June 10 & 11, 1999: Amarillo / Lubbock, Texas

990610AMA.gif (15055 bytes) Web Posted June 17, 1999
by Amos A. Magliocco

Day 1: June 10, 1999 Amarillo
  A muggy and hazy morning greeted me in Denton as I loaded the truck for the long trek to West Texas.   I had done the same thing just the week before, heading to almost the same location, and busted badly for two days in a row.  Considering the time, miles and dollars involved in such a venture, I was hesitant as I examined the data carefully in the morning.  I wanted to be quite sure that I wasn't wish-casting a storm environment that wasn't there.  Just because I could chase didn't necessarily mean that I should.

     But the setup was promising.  The nose of a 60 to 70 knot jet streak at 250mb was wedging its way into West Texas, and the shear profile looked at least moderately supportive of supercell storms.  As has seemed the case so many times this year, the mid-level winds were very weak, and so I expected HP storms if I was lucky. A surface low deepened in  Eastern Colorado and both the ETA and RUC models represented the dryline moving into the West Central Texas Panhandle regions.  The MM5 model had a CAPE bullseye of between 2000-2500 j/kg near Amarillo which was also on the north end of a good theta-e ridge.  There looked to be fair convergence from the surface up to 850 mb.   Storm-scale rotation would have been a pleasant surprise and tornadoes didn't really enter my mind.  The next day's setup looked potentially more promising and so I rationalized that I was simply getting a head start on tomorrow's chase.  With my expectations sufficiently lowered, I left Denton at 9:00 AM.

   Pick a Storm--any storm
   Near Wichita Falls at 10:51 I encountered two brief showers which undoubtedly formed on outflow boundaries from the previous night's convection.  Old boundaries would be a theme for the two day chase and would give me a new level of respect for the role of the mesoscale in severe storm initiation and intensification.  At 1:00 PM, I stopped to eat in Childress where Glenn Dixon caught up with me and we chatted on the radio.  Glenn believed the better shear was in Eastern Colorado and ultimately planned to go there with a data stop in Amarillo to see how things were unfolding.  At 3:00 we were in Amarillo looking for a place to connect Glenn's laptop.  Meanwhile, storm fired near the rim of the Palo Duro Canyon in response to a warm front moving north and was visually impressive at that time with an overshooting top and a backsheared anvil.  The storm was moving Northeast away from the dryline, trying to tempt me away from my target area.  A data check showed the dryline moving into the Panhandle right on schedule, and perhaps more instability in the area than I had expected.  We looked several times at radar imagery of the storm in Armstrong and Donley counties, and it continued to lure us. 
   Dave Fick from Houston joined us at the truck stop and we watched another storm to the west  grow more interesting.  This was near the dryline and moving northeast also.  It was a much better storm for us in terms of positioning, and I didn't want to stray far from the dryline, which I thought would create additional action before the day was done.  So we abandoned the early storm, a decision which rewarded me this day, but a similar decision would not be so kind the next day. There are never any purely right or purely wrong decisions in stormchasing, just varying degrees of maybe.
  We drove north on 287 toward Masterson and stopped along the way to observe the storm to our west, looking worse and worse all the time.  In the distant horizon was the outline of a sculpted supercell in isolation, wandering across the plains and beckoning us to join.  We farted around trying to convince one another of the feasibility of chasing this one.  As we moved north, I grew very concerned that this storm, although a beast for sure, was a long way off--Oklahoma certainly, maybe South Kansas.  I knew the road network in that patch and wasn't anxious to abandon my setup right here for what would have proven to be at least a one hour drive to get near the storm.  Dave and I stopped again to observe the western storm, suddenly looking reinvigorated and showing clear signs of organization with visible striations and a more defined anvil structure.  The Amarillo NWS issued a tornado warning for Oldham County around 4:30, reporting a circulatory signature near the town of Adrian.  Dave and I were shocked to realize that this was the storm we were looking at!  At one point, the base firmed up dramatically and dropped a few non-rotational lowerings.  The storm became outflow dominant and multiple rain shafts quickly shut down the engine.

