5-26-16 SPC Outlook
5-26-16 SPC Outlook

Last day, then back home.

Don’t let the SPC pictures above fool you. They look good, but it got better. Here’s the tornado outlook page a little  later.

5-26-16 1630z TOut SPC
Guess I’m not chasing in Oklahoma today.

My original plan was to head back to Woodward and hang around that area. Once I checked the models that morning I saw that western Kansas made a whole lot more sense. I decided on Great Bend as my initial target.

Then I went to breakfast with my aunt and lost track of time. I ended up leaving Oklahoma City later than I hoped. My fault. My new plan was to chase all day in western Kansas, then head for home and see how far I could get before I had to sleep.

I took I-35 north to the Oklahoma border, then switched over to a smaller road which runs through South Haven, a small Kansas town. I drove through, noticed a severe thunderstorm behind me that would overrun if I continued on, and dropped back to let it pass me by so I could get behind it.

Out near South Haven, Kansas

It was pretty, but did nothing interesting so I continued north to Wellington. A quick stop there, then west towards Mayfield.

Outside Mayfield, I got stopped by road construction which didn’t show up on Google Maps. Again. Same deal as the Dodge City day;  only one lane moving at a time.

arrrrgh

I was stuck there for about 20 minutes this time, every second of it unbearable.

After an eternity I finally continued west towards Great Bend. Storms were already going up and racing north through Buffalo, Coldwater, Greensburg, and Kinsley. A number of them were tornado warned.

Late to the party. Story of my life.

Seeing Greensburg in a tornado warning box made me a little anxious. I don’t want a tornado to touch down in ANY town, but I figured a tornado hitting Greensburg again would be horrifying.

Due to the delays I decided that I wasn’t going to be able to get in on these storms in time, so I headed for Pratt, Kansas. 1

I got into Pratt and stopped briefly in a McDonalds, then tried to figure out what to do next. I knew that the day wasn’t over, but I didn’t have any real targets.

I went south out of town, changed my mind, then drove back in and headed west. I found myself in Greensburg again, getting gas at the same station I’d been at two days before.

While I was pumping gas, I saw one of the NWS scout trucks drive by, then stop at the pumps on the other side of the store. I finished up, then went in to grab a snack and looked at the guy in the aisle across from me. He looked really familiar.

I went back outside and walked over to the scout truck. The driver was just finishing up at the pump so I introduced myself. His name was Brandon Molyneux and we talked about the past few weeks of chasing. The other occupant (whose name is Katie; never got a last name) stayed in the cab.

I asked Brandon if he was, by chance, travelling with Tim Marshall.

“Yeah.” he said. “He’s in the store right now.”

I swear, I’m crossing off people I’ve always wanted to meet really fast this year.

Tim came out and got in the passenger side. I asked Brandon if he thought Tim would mind if I introduced myself. He didn’t seem to think it’d be a problem.

I walked around the truck and tapped on the glass. Tim rolled the window down and I said hi. I also said other things, some very eloquent. 2 But I ran out of things to say pretty quickly, and I had the feeling I should just end the conversation now before I looked dumber than I already felt. I started to say goodbye, then Tim said:

“Have you been to the Big Well?”

Me: “Uh, no? That’s here in Greensburg, right? I think I saw a sign when I drove in.”

Tim: “Yep! That’s the one. Want to follow us over there?”

Me: “…sure!”

So I went to the Big Well museum with Tim, Brandon, and Katie.

The museum was about a quarter mile away (Greensburg is pretty small) so it only took a couple minutes to get there. I parked and followed everyone in. We all lined up at the counter and Tim paid for his team, then bumped into some people he knew and started talking to them. I got to the counter next and asked the guy (Interesting sidenote: He survived the 2007 tornado in a storm shelter when he was a kid) for a ticket.

“That’ll be $8”. he said.

Tim looked over. “Hey! How come I paid $30 for three?”

