May 16, 2015 chase account

SPC Day 1 outlook with reports

"If only I had stayed there..."

Summary: Another stressful day...not so much because of the chase, but because I woke up in Norman in a Moderate risk with a 15% hatched tornado risk, which activated "the rule": because of days like 13 April 2012 and 19-20 May 2013, I now use what I call simply "the rule": if Norman is within a hatched tornado contour, I don't leave until it is clear to me that nothing is going to happen near Norman. Things worked out for Norman, and I ended up seeing part of the Elmer-Tipton-Snyder tornado, but I missed the best part of it.

Chase partners: none

I left Norman just before 2 PM and immediately set off for tail-end Charlie, which I assumed would be the one storm that would track directly towards Norman eventually, making for an easy return trip.

I eventually wound up on E1750 Rd a few miles west of Elmer, a wondrous place with a completely unobstructed view and an almost perfectly flat and treeless horizon for miles and miles in all directions! I was there alone for at least 20 minutes watching the storm approach from the southwest. It had a huge base, much of it rain free, and there was a nearly constant distant rumble of thunder. I should've stayed in this location for much longer than I did, but I didn't, for a few reasons.

But first, a picture of chaser Heaven...

Chase picture 0

Now, back to reality...and the reasons for failure:
• chasing solo, I had to focus on all aspects of the chase, including navigating, watching the weather, and documenting (I was running photo and video)
• because of my decreased attention towards watching the radar, I thought the storm was moving more east than northeast
• despite the excellent view, I didn't have the strongest internet from this point on until I was up near Apache later on. I was on 1X for a good portion of the Elmer-Snyder tornado. Plus, for whatever reason, while sitting west of Elmer I suddenly stopped getting the intermediate SAILS scans from KFDR and also fell behind about 10 minutes on scans. That only seems to happen when I'm near the hordes, which had drawn near by the time I left that location.

Oh if only I had stayed there...

Anyway, sensing the core approaching (putting me too far north), I moved back east to U.S. 283, then sat on a hill just east of 283 for another 10 minutes continuing to watch it roll in. While the storm had a great base, it really seemed to struggle to organize in the low levels, so I gained confidence in gaining some distance on the core, which was again encroaching on my location. Again, I thought the storm was going almost due east at this point. Damn it...if only I had stayed there!

I moved east on OK-5 almost all the way to Tipton. Just a few miles west I diverted onto the awesome dirt network. I probably could've managed 90 mph on some of those roads they were so well packed, flat, and even.

Again, assuming a nearly easterly storm motion and having to worry more about other drivers than watching the radar at this point, I went all the way south to the eastward bend on OK-5 west of Frederick before stopping. At that point I finally got a chance to study radar closely and saw that it sure seemed to be producing. All I could see to my WNW, however, was a dark blue wall under the base, with meh structure above it (the updraft actually seemed quite tilted...probably due to the higher shear and lower CAPE). At one point I started to see a lowering form left of the precip core. A group of chasers nearby started exclaiming that it was a developing tornado, which for 20 seconds I kind of also believed. But then I recalled the radar imagery and I suddenly realized that wasn't a developing tornado - it was scud rising on the south side of the RFD. I was looking way too far left/south...crap.

Chase picture 1
Looking at the wrong part of the storm. D'oh.

Also, this was what I was looking at on radar, no more than a scan or two old at the time. I'm so far east I can't even plot my approximate location at the time of this scan:

radar image 1
Four-panel display of 0.5° (clockwise from upper right) reflectivity, velocity, spectrum width, and correlation coefficient from KFDR at 2242 UTC.

There are bins with inbounds exceeding 110 kts next to bins with outbounds of nearly 80 kts in that thing...1400 ft off the ground. Interesting note: while this was one of the more impressive radar signatures of a tornado from 2015, it probably wasn't the single most impressive signature. There were several other days in 2015, including days on the Plains that I didn't chase (May 24th in southwest Kansas rings a bell) that featured rather impressive low-level scans in the presence of a tornado. I'm liking what we're starting to see with SAILS beooming common.

So I sped back north, eventually landing at about the same spot on the awesome dirt road network southwest of Tipton I had been 15 minutes prior (ugh, I always deem it some sort of logistics failure when I end up in the same place later in a chase). What I assume were +CG blasts popping all around kept me in the car more than I would've preferred. The storm was also eating dust at a great rate (I was surprised at this given how much rain had fallen on the area lately). I knew from reports and velocity data there was a tornado in that black mass, but I just could not see it. Finally, after a few moments, it started to emerge as a low-contrast cone.

I went back up to OK-5 on the west side of Tipton. I whipped back around to face west when I saw Ben Holcomb recording on the side of the road and ran over to visit because, hey, I'm a nice guy and like to visit with colleagues. We watched the cone evolve into a stovepipe and produce power flashes probably a mile or two to the WNW.

Chase picture 2
Pretty much the best I saw of the tornado.

Then the RFD came back in and obscured the tornado. It looked pretty evil in there, so I decided it was time to flee east. Facing west on 5, though, proved to be a dumb decision, as I was forced to hop on the chaser train going east if I wanted to stay out of the RFD, which for whatever reason, I did. I should've just stayed there and gotten behind it. It probably would've made the next 15 minutes a lot easier.

I managed to get turned around and found a spot to hop on the train. Almost immediately I witnessed two pickup trucks, at least one of them labeled with News9 out of OKC all over the side, going east in the westbound lane across a double solid yellow, apparently honking at people. There was one vehicle facing westbound but pulled off the road. It's possible the truck forced them over, though, and that was what the honking was about.

Anyway, for the rest of the chase I was pretty much on the run trying to stay in the inflow and ahead of the hook. I went north on U.S. 183 out of Manitou, which fortunately was four lanes, so I could make up some distance. I got to the 183/62 intersection just a few minutes ahead of the tornado. I was pretty surprised to see the number of people sitting there, apparently not feeling threatened by a rain-wrapped tornado heading directly towards them at not-a-slow speed. Guess I was just being a pussy. Northeast of the notch by only a few miles, I couldn't see a damn thing tornadically, nor could I detect any cloud base motion indicative of a strong tornado present. Maybe I missed that.

I detoured through the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge through a few back roads that I'm familiar with due to all the hiking I do there. It was pretty eery being there with no one else around and a huge supercell looming. I stopped at one point in a clearing to watch it move in. A group of non-chaser locals also was there. I made them aware of the gravity of the situation, telling them, "when I leave, you leave." It was probably good that I said that, because I saw the hook start to wrap up almost on top of me when I decided to get moving again. By the time I was passing the visitors center, the velocities had picked up to the point where I was sure a tornado was forming, but again completely buried in rain. The hook was catching up to me because someone only wanted to drive 40 mph on the only road east through the refuge. The first chance I got I passed them. Even after that I could see the hook precip slowly engulfing the mountains behind me on the north side of the refuge. It was a pretty cool sight, but it was happening right behind me, so I just kept busting east out of the park.

I tried again to get back in the hook by going north on U.S. 277 towards Apache, but as I did that the storm simply lost its supercell characteristics and became multicellular and a big lightning producer again. Lots of very close CGs. I don't quite understand the last two tornado reports that came out of it - it didn't look anything close to what it had looked like on radar previously, and the entire area was nothing but rain at that point.

I was going to try to shoot lightning from the hill on Highway 9 west of Norman, but the system evolved upscale into an MCS and accelerated so fast I didn't even have time for that.

I'm glad I saw a tornado on a solo chase, and I'm glad Norman didn't get hit again for the second time in 10 days, but there are so many things about this chase that were frustrating and I could've played it much better. I know better than this. When will I learn my lesson?

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