March 28, 2000: North Texas Tornadoes

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The Right Place to Be

Web Posted March 29, 2000 10:00 PM
by Amos A. Magliocco

  Most of the day I found myself in the wrong place, behind the mesocyclone, or too far north or south to see much behind the dense rain curtains. A long drive of frustration punctuated with a few spectacular images ended in another place where the wind blew lightly with no storms in sight, exactly the right place to be.

   I blame the IRS for the way it started. I live in Denton, but told my CPA in Gainesville that I would come and pick up my tax return and pay her for the work. I analyzed an area of good moisture convergence near the front along the Red River and, while I was nervous about moisture return that far north, I thought this bullseye might be a smart play. The depth of moisture worried me this far north, just as the cap was a concern to the south. I knew the upper level impulse was due later, and might not be a real factor in this first round of storms.

  Out of Gainesville by 2:30, I went west and south to Bowie. At the intersections of 287 and 59, towers blossomed over my head, the explosive updrafts mesmerizing me so that I stood and watched too long, long enough for the updrafts to catch the upper level winds like a sail, and drift away. I misjudged their direction, assuming they would move east or perhaps east-southeast, and so I went south to Sunset and realized those cells had weakened.

  Using my cellular modem for the first time in my chase career, I pulled a quick Doppler image and saw two cells west of Wichita Falls moving slowly east. I returned to Bowie and continued north on 81, catching site of the rain free base and solid precipitation core near Stoneburg. They were elevated, with little lightning around the core and no evidence of rotation. I cruised east with the storm to Montague as it grew and intensified, mooving into the better moisture.

  East of Montague something passed in front of me on the road. I thought it was scud, although it appeared large and organized. It was block-shaped, and appeared to have rotation. It was so wide I wondered for moment if it were an updraft base. It may have been a wall cloud. I watched it cross 59 moving from north to south and then I lost sight of the it, and the entire mesocylcone became rain-wrapped. I drove south on 455 when the first tornado warning came, a rotation between Montague and St. Jo. I stayed on the southern flank, but never caught site of the updraft again.

  The storm was moving southeast now, so I took 455 to stay alongside, and saw the backside of the magnificent storm, where two bright, arcing rainbows disappeared high into the underside of the anvil, melting into the white crown and mammatus glowing orange and red in the dimming sunlight.

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  Low clouds moved away and the mountainous anvil of the Tarrant County supercell came into view to my south. It was the most breathtaking storm I’ve seen, with marbled knuckles and a towering updraft column. Farmhouses and windmills on either side of the road made wonderful foreground material and I stopped several times to photograph the storms in both directions, knowing I wouldn’t catch them if I took the time for pictures, but convinced the pictures would be worth the risk.

  Speeding onto I-35, I headed north to Valley View and then Gainesville, where the storm had a new tornado warning. As I arrived the storm collapsed with a heavy outflow sigh. The Denton County Skywarn was in session, discussing the tornado on the ground in Ft. Worth. I knew I’d never make it down there, and felt good about not adding to the confusion and traffic. A friend called and said another cell near Valley View was going up fast, so I tuned and headed south, meeting the storm in time to see another occlusion.

  My frustration grew and I went through Denton toward Dallas, nearly out of gas and stiff from the miles, hatching a twisted plan to cruise through downtown and catch a storm on the south side of the metroplex, a ridiculous idea, proof that I needed heavy sedation. My nobility was gone.

  At Lewisville, I was out of gas and energy. I stopped to fill the tank and listened to Al Moller, the dean of operational severe storm forecasters, take the amateur radio microphone and talk directly to Sam Barricklow, his counterpart in the Skywarn Hall of Fame, the First Spotter. It was an all-star weather net. Sam told Al he saw green power flashed to his north, near Illinois Avenue and I-35. Al told him it was the remaining rotation of a dying mesocyclone. Sam said there was a circulation up there and Al said the next tornado, if there was another, would form near Desoto, along the lip of the gust front. Moments later he told the Dallas Emergency Coordinator to call the city of Desoto. Tell them to sound their sirens, he said.

  I tuned the radio back to the Denton repeater and heard the Tarrant County RACES Coordinator request ECOM1, the Denton County Emergency Communications Van, just a converted ambulance, and as many amateur radio operators as we could send to help. I joined the caravan on I-35 as we headed south and stopped at the Spur 280 exit, lined up in front of a police barricade, waiting for admittance to a dark and empty downtown Ft. Worth.