Kid: “Your senior rate was $6. I thought he was with you.” <pointing at me>

Me: “I am. Well, I’m not with them but I’m paying for myself.”

Tim: “I should get a refund then.” <turns around to talk to the other people again>

I paid for myself (I did, I swear), but I don’t know if Tim ever got his $8 back. I’m a little worried that Tim thinks I freeloaded a ticket off him.

Great, now I’m “that tall cheapskate chaser we met in Greensburg”.

I was really starting to question why I decided to do this, other than “Tim suggested it!”, when I turned the corner.

That’s when I found out:

  • There’s a BIG goddamn well in this building.
  • There’s also a large meteorite here. It was thought lost in the tornado (which destroyed the original museum), but they found it in a field and brought it back.
  • Speaking of tornadoes, this is also the 2007 Greensburg tornado museum.

I was suddenly very interested in being here.

Tim was talking with some people over by one wall. He pointed at some damage survey photos on the wall and said something like “These are mine.” Then he posed for a selfie by them.

Small panorama of the display. Tim’s in the light blue shirt, Brandon’s in the red coat. Check out the panorama on the wall of the town the day after the tornado.

Oh yeah, he did the official damage assessment for the storm. I’d known this but didn’t think about it.

We all wandered around. I made a point to NOT follow Tim Marshall around like a small dog, but that really wasn’t a concern after a couple minutes. I got sucked into the exhibits and mostly stopped paying attention to anyone else. I kept bumping into this same woman who was walking around with a very nice camera. We’d smile each time, and excuse ourselves.

…well well we-LOOK I CAN’T HELP IT OK? Also, why does everyone have to throw coins in anything with water in the bottom?

I walked down the steps into the well (they built a circular stairway that goes down maybe halfway) and bumped into her yet again.

Remember – this was a hand dug well.

This time I introduced myself. She’s a journalist that occasionally follows around the NWS teams and takes pictures for their project.

Before you die, you’ll see the ring.

Oh, that’s how she knows Tim then. Speaking of Tim, he continued to wander around and occasionally posed for pictures. He seems to really enjoy social media.

I climbed all the way up to the top and took a few pictures. Then I headed down to browse some more. It’s not a very big museum, so after a couple more minutes I realized that everyone else had pretty much left.

I took this out of one of the windows at the very top. I thought it came out kind of neat.

I headed back to the lobby and into the gift shop. Among the usual knickknacks there was a number of t-shirts. Some had just the town name; others with some variation of “The Big Well”. There was also a couple of hokey tornado shirts. One I noticed in particular was a blue shirt with the word “Greensburg” on it in light purple cursive script. Above the town name sat a stylized fun looking swirl signifying the tornado.

Wheeeee.

I think it was the tackiest thing I’ve seen in awhile. Wearing that shirt around town might warrant an ass kicking. Maybe the locals don’t care though, or maybe they have embraced gallows humor at this point. I’m not gonna buy it though.

I talked to Tim one more time in the gift shop, commenting that I seemed to be on a tour of large, famous tornado tracks lately. Vicki’s house was only a few miles from the 2013 Moore tornado path, and her son’s house was only a quarter mile away. We actually drove over to the path to see the changes from 2013 to the present day, just the day before.

“Oh.” said Tim Marshall.

That ended my time with the scout team. Tim left. I browsed for a minute more in the hopes of finding a less tacky way to remember Greensburg (mission failed), thanked the cashier (you better have given Tim his refund dammit) and left as well. I walked over to the scout truck and said goodbye, thanked Tim for the museum recommendation, and climbed back in my car. Then I noticed I left the dashcam running the whole time and and it very, very hot. Not good. I’m going to brick this phone if I’m not careful.

Ok. Enough. I’m distracted AGAIN. Wasn’t this supposed to be a chase day? I bet the reason the probe team left is that they were actually paying attention to the weather.

Let’s go chase something!

Sure enough, storms were starting to fire to the southwest. I headed west towards Bucklin, but one of the storms beat me there. I stopped to watch it go by, filming it and hoping it’d strengthen.

