Hail sucks. Just throwing that out there.
This chase actually began the day before. I planned on chasing on May 15th too, but I ended up leaving home late. It was a pretty low risk day anyway and so I wasn’t really disappointed to bail out early. I planned to head south to Raton, New Mexico and see if anything developed south around the Interstate 25 corridor.
I got to Raton late in the afternoon and one look at radar made me decide to close up shop early. Nothing was happening within 100 miles of me. The more severe storms I saw were in far south New Mexico/west Texas and would take about 4-5 hours to even reach. This wasn’t going to work. My primary goal was to end up in Amarillo, Texas at a reasonable hour so I could begin Monday’s chase fresh.
I’d planned on using my tent and camping to save money, but there was a small problem. Evening forecasts called for some possible strong to severe thunderstorms to hit around 12-4AM. Sitting that out in a tent didn’t appeal to me. I called the Amarillo KOA campground and signed up instead for one of their one-room camping cabins. Twenty bucks more, and I could remain dry. I let them know that I’d probably be there around 8PM.
Then I called back about 15 minutes later and let them know I’d be there around 9PM. Timezone changes. I can be taught!
I ended up getting there around a quarter after 9. The key was where they said they’d leave it, and I was greeted (and pleasantly surprised) by a clean looking, cozy cabin.
I woke up to a very…moist…morning. It wasn’t quite foggy, but you couldn’t see very far in any direction. My windshield slowly became more difficult to see through while driving, even though you swore it wasn’t raining.
But, I digress. Forecast time!
I’d decided on Canadian, Texas as my initial target the previous night, and the mornings SPC Convective Outlook and NWS models seem to support that decision. 1
I left the KOA around a quarter to ten and got to Canadian an hour and a half later. The clouds were nice and low and moving north very fast. Looking good. Checking Radarscope, I noticed chasers west of me; a lot of them actually. Odd.
I puttered around Canadian for about twenty minutes, then decided to head northwest to Perryton. Not out of peer pressure or anything.
Spearman started to look good after I hit Perryton. Looking at the radar again, I see most everybody still heading further and further northwest. They’re getting up into the Oklahoma panhandle in some cases. I’m starting to think about the models and the forecast hours on them.
After Perryton, I decided that I would wander towards Gruver, then Stratford. I stopped in Stratford around 1-1:30PM to look at radar and was a little surprised to notice cells developing in southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico. 2
Figures. That was yesterday’s target.
While I was stopped, the local sheriff pulled in right behind me. I was a little worried at first but he was nice. After he realized I was a chaser, he just wanted to know if anything bad was headed their way. I told him what I knew (not much) and said that they might keep an eye on things later that evening (which I’m I glad I said). He actually seemed pleased that I was being responsible by pulling over to look at my various electronics. He told me God bless you, and left.
What a completely different reaction to chasers than what I’ve heard out of Kansas. It doesn’t sound like our community is making friends there.
Storms were starting to initiate by now. I was still thrown off by how far west everything had initiated. Storm motion also seemed a little odd to me. All of them seemed to be heading due south or southeast. I decided to head northwest to Boise City, OK. Once I got there, the closest storm was too tempting to resist. I headed east out of Boise City, stopping when country road 325 turned north. I watched the storm for a little while and muttered to myself about a lack of cell service. No radar updates for awhile.
Another chaser drove up and we chatted briefly. I got both of their names, then promptly forgot them as per my standard operating procedure. I think I have some sort of mental condition.
It was starting to get pretty windy now and they retreated to their car. I dawdled outside, trying to get a radar update, then just watched the storm motion for awhile and decided it was moving more south than southeast. I backtracked to a road I passed heading south and took it, stopping a couple of times to film storm structure and motion. My tablet finally squeaked out a radar update and now I could see some good looking rotation and a mean looking hail core. There was a lot of chasers playing around under that hail core.
Also with the radar update came a verifiable shift in storm direction. I was already pretty sure it was turning towards me, but now I could confirm it. I decided to head a little further south towards I-64 so I could escape to the northeast or southwest as needed. I ended up just northeast of a small town named Felt, which I confess I never even noticed.
What I DID see was more frequent cloud-to-ground lightning, and with that in mind I stopped near a tall radio tower for protection. There was already a few chasers there and I asked if I could share their lightning rod.
“Sure!” one of them said. “Feel free to climb on up there!”
This is how I met John Moore and Greg Breneman; both of whom were on a chase vacation from Arizona. Greg said he has some friends in Colorado that lived almost right across the street from my current Centennial address. Small world.
