hotspots at rest areas and the Mickey D’s in Wichita and Wellington…lol…

Certainly had the juice I was looking for–the sun was out by Matfield Green, dews in the low 70s, southeast wind was decent and PDS Red Boxes issued just after 3PM, as I was in Wichita topping off the gas tank.  Time to get off the Turnpike now–don’t want to get stuck ten miles from an exit…US-81 South from Wichita, sure, there were towers going up but I was bothered that there were too many of them!  Nothing looked dominant.  Also, by now I could get KFOR out of Oklahoma City and things were going nuts down there–because the storms were discrete.

Wellington, KS–one more hit of Mickey D’s internet, Rain-X at Walmart, rain starting and lightning hitting across the parking lot–but only a SVR warning.  To make my hypocrisy complete, back on the Turnpike, south to South Haven, still nothing to see, back on I-35 and on the KS/OK border I looked off to the west.  This was no good at all.  I could rationalize that the scud underneath the thunderstorms was moving upward…occasionally…but I couldn’t will a TOR out of them.

Further south, right along I-35 from Perry, OK to Denton, TX tornadic storms were firing.  I didn’t want to go to OKC–and no one needed me there, given the carnage.  However, storms were leaving OKC and continuing to be tornadic through Stillwater.  If they continued to be worth watching, I could get northeast of Stillwater in time–and I wanted to spend the night around Tulsa anyhow, with an eye toward Wednesday’s setup.  (For obvious reasons, there were no hotel rooms in either Joplin or Springfield, MO).  So, east on US-60.  Reports coming out of Stillwater made mention of debris from Oklahoma City falling from the sky before the thunderstorm arrived in Stillwater.  I made a note to watch for plywood…

Ponca City, drove through the frickin’ huge Conoco refinery, neat to see old-school, obviously AT&SF-vintage signal bridges on the BNSF mainline that bisected the plant.  The refinery smelled so good, too–just like Alton IL when I was a kid.

Local radio was okay, KFOR was tabloid-sensational and didn’t give a rat’s about anything outside of the OKC metro, let alone the Osage Rez I was driving through.  No internet, either.  I was in a zone, but that doesn’t mean it was a good zone.  After a while, I was aware intellectually that I was in a TOR, but radio was indicating it was doppler-indicated and I still wasn’t in front of the storm.  I wasn’t even looking off to the southwest at this time.  I was just driving until I felt that I should be in the right area.

Which was Pawhuska, OK.  I saw a grass airstrip, and I felt that if there was any unsecured internet in this wide spot in the road, it’d be at the airport and I was right.  Fired the laptop up again, but without waiting for data I pointed my camcorder west.  Again, without any algebra, geometry or trigonometry I just pointed the camera because it was time for something to be there.

And it was a tornado, confirmed by NWS TSA, but In the Zone?  Whatever.  Weirdest chase I’ve done.  Almost Zennish, but Zen gets a lot of people killed.

Time to get to Tulsa, but there was a problem with that.  In advance of the cold front which was now through OKC, stuff had popped along I-40 heading toward, north and south of the city.  I had to go through it, but thankfully TUL radio was on top of it.  A bit of hail where I was driving, a couple of branches down, but thankfully the only major deal was the rain.  I was driving on state highways and county roads for the most part, and the tree canopies caught the rain and dropped it straight down on the road, like someone wringing a beach towel out above me.

Drove through Barnsdall, OK–home of Anita Bryant and location of the World’s Only Oil Well In The Middle Of A Street, supposedly.  Too dark to take a photo of it, (or one of Anita, for that matter), so here’s a representative photo:

Owasso, OK, gas at QuikTrip while still nominally in a TOR.  Drove east on the off chance that I’d see one of the tornadoes that went just south of Tulsa, but no dice and had to drive though flash floods in a cul-de-sacky residential/ranch area for my trouble.  Spent the night at a fantastic TownePlace Suites, except that all the storms had knocked out their internet…

Wednesday was another day…

2011-04-09 Onawa, IA Tornado

Well. I’ve never chased successfully north of Omaha before. It’s a hard dollar–only three bridges between OMA and SUX, and broadcast radio usually is horrible. Sioux Falls radio doesn’t care much about Sioux City, and usually they just throw a Twins game on and fuhgeddaboutit. Omaha radio doesn’t care about anything north of Blair. But it was a dynamic day, triple-point in NE Nebraska and a trailing dryline both threatening to cough up storms. I figured I’d drive to Onawa, steal some internet and let the chips fall–I could always pace the dryline on my way back home.


I hadn’t seen much on the drive north, until practically to the Onawa exit. Pulled into Mickey D’s and pointed west, fired up the laptop and watched this to the west. I was worried about the LCL–this seemed very high-based…however, this is an RFD dropping like a bomb out of a SVR-warned storm, so let’s see what happens…


And at the same time, here’s a field fire that looked at first glance like a gustnado. Depends on who you listened to, either a burn pile that got out of hand or lightning. I never saw any lightning until a lot later, and no rain or hail at any time!