Mammatus in storm heading north

No luck. It didn’t get any stronger, but it did have some of the loudest thunder I’ve heard. You could feel it in the car frame and your bones when it hit.

The next storm coming up from the southwest was severe warned and showed some good rotation. Jackpot! I decided to head into Bucklin, then south so I could get past the storm’s path and into the southeast inflow.

I saw the hail core on radar, got nervous, and aborted less than half a mile from town. I turned around and drove west half a mile and pulled over.

Then I realized I was being a big sissy and that I really wanted to see a tornado today. I turned around again and drove into Bucklin where it was now raining heavily. I turned south onto Route 34 and flew south as fast as I could. Here’s why.

Look at that pink! What could it be?

The storm went tornado warned almost as soon as I turned south. I watched the radar a little anxiously but I was pretty sure I’d make it past the hail core. I was a little less sure about area south of that, where the storm was tornado warned.

I made it past without incident. Which is a big plus, since the NWS statement about this storm claimed that it was producing GRAPEFRUIT SIZED HAIL.

Holy crap. My passenger side mirror shuddered in horror.

I started to see the chasers lined up on the road and found my own spot alone so I could focus on taking pictures. Another car pulled up a few minutes later and we talked a little.

No names of course, because that’s how I roll. I’m just going to start photographing people and running Google image searches on them or something.

Classic Scary Looking Cloud

Never saw a tornado. The storm continued to drift north-northeast. At one point it looked like there might be a velocity couplet on radar but is was right in with the hail signature.

Looking east - South of Bucklin, Kansas

The guy next to me said he was going to go for it. Good luck!

I watched the storm for a few more minutes, then it started to rain. I was contemplating just giving up the rest of the day for travel time home, but I drove south a couple of miles and saw a nice dirt road to the east. It was dry here and there was a nice hill that might be a good place to shoot some storm structure. I headed over.

There was a truck parked on the hill when I arrived with three chasers. Another chaser drove up behind me almost immediately after I parked. The first truck had three Australians in it, whose names are spoken only of in whispers. 3 They were doing the same thing I planned on, shooting storm structure. We all did our own thing.

The other chaser who drove up behind me introduced himself as Nick Schrader. He was chasing out from Indiana so he had a much further drive back then I did. We talked while I set up my phone to film some structure of the retreating storm. I had just barely hit Record when another truck pulled up.

This was a local. He was an older guy and seemed delighted to see chasers. He told us stories about the Greensburg tornado, stories about other tornadoes, stories about friends that had been in tornadoes, and pretty much anything he could think of about….tornadoes.

He was charming in a folksy Midwest way (is that a thing or am I making this up?). While pleasant, Nick and I were having to focus almost all of our attention on him. Which meant we weren’t taking pictures or filming anything. I finally stopped my recording about fifteen minutes in when I looked at the screen and realized it’d been out of focus for the majority of the recording. One of the Australians glanced over at us, looked sympathetic, said something to the others, then they disappeared around the hill.

Cowards!

Finally the local guy drove off. Nick and I glanced around, but there wasn’t a whole lot to photograph at the moment. The storm to our north was pretty hazy at this point. We talked some more.

The local guy came back about ten minutes later. He talked to us for another five minutes, then left. Nick and I started taking pictures again.

The Australians came back from around the hill. Nick was having problems with radar updates so they offered us a look at GRLevel3 running on their laptop.

I looked at the departing storm, then south to the new one. I commented on the signs of strengthening rotation. I guess they thought it looked pretty good too because they packed up and left.

The local guy CAME BACK about five minutes after that. He started to repeat one of his stories. Oh dear.

Yet another truck pulled up a minute later and three more guys got out. More locals, not chasers. One was drinking a beer. At the time I thought it was the driver, but I watched the dashcam footage later and it turns out the passenger had the beer. Road beer!