  We showed our ARES badges as each vehicle passed. The streets were coated with glass, rocks and concrete. The few street lights glistened off the broken shards and puddles of water filled with paper and trash. A few police cars patrolled the area, others blocked intersections, their strobing red lights and orange flares reflected in the jagged glass and hanging panes of the storefronts and skyscrapers.

  We passed a bus stop where two women sat waiting, one young and one old. The older lady was leaning over to the younger one, telling her something, something that made her smile as she told it. I wondered if she was talking about the first tornado she ever saw, or maybe just that they would be okay. I wondered how long they would wait for a bus. We snaked around the streets, a convoy of trucks and vans with strange antennas led by an ambulance, an ominous, morbid procession in the dark, rolling through red lights, going the wrong way on one way streets. People watched as we went past. They were still down here. We were just arriving, but they had been here the entire time.

  At Fire Station Number 2 we parked in a lot full of other communications vehicles across from the station. Hundreds of firefighters, amateur radio operators and medical personnel wandered around, occasionally a vehicle would pass by, flashing lights and the sound of tires on glass-covered roads, a crunching sound like gravel but brighter, sharper. We waited for orders and checked in, telling the Tarrant County personnel our callsigns and license class. They wanted to know what equipment we’d brought.

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  They sent us to a part of downtown yet to be searched. We were to pair off and hit the streets, report on mobile radios anything we thought they would want to know. Watch out for looters, the Red Cross representative told us, stay away from them—don’t try to interfere. Watch for falling debris. Glass was still dropping from the skyscrapers. I drove the Tarrant County Coordinator back to the firehouse, and by the time I turned around to head back to our search area, they called us all back, telling us we were needed to help the dog teams on search and rescue. We did a roll call each time we moved. When everyone was accounted for, we came back and waited.

  A few shop owners swept glass from their stores onto the street. They watched us pass by and I wondered if they thought they might open for business in the morning, as if the city would clean this up overnight, as if it were something to be hauled away and forgotten. Someone said there were two little girls missing—that they had been missing even before the tornado, and no one knew where they were now. Everyone wanted to know where to look. We passed a red BMW parked on Cherry Street, the back half crushed as if by a boulder.

  Back at the firehouse we waited around the van for the dog teams. The old ambulance was a diesel and they kept it running, the exhaust waving in our faces, noxious, sweet and intoxicating. We talked about the storm and where we were at the time. I went to find a bathroom in the fire station. There was a line at the door, and a woman came out of an office across the hall, and stared at us all for a minute like she’d been asleep, like she was surprised to see us, to see hundreds of firemen milling around in the main room. The amateur radio operator in line behind me was a roly-poly guy, with a shirt that looked like it would bust open, his callsign tattooed on the front. He looked at the lady and told her what he thought about the storm, where he was when it started, when he heard it was on the ground. He told her what they ought to do about it. She looked at him like he was a madman. Then she looked at me, and I could see she wanted to ask us what we were doing there, lined up in front of the bathroom. I would have asked the same of her, a middle-aged lady in a housedress, hiding in the backoffice of a firestation.

  Outside, NOAA weather radio crackled from inside the van. A new thunderstorm watch, another round of storms headed our way. No one could believe it. The dryline hadn’t passed us and our winds were from the southeast--still in the warm sector. Wind would blow the debris from the buildings. We smoked cigarettes and waited. We talked about airplanes and antennas. Down the street, two mechanics stood outside their garage and watched us. Helicopters hovered overhead, their wide spotlights moving up and down the buildings. A man in a suit stood among a group of firefighters in battle dress, orange and yellow pants and coats, helmets in their hands. He looked nervous and fidgeted with a small radio.

  Finally word came that we could go. Search and Rescue teams from around the area were arriving by the minute, and they would take it from here. The Tarrant County group thanked us for coming, told us they wouldn’t hesitate to call us again and would gladly return the favor. We all hoped it would never be necessary. The procession began again, and we crept along the streets and through the abandoned intersections. As a few pedestrians stopped to watch us pass, staring, we heard on the radio that 29 elderly people were waiting to learn where they would spend the night—maybe in the Will Rogers Coliseum—the city didn’t know yet.

  We left downtown and started north up I-35 back to Denton, back home. We chatted on the radio, talked about the weather in general and radios, nothing about what we’d seen. We talked about how when you reached the crest of the hill just south of Alliance Airport, the runway lights in front of you make it seem as if you’re in the glide path, about to touch down safe and sound. As we talked, I glanced to the west, looking to catch a glimpse of lightning over the western horizon, and some hint of what would come next.