While we were talking an SUV pulled up and four children poured out. OK, maybe they weren’t children (one did have facial hair) but they looked pretty young. They ignored us.
I was still having problems getting regular radar updates so I asked John if he had anything. John showed me his phone and I noticed that he wasn’t using Radarscope.
“What app is that? It looks pretty good.” I asked.
“Radar Alive.” John answered. “I wrote it.”
I was impressed, and slightly bummed that it was Android only. I currently have all Apple devices for chasing, except for the dashcam.
We continued talking for a couple minutes, then I glanced at the storm again and did a double-take.
“Is that a tornado?” I asked.
John looked. Greg looked. We were all a little dubious. John finally went to his car and turned on his HAM radio. The NWS bulletin came on, telling us that the storm was now tornado warned and a tornado was confirmed. Radarscope updated about 15 seconds later.
I gawked at the tornado, snapped a couple pictures, stared at it some more, then finally remembered my tripod. 3 John told the kids (who were now all standing on a dirt mound for some reason) that there was a tornado in front of them. I don’t think they’d realized it either because they all got very excited. I thought I heard one of them say “YES! My first tornado!”
I totally get it. 🙂
After setting up I caught the tornado roping out on video, then moved the camera just slightly to the right. There was some pretty strong looking rotation over there under a new wall cloud and I was pretty sure a new tornado would drop from it.
We watched it for about 5 more minutes, but no tornado appeared. Then it became apparent that we were about to get run over by the mesocyclone.
Back to the car! I opted to go northwest on Highway 64, banking that I could get ahead of the hail core before it enveloped the road. I cut it a little close, but with no problems.
My original plan was just to continue heading back northwest to Boise City, then drop back behind the storm. On sheer impulse I decided I could turn south onto Highway 385 and get south of the storm again, putting me right back in position south of the hook. This meant I had to clear the hail core again.
I got ahead it it, but just barely. I had a some small hail fall on me. Others behind me were probably not so lucky. I also went a little too fast down that road and had to force myself to slow down.
I cleared the core and ended up right in the middle of my first chaser convergence. A road ahead of me and to the west had a ton of chasers piling out of it. They were all running east, then turning south onto the same road I was now on.
This was interesting, but made me a little nervous. I’ve heard horror stories about large chaser convergences. Since the movie Twister just recently turned 20 (oh hell I’m old) maybe I can use it as a crude analogy.
In the movie, the heroes (Jo and Bill) had their team and accompanying motley vehicle convoy. Jonas (an evil corporate lackey and ex-Dread Pirate Roberts) had a fleet of black SUV’s.
Looking at the assortment of vehicles now before me, which included normal looking cars, trucks, and vans, as well as “chaser specials”, I think we represented the Jo and Bill mishmash pretty well.
I got an odd vibe though, like maybe we were all really just Jonas. Everyone was doing their own thing; some for whatever social media “fame” or media licensing rights that can be had.
(Most of the above sounds corny now. I need to quite writing these posts after midnight.)
For the most part people were being pretty safe. They’d pull completely off the side of the road to take pictures or video. I did see some bad behavior; an olive green Toyota RAV4 that looked like a porcupine with all the antennas mounted on its roof was driving like a tornado had just jumped out of his trunk and was banging on his window.
There was just so many of them. This storm and another building to the west were the only plays of the day so far, so they drew every chaser in. Just one of the things I’ll need to learn to deal with.
I was still moving south, but stopping on the side of the road occasionally to take pictures. Behind me, the storm moved across Highway 385 and went tornado warned again. I couldn’t see into the storm very far from my current location, but there was no way in hell I going in to poke around.
I continued south and noticed that the other cell to the west had really started to look good. I had a clear view under the base and could see a wall cloud and lowering. At one I saw a very brief tornado but it vanished before I could stop and get a picture.
Still going south. I checked my map. I was headed for a town called Dalhart and…oh crap.
I’d been through Dalhart on my way to Amarillo the day before. It looks almost like every other Texas town I’ve been in, except:
- The highway is almost completely torn up in the center of town. Half of the pavement is ripped out. Major construction work being done.
- What’s left of the current road is in pretty bad shape and was down to a single lane, bottlenecking at a traffic light.
- Google maps was already showing heavy traffic in the center of the town.
- The supercell thunderstorm I had been admiring to the west was moving east rapidly, sending another flood of chasers east down Highway 87. They were also funneling (tornado humor! ha!) into town from the west.
