(Last updated May 29, 2003)
Note: All pictures on this page except for the radar images and
Roger Edwards' picture are © Jack Beven.
Please ask my permission before using them publicly. Roger's picture is
© Roger Edwards.
This turned out to be my first real storm chase. I "chased" with
Jim Leonard in 1994, if you can
call what we did under the Omega Block ridge of that time chasing. This time I had a little
Roger Edwards and I had gone
out to the Texas Panhandle on May 6th in the
Meatwagon. This had turned
out to be an utter bust, as no storms had formed in our target area before dark. Roger and I
had returned to Norman to see if the 7th would be more promising.
was joining us for this day, so I could sit back and leave the forecasting to the two experts. They
settled on a target area in the Memphis-Clarendon area of the Texas Panhandle near where Roger and I
had been the day before. After gassing up and getting other supplies, we left Norman shortly after
Our route took us SW to Lawton and then W to Altus. This part of the trip was covered
with gunge with little heating. Fortunately, the clouds broke just W of Altus leaving us with a good
cumulus field as we proceeded down U.S. 62. We stopped to top off the tank in Altus, and it was there
we saw a two car convoy of younger chasers. We saw them again later on U.S. 62 near the Texas border,
but after we turned N and W toward Memphis, we never saw them again.
We passed through Memphis and decided to stop a few miles W of Lakeview a little
after 4 PM. This was near the W edge of the cumulus field, and we didn't want to get too far behind
the dryline. At this point there wasn't much going on as the clouds near us were quite flat. Down to
the south was some high cirrus that might have been distant storm tops. To the north, which was our
favored area, there was nothing. I had a hand-held wind gauge and measured about 10-20 mph winds
at this point.
For the next two or so hours, we meandered W on Texas 256 and N on Texas 70 with
several stops. During this time, SPC issued a tornado
watch for our target and the area to the N and a severe thunderstorm watch for the area to
our S. This caused some debate amongst us, as the cirrus to the S and SW was from active storms,
while there was still nothing going on near or N of us. We decided to keep to our target and wait.
The winds were a little stronger in this area, with gusts of 25-30 mph.
I admit I was a little anxious by this time. In south Florida, if it's approaching
6 PM and the clouds are still wider than there are high, it usually means you can give up on
storms for the day. Roger and Rich assured me that the rules were different here! ( :-) for anyone
who remembers a certain Florida ad campaign! Also as Roger pointed out later: "Texas: It's like a
whole other country!")
The Doppler on Wheels
group apparently didn't have our patience. As we were working our way N on Texas 70 we saw them
hi-tailing to the S, followed by a convoy of NSSL and media
vehicles. It was during this time that we met up with a Masters student from
Iowa St. (whose name escapes me) who was in Texas
working on a field project. I guess he followed us at a discrete distance, because we encountered
him again where the storms were.
Finally, about 6 PM we started seeing turkey towers in our area
(Picture 1, [An overexposed 40K JPG]). About this time, we also started
hearing severe thunderstorm and then tornado warnings for the Dumas area well to our NW. We decided
to stay put and watch the nearby towers. They didn't do much, although they may have later
become a storm that reportedly caused a tornado near Memphis. This tornado, however, has never
been confirmed. However, two large towers explosively developed about 40 miles to the NW,
and we decided to go after them.
We roared up Texas 70 to Clarendon and then made a slight tactical blunder. The
severe weather bulletins indicated that a large cluster of storms was developing N of I-40,
and we couldn't see the towers well enough (due to anvil shading) to figure out which cell
had the best tornado potential. Thus, we turned NW out of Clarendon on U.S. 287 instead of
continuing N on 70. It was 20 miles to the next N road, and as a result we almost got too
far behind what turned out to be the best storm in the area. We turned N on Texas 294, and
as we crossed I-40 we heard a report of a severe storm near White Deer. This turned out
to be the now very-dark-looking storm in front of us.
