Sunday, June 7, 2009

Tornado Chasing For Dummies 2009 - I

The poster at the right pretty much sums up my first serious expedition in '09. All but the picture, that is. More on that in a bit.
My favored source for getting myself into trouble -- The National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center -- was not promising the first full week of June. did offer a 10% probability of tornadic activity, in a tight little bullseye encompassing NE Colorado, SE Wyoming, and W/SW Nebraska for Friday, June 5. I wanted to operate closer to home than last season, for reasons I'll shortly 'splain, but the pickings just weren't there.
So at 11am on Friday, June 5, it was off to the northeast. I designated the center of the SPC "bullseye" as my destination. And at about 2:45pm, I arrived there: Ogallala, NE.
Don't worry, folks: they have civilization, flushing toilets AND a Wendys.
A problem -- a key, rather seminal one, actually -- for an amateur stormchaser like moi, is a lack of the kind of equipment that professional, experienced stormchasers have. Not the least of which is a short-wave radio and other means to track and hone in on promising storm developments. In my more local area -- most of NE Colorado -- I use 850 KOA in Denver, which is pretty Johnny-on-the-spot with NWS bulletins and warnings, things I can use, and have, to steer myself into significant pucky.
But once I get where KOA doesn't care what's happening, weather-wise...I'm on my own.
So I tried out the roadside signs that recommend radio stations for weather updates, like I used near Julesburg, CO. What I got from one, watered down, was this:
"Hidy...a furr piece a gud wether we's havin' h'yarbouts, but them fellers at the Natl Wether Service sez that we gots thunderstorms in da forecast, an' summa dem might git a tad lowbrow, iffen ya know whadda mean. So y'all keep an eye peeled now, y'hear? Now back to the soothing litany of Mortimus Ortly and his Melodic Hawg Reports..".
Another station I found, that wasn't static-infected, had a moving soliloquy about corn pollinating, and how agriculturally sexy it was. So I drove uninformedly on, intent on getting to the bullseye zone, and then parking it a spell. Maybe SW Nebraska radio would be more meteorologically informative.
It wasn't. I did find a station that -- between the kind of country western songs that make you want to get divorced before your wife runs off with the dog, truck and kids -- kept repeating "The National Weather Service has issued a Tornado Warning for all of SW Nebraska until 10pm; also, strong thunderstorms with thunder, lightning, rain, and those pesky ice balls that wreck your termato plants, may accompany a tornado if it shows up". The problem was, the station never said where it was broadcasting from.
Perhaps there's a good reason for that ;-)
So I noshed some useless calories in a Wendy's parking lot, and pondered the sky a spell, while listening for a sign that it was time to get moving in one direction or another. Instead, for the next hour, all I had was a yellow-breasted finch, harping at where I was parked (under a nesting tree, I reckon), and listening to music that had me either wanting to kick the snarf out of some overseas bad guys, or get drunk and cry 'cuz my now-ex wife had taken my pet rock, my wheels, and my tornado picture collection, and run off with Knuckles, a local entremanure and fix-it dude.
Finally annoyed with Hannah Montana, I stopped by a nearby motel, wherein the rather bored office attendant had The Weather Channel on the tube, and we were looking at a tornado, live. But one 2 hours west, in Goshen County, Wyoming. However, when a radar map was highlighted to show the storm location, I saw it was on the Wyoming/CO/NE border, and on an east-southeast track, that might just bring it by Ogallala in about 5 hours.
DOH...5 hours???
Besides not being equipped for night chasing, there was only so much of Me and You And A Dog Named Ebenezer Ukulele Ungabunga that I could take. At least now, I had a definitive storm and a definitive location, and I could consult the handy map that'd been folded up in my car since the first '04 expedition. Straight west out of Ogallala on I-80 or on US 30, and I could engage the storm head-on, in less than half the time. Of course, I'd made that mistake too, all too often -- attacking a storm from ahead, instead of from the most active flank. What I needed to do was flank the storm, and come up on it's SW side, where much of the stuff I sought would lurk. That would necessitate a retreat back into NE Colorado, and then a straight north approach from Julesburg, on a lonely two-lane highway.
Sure, there was a plentitude of even more isolated dirt roads; but as I learned in '05, my Saturn couldn't cope widdem at any appreciable speed, once rain turned the dirt to grease.
While I pondered that, the tornado in Wyoming roped out and disappeared, after about 20 minutes of terra firma disorganatia. But if the storm could produce one, it could produce more.
And I was in a hurry. So as usual, I elected the faster, head-on route. Stubborn is as stupid does ;-)
A couple hours' on, I could see a cloud formation (with a lot of darker, more menacing stuff behind it) that had some signs to suggest a wall cloud. I stopped and observed it for some minutes, and got a tad annoyed as it promptly fell apart, almost as if it'd "pranked" me, and was pointing and laughing now.
But beyond it....there was something. And from something, something else began to form.
And I was right in its path.
But after shooting two photos of the start of what appeared to be an apparent funnel cloud about 1 1/2 miles in front of me....the dagnabbed thing disintegrated. I was all set to shoot and scoot....and phfffft.
Strapping myself to the roof of my car and raging at the heavens didn't strike me as a bad idea about now.
A search of radio stations with strong signals nearby wasn't giving me any useful information; local celebrations, agriculture reports, local news, bad commercials...but not one promising storm report.
I sat for a spell longer, watching a promising-looking storm pass me by, and producing nothing other than a wimpy funnel cloud and no warnings over local radio.
Now 7pm, I dejectedly turned south, back for Colorado. Perhaps something was doing there.
Not until I hit Sterling, did I make out the distant signs of some impressive cumulonimbus to my southwest. I'd be coming at it from the wrong side, but when's that ever stopped me? I raced off in the direction of Akron, CO.
And wandered into rain, small hail, some stout winds....but no tornadoes. And no warnings. All KOA had to prattle about was a silly baseball game. Ack. Once I arrived at Akron, with dusk settling in, I decided to turn for home. Swing and a miss, struck out again.
But on the other side of Wiggens, headed SW on I-76, I saw I had one more chance for "something": ahead, the skies were darker than dark, and lightning was frequent and intense. Granted, the only way I'd know if a tornado were in my path would be to drive into it, or watch headlights in front of me doing rather unnatural things that make one go "that's messed up". Anyway, my camera wasn't set up for night-shooting. But with the intensity of the lightning, it might not matter.
As I'm headed into a bony-fingers of skeletal lightning hands across the sky ahead, another warning from the NWS: Severe Thunderstorm Warning. And, as always, I was headed into it, head-on. See the "stubborn is as" comment, earlier.
For about 25 minutes, it was something to behold: lightning turning night into day, and throwing both cloud-to-cloud and ground-to-cloud bolts, splotches and patterns all across the sky in front and overhead of me. I made a couple tries to shoot the stuff, inadequate as my equipment was; as always, I was too slow trying to drive, point and shoot; but stopping to get out and shoot, with the intensity of the lightning overhead, well...even my 'stubborn is' has limits.
Finally, about 11:30pm -- 12 1/2 hours after leaving my place -- I returned home. 610 miles in that time, for one puny funnel cloud (though some other shots that might be meteorologically amusing). Later, I learned that a tornado did touch down in Keith County, Nebraska (Ogallala, county seat). After dark. Vortexial turkey.
Maybe I'll try another piece of advice on that tornado safety poster next time: the only safe place during a tornado is in my arms. Come here, baby. I'll just make sure not to have some rural radio station playing a someone dun someone wrong song.