Fire on the right, and a gustnado to the left. About the same time, OAX issues a DITOR for this storm, and I looked up–maybe just maybe I could rationalize a middling funnel, and there was rotation but nothing worth calling in. The week before, the boards were all aflutter regarding gustnado/tornado ‘hybrids’–which I had some problem with. Either you’re pregnant or you’re not…but here was something similar. I laughed to myself…


Closeup of the gustnado, Two days later, I saw other video from people who had a wider angle on this, and they convinced me that this was actually a tornado. Weak, maybe an EF-minus-1…


The RFD caught up to me, (I was spitting out dust for two days) and as things cleared out at Mickey D’s I headed east, through Onawa, and toward the bluffs. After Forest City, MO in 2009, I’d rather not chase in the hills–with the three hundred chasers out today, the last thing I needed was to get hemmed in. This was off to my north, I was thinking at the time that this was the same gustnado from west of Onawa. That night, I thought to myself that ‘gustnadoes don’t last that long…nor do they get that big’…


Last picture before I turned around. That white dot is another chaser, there were tons on that road and everyone more or less agrees this is where the Kennebec/Mapleton EF-3 tornado began. I’m happy with my choices, though. It was darn near dark, and if I’d kept going, worst thing would have been me not seeing the tornado that killed me, best case would be being in northern Iowa at midnight nowhere near a Marriott…

Here are the evening’s video selections. I went back to Mickey D’s, I could see the dryline try to get going, but the cap won out and everything crapped out within an hour. I stared packing up, then I heard sirens coming up I-29, four IHP Crown Vics turned right at the diamond interchange, four wheel drifting onto the frontage road…where two of them pulled into the 66 station to get gas! Whatevah…

2010-05-10 S KS and N OK Tornado

After an interminably long winter, finally spring!

I had about seven days’ warning that this was coming, and in fact the target that I had picked three days before (I-35 at the KS/OK border) wound up verifying!

Left OMA Sunday evening, got to the Marriott Fairfield MCI, Steak ‘n Shake for dinner. Had plenty of time on Monday morning to hit the models, noticed that SPC was expanding the high-risk area further south, to OKC. Not everyone was buying it, I certainly wasn’t and that was that.

I’ve been doing this long enough–playing the warm front/dryline/surface low triple point–to not be worried about 54F and rain in KC. Not even 57F and cloudy in ICT. Because when I got to South Haven it was 65F and when I pulled off the interstate at Blackwell, OK it was 71F, gloriously humid, 40 MPH SE wind and a PDS Red Box! Mickey D’s for free internet.

About forty miles away, the first TOR of the day was popping around Enid and Wakita…tracking east at Ludicrous Speed™ progged to cross the interstate about fifteen miles back from where I came. However, with storm speeds at fifty or above, all of us understood that backtracking would put you so far out of position for the next storm to the south that you’d never catch up for the rest of the day. To reinforce this, about ten chasers were going about their business at McD, not bothering to chase the confirmed wedge to the northwest, waiting for the next one directly west.

I drove into Blackwell to find a Wally World for souvenir shirts for the kiddies. Blackwell had suffered a F5 tornado in 1955, so I felt like I was on hallowed ground. Upon leaving Walmart, radio (fantastic coverage, but what do you expect in The Alley?) told me that the tornado I mentioned was still extant, straddling the border fifteen miles north. I had a good US highway heading north, and at the second nothing was popping west or southwest, so I gave it a try.

Except ten miles up the road, a bridge was washed out and with no posted detour! Braman, Okahoma, I could see I-35 a mile to my west but no way to gain it, and at this time radio reported cars being blown off I-35 ten miles north. I couldn’t go north and that pist me off, but I couldn’t see any structure, either…

However, lightning was beginning to hit within a mile of my location, and I had to assume another storm was cranking up and staying put wasn’t making me feel confident. I had plenty of gravel roads for east options, and I guessed if I had to do gravel I might as well get it over with before it rained and turned to mud. So, off we go…

state line

Pulled off for a minute at an oil well battery. This road is the state line, in this area the 1955 Blackwell F-5 was roping out, while the Udall F-5 was forming. One thing you can’t see is any kind of structure, too humid, LCLs almost scraping the ground, and I had no reason to believe the storms weren’t racing along at 50MPH. No lightning, nothing to let me know what might be two hills away. I had to trust the radio.