Everyone walked over to my car and started talking about where the storms were going. I showed them the radar on my tablet. We sat around and talked for a couple of minutes, with the locals ending up mostly talking with each other. Nick and I shuffled off to the side and considered chase options on radar.

I came up with a tentative plan to go north, then race east to try and beat a strong looking storm coming up from the south. I’d end up northeast a few miles from our current location and would have a good angle to intercept the storm. Nick seemed interested in going with me so we said goodbye to everyone and started to leave. I turned the car around, headed west down the dirt road so I could go north, then looked at the radar again.

The storm was moving way too fast for my approach to be feasible. Already I could see the top of the storm coming over the hill. Fast. I stopped and told Nick that I planned on staying put.

Very glad I did.

LP Supercell in field

The storm raced over the hill. The forward speed, growth, and rotating motion were actually visible to the naked eye without timelapse. I’ve seen fast moving storms before but nothing like this. It was LP (low precipitation) so the base was nice and clear. It was being chased by another larger cell, so the cloud train just kept coming.

We got out the cameras and photographed it charging across the field. It was amazing to watch.

The lightning started shortly after and this was incredible too. It was a little too light at first for exposure photography, but Nick had a lightning trigger for his camera and was using it. I’ll be curious to see what he got.

Almost got it!

It got darker and the lightning activity increased. We were amazed and a little concerned about cloud-to-ground strikes. But there wasn’t any that we saw. The lightning would ricochet around the clouds in front of us, beside us, then above us.

Best lightning shot to date

It was finally dark enough that we could start doing some exposure photography. I got lucky a couple of times.

Another bolt

More locals drove by and stopped to ask what was going on in the nearby town of Protection. We showed them our radar and they thanked us, then promptly drove forward and stopped right in our shot. Nick and I waited for them to leave.

It’s weird being an impromptu weather guy out in the field. This has happened all week. Everywhere I’ve been, the locals trust storm chasers to update them with what’s going on. Since I’m a complete novice, I try to only tell them what I can see and verify on radar. I’m not out to scare anyone, unless there’s something obviously severe or tornadic headed toward them or their destination. Hasn’t been an issue yet.

It started to sprinkle and I decided that my day was done. I packed up and said goodbye to Nick. I really enjoyed talking shop with another chaser (and a newer one like me to boot) for the last half of the day. I didn’t even really mind the local guys too; they were all good people.

Speaking of which, that same local guy came back one last time around dusk. I think he was a little worried about us. I thought I heard him tell Nick that we could shelter in his basement if we needed it. A weird offer, given any other situation but he seemed genuine.

I headed for home and to make a long story short (for once), I made it home around 4AM. It was stressful; the distances I’d already traveled earlier had worn me down. I hit heavy rain just west outside of Limon, CO which just added to my exhaustion.

Home. Bed. Done.

Lessons Learned:

  • Want breakfast? Don’t sleep in! I missed the whole first half of the day and it’s my own fault. Breakfast was good though.
  • Don’t chase on the way to the target unless it’s REALLY promising. The storm near South Haven, Kansas was a waste of time and I kind of knew it.
  • Always prep your equipment! I forgot to delete my previous days chase footage off my iPhone, and therefore robbed myself of about 18GB of space I could have filmed with. What’s more, I could have deleted the junk footage I shot while distracted on the hill since I knew it was mostly blurry.
  • It was interesting to meet Tim Marshall and the scout team!, but it was not why I was out there. Maybe later I’ll be more experienced and can faff around with little side adventures, but more often than not deviating from my original purpose seems to land me in trouble.
  • Hesitation might have cost me a tornado, had one dropped near Bucklin. Look at the data, do the math, make the decision. If it rains and hails on you, so be it.
  • Make sure that what you’re recording is worth recording. Check the focus. Check the light exposure. Recheck them. I’ve got tons of useless dusk/evening footage of lightning. I need to learn more about filming at night, and the limitations of the iPhone for that purpose. May I’ve hit its limit.
  • Get better at lightning photography! It’s an enjoyable way to end chases.

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