National Weather Service Lubbock's
Report for this Event
Click images below to enlarge
21 APRIL 2007: OLTON AND TULIA, TEXAS TORNADOES
This is sure to become the most complex and
continuously updated report on my website. I decided to start the
page now rather than wait until all the data and imagery is compiled.
There's simply too much forthcoming. This is the day Eric Nguyen
and I were struck by a developing tornado on the western edge of Tulia,
Texas about 0100z. Before that happened, however, we observed a
long-lived, photogenic tornado that passed from southeast of Olton,
through the westernmost outskirts of the town and to the northeast.
This tornado evolved from a truncated cone into a long tapered funnel (see top of this page) and crossed State Road 70. On the north side of the highway, it struck several houses and removed three roofs that we could see. Emergency services personnel arrived within seconds. Impressively, they were behind us waiting to deploy. The tornado swept a more northerly arc as it entered the northwestern corner of Hale County. We flanked it by stair-stepping east and north, losing ground on what was now a barrel shaped tornado and then a stovepipe. At one point the sun shone on the tornado as it curved into an elephant trunk and began to rope out. A slender translucent funnel dissipated to vapor and the forty minute event was complete.
We reached the interstate south of Kress and headed north. We observed several areas of rotation in the cloud base, which at the time appeared elevated. A few nubs and elevated funnels formed and weakened. At one point, a distinct area of lowered rotation was evident, but by the time we reached Tulia, that, too, was gone. We heard other chasers discussing areas of rotation and funnels, but, frankly, some of those same chasers were reporting tornadoes earlier on the Olton storm where there were none. We began to discount their reports. At the same time, our Mobile Threat Net radar system had stopped delivering radar data earlier in the day and we relied on GRLevel3 for the Cannon AFB radar since Lubbock's data failed as well. The Cannon radar was distant but accurate; it showed a storm with a hook and meso moving approaching Tulia, Texas.
As we reached Tulia, we noticed a lowering that looked like outflow-generated scud and dismissed it. For all I know, it actually was scud, but because of what would happen to us in the next ten minutes, all my observations and conclusions as we entered the town are under suspicion.
We entered Tulia from the south on State Road 86.
You cannot imagine my surprise.
I was examining the Street Atlas program to locate our eastern turn in a few blocks. Eric shouted, "Tornado!" and I turned to see a compact and violent circulation already filled with industrial debris.
"Floor it," I shouted and Eric tried, but it was too late. The outer circulation was on us. The pressure drop caused our ears to pop and the engine struggled with a ferocious east-northeast wind. The windows blew out except the front glass and wind rushed into the cabin. The tornado dragged our SUV to the left, toward an old tire shop on the western side of State Road 86. The rush of air was deafening. It was impossible to speak or be heard. I focused on what I believed at the time was Eric's choice to drive us toward this building. Not a bad idea, I thought, use the structure as the barest form of protection since it was clear we wouldn't escape. In reality, Eric was jamming the brake while the tornado pulled us to the west. We accelerated toward the building and I hoped the collision didn't kill us before the tornado had a chance to take its own shot. Then came the first in a series of fortunate turns when instead of hitting the corner of the building (which would have exploded the air bags) we crashed into a pile of old tires, softening our impact dramatically. Things went downhill from there.
The worst of the vortex hit with a fury of debris and violent noise. We shut our eyes tight and huddled in the center of the truck, ducking as low as possible to avoid missiles through the open windows. We wouldn't have been able to duck so low if the airbags had deployed. The circulation smelled like fresh cut grass. The machine-gun sequence of crashing and crunching sounded like a circus tent coming apart in a gale, metallic echoes and the whip and snap of roofing material and wooden splinters against the doors. We were completely vulnerable and I waited for something catastrophic, a massive chunk of debris or worse to crush part of my body, and I wondered what that was going to feel like. Because my eyes were closed I had no idea a tractor trailer was in play only a few feet outside. For some reason I didn't imagine we'd go airborne. Perhaps the idea was too horrific.
It ended suddenly. All the glass and rocks settled and I opened my eyes. The interior was coated in mud and tiny pieces of glass and pebbles. My hair was full of the same. I ran my hands over my face and studied my arms, pocked with tiny abrasions but whole. The wood splinter in the photograph below seemed so innocuous, light and thin. It likely missed stabbing me in the back by mere feet if not inches.
I thought to myself that this was every bit as bad as it looked. We'd been hit by a tornado and we would always be chasers who'd been hit by a tornado. We didn't even know yet if we were really okay. Injuries aren't always obvious. Debris lay everywhere. It's remarkable the number and depth of these notions during intense trauma. I mentioned to a friend later that the ideas weren't so much well articulated thoughts as feelings that seemed to carry these particular motivations at their core. You had to decipher the meaning later. Out the passenger window, the tornado still ripped through Tulia only a few hundred feet away, debris floating to the stripped asphalt below. Aluminum buildings clattered like an irregular ringing of a timpani. Power lines snaked on the street and a police car drove over one, wrapping the live wire around his tire and into the wheel well. The screech of the line sounded like another building coming apart. The cop jumped out of his squad car and into another and they continued up the road.
My door was blocked by a pile of bricks. The shop had been two garage bays wide but it was gone now, in its place the darkened backside of the storm's updraft base. The massive semi leaning over the front corner of our vehicle shocked me out of my daze. The physics of our debris configuration weren't immediately apparent. How was this truck leaning up against Eric's Xterra without tipping us, or without coming down and flattening the cabin? I didn't understand it but I knew trucks didn't stay tipped on the edge of their wheels for long. They fell one way or the other. Even if this one fell back upright (which happened right in front of us the next morning!), that might cause a chain of events with unpleasant outcomes. My human body was the most fragile component of the pile. Eric scrambled from his seat and exited through the back. He ran into the street shooting photographs as the tornado widened to a wedge with random condensation tendrils wrecking homes and businesses as it tracked north. A distant car alarm squawked like a choking siren.
