May 31, 1999: Meade / Sitka, Kansas storm

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You Should Have Seen the One That Got Away

Web Posted June 7, 1999 8:00 PM
by Amos A. Magliocco

  I don't know which moment was more painful: when we heard NOAA Weather Radio reporting a spotter sighting of a large tornado on the other side of the storm, or when we got to our motel room that night in Woodward, OK, and saw the electrifying video of a large, stovepipe-shaped twister on The Weather Channel.  A tornado that was mere miles from us.  A tornado the beginnings of which may have taken shape almost directly over our heads.

   We were excited about the prospects this day.  A significant weather event was in the cards with a triple point intersection of a cold front, dryline and surface low pressure system taking aim at SW Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle.  We were in the entrance region of a jet maxima at 300mb, so in addition to our high surface CAPE, relatively positive speed and directional shear, we had some upper level dynamics to assist in the formation of severe storms.  The Storm Prediction Center forecasted a moderate risk of severe storms in the area, and so we left Denton, Texas the night before to get a head start on the long drive ahead.  As we left, I picked Liberal, Kansas as a potential target knowing very well that conditions in the morning could change that bullseye.  Weather systems rarely act in precise accordance with the models or the wishes of the forecaster.  Still, Liberal seemed the logical place given the relatively good agreement between models concerning the movement of the entire system.   However, this forecast turned out to be right for a few wrong reasons, which I'll discuss later.
   We pulled into Elk city, Oklahoma at nearly 5:00 AM to grab a few hours of sleep before we hit the surface plots and models again in the morning.  That done and after a hearty plains breakfast, we sailed for Woodward, Oklahoma, not as a target area but as a staging ground for the final interception of whatever the day would bring.   Along the way, my chase partner Blair Kooistra noted the accus clouds overhead, a sign of turbulence in the upper levels.
   At Woodward, we looked at charts and maps and read Dr. Eric Rasmussen's evaluation of the splitting jet maxima to the WNW and his conclusion that this could create a zone in between the split flow of the less than positive dynamics.  So, he opted to direct his VORTEX armada to the NE corner of the Texas Panhandle, near Canadian, TX.  We thought this was reasonable and reverse-engineered his forecast to see the split flow and buy the argument.  We headed that way, too.
   The VORTEX team launched a weather balloon around 4:30 PM and we listened in on their frequency to hear the results.  When the data came back, they concluded the best chance for storms to fire was to the north some.  It is very important to me to do my own forecast, badly or not, and I abhor the idea of tagging along without having convinced myself of the reasoning, however, I'm not going to argue with a team of research meteorologists who just launched a radiosonde.  So we followed.

The storm erupts
   As we moved toward the sleepy Texas town of Darrouzett, Blair pointed out a solitary cumulus tower to the NW.  It went up fast and hard, impressing us immediately.  Our concern up until this point had been whether the cap would break at all, so when it did, we knew this storm should certainly become severe quickly.   The boundary layer pot was boiling.
  It was hard to judge distance: when we first saw it, we thought it might as close as the Oklahoma/Texas border.  Soon we revised that to the Oklahoma/Kansas border until we heard that this storm had formed 10 miles north of Liberal Kansas.   So we went faster.

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Get out of the road, Toto

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A briefly rotational lowering

      Around 6:00 PM, we arrived in Plains, KS at about the same time as the storm.  We noticed some interesting lowerings which were briefly rotational, and had a confusing picture of storm structure before us, with either new updrafts forming to the west and south of the original storm, or an old, shedded updraft skin still lingering with the associated scud junk.
   After a quick examination of the rotation, we moved east on 160 where we encountered hail from pea to marble size, rattling the skin of the truck and my nerves.   My new vehicle has one major chasing drawback: an overhead glass moonroof.   Since it was the only 4 wheel drive 4Runner I could find in South Florida before I moved back to Texas, I accepted this potential hazard when I bought the truck with the thought that I would find or have manufactured some sort of protective hard-plastic cover for the glass above my head.  One baseball to softball hailstone and water would pour into the cabin, ruining the headliner and who knows what else.

Close Encounters of the Chaser Kind
  As we pulled into Meade, we were in a pure hail shaft.  No rain, just rocks pelting us without pause.  I even recall sunlight at that point, a macabre scene considering the menacing storm nearby.  The updraft was right behind us, and, while the hail held my full attention as we reached the city limits, we soon spotted a bigger problem.  Just to our south, perfectly parallel to our course and moving at nearly the same speed spun a rapidly rotating, large wall cloud with tornado written all over it.   It was no more than one-quarter mile away and loomed larger by the moment.   Blair and I were quite excited and nervous, and I looked for the first possible road to turn left and get north away from this monster which I was convinced would start throwing around bits and pieces of Meade, Kansas at any moment.
   Blair kept the video rolling and his eye on the wallcloud (it's great to chase with photojournalists) while I steered a course around slow-moving vehicles and, carefully as possible, through one red light and north on 54 out of town.  We went two or three miles before we stopped and looked back--the wall cloud still in sight and still ominous.
   Regaining our wits, we went back onto 160 to head east and stay with the storm.  But, like a centurion, the hail shaft stood between us and the now departing mesocyclone.  We poked and prodded, and ultimately decided against punching through when a baseball hailstone smacked the driver's side door.  This turned out to be our last best chance to get back into a favorable position.  Reflecting on the decision now, I don't regret not going through.  Reports from other spotters of hail even larger than what we encountered convinced me that had we gone through, we would have suffered serious damage to the vehicle, possibly losing that pesky glass over our heads, too.
  We elected to move south and try to flank the storm by going around the corner of it, which proved an impossible task, given our distance from the meso at this point, and the scarcity of roads in Southern Kansas and Northern Oklahoma in this region.   Around this time, a large, stovepipe-shaped tornado was tearing through an open field south of Sitka.  We never saw a thing.

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Scud junk

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Chaser convergence
Shoulda set up a hot dog stand

Maximum Convergence
  Racing east and north on 34, we began to listen in on other chasers suffering the same fate, including one of the Cloud 9 tour buses, Al Moller from the Ft. Worth National Weather Service and Bruce Haynie among others.  As we caught up to the storm, still exhibiting signs of rotation with lowerings and scud all around, we drove into a chaser convergence the likes of which I would imagine has never happened before.   Blair and I estimated there were between 75 to 100 people and at least 40 different vehicles, perhaps more.  One of the sights that is most memorable to me was a crowd of chasers up on an elevated area--like a mini-mesa--with tripods and other photo gear.   It looked like an audience at an outdoor arena.  Out on the lawn is a great place to catch a Jimmy Buffett show, but elevation and tall metallic instruments around a severe thunderstorm are a recipe for lightning strikes. 
   I have not heard of anyone getting struck that day, and I am relieved and surprised.  Considering the number of people and vehicles, I thought the armada behaved very well.  There was one individual in the middle of the road at one point with a tripod.  Blair and I couldn't understand why he would stand in the middle of the road rather than off to the side, or, for that matter, what he was shooting since at that point, we were still well behind the storm and there were no real features in sight.
  Sam Barricklow and Tim Marshall both caught stunning video of the tornado and showed it to us after we all stopped at the same small diner that night in Woodward, Oklahoma.  My congratulations to them again.  As Al Moller reminded us all on the radio of one of chasing's golden rules: "Outflank the thing."

[Author's note: Many thanks to Blair Kooistra, my chase partner that day, for the excellent review of the chase he wrote that very night, which served as a primary source for this report.  We'll get the next one, bud.]