My friend Steve Miller was there, his big blue Dodge truck parked perpendicular to Erics car. He greeted us with a big smile and introductions were made. Steve welcomed Jeff to Texas, which I had done myself upon crossing the border. We talked about the trip so far, the storms we saw in Kentucky and our decision to heed Steves call and head for the Lone Star State.
In my truck, the 2 meter amateur radio was tuned to the local NOAA weather radio station. The alarm tone pierced our laughter.
"Tones!" Everyone scrambled to turn up the volumes on their radios.
THE STORM PREDICTION CENTER IN NORMAN OKLAHOMA HAS ISSUED A TORNADO WATCH FOR PORTIONS OF CENTRAL AND NORTH CENTRAL TEXAS THIS AFTERNOON "
A cheer went up and I pointed at Steve.
"Youre the man!" Steves outlook centered on this area while the mornings discussion from the SPC had paid it little attention, focusing mainly on the threat in Northern Arkansas. In all fairness to the professionals in Norman, they are more concerned with coverage or numbers of severe storms than in the isolated supercell or two that we hunted. Still, I had seen Steve pick up on things they had missed before, and now he had done it dramatically, helping me to be in the right place at the right time. I was grateful.
An old gentleman was there, too, a local man who stopped to join the scene. He talked about the storms and tornadoes he had seen in his lifetime. He described a storm of his youth to me as the excitement of our good positioning was sinking in. On the northern edge of the tornado watch, we were well-placed to intercept anything forming to our south moving in this direction.
We noticed a storm to our northwest, looking darker and uglier by the minute. It was organizing and gaining strength. We were on the wrong side and it was moving away from us. Everyone hurried to their respective vehicles and Steve, the senior chaser in the group, took the point towards the beast. I followed the big blue Dodge at a distance, in no hurry to hydroplane into an auto accident once the roads became slick. Behind me, Eric was trailing in his white car, with a flashing orange hazard light on the roof.
I had seen Eric on the plains before. In southern Oklahoma in early April, there was a minor chaser convergence on State Road 70 as some cooperative storms moved slowly due west. Eric was parked alongside the road as I pulled up in a rented Chevrolet. Without antennas and some of the common chaser insignia, I must have looked like a storm tourist, a stark contrast to Erics vehicle, with its weather instruments on the roof, warning light and SEVERE STORM CHASER sticker across the back windshield.
At the time, I thought the flashing light was strangetoo much advertising for my taste. Now, as we raced to the east, chasing our first real chance for a tornado, I saw its usefulness. Other cars were hesitant to pass us, and I thought it might be wise to put Eric in front at some point, if slower traffic became a problem on the narrow, two-lane highways.
Clint photographed everything. This was what he had imagined, the racing from one place to the next, meeting other chasers and their technology, everyone staring into the sky to discern the intent of the clouds rising above us. We sped closer to the storm and observed that it grew stronger, more organized. Steve remarked later that two well-known chasers, Roger Edwards and Rich Thompson, had come out of the storm going the other way. I hadnt noticed, but the "Meatwagon" as Edwards chase vehicle is known, was a signal to Steve that we were too close. We chose another angle and pulled over again to watch. I stepped out of the truck and walked up to Steves truck.
We talked about the storm, and the decision to take another route a moment earlier.
"Im a little concerned about yall standing out there with this lightning," Steve said. If Steve was worried, I probably should be, I thought. We finished talking about our next move and got back to the vehicles. The sound of the camera shutter now faded into the background as I focused all my thoughts on the task at hand. We were still on the wrong side of this thing, looking at it from the west southwest. Ideally, a chaser will place the sun behind the storm while not positioning himself directly in the path. Getting the backlight aids sight of features that might otherwise be obscured by the dark, gray rainshaft. Having the good lighting also made for better contrast, and superior photos. A tornado clearly visible to someone in the right spot might be hidden entirely from someone on the wrong side.
OUR OWN BACKYARD
The storm in sight to our northeast, we continued on State Road 59 through Montague county. The cell was organizing and a severe thunderstorm warning came across the radio. As is so often the case, the road network and the path of the storm were not the same, and each twist and turn, every slow-moving vehicle ahead of us distanced us from the prey. Our caravan emerged onto Highway 82 at St. Jo, Texas. We drove slowly through the town, amazed at the moderate damage our fleeing thunderhead had left. There was a downed tree, and part of sheds and other materials in the road. Powerful winds had blasted St. Jo, potentially a downburst or microburst, a phenomena in which the storm suddenly exhales a concentrated burst of outflow air, in which wind speeds can exceed 80 or 90 miles an hour. Often, these powerful gusts leave damage mistakenly credited to tornadoes. Only experienced storm damage surveyors can discern the difference between destruction wrought by a true twister and these menacing straight-line winds.