As we approached the intersection of Texas 294 and Texas 293, we saw the
first signs of a mesocyclone. We turned E on 293 trying to catch up with the updraft core,
which was moving ESE about 25 mph. Roger was driving and Rich was navigating, which left
me to observe. The first thing I noticed was the lightning. This was the most electrified
storm I've ever seen, and it was almost literally walking on cloud-to-ground bolts. It was
somewhat like a Star Wars laser cannon attack! Bolts were even shooting out of the anvil
and landing to our S well away from the surface updraft core. The second things I noticed
was that it was pitch black to the NE of the core. The third thing was the rotating wall cloud
(Picture 2, [30K JPG])! I kept a close watch as we roared down
293, but I didn't see any funnel descending from it. We finally got ahead of it
(Picture 3, [23K JPG]) as we approached the the intersection
of Texas 293 and Texas 70.
One other thing I noticed: Chaser convergence! As we approached the intersection,
I noticed a large number of chasers in the area. There was even a State Trooper car there to
keep an eye on us.
At the intersection, it was decision time. There was no road going to the E or NE,
except for a dirt road that dead-ended about 4 miles further on. Texas 70 went N, but we didn't
think we would have time to cross in front of the meso. There was also a good chance that we
might not be able to see anything in what was probably W0X0 +TSRAGP SQ! So, we drove about a
mile N of the intersection (about 8 miles SW of Lefors) and waited for the meso to pass in front
The wall cloud was spinning like a top as it approached.
Picture 4 (37K JPG) shows what's probably dust being kicked up just to
the right of the wall cloud. Given the rotation, we weren't particularly interested in getting closer
to see if was a possible tornado! Picture 5 (29K JPG) and
Picture 6 (24K JPG) show two more views of the wall cloud approaching
the road. Note how much it seems to grow between Pictures 5 and 6! Incidentally, all these
pictures were taken from inside the car. There was still too much lightning for us to feel
safe about getting out!
I looked off the the W, and saw a dust column in the distance
(Picture 7 [18K JPG]). This was later determined to be a gustnado
from either the White Deer-Lefors supercell, or the next one coming along behind it. That
cell is visible on the right side of Picture 7, although we didn't immediately realize
what it was. Picture 8 (27K JPG) is another view of the
wall cloud just before passing over Texas 70. It was still growing!
At this point, I got a personal surprise. Two vans pulled up next to the
Meatwagon, and in them was an old Florida State grad school
friend, Paul Sirvatka, and a troop of chasers
from the College of DuPage. By this time, the lightning
had somewhat subsided, we got out of our car and vans and had a brief reunion under the
mesocyclone's inflow band.
Suddenly, there were cries of "Funnel! Funnel!". I looked at the wall
cloud and saw that a white pencil-thin funnel had descended about three-quarters of the way to the
ground. Due to darkness and rain-wrapping, it was impossible to tell if there was a debris cloud on
the ground or not. The funnel lasted about one minute before it either dissipated or became
obscured by rain. The time was about 7:40 PM CDT (0040 UTC).
Unfortunately, Murphy's Law hit us big time at this point! My camera wouldn't take
a picture of the funnel because it was too dark! Roger snapped a couple of wide-angle still pictures,
but the contrast was so poor the hose barely showed up in only one of them. Rich was trying to video
the funnel, but the camera was set on pause when he thought it was on play. Between us, we only got
one bad picture of the hose! (15K JPG) :-( (I've heard other people did get
pictures and video, but I've yet to see them.)
After the funnel, confusion reigned. There was no road to chase the meso from where
we were. Additionally, we were getting hit by the rear flank downdraft with a threat of hail and rain,
and our position was a little perilous. For lack of any better ideas, we decided to retreat back to
the 70 & 293 intersection while we considered options.
The options weren't good. The only way to get in front of the meso would be to
go 10 miles S to I-40, then 15 miles E to the next N road. In the time that would take, it would
probably get too dark to see the meso. Additionally, there were some confusing signs of what
was happening. I got the impression that the RFD had been interrupted before it could wrap all
the way around the meso. Someone else pointed out a small arc cloud coming out of the W side of
the meso, then curving back toward another cell to the WNW. It looked a lot like a stationary front
between 2 cyclones. Also, the wind, which had been NW a mile to the N, strengthened from the SE
blowing toward the new cell. We figured out at that point there was a second mesocyclone approaching,
and that we would wait here for it to pass.
The new meso was still not clearly visible, as it was just a dark cloud mass. However,
a look to the W (Picture 9 [29K JPG]) showed the southern edge of it along
with the flanking line. A glance back to the NE (Picture 10 [20K JPG]) showed
the original tornadic meso moving off into the dark. There was no way to tell what was going on
underneath it at this point.