The picture above shows most of my situation. Those red dots are chasers reporting their locations on SpotterNetwork (and therefore showing on Radarscope). Keep in mind that these are only chasers reporting their locations; there are almost certainly more chasers than dots.
I’m also now right in-between two tornado warned storms, both of which had tornadoes I’ve actually seen myself. Not good.
I scanned for road options. All of the county roads I saw looked pretty muddy. Also not good.
Oh, and now dozens more chasers are descending on Dalhart from the east, running ahead of that supercell to my southwest. Also also not good.
I got to the outskirts of Dalhart and started seeing detour signs for Highway 385 south. The road ahead was closed a little ways ahead, only allowing local traffic.
Look, you get the point. It just wasn’t that good, ok?
I was able to do a quick U-turn and get onto the detour road. This took me west (not my favorite option at the moment) to Highway 87. Another choice to make:
- Turn right, drive northwest right into a tornadic thunderstorm’s core. Pass!
- Continue straight onto Sedan Rd, heading west. Hope the road stays paved. Hope that oncoming storm doesn’t turn right, like many strong supercells do. Um. No.
- Turn left onto Highway 87. Try to go through town. Hope I can clear town before getting cored. Hope there’s no tornado currently.
I chose left, and began what was one of the most nerve-racking traffic jams I’ve ever been in. I kept watching the radar and seeing the storm close the distance. Storm rotation looked more and more pronounced. I couldn’t actually see behind me; there was a Doppler-On-Wheels (DOW) truck directly behind me and it was huge.
I actually called Heather and told her what was going on. I think I scared her a little. Mostly I just wanted to talk to someone.
Traffic inched forward. Looking up through my windshield, I see clouds starting to move in overhead from behind me. The sky got noticeably darker.
I got to the traffic light just as it changed to red. I very badly wanted to run it. I’m pretty sure the guy driving the DOW truck wanted me to run it too, as it looked like his team’s van with all their tornado probes had just cleared the light ahead of me. I kind of suspected that one of us cracking and running the light might lead to total anarchy (or out me as a nervous sissy), so I stayed put.
The wind picked up. I waited three more years.
The light changed. I got south out of town in a hurry.
I ran south to Hartley, Texas, stopping briefly to see what I’d actually just ran away from. Then I headed east to Dumas. All of the storms were now moving almost due east. This meant I had some more options.
I opted to continue east to Dumas and see if I could re-intercept my original storm, which had been churning away steadily. As I entered town though I saw something I thought was a little odd, probably because I’m not from the Midwest.
Dumas is built with a huge overpass running east/west smack on the western edge of town. There was a bunch of vehicles parked under it, and people were just walking around them or talking in groups. It took me a second to realize what I was seeing.
Apparently the locals are very accustomed to severe weather and were piling their cars up under the overpass to protect them from hail. I thought this was an interesting idea, at least in relation to protection from hail. A tornado with an unfortunate track would do terrible, terrible things if one should hit directly on the overpass. Google “doswell overpass safety” if you want more information on that.
I stopped for gas, and decided to go back towards Hartley, briefly turning north onto a paved county road to stop for video and pictures.
While filming, I considered my options. I knew I needed to get further east in a hurry if I was going to get into position on that first storm. I didn’t like that my main target was more northwest of the other storms, meaning that everything behind it would aimed right at me. Those other cells though; they look pretty good though and they’re just north of me. Easy to catch.
That last storm though, coming in from the west had my eye. That was showing some strong rotation on radar which made it really tempting. It was the last storm in the line too, and playing Tail-End Charlie worked well for me at Wray. I noticed that this storm had veered more southeast, so I needed to move south to get in front of it.
Back to Dumas then, and south. The second time I saw that the town overpass was almost jam packed with cars underneath it. Yikes.
I found myself in another line of chasers moving very fast, so finding a place to safely stop and watch/film was a challenge. I finally saw a good open spot and without thinking about other chasers just went for it. Then I saw the DOW truck sitting there. I stayed anyway.
This DOW truck wasn’t a NWS truck. It was from Oklahoma University. There was a guy walking around next to it, and he looked really familiar.
Is that…Howard Bluestein?
I’d seen Howard in many of the old Tornado Video Classics videos (Yes, I own all three volumes on VHS. Shut up.) and he’s one of the big names in severe weather academia. I REALLY wanted to meet him. I also didn’t want to interfere with him if he was working.
There were two younger people near him that I thought I saw drive up in another car. They were talking to him, then they walked away. Howard (is it him?) got in the DOW truck. I walked over to them and said “Do you know who that is? Is that…?”
