May 29, 2004

Today was a chase day I was looking forward to and dreading at the same time. For several days, the computer forecast models were consistent in indicating a potentially significant severe weather outbreak in the central and southern Plains. In fact this was looking like another target rich outbreak, a type of day I have come to dread given my previous bad luck of getting the non tornadic storm or the storm that produced tornadoes that were impossible to see (see May 4, 2003, May 15, 2003, May 24, 2004). South-central Nebraska and north-central Kansas was the area I was most interested in the day before, but as newer data started coming in the night before it appeared the strongest upper level winds would be taking dead aim on Oklahoma...just like five days earlier. Because of what happened five days earlier, I was reluctant to take another stab up north only to have tornadoes literally happen in my backyard. Although the dryline/warm front intersection northeast of the surface low near the NE/KS border would be a no-brainer, the fact the strong flow aloft would be over Oklahoma made me feel a little better about staying close to home, so I stayed here in Norman until about 2pm looking at data and satellite images - still a bit unsure exactly where to go. The answer came when I saw cumulus going up on the dryline in the eastern Texas panhandle, so I got in my car and headed west on I-40 towards western Oklahoma.

As I headed west I got periodic updates from my chase partner Jay Barnes, who was watching the storms develop near the TX/OK border from his computer at his home in Austin TX. By the time I got near Weatherford I could see the anvils from these young storms streaming well to the east, and by the time I got to Clinton I could see two distinct cells - one to my northwest and another to my southwest. Although my gut was telling me to go for the cell to the south, the fact that warnings were being issued for the cell to the north and the fact Jay was saying it looked better on radar led me to decide to go after the northern cell. So I took Hwy 34 north out of Elk City to intercept this cell. By the time I got to Hammon, I began to see a high rain free base with this cell, with a wall cloud forming underneath the base. I pulled over north of Hammon at around 4:50pm to watch this rectangular wall cloud to my west. I then reached for my camera and tripod in order to get video, but then realized I left the mounting piece for the camera at home (just like I did at the Denver convention) so everything was going to have to be handheld today. After about 15 minutes this storm was beginning to show a nice RFD notch and was moving off to the northeast, so I headed north up the road several miles to catch up with it. Around this time I noticed the storm off to my south was really beginning to take off, and before long a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for it. I was well out of position to intercept the cell to my south, so I continued following the cell I was on north up Hwy 34 then east down Hwy 47. The storm maintained its high base for a while, but between Rhea and Burmah the base began to lower was beginning to kick up some pretty strong inflow. Unfortunately it was drawing in loads of precipitation from the cell to the south, and the upraft from the south cell was rapidly moving northward towards the north cell. By the time I got to the intersection of Hwy 47 and US 183 I lost view of the north cell in the heavy rain. I then went south on US 183 along with literally hundreds of other chasers in the heavy rain, then stopped just before where Hwy 47 continues east to wait for the rainfall to subside and to allow time for the core to get further east. As the rain let up I continued south on US 183, and before long I started to get into hail. At first the hail was pea to marble size and mixed with heavy rain, then the rain let up and the hail increased to dime to quarter sized. So I continued to sit and wait for the core to get further east of the highway, then once the hail ended I continued south towards Clinton - from where I would take I-40 to get east of this storm in order to reposition.

After listening in vain to all the tornado reports near Thomas and Greenfield, I blasted east on I-40 through the intense southerly crosswind and occasional dust storms to US 281. From US 281 I went north up to Geary, getting an awesome view of the storm's updraft and backsheared anvil to my west-northwest. As I entered Geary, I began to make out the storm's beaver tail as well. I pulled over just north of Geary, where it became evident to me this storm was just a massive HP supercell, and any tornado this storm had was just buried in precipitation. Soon it became clear the tornado was probably obscured in dust as well, as a tremendous inflow jet kicked up blinding clouds of red dirt. Small branches were falling all around me as well, so I decided to get out of there and head back south, looking back in awe as thick clouds of dust were rapidly being drawn into the updraft. With limited road options east and massive chaser traffic I decided to drop back south to I-40 and try getting ahead of it again in the Piedmont area. What I didn't realize however was the storm would slow down, and by the time I got to Yukon I found myself well east of the storm and listening in agony to reports of tornadoes in the Calumet and Concho areas. Actually it wasn't that big of a deal, as I was getting a magnificent view of the storm's mothership structure. But by this time I was getting low on gas, so I went up to Piedmont in hopes of finding a gas station still open. But once I got to Piedmont, the sirens were blaring and all the gas stations were closed, so I went back south to the Northwest Expressway then southeast to find a gas station still open. I then drifted down the Northwest Expressway, periodically pulling over to get a view of the storm. I lost view of the lower levels of this storm for a while as darkness set in and I went through the northern part of Oklahoma City. Still determined to see a tornado, I decided to continue the chase after dark to the east of Oklahoma City.

From Oklahoma City I went north up I-35 to Edmond, then east on Hwy 66 through Arcadia, Luther, and Wellston. Due to the terrain I was having trouble getting a good view, although I could see some lightning illuminated wall clouds from time to time. I then went north up US 177, where I pulled over for a few minutes to try to get video at around 10:10pm. Although I haven't figured out the manual focus and low light settings of my new camera yet, I did try to get a bit of video of the features off to my northwest between 10:13 and 10:16. I then drove up the road and tried to get a little closer, stopping a few miles south of Carney at around 10:25. I watched lightning illuminate a low hanging wall cloud passing just a few miles directly north in front of me, then as the storm moved east I turned around and went back to Hwy 66 to catch up with it. By the time I got to Chandler the storm was moving out of my view and I was dead exhausted, so I decided to call off the chase here and go back to Norman.

Once again, I find the storm on an outbreak day that produces tornadoes that are impossible to see. Meanwhile, storms further north ended up producing prolific amounts of photogenic tornadoes - especially one in southern Kansas. But judging from the traffic out on the roads today many other people missed the bigger show up north as well. I did run into the hordes on two different occasions - once at the US 183 and Hwy 47 intersection, and again in Geary just before the HP supercell hit the town. I also saw numerous locals parked at the intersection of Hwy 4 and Hwy 3 - including entire families pulled up in lawn chairs watching the massive HP come in from the west. Well I guess it was better family entertainment than The Day After Tomorrow. But since I usually kept a good distance from the storm, I did not have as much problems with the crowds as others did. Also the crowds had thinned quite a bit after dark to the northeast of Oklahoma City. This storm continued a very long time after I broke off it, not dying until it got to the Oklahoma/Arkansas border at 3am! This is very impressive considering the storm began way out near the Texas/Oklahoma border almost 12 hours earlier....and puts this storm among the legends among long lived supercells such as the May 29, 2001 storm and the May 9, 2003 storm. Tonight's storm actually took a very similar path (albeit slightly further north) than that of the May 9, 2003 storm - and looked eerily similar on radar to the 2003 storm. The freakiest occurrence of the day however was finding myself being followed by a "chaser" for about 50 or 60 miles - this person began following me westbound on I-40 around Weatherford, then continued to follow me up Hwy 34 and Hwy 47 until we became separated in that horde at the US 183 intersection. This person mimicked my every move, passed every vehicle that I passed, stopped every spot that I stopped, and always tried to stay within 2 car lengths of me. Another chaser also reported being followed by someone in a vehicle similar in appearance to the one that was following me. Although it is a free country and you are free to do as you wish, following other chasers without their permission is not a practice I would recommend. After all, you can't always assume that the person you're following knows something that you don't......

Video captures

Total Mileage: 454 miles
Total Driving Time: 9 hours, 26 minutes

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