Blogger Sandee said...

My rule: Don't live in tornado country.

Love them all.

Have a terrific day. :)

07 June, 2009 10:36  
Blogger Sniffles and Smiles said...

Oh, you are an adventurous fellow!!! Storm chasing?! My hat's off to you!!! Very entertaining and humorous post!!! Your wit is endless, and always wonderful! My mother always wanted to be a weather woman...but San Diego State Univ. didn't have a meteorology course at that time...she opted for being the first woman to graduate from said institution with a geology degree, and met my father at Scripps...and they chased storms as well as interesting geological finds for the remainder of their lives...with her son and their daughter in tow...You bring back terrific memories, my friend! Hope your next storm chase is more to your liking!!! ~Janine

07 June, 2009 10:55  
Blogger Little Lamb said...

Maybe you should chase hurricanes. While a hurricane is happening around you, you could be inside listening and peek out the window to take pictures.

07 June, 2009 14:10  
Blogger A Lawyer Mom's Musings said...

Darn, Skunk! Better luck next time, including with the radio stations.

07 June, 2009 17:47  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You poor guy! Too bad you weren't at my house today (big sis here) -- one touched down about a mile or two west of me apparently, and then traveled south and hit Southlands. I couldn't see it from my house but the people across the street from me could. If I'd known what was happening at that moment I would have grabbed my camera and gone somewhere to get you some pix. Instead, we did the smart thing and stayed in the house. :-)

And the summer is still ahead of us yet...more opportunities, I'm sure!

07 June, 2009 19:15  
Blogger Cheffie-Mom said...

A storm chaser - what an exciting life you live! I'm in East Texas and I believe we are considered part of Tornado Alley. Let me know if you ever storm chase around here!

08 June, 2009 07:46  
Blogger Debbie said...

I would be running from a tornado rather than toward it. But many people love the thrill and excitement.

You need to get your HAM radio (Amateur radio)license, some equipment, then you could really keep in touch with other chasers, with trained storm spotters, you would meet some nice people too.

Hubby and I are both Extra Class hams, callsigns N4OYM and KA4P. He has taught courses over the many years and is helping get a new club started here.

Debbie Hamilton
Right Truth

08 June, 2009 09:38  
Blogger Pixster said...

I personally never fancied the idea of the possibilty of any kind of storm chasing- Pixies just don't do well in severe weather. :)
Good luck!

08 June, 2009 13:46  
Blogger Serena said...

Yikes! What you won't do for a thrill, dude. Storms like that would scare the begeezus outta me.:)

08 June, 2009 14:55  
Blogger Mayden' s Voyage said...

"a moving soliloquy about corn pollinating"


I am thankful to read you are safe, sound, and your sense of humor fully intact. I guess I should have read your blog before I sent a note! :)

08 June, 2009 19:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading about your Jose rescue, I am not surprised to hear this story! Clearly you are a man of adventure with a bit of a soft side for country love songs ;0!

09 June, 2009 00:23  
Blogger The Dental Maven said...

Well, maybe no tornadic activity, but you did get to enjoy those useless Wendy's calories. Now, that's a plus in my book.

09 June, 2009 11:45  
Blogger Wendy said...

You can have all my share of those pesky tornadoes!

09 June, 2009 22:17  
Blogger jenniferw said...

Vortexial turkey !!! LOLOLOLOL

12 June, 2009 06:38  

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