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Gust front tentacles southwest of Amarillo

   The Canyon
   At the same time, another storm to the southwest of the Oldham County cell was firing up between Bushland and Canyon in Randall County and moving toward metropolitan Amarillo.  The tornado warning came quickly and we moved south to intercept the storm.  We were out of radio contact with Glenn at this point and assumed he had committed to the northern storm.  Dave and I went through Amarillo along with pea to marble hail on 1541 and then west on another small road where we set up shop in a church parking lot.  We were looking up at the side of the updraft tower that stretched to cosmic proportions, a completely overwhelming, exciting and terrifying sight to me.   Dave and I agreed that we had to get out and photograph.  The inflow began to howl and an area of pronounced rotation developed to our immediate west.  The rain and hail shaft were inbound, however, and this storm was already famous for its hail: Dave Fick reported later that his relatives who live about five miles west of Canyon, Texas received baseball hail from this storm.  We continued south.
  Later, we caught up with Glenn and took a gorgeous drive through Palo Duro Canyon in half-hearted pursuit of the now well-evolved squall line.  The canyon was monstrous and seemed to try to engulf the storms that moved slowly above.  Even the powerful mountains of thunderstorm energy were taxed to match the majesty of the mighty canyon, and the lightning hurled at the jagged rock formations was a pitiful effort by the weaker of these two natural, inanimate predators.  It was almost sunset.
  In Claude, Texas we called it a chase and photographed the dramatic mammatus below.   Dave was required to return his rental car and began the long journey to Oklahoma City, vowing to return for more action the next day if the setup looked good.  Glenn and I headed back to Amarillo to find a room. 

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The end of the road and a great show


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   Day 2: June 11, 1999 Lubbock

  We stepped outside the motel room to greet a  drizzly gray Amarillo morning.  The setup was similar to the previous day with the upper level jet exit region helping to create an area of substantive diffluence aloft.   Surface readings were all over the place from the previous day's storms, and it looked as if one of our most valuable players from the day before, the dryline, would sit this one out.  This was not chase weather and we quickly evaluated that without a rapid and sudden recovery, the northern half of the Texas panhandle would be stable and storm free.

      The models disagreed on the eastward movement of the dryline, but the RUC hadn't done me wrong yet with this particularly difficult feature, and it became apparent that old outflow would be the focus for storm initiation.   Boundaries were moving south towards Lubbock and we hoped to catch the wave and ride it to chaser merriment.  Winds north of the outflow boundary were from the north.   
   We analyzed another target of CAPE near Lubbock according to the RUC, ETA and MM5 in addition to good convergence from the surface through 850mb and the divergence aloft pointed towards Lubbock for today's target.  When we left Amarillo, Lubbock reported partly sunny skies.  As we moved to the south of the boundary that the Amarillo office was describing now as a cold front, we noted that winds shifted out of a southerly direction.  This was very exciting to me, as I could imagine the sort of convergence piling up where north winds behind the front and southerly winds ahead of it would meet.  I thought about the dryline, and hoped that it might help too by creating a convergence corner of sorts at the intersection of it and the outflow boundary.   It could be a big day I thought as we pulled into Lubbock and searched for a place to find data.
  As we reached town, Glenn Dixon noticed a well-formed storm to the northeast and commented that it already seemed to have a backsheared anvil and an overshooting top.  Here's another storm, I thought, just like yesterday--trying to lure me into some distant, less-favorable environment.  I remember specifically telling Glenn: "I don't think I'm that impressed with it yet."  That would not be my last mis-judgement of that storm before the day was done.  The data check confirmed that the convergence along and ahead of the outflow boundary was great, and looked to get even better.  The instability was in place with steep lapse rates in the mid-levels, which made me wonder if the cap wasn't too weak here.   This should have been another red flag to me to chase anything isolated that popped up this day.
  I decided that the area to the northwest of Lubbock, near Littlefield, should be ideal for later initiation along the outflow boundary.  Just as I was leaving the table, Steve Miller sent an email to Glenn and I, telling us that the storm Glenn spotted earlier was beginning to propagate southeastward along a boundary of its own.  "I suggest y'all take after it," he wrote.  I certainly didn't disagree with Steve, who is not only a better forecaster, but also a far more experienced observer of storm tracks and behavior after initiation, which some people may not realize is nearly a separate discipline, but just as vital to success in stormchasing.
  I was so completely sold on my new target area that I went to Littlefield anyway--feeling very uneasy about the decision and justifying it on another level by telling myself that I probably could not have caught the storm that now warranted a severe warning in Briscoe County.  Listening to my entries on the mini-recorder at this point, the indecision is palatable.  I was uncertain enough to call Dave Fick, who was headed south from Amarillo and who planned from an earlier phone call to meet me in Littlefield, and tell him about Steve's recommendation.  Not only was he in a great position to catch the storm, being near Plainview at this point, but I thought he should know Steve's opinion, since I was now considering my decision to be somewhat on the fringe.  Glenn Dixon was also headed for the Floyd county storm.

