May 20, 1999: Lake McClellan, Texas Storm

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Map detailing area of tornado and funnel sightings
Web Posted 1:00 AM June 3, 1999.
by Amos A. Magliocco

   As I have chased many days since this event, some of the details are obscured since I failed to properly record all aspects of the chase. Several lessons here for new chasers: bring your mini-recorder and use it.  Review your maps after the chase to record the roads you took.  Save the maps and other data you analyze before leaving, so that the atmospheric setup can be properly reported.  I have done almost none of that, so here are the details as I can recall.
  Examining the RUC and ETA models, I analyzed the dry line would bulge in the central Texas panhandle area.  A shortwave was progged to pass over the area, and this feature was visible on the latest water vapor loop.  The cap was strong but not prohibitively so I thought, which pointed out again to me a major weakness of my forecasting skill--the inability to analyze future cap strength with any degree of confidence.  Maximum convergence was to the northeast of the dryline bulge, and the deep layer shear seemed sufficient to support isolated supercells.  I targeted Shamrock, Texas and called my friend Clinton Norwood, a professional photographer in Dallas to join me.  We discussed leaving at noon.

   We left Denton on 380 West and caught 287 (that highway to chaser heaven) at Decatur.  Approximately three hours later, we pulled into a convenience store in Shamrock, observing brisk surface winds out of the southeast and abundant high level cirrus, always an annoying feature when one is trying to discern the tops of actual developing storms.  We were unable to pick up NOAA weather radio, which was an additional pain.  We strongly considered staying right there (stick to your forecast!) and wait to play the dryline, expecting storms to fire along the boundary.

   Soon we heard spotter reports of 2 inch hail out of a storm to the northeast of Pampa.  We decided to move west on Interstate 40 to get closer to NOAA broadcasts.   As we drove, we heard spotters excitedly reporting a rotating wall cloud to the south of Pampa on a storm which was now exhibiting a southerly component to its movement--a right turner!

   We accelerated.  Within 25 minutes we arrived at the intersection of Interstate 40 and State Road 70, which runs north and south.  The storm was to the north, and so we turned right and moved in the direction of Perryton.  Ten to fifteen miles or so up the road, we could make out the well-defined base of a clearly rotating thunderstorm--a supercell in all its glory.  Just then, a caravan of stormchasers came from the other direction--a train of 15 to 20 vehicles with all manner of antennae, weather instrumentation and other space gadgets.  One of them, a moustached man travelling solo, looked at Clint and I and pointed vigorously in the other direction, as if to tell us to flee.

   I figured all those chasers couldn't be wrong and so I joined the tail end of the chain and we all drove south to within a few miles of the 70/I-40 intersection when Clint and I decided that the lowerings behind us were far too interesting to ignore.  We pulled over near a group that had decided the same, including veteran chaser Bill Reid.

TORNADO # 1
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TORNADO # 1

   As we all watched the many areas of rotation in the base of the storm, one of them organized quickly to the east of State Road 70. As the funnel descended, it grew grotesquely larger in the middle and held that shape for several minutes. Shutters were popping like tommy guns as a row of ten chasers faced east on a small rise to the side of the road.

   At one point, I realized that everyone's photos of this tornado would look almost exactly alike, so I moved off the hill and up the road to the north slightly, trying to get the mileage sign in the shot as the tornado roped out in a beautiful, twisted pattern. It is important to note that neither Clint nor I could confirm touchdown on either of the two funnels we saw this day, but video taken by other chasers which I watched later that night in the Childress Kettle restaurant left no doubt that the first circulation contacted the ground, making it my first official tornado.

   Since I was pointed in a northeasterly direction as opposed to all the other chasers facing due east, I was able to notice a circulation to the north. Soon this feature had my full attention, as it wrapped and spun faster and faster, moving south and coming right down the road in our direction.. My first reaction was a strange one: I photographed the feature and walked backwards down the road as the rotation grew closer and closer. I talked to Clint about this later, as I recognized afterwards that my first reaction should have been to sense the danger of this situation. Clint told me that many photographers have a sense of detachment from whatever danger may be on the other side of the lens, and that this was not entirely unusual.

   Two minutes may have passed before I put the camera down and fear emerged to replace my hypnotic fascination. I looked over at the group on the side of the road still facing the now dissipating twister. None of them saw this intensifying rotation.

   "Uh, Clint?" I said, gaining his and everyone else's attention. Someone yelled: "Look out to our north!" With that, everyone ran back to the vehicles and we raced south to the interstate, moved east a few miles, and then   south on the continuation of State Road 70. As we stayed ahead of the storm, we saw the second, more classic-appearing funnel descend from the base. I have only been told by others that there is video evidence of this touchdown and so I won't call it a tornado until I can see that tape.

  We stopped several times to shoot the long-lasting funnel.  By this time, the number of vehicles on this small country road was as much of a concern as the storm, and the possible tornadoes and the hail following us..  This is not because anyone was driving in a particularly reckless fashion, but simply that this was a two lane highway, and there were 25 or 30 cars pulling off and onto the road at random locations, each with drivers whose minds were focused on something other than the roadway and the traffic around him or her.

   As long as everyone pays attention to other vehicles, I don't have a problem with the number of chasers on any given storm these days.  Frankly, I'm much more weary of the endless whining and complaining about the volume of chasers.  Certainly, I would rather have every supercell to myself, and would prefer an empty roadway where I could have little concern about anything besides the storm, and getting the next great shot.  But that's not the way it is anymore, and may never be again.  I think many people are going to have to come to terms with this new reality.  Whether they can deal with it or not is of little consequence to me, I just wish they would shut up about it.

   As the storm continued on a southeasterly track, we merged onto 287 again and drove through Clarendon and down to Hedley, where warning sirens pierced the late afternoon calm and people gathered outside their homes and businesses to watch the oncoming monolith.  By this time, the storm was a sculpted work of art, with a carefully rounded base, crisp striations and a barber pole appearance that made it seem almost impossible that this had not been designed in a studio, with a careful artist fretting each detail.  It was breathtaking and we stopped several times to photograph the remarkable structure.

  As the sun set through the rain shaft, we stopped again as the mountain of air and water put on a display of brilliant color.  Finally, we stopped at the Kettle in Childress, Texas,  meeting up with Tim Marshall and a handful of other chasers, including Steve Sponsler from Florida.  Tim had remarkable video of the first tornado from the opposite direction east of the lake, and an amazing, six-inch hail crater in his windshield from what he termed a "rogue hailstone."

  It was a magnificent storm, and continued to fire lightning well into the night as we boarded to sleep in Childress, and recounted our adventure.

TORNADO #2 (?)
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