May 25th was kind of a let down for me. After a wild day before in Oklahoma, it certainly looked like the Missouri/Arkansas/Tennessee area was in for a big day as the system continued eastward. However, after spending hours waiting for initiation in Newport, Arkansas, we headed southwest towards Little Rock as storms exploded there. Of course, 2 hours after we left a tornado occurred just west of Newport. For sure it was one of those days. We chased several tornado warned storms, but something was missing. Maybe weaker 850 winds than further north into northern Arkansas and southern Missouri where numerous tornadoes occurred? We finally captured a nicely structured supercell that dropped a brief tornado just west of Memphis, Tennessee. The last 3 photos below were taken IN MEMPHIS, looking west across the Mississippi river (which was producing major flooding at the time).
May 24th certainly lived up to its High Risk billing. Supercells exploded along the dryline in western Oklahoma and quickly became violent. Numerous EF3 – EF4 tornadoes occurred with various supercells. We intercepted the Canton storm, which produced 3 tornadoes we could verify. Then we dropped south to Oklahoma City and intercepted two more storms that produced tornadoes as well. My heart goes out to all those who suffered personal losses this day. If you haven’t gotten involved or donated to the local Red Cross/or other agencies, please do so!
May 22nd, 2011 was a day I will never ever forget. It was one of the most horrific experiences I have ever had chasing. One engrained deep into my mind for the rest of my life. Some decisions we made this day saved our lives. To be within 3 blocks of one of the most devastating tornadoes in US history and to be able to write about is not something I take lightly.
We started in Wichita, KS, expecting a big day in southeastern Kansas and southwest Missouri. Our initial target was an Independence to Joplin line. Things looked good early with ample moisture, high CAPE, and good surface winds. I was afraid of the weak upper level flow not venting precip far enough downwind to keep storms from being HP and quite messy, and in the end, this was exactly what got us in trouble.
The first storms went up near Independence, KS and were quite explosive. They turned into a pile of outflow dominant cores quickly and were impossible to chase. These highly electrified cores were fun to watch as the CGs bounced around but updrafts never looked like they were ready to drop a tornado. Just too much outflow out of control, and too HPish.
As we moved from storm to storm, we continued eastbound towards the Missouri border as outflow spewed south of us. We knew we had to get back south and east of the OFB or we were in for a long evening. Storms would develop on the dryline to our south and move northeast, crossing the boundary, spin, become undercut and weaken. We chased a number of these cores, slowly moving east through the towns of Rosewood, Columbus, and Cherokee and into Missouri.
As we continued into Missouri, northwest of Joplin, one storm interacted with the boundary, developed a well shaped wall cloud, and became tornado warned. It pummeled us with large hail golf ball/tennis ball sized, but also crossed into the cold air and weakened. This was the first storm that became tornado warned in Joplin.
What happened next occurred at a time we were not really chasing, but with our guards up at all times, as one should. We came southeast into town and dropped south on Range line Road, (71Business) not aware of what was happening to our west. A storm was developing on the dryline and started spinning before it hit the OFB. As it hit the boundary it became violently tornadic in 15 minutes! The rest is a historical section in US tornado events. This storm turned hard right along the rolling spinning outflow boundary and quickly developed supercellular features and was extremely wet. HP storms are not fun to chase as you cannot see what is going on under the mesocyclone.
We headed down Bus 71 and found a gas station to stop and refuel, and those who really needed to use the facilities were allowed out as it had been a long while since we’d taken a break. Fortunately as it happened, the attendants at the store would neither allow folks in, nor allow us to pump gas, because we were under a tornado warning from the storm that had already crossed the boundary and moved into cold air. We pondered where we could use restrooms and decided to get back into the vans and head south looking for another stop. At that point I looked at the latest radar update and the storm now had a violent hook on it. I knew we had to act and act fast! I was pretty certain there was a tornado coming at us and at a steady pace, but had NO idea how significant this tornado was.
As we continued south on Range line Road, power flashes were seen to our immediate west, only 1-2 miles away. I knew we had to do whatever we could to get out of the way and NOW! We were 2-3 miles north of I-44 and I knew we had to get there, then head east and drop south on 71 to get out of the way forever! Very heavy traffic was on the road, and traffic lights every block, so progress was very slow and the situation became more and more intense. As we progressed south, we started yelling at people to take shelter. They would point and laugh at us as we continued steadily south. One guide called out to take shelter under the Home Depot covering, but looking up at the black spinning mass approaching I knew that was not an option. The Home Depot was totally destroyed with many fatalities inside.