The new meso finally got close enough to see a large wall cloud hanging under it
(Picture 11 [29K JPG]). However, this wall cloud didn't seem to be
rotating as strongly as the the previous one. As the meso approached, there was a major change in
the storm character. The flanking line suddenly dumped a rain and hail shaft to the W of us,
as this cell changed from a supercell to what was probably a bow echo configuration. At this point,
the collection of chasers in the area decided to abandon position! We were almost the last to
leave, followed only by the State Trooper and maybe one other car.
We started S on Texas 70 in blinding rain, hail, and strong winds. It was difficult
to gauge the winds accurately, although Roger estimated them at a little below severe limits. (My
attempt to stick my wind gauge out the window was a soggy failure!) The hail was up to 1.5 inches
in diameter, while the visibilities were often below 100 yards. These conditions persisted to well
S of I-40.
Texas 70 merges with I-40 for about 4 miles going E, and we managed to miss the turn
onto the Interstate. Thus we followed the parallel service road for that distance. We decided that
we didn't want to core punch what was becoming a developing squall line, so we followed Texas 70
S back toward Clarendon. (This may have been a wise decision. We later heard that trucks were blown
off the Interstate by high winds and a small tornado that passed near chaser Marty Feely. The
result was a sizeable traffic jam.) We got south of the squall line before reaching Clarendon and
got a spectacular look at the Tail-End-Charlie cells. Pictures 12 (22K JPG)
and 13 (24K JPG) show the fantastically underlit developing storms at
the SW end of the line. I observed transient rotation in the cells, but nothing that looked like a
mesocyclone or wall cloud.
Once to Clarendon, we turned SE on U.S. 287 toward Memphis. I believe it was during
this time we heard the radio report of the (now apparently bogus) tornado near Memphis during the evening.
This got us all scratching our heads, as we couldn't see anything ahead of us that looked like a
tornadic supercell. Behind us, it was a different story. the near-continuous lightning revealed
a very long and ominous looking shelf cloud in front of the squall line. We got a good look at it,
because despite our rapid driving we weren't gaining much on it! Lightning was flashing in
all directions, as the cells we had seen SW of us during the afternoon were merging with
the squall line.
We passed through Memphis, and we didn't see any signs that severe weather had
occurred. Indeed the streets were barely wet. We turned E to retrace our steps to Altus, with the
squall line not far behind us. We reached Altus about 10:30 PM and ate dinner. We met
Gene Rhoden and Tim Vasquez at the truck stop and
traded notes. Just before we left, a waitress mentioned that the Tulsa area was under a tornado
warning. This confused us until we found out later that a supercell (the Wakita storm) had formed
to the E of the other cells. It managed to stay in front of the squall line and produced several
The squall line got to Altus before we left. Thus, our trip back to Norman was
in heavy rain, occasional hail, and blinding lightning flashes. The rain finally let up as we
got back to Norman about 1 AM.
The weather pattern became unfavorable for severe weather after the 7th,
so there was plenty of time to sort out the confusing events and look at the collected pictures
and video. A good number of the local chasers had been on the Lefors storms, so there was a lot
National Weather Service in Amarillo
confirmed that the funnel we had seen had actually touched down (with minor damage), thus
making it a tornado (my first seen confirmed tornado!). I found out later that
had saved some radar images of the area near the time of the tornado (images used here with
the kind permission of the staff of the College of DuPage.
The reflectivity image (31K GIF) shows the Lefors supercell with its
well-defined hook echo (A), the second less well-defined cell (B) with an outflow boundary
trailing to the S, and an outflow boundary (C) extending S from a more linear group of storms
at the western end of the cluster. The velocity image (33K GIF)
shows the strong outbound velocities associated with the Lefors mesocyclone (A), a weaker
mesocyclone associated with the second cell (B), and the strong winds associated with the
outflow boundary (C). My belief is that the outflow boundary caught up with the second cell
about the time it passes near us, and this helped trigger the rapid southward development
of the squall line that hit us.
My first successful tornado chase turned out to be a interesting, educational,
and fun experience. It certainly helped compensate for being a long way from home when the
Miami tornado occurred a few days later!
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