Lubbock In My Rearview Mirror
   Littlefield, Texas has a population of 7409.  Probably very few of them were aware that the storm about 60 miles to the east now had prompted severe warnings in Floyd County and fewer still might have wished to be there.  Towers were going up in every direction around me, and falling over just as quickly.  They were so numerous it was hard to see any single updraft gaining dominance.  I drove around Littlefield like a pirate, trying to peer through the clouds for the storm I hoped was forming.
  At 4:30, Dave Fick called from the Floyd County storm which moved so slowly that the guys could have chased it on foot, to tell me that there was real rotation and inflow here and I should come quickly.  I looked on the map and incredibly, the storm was still only 60 miles or so away.  There was a tornado warning for it in Floyd County.  As I headed east on 54 to catch my friends and their storm, my area lit up like a Christmas tree.  Yes and I was glad, because storms to my west would not only be easier to intercept, but I would meet them as they were young, and not after hours of maturity as would be the circumstances with the Floyd County storm.  The first warning was out for Yoakum County on a storm near Plains, then Cochran County and north.  As I was already as far east as Spade, I went south from there on 168 to Snyder and then west on 114.  I stopped outside Levelland and watched the storm to the southwest, which was less than impressive at this point.  I listened as the Lubbock spotters talked in awed tones about the Floyd County storm, which was headed for Crosbyton.  Slowly.
  I moved east toward another developing storm in northern Lubbock county.  This HP beast wrapped up quickly, and began rotating with little warning.  On the south side of the storm, a funnel spun up, white and narrow and began to descend.  I couldn't believe my eyes since this storm had formed  just moments ago.   There was no visible evidence of contact with the ground and as I regained my sense of my surroundings, I realized that all the spotters were to the east or well southwest of the storm, and I was the only person who had seen this funnel.  Not knowing the tone to the local repeater in use at that time, I was unable to open the machine and report the funnel.  I don't want to go into a diatribe about this here since it justifies a separate essay.  So again, for the reader's full comprehension: I was unable to report the funnel in metropolitan Lubbock, Texas because of the tone on the repeater. As Vonnegut would say, think about that.

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Wall cloud northwest of Lubbock

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Rotating wall cloud in metro Lubbock

   I knew now that this Lubbock storm was my date for the evening and I wanted to score right away.  I went north to the loop and crawled along the roadway moving northeast, keeping the southeastern flank of the storm well within view.  Another wall cloud formed, large and black, slowly beginning to rotate.  I couldn't comprehend this becoming a tornado, and didn't want to try.  Still, the nervousness in the voices of these leathery, veteran Lubbock spotters made me realize that this was a potentially unpleasant scene.  Soon this feature broke apart, and the large core of rain moved closer to my position.  I continued northeast on the loop, planning to get out on 82 Eastbound, keeping me ahead of this storm, and, conveniently, in a decent position to go intercept the Floyd County storm, which was on its third or fourth tornado warning by now.
   At the intersection of 2641 and Martin Luther King Boulevard at 6:32 PM, I watched another wall cloud form directly over the Lubbock International Airport grounds.   The inflow was stiff and the rotation tight as the storm seemed to be pulling together for some large, sudden burst of energy.  It was gathering steam and moving east.  I broke onto Highway 82 and went east a few more miles to get a better vantage point.  Just as quickly as it took me to move a few miles, the mesocyclone had become rain-wrapped, and the storm exhaled cold air in a fury that bent back trees and sent small items flying across the road.  I moved quickly to stay ahead of this outflow and soon found myself face to face with another angry beast.

