In the four years I have been chasing storms on the Great Plains, I've seen all kinds of fantastic storm structure, lightning displays, and very large hail. But despite covering tens of thousands of miles over the Plains states the past few years, the tornado had still eluded me. All of that changed today.
I left Norman at 2:50pm and headed west on I-40 towards western Oklahoma. Thunderstorms were already developing on the dryline near the TX/OK state line. With strong southeast winds at the surface and strong southwest winds 5000 feet above the surface, these storms would have no trouble rotating. When I got to Clinton at around 4:30pm, I could see a large barrel shaped updraft to my west with a long inflow band feeding into it from its southeast. Near the town of Parkersburg, I saw a large cone-shaped funnel cloud begin to descend from the rain-free base about 15-20 miles to my west at 4:32. I watched this funnel cloud for a couple of minutes before it reached the ground and constricted into an elephant trunk shaped tornado. The tornado was perfectly backlit, so I kept heading west until I could find a good place to pull over and get pictures. At exit 57 (about 4 miles northeast of Foss), I pulled over, got out of my car, and started taking video. From 4:37 to 4:42, I watched the tornado 8-12 miles to my west-southwest as it evolved from a cone shape to more of a stovepipe shape. Even from the distance I was at, I could clearly see dust rotating around the funnel at a very rapid rate. From time to time the tornado would split into three distinct vortices. The tornado appeared to be moving in my direction at a steady clip, so I decided to get back in my car and head a few miles up the road to a safer location.
After heading east up the frontage road about 5 miles, I stopped again to take some more video. By this time it was 4:47, and the tornado had widened into a very large cone shaped funnel about 1/4 to 1/2 mile wide. At least eight westbound 18-wheelers had pulled over at exit 61 to stay out of this thing's way as it basically paralleled the interstate. This tornado seemed to go on for a very long time with seemingly no end in sight. But then at around 4:55, a new wall cloud developed to the southeast of the big tornado. Cold air had wrapped completely around the tornado, which caused it to narrow and weaken rapidly. A second funnel cloud was beginning to form from the new wall cloud as the first tornado detached from the cloud base and appeared as a hollow white tube suspended between the cloud and the ground. I started to go north to keep up with this storm, but then turned around after a single golf ball sized hailstone smacked off my windshield. It turned out to be just as well, as the second funnel cloud was very short lived and the wall cloud ended up dissipating after a few minutes. I then learned that a new storm was developing near Cordell to my southeast, so I decided to head back east on I-40 to get ahead of this storm. I hoped to get on the other side of this storm to catch another tornado, but by the time I got ahead of it I only had an hour of daylight left. Being more than satisfied with what I had seen so far, I decided to call it a day and arrived back in Norman at 7pm. But even after arriving home, it turned out my day would not be over just yet.
At 8pm, two rotating thunderstorms were approaching the southern OKC metro area from the west, with the southernmost storm threatening Norman. Tornado sirens began to blare throughout Norman at 8:49 as the storm passed just north of the city. Continuous lightning flashes revealed the cumulonimbus cloud had a nice striated, corkscrewed appearance. Both storms ended up going over Newcastle, Moore, and Del City, and fortunately they had weakened by the time they did so - all three of these towns were hit by the devastating tornado of May 3, 1999.
The tornado I witnessed was part of one of the most significant tornado outbreaks ever recorded in the United States during the month of October. It appears that at least 25 tornadoes struck from western Oklahoma to central Nebraska on Tuesday afternoon and evening. Although several of the tornadoes in Oklahoma were very large, most of them passed over mostly open land. One unfortunate exception was the town of Cordell, where 150 homes were destroyed. The good news is no deaths were reported as most people took appropriate shelter when the storm struck. It's also fortunate that none of the tornadoes crossed the interstate, since it's still apparent that some people still don't know what to do when caught out on the road during a tornado. I personally saw several vehicles that had taken shelter under overpasses - even though the tornado never came much closer than 10 miles from their location. It's a popular myth that an overpass is a safe place to seek shelter from a tornado. This myth has been perpetuated by the "get under the girders" video taken near El Dorado KS on Apr 26, 1991 that has been shown 26 billion zillion times where people took shelter under an overpass as a weak tornado passed very close by (but not directly overhead). The National Weather Service and OKC media have been trying to discourage people from doing this, especially after 3 people died and dozens were seriously injured seeking shelter under various overpasses during the May 3, 1999 tornado outbreak. One reason word apparently isn't getting out is because the interstates are travelled by many people from out of state who are unaware of the overpass tragedies that have occurred in Oklahoma. Other storm chasers have suggested that signs be posted under overpasses warning people of the dangers of seeking shelter there during a tornado and suggesting more appropriate actions to take (such as driving away from it) -- it's time for this option to be seriously considered before another overpass tragedy occurs.
This chase gets a 10 out of 10 - and realistically this one will be hard to beat. Every possible thing that could have went right did go right. I was able to drive straight to the storm without having to battle with any rain or hail, and got to the storm right in time to see the entire life cycle of a large, long-tracked tornado in well backlit conditions and good visibility. This was the third tornado I have seen and the first tornado I successfully videotaped. Some reasons I had missed seeing tornadoes in the past were because my view was blocked by rain or hail, I picked the wrong storm, I gave up on the storm too early, or I got on the storm too late. Even when I had seen tornadoes in the past, I usually had something go wrong when trying to capture it on film. When my dad took pictures of me standing in front of a tornado in Turlock CA on Apr 20, 1988, we got the pictures back to discover that the film was double exposed - somehow my dad had bought film that had already been used by people we didn't know!!! Then there was the Dec 12, 1996 fiasco near Oakdale CA where I struggled to get glimpses of the tornado between breaks in trees and houses - only to have it to be a moot point anyway since my videocamera's battery was dead! So it was nice to have one go right for once.
Following are some video captures of the Elk City tornado, as well as a storm structure and lightning shot taken later that evening in Norman.
Total Chase Mileage: 237 miles
Total Chase Time: 4 hours, 22 minutes
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