“Yeah, that’s Howie.” chirped the young girl. “We’re grad students out of OU. Wanna meet him? He won’t mind if you go talk to him.”
Holy crap. It WAS him. I was nerding out internally a little.
I told them that I didn’t want to bug him, but they both thought that he wouldn’t care at all. I stood there like a moron for a minute, deciding what to do, then Howard got out of the truck.
“Hi!” I said.
“Hi! Hold on a second.” Howard Bluestein said to me. Then he trotted over to his grad students with his camera in hand and started taking pictures of the oncoming storm.
Oh yeah. He’s a weather nut too of course. Duh. He just wanted photos of the storm and I’m bugging him.
The storm. Oh. Right. I was here for the storm.
I stood there like an idiot for a minute, then walked back to my car to check my radar. I kept thinking that I’d love to see THEIR radar. Talk about accurate and timely info.
I got my phone out and shot some halfhearted pictures of it. I even took a fairly bad panoramic that caught Howard and his students in it.
The wind picked up. Oh, yeah. Radar. I saw that the storms rotation had almost vanished and the storm appeared to be going outflow dominant, but that the outflow wind coming at me was very, very strong.
And this is where I screwed up big time. I lost my situational awareness.
I got distracted and when I did look at the radar, I focused on the wind velocity which is what brought me there. The storms base was very clear looking visually (see the picture above), so I hadn’t been focusing on precipitation. I didn’t watch the reflectivity.
The wind picked up, then picked up again. Then it gusted so hard it almost knocked me over. Tumbleweeds came FLYING towards us. I looked at radar again, REALLY looked at it, and realized that I didn’t need to meet Dr. Bluestein after all.
I needed to run. Now. So I fled southeast. Right into this.
I actually have dashcam footage of this moment. My dashcam (still the old Galaxy S5 phone) lost focus about 5 seconds in though. I couldn’t get it back because there was nothing to really focus on. The sky and ground were brown blurs, the horizon a white blur. The rain on the window later didn’t help either.
Here’s a tiny GIF of it before the camera went to crap.
I heard what sounded like a gunshot just to my left. A very large hailstone had smashed into my side mirror, cracking the top of it and shattering the top of the mirror.
I took a few more large hits, but I think I managed to clear the absolute worst of it. I was relieved that I had kept my windows. The storm continued on southeast and I stopped and took this last picture.
The car damage took the wind out of my sails for chasing anymore today. My car was damaged and it was totally my fault. I headed further southeast and realized that I was only 12 miles from Amarillo again. I called Heather again and told her what happened, removed a tumbleweed from my driver’s side front wheel well, and noticed the amazing lightning display happening behind me. Feeling a bit better, I set up to film and got about 15 minutes of amazing lightning footage; the last five minutes of which is slightly marred because some random dude decided to stop his car in-between me and the storm.
The lightning footage turned out to be garbage. Tons of pixelation and noise. I guess I didn’t set FiLMIC Pro up properly and it went into low-light mode. The focus isn’t that good either. I hate not having a good camera with manual options.
I was desperate for a non-fast food meal, but it was late now and options were limited. I managed to find an IHOP. After eating, and with no real plan for the night, I decided to just start for home. I drove until 3:30AM (and took a weird side journey investigating, then rejecting a camping site at Clayton Lake State Park), but only made it to Trinidad, Colorado. Stayed at the Quality Inn, and drove the rest of the way back the next day.
- Fix that dashcam focus issue, or abandon the phone thing. I might have a solution. Testing it tomorrow.
- I WILL learn to use my equipment better. I was so excited to look at that lightning footage, and so disappointed in the results. Learn FiLMIC Pro for all scenarios and conditions. Filming at 60FPS might have have been great for this.
- Don’t change my light exposure mid video. It keeps messing me up when I edit footage later.
- Make an effort to focus on the clouds, and not the ground. So many bad or blurry photos this time.
- Hail. DO NOT LOSE SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. A sure-to-be expensive lesson for me. You’re there for the storms, not the people. I’m now telling people Howard Bluestein broke my mirror.
- Have a post-chase lodging plan in place. The KOA was closed by the time the chase ended or I would have just stayed there again. I liked that place.
- Midnight is not the time to explore a random camp site. Wish that would have worked out though. 🙁
- Dalhart, Texas is a damn death trap.
- To end on a happier note; I am pretty happy with most of my chase decisions. I saw two tornadoes today! I’m new to this and I’ve seen three in three weeks! I either have a knack for this, I’m doing more right than wrong, or I’m an incredibly lucky bastard.