It was beginning to look like we were in big trouble when suddenly the power went out, including the traffic lights. We were moving again! We started weaving around traffic and charging towards the on ramp only a few hundred yards or so away. Just to our west, you could see wrapping rain curtains around the tornado as they hit us with 60-70 mph winds and pieces of debris falling on the vans. We knew we were in huge trouble if we couldn’t get to the on ramp that seemed miles away. The eastern edge of the tornado was almost on top of us now!!!!! We had to head east/northeast on I-44 to get to 71 south, and that was the exact path the tornado was moving in! People were driving slow with the intense wind and rain/debris, and we almost had to push cars out of the way to get east and fast. We made it to 71 south and blasted 5-6 miles south until we were clearly out of the way. Many tractor trailers were flipped and destroyed on the Interstate just up the road just seconds after we got out of the way.
Our entire tour, including the guides, were pretty shook up by what had just happened. We had no idea how intense this tornado was and found out later just how strong it indeed was, an EF5. Only after stopping for a few minutes did we start hearing reports of heavy damage and as we headed south we noted many emergency vehicles heading north towards Joplin. It would be well into the evening before we understood the true magnitude of the disaster that had occurred.
As Rich Hamel stated (and I borrowed some of his content here!), in hindsight, three seemingly random events might well have saved us:
- The gas station refusing us service. If they had, we very likely would have been run over by the tornado before we could escape.
- The decision not to shelter at Home Depot. As stated above, the Home Depot was completely destroyed.
- The power going out, taking the traffic lights down. If not, I’m not sure we could have gotten moving fast enough to get out.
We drove south and intercepted another tornado in its late stages near Southwest City, MO as the tornado moved away through the trees and debris was falling, and then continued south to Siloam Springs, AR to head west to our destination for the night in Tulsa. As we headed west from Siloam Springs, a stout stovepipe became illuminated by lightning as it crossed the highway in front of us. Debris was strewn all over with pieces of insulation, sheet metal and chunks of woods all over the highway as we maneuvered around it.
We finally called it a night after that, but had one more surprise in store. As we entered Tulsa where our hotel for the night was, we ran into a big hail core from another storm that had just popped up to the southwest. It was on top of us before we knew it and soon we were getting hammered with huge hail! We witnessed two hail stones of at least tennis ball size slam into my windshield, which literally bowed with the force but somehow did not shatter! Then off to our left KABOOM! A bright blue flash and the power went out over the entire southern part of Tulsa. A power main must have been damaged by hail is all we can guess, but of course with everyone jittery from Joplin, people were worried about a rain-wrapped tornado. In only a few seconds, the power was back on and we finally got to the hotel, ending a long, dramatic chase day.
Thanks Rich Hamel for your account and SUPERB driving this day. Thanks to all SLT guides, Tom Howley, Andrew Gardiner and Matt Jones for your steadfastness in getting us out of a horrendous situation.
Here is a map from Rich that shows the path we drove to get through Joplin, along with the tornado’s path.
Here’s a shot of the Siloam Springs, Arkansas tornado courtesy of tour guest Justin Noonan:
Things looked decent this day. However, due to high cloud bases, the tornado threat never really materialized. We went west from Enid, OK to play the dryline and encountered a nearly stationary supercell, albeit high based. This cell eventually dropped a slender truncated elephant trunk shaped tornado that was on the ground maybe 3-4 minutes. We later dropped south to another supercell that spun like crazy, and then abruptly died. Very wierd day, but at least we did catch a tornado. Thanks Rich Hamel for your use of your tight shot of the tornado. I had the wrong lens on my camera.
Chased May 21st near the Topeka area. Shear didn’t look that spectacular, nor did moisture, but with some Kansas magic anything can happen. We sat just west of Topeka watching towers go up north and southwest. Finally we committed to two storms southwest of us, one left mover and one right (that ended up developing into the Topeka storm). This storm had superb structure almost its entire life cycle, and finally produced a tornado near Lake Perry that I could only get a 30 second video of. All the shots below are from my 5d Mark II, but one last video grab from my Z7U of the tornado as we lost it in the trees. ARRRGHH! To be sitting there the entire time and then to not be able to get close to this tornado was frustrating to say the least.
We ended up in central South Dakota this day on what appeared to be a pretty marginal situation. Nonetheless a tornado watch was issued for the dryline in South Dakota, down through northern Nebraska. We positioned ourselves near Presho and watched a high based supercell spin like crazy and eventually produce this brief 2-3 minute weak tornado. It also produced an amazing cg display and dumped golf ball sized hail on us. Freakiest thing this day was what happened on the way to our hotel east near Chamberlain. As we were going down into the Missouri river valley, a freak gust of wind from a decaying storm hit us with such force, it picked up pebbles from the side of the road and blew out all the windows on the drivers side. Other than being shaken up a bit and a couple glass cuts, everyone was fine. Later we found out others had also been hit by this strange wind gust. This put us out of commission the next day as we had to get glass installed. Caryn and her on call group witnessed a tornado near Harrison, NE on that day.