So, fifteen miles east on State Line Road, for the most part dry gravel except for creek bottoms where bridges were partially washed out or in two cases there never was a bridge in the first place! I don’t know if you can technically call bowling-ball sized rock gravel, but that’s what the creek bottoms looked like…

Son of a puppy, I made US-77 just south of Arkansas City, Kansas just as the sirens were going off. I actually had made time on the storm during my trek east. Too much time, honestly, I had enough time to get lost downtown. I was trying to find US-166 West, although that would have been stupid to drive toward a confirmed tornado with me not being cognizant of N-S road options. But it would have been more stupid to drive so far north that I’d miss the tornado and at the same time get hit by what was advertised as softball hail. Manifestly more stupid to get caught downtown when it hit. Thankfully I came to my senses, found a bypass along the east side of town, hauled azz south and found a high spot.

After this had passed, (whatever this was, I hadn’t seen a funnel) I got back on the east side bypass with an eye toward getting on US-166 East. By now, the sun was out, I saw something metallic about two hundred feet up. I thought to myself, “I guess that’s one of Reed Timmer’s RC airplanes” when in fact it was sheetmetal…falling to earth in my general vicinity! Highway signs were twisted (not blown down), shingles were missing from houses, so that was indeed a tornado! I was on the phone to 911, the operator asked me if I saw any powerlines down, and at that second one bounced off my windshield!

So by now, my plan was to blast east to US-75 near Sedan KS, the next good south road option. I was expecting a string-of-pearls to form south of me and indeed they did, however the atmosphere was getting more stable and while there was the odd TOR, I couldn’t get in a position where I felt comfortable punching whatever core was there. By the time I got to US-59 in Coffeyville, I had a choice to head to find a hotel in Tulsa with tornadoes to the south and southwest, or Joplin about two hours downstream of those storms, or back to KC. I chose KC, enough was enough. Marriott Springhill in Overland Park, then a few train pictures and Steak ‘n Shake again Tuesday morning, then back home.

Looking back, even though I was less then enthusiastic on the way home, I reckon I did a good job intercepting, and if I’d actually tried to see a condensation tornado cloud, I might be dead. Mother Nature didn’t want a visible tornado to form. And a lot of chasers besides me were caught out by the TOR outbreak in OKC, not like if I had foreknowledge I’d have driven two hours further south to get caught in an outbreak in a major metro area during rush hour. No thanks.

And, with all the cautions about huge hail I never saw one hailstone!

2009-06-21 Central IA Doppler-Indicated TOR, Wall Cloud, etc.

Sunday…target close to home…flush with success from the previous Wednesday. Beats sitting around the house!

I-29 north to US-30 east. Picked up the Cardinals Baseball network, Pujols, et. al. giving the Royals a right hiding while I monitored trains paralleling the highway. Got internet in Denison, kept going east.

Around the time I got to Boone, TORs were issued for north of Sioux City, way out of position and I don’t like travelling in that part of the state, anyhow. Plus, a Red Box had been issued for my area. I had decided to get to Ames and make a decision. (In a perfect world, I would have parked in Ames and stuff would have magically appeared, but…)

It certainly was getting more cloudy…


…and certainly humid. I got out of the car in Ames to check the wind directions, and my glasses immediately fogged up. That didn’t happen Wednesday! Dewpoints in mature Iowa cornfields can be north of eighty degrees!

Got to Ames just as soon as storms just to the northwest went TOR, so north on I-35:


Maybe this is a wall cloud :-).  Okay, definitely no further north than Story City (!)


At this second, I’m telling myself that I’m really, really rationalizing a wall cloud out of this:


(After this, I essentially lost memory of where I was and when. If I’d seen a tornado, I’m sure my memory would be better 🙂 )

I got off I-35 and headed east on county roads. I ran into a group of spotters and a sheriff that didn’t seem too excited about the storm off to their east, and I almost let my guard down. I came to a realization that I turned into Damon’s Stormchasing Rule #19: Spotters might not care about storms that they aren’t responsible for spotting! I perked back up, headed east some more, and this was off to my north:


Nice structure, RFD clearing out the back end:


Most of the next hour was spent watching transitory rotations, getting under doppler-indicated TOR storms, and noting wishnadoes:


Crabbed east and intercepted US-20 east. Beautiful road.


Saw the TIV–under an overpass–come on! It wasn’t hailing that bad, and everyone knows not to camp out under them during a tornado!

This is somewhere around Steamboat Rock/Wellsburg/Godknowswhereville. About twenty cars pointed west, like at a drive-in. Nice show:


Wall Cloud? Funnel? It’s definitely a cloud…


This day was the definition of needle-haystack. DMX sez there were between 9-12 tornadoes today, and I did all I could to see them. Others did get photos and vid, but all the tornadoes were touchdown-and-back-up types. Here’s my video, you can hear me imploring Ma Nature to tighten up the rotation up before the rain and hail wrapped the meso–no dice:

There were a couple other tornadoes to the east, but since I was an hour from Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota–on a Sunday evening–with work on Monday, I kissed it goodbye and headed home. If it had been Saturday, I’d have chased this mother to Iowa City, got Steak ‘n Shake in Coralville, then hit a Marriott there or in Des Moines. As it was, I got back home 1-ish 🙂