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Mothership meso in Lubbock while
needle funnel tries to emerge from wallcloud

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Dissipating wallcloud over Lubbock Airport

A Storm Spurned
The Crosbyton Fire Department reported a tornado on the ground nine miles north of Crosbyton.  I was going towards Crosbyton and into the teeth of the famous Briscoe/Floyd/Crosby county storm that I had avoided for so long.  It seemed as fate that we met finally this day, with the storm marching so slowly--painfully, hypnotically bearing down on Highway 82 from the north.  I was racing east on 82, and saw the hail shaft out in the field to my north.  It looked to be completely stationary!  I couldn't believe it, and the more I was convinced I might actually beat the storm and get east of it, the faster I went.  No, there were no good options to the south.  It was me and the train.  Race to the crossing.  What happens to the loser?  I had no interest in finding out.
  At 7:00 PM, outflow blasted out of the north, pushing my truck towards the ditch.   Get stuck in there and I'll catch your ass.  I fought the wheel to stay on the road.  Where was this alleged tornado?  What direction was it going?  Was it here, there, anywhere?  Everything seemed to be rotating above me. I watched a funnel form, spin and dissipate to the north.  There were so many storm features at the same time that I was overloaded, and shut down everything expect my focus on driving as fast as safety would allow, and as safely as a speeding demon could.  I could see the sunshine to the east--get out from under the anvil and everything will be fine.
   The hail caught me and banged away at the truck with marble and pea size artillery.  Still, the tremendous outflow blasts were a larger concern, and the stability of my very-high profile vehicle.  Finally, I emerged from the maelstrom and soon afterwards, heard the comforting sounds of Glenn and Dave chatting on the radio.   They were surprised to hear from me.  So was I.
  Dave and I went east and then South on 70 towards Spur, paralleling the massive meso of the now completely HP storm, and had a front row seat for this impressive display of storm-scale rotation and howling inflow, which Dave measured at a peak of 38mph.   The storm was now much better behaved, and if it were not for the very poor contrast, we certainly would have had some stunning pictures of the well-sculpted storm base.
  The rest of the chase was a retreat.  The storm merged with another cell to the south and a squall line was taking shape.  We broke out onto Interstate 20 and stopped a few times to look at radar images and try to find some dinner.  The tail-end charlie continued to rage, exhibiting a hook echo near Colorado City, where baseball to softball hail and a tornado on the ground were reported.  We stopped at Snyder then fled.  We stopped at Sweetwater and ran east some more, all the way to Abilene, where we set up camp at a truck stop and ate dinner watching the storm on radar and estimating its position relative to our food.  Glenn and Dave replayed some great video of the tornado they caught near Daugherty, and Dave also had some impressive gustnado footage.
   The worst convection passed to our south, and soon the storms lost intensity with the sunset.  Widespread flooding took place that night and the next day, as another squall line came marching towards our hotel in Abilene early in the morning.  I had seen quite enough and headed back to Denton.  Dave lit off for Houston, talking about tropical funnels and hurricanes to come.  Glenn and I drove lazily east, encountering Steve Miller and Blair Kooistra along the way as they headed out to Midland for another adventure.

[Author's note: Thanks to Glenn Dixon for the use of his laptop and GPS directions and to Dave Fick, for his chase reports, his cool little TV in the backseat and that amazingly helpful flashing yellow light.  I gotta get one of those!]