I yelled, "Are we okay?" I don't know exactly what I meant. I felt no pain and no limbs failed to respond. Eric was obviously intact as well. I found my camcorder and started filming, still in the passenger seat.
"I don' t know," he shouted. "I think it might be coming back." That was the single worst piece of news I'd ever heard.
I smelled petroleum, what turned out to be motor oil leaking from the semi's engine, but I mistook it for gasoline and thought of fire. I crawled out the back and moved far away from the vehicle. Between flames and a returning tornado, I'll take the wind. There were mostly intact buildings across the street and we could run over there and take our chances. Highway 87's western edge was a wasteland of shaved metal storage buildings, power poles and dirt. We waved for the police officers to keep going; we didnít need help and already felt guilty for distracting emergency services. The tornado continued north and we walked down the road to a corner where people had gathered.
Our friends and chase caravan partners that day were Bob Fritchie, Rachael Sigler, and their friends Matt Gaffner and Alan Raymond. They collected us and drove us to Amarillo. On the way, we spotted another tornado east of I-27 near Happy, Texas. We weren't looking for one, believe me. We needed a hospital for some small glass in Eric's eye. Then we wanted a motel and a quiet night's rest. Bob, Rachael, Matt, and Alan hung out in the ER and stayed the night in Amarillo as well. They brought us to a rental car agency the next morning and returned to Tulia with us to recover items from the SUV. Without their help, our experience would have been far more difficult and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
Several days later Eric and I composed a list of what conclusions we might take from the event. We shared this with some other chasers and composed it for a chasing audience. This is what we wrote:
"Eric and I think itís important to analyze what happened and why and share our conclusions, however unsatisfying or unflattering they may be. A failure to do so would seem like a continuation of whatever negligence we demonstrated on April 21st.
Our conclusions are that we were struck in Tulia for four primary reasons: (1) failure to vigilantly monitor our storm environment; (2) over-reliance on radar technology; (3) unsafe proximity to the mesocyclone and; (4) failure to properly credit radio reports prior to the tornado. These are not excuses. Iím trying to enumerate our mistakes and understand more fully how we made them.
On the first point, itís clear from other video that a wall cloud structure formed south southwest of Tulia immediately prior to the tornado. We didnít see it. We never observed this at all. I think we missed it for two reasons: first, we mistakenly believed the area of rotation was to our east northeast. I scanned the sky through the passenger window and out the windshield to locate the rotation and found some, saw it weaken, and observed the very high cloud base. I determined that the tornado threat was, at least temporarily, minimal. I should have looked over my left shoulder. I should have noted the surface winds. I have racked my brain trying to think of how I would have failed to note what should have been relatively strong east winds. If I had looked over my left shoulder, the second reason comes into play: a large grain elevator to our south southwest blocked our view. The tornado seemed to form immediately north of this grain elevator. Weíve tossed around ideas about how this structure might have influenced the rapid, ground-level tornado formation. Thatís for a later post.
On the second point, everybody knows the NOAA-Port problems that caused data failure throughout the user chain, including Baronís MTN (Mobile ThreatNet). Eric and I ran MTN and GRLevel3 simultaneously. MTN had failed long before we entered Tulia and we were already using GRL3 exclusively, for LBB radar, until it failed, too, and we switched to FDX (Cannon AFB, NM), which seemed to be transmitting. From FDX data, I recall a supercell with a hook and a meso in a position that jived with my observations. How did the radar problems impact our decision making? Itís hard to quantify, but I can speculate that ready access to radar data has changed the way I chase, namely delivering a (false?) sense of security when close to mesocyclones. With radar data unavailable or incomplete, perhaps we should have returned to a more Ďretroí style of chasing.
Weíre not strangers to pre-internet chasing. Eric and I both chased long before we owned laptops, let alone mobile internet connections. I still carry the ďRoads ofĒ maps in a duffle bag, but that doesnít mean I chase like I did the last time I broke one of those out.
My third idea is that we were simply too close in general, with or without proper feature observations or radar data. At the time, we didnít believe we were doing anything inordinately dangerous. It isnít unheard of to drive underneath elevated mesocyclones, relying on experience to gauge the situation. We believed we were on the southwestern periphery of the meso and the most intense rotation remained to our east-northeast. Obviously we were too close to adjust for unexpected developments. Our proximity gave us no margin for error.
Lastly, we monitored 146.550 all the way from around Kress to Tulia and heard scattered reports of new circulations. Northbound on I-27, we observed some of these circulations and evaluated the credibility of the reports based on those observations. There are chasers whose transmissions Iíve conditioned myself to ignore over the course of many years, and on Saturday that was a huge mistake. Itís nobodyís fault but mine. Discounting any radio report is a stupid misjudgment, perhaps the most egregious of all.
For now, thatís the best I can do. As I said last week, I wish I could locate a particular decision that endangered us, but no single choice beckons. What happened was the result of a combination of errors and misjudgments coincident with a rapidly developing and immediately strong tornado. All the user errors above are seasoned with a liberal dose of bad luck.
Eric continues to work with others on the collected
data from his vehicle instruments. We hope additional value can be
gleaned from our experience with those measurements."