Getting up in the morning from Salina, we knew it was going to be a big day. We’ve chased days like this before, and while nothing is a guarantee in storm chasing, you could feel by day’s end, something was going to happen. I was chasing with my long time chase partner, Ed Grubb and his up-to-this-point, tornado jinx of a daughter, Jennifer. She had been part of many chases over the last few years but had never seen a tornado before. The jinx nickname was well earned as she had even done her part to completely waste a good setup several days earlier.
The three of us got up fairly early and ventured an hour west to Russell, mooching the McDonald’s WiFi and basically hanging out in the parking lot beneath a low cloud deck and sweatshirt-bearing weather. While sitting around, Tim and Paul Samaras arrived in my former chase research vehicle, a stripped down, incognito M3, and we talked for over an hour as morning convection was firing within the chilly morning soup all around us.
We sat in the parking lot and watched a couple of sub-severe cells fly by, and some finally started to gain some severity. Knowing the real show was coming later, we opted to venture out and play with some of the early cells. The thought process was basically to play with the cells, try and find a cheap tornado or two, but primarily to get the hail part of the day over with. All the while, keeping an eye down to the southwest as at the first sign of initiation for the real show. As soon as we took notice of that, we’d abandon whatever we were on and head south.
My target for the day was the warm front/triple point, and the days previous to this, I vowed to stay out of the circus that would be Oklahoma on a weekend high risk. However as the morning turned to afternoon, it was becoming painfully obvious that my warm front target just wasn’t going to cut it. Low clouds, fog, and drizzle were keeping instability down, and the few tornadoes that were reported in the soup around and north of Russell were weak, short-lived, and hard to see in the rain.
We worked out way north along US-281, eye-balling the impressive looking tornado-warned cell to our northeast. Given its speed, we figured the odds of catching it were slim, so we were keeping an eye to the west and south for a better, more playable option. Finally there was a cell buried within the grunge to our southwest that earned itself a tornado warning. We cut across a country road over to Gaylord where we sat in a parking lot watching a feeble attempt at a wall cloud. As it passed to our immediate north, we ventured up to Smith Center where we took a quick bathroom break.
While the Grubbs were inside (Jennifer “accidentally” using the men’s restroom and $#%& blocking Ed in the limited time we opted to stop), I began to look down south on the radar and immediately noticed two storms initiating near Dodge City. When they returned to the vehicle, we had a brief chat and unanimously decided it was time to go south and get on the main show. We left Smith Center for Russell, watching the storms go immediately severe and eventually tornado-warned.
We never felt hurried or like we had put ourselves behind the 8-ball. I felt very confident that once these storms got going, they were going to produce and produce for a long time. I knew we’d miss a couple early tornadoes, but I felt as if we’d have plenty to see once we arrived. There was urgency, but not the panicked urgency I have experienced before in many setups in the past. The tornadoes would come and we just needed to make the drive down there.
We stopped briefly in Russell to top off the tank and continued south on US-281 with plans to cut west on KS-4 toward Otis where we anticipated catching the first storm. Once we arrived, the storm was still well off to the west, likely west of US-183 and not moving nearly as fast as we had thought. We dropped south a few miles out of Otis to KS-96, then cut west again to Timken. We didn’t want to go all the way to US-183 in fear of overshooting the storm, so we got in line with it along County Road 320 about six miles south of Timken.
The storm, likely a good 6-7 miles to our west, got itself together and put down the first tornado. We were looking for a semi-decent east/west road to point ourselves west on, but there weren’t many viable options. When the storm put down the tornado, it was amazing how quickly the view we had would suffice as we pulled off and got out to enjoy the show. The tornado was brief, but enough to get us on the board.
The funnel and wall cloud hung out for a bit as we witnessed a text-book handoff. A new wall cloud developed to its northeast, putting it within a couple miles of us. We backed north again toward Timken. The funnel took a while before it finally touched down (Tornado #2), but when it did, it was a very pretty tornado. It tossed some trees around, but fortunately stayed to the west of town. It was a snaky looking thing, and eventually lifted as it closed in on Timken.
The radar appearance of this storm wasn’t terribly impressive, even during tornado-time. But after the two it put down for us, you could see the storm was on its way to the grave. We pushed east on KS-96 as the storm dissipated with each scan and our new target was the storm coming up from the south. The plan was to intercept this storm around the Great Bend area. It was tornado-warned and the next in the line.
When we got ourselves east of Great Bend on KS-96/US-56, it looked very HP. We had a decent view looking south toward it and eventually allowed it to cross the highway behind us to the west. Nothing about it looked good, no reports, and only a weak couplet to note. We watched it cross to the north of the highway with little real interest. We started to fiddle with the idea of venturing east, then south to catch the next one down the line.
We were near the town of Chase, which in itself was an omen. The couplet on radar dramatically increased and we chatted about not leaving the storm yet. I told Ed that a couplet like that cannot be ignored and perhaps we’d be premature in leaving it. Still, visually, the storm looked like a HP monster and even if it were producing a tornado, would we even see it? About this time, a couple Spotter Network report icons showed up noting a large, violent tornado in progress. I kid you not, this was minutes after it crossed the highway and the business endof this storm looked nothing capable of producing such a thing. We looked northwest, but were definitely blocked by rain. We had a faint view of the base through the rain, but nothing reached the ground from our view. With one of the reports literally a mile behind us, we assumed someone was reporting a darkened rain shaft.
We pointed back east and got as far as Mitchell when KWCH called to ask me to verify this report. I told him we had no view, but the business end of the storm had literally passed moments earlier but had no visual indication it was going to produce a massive tornado. But with them on the line and the reports very strongly worded, we figured the least we’d do is go up the road and check it out. We turned north on 22nd Road toward Galt. Enroute, we continued to report no visibility of this tornado, and remained doubtful. A couple miles up, I would do a 180 and pretty well give birth to a kitten when the rain curtains cleared and a massive tornado (Tornado #3) and a satellite tornado (Tornado #4) sat just west of the road.
Yes, I quickly changed my tune, offered an apology to the gentlemen responsible for the report, and we went back to active chase mode, stair-stepping on various back roads trying to get to K-4. We were blocked on K-4 west of Langley by some local yahoo who was likely receiving death threats from vehicles at the front of the pack. He had no credentials, not in any civic uniform, and wouldn’t identify himself as anything official. Finally he cleared the road and the caravan would proceed. The storm was well out of reach by this point, but we maintained a visual on the tornado well to our northeast as we paraded east on K-4.
The tornado would finally lift to the southwest of Salina much to our relief as we had great concern that this violent-looking tornado would move right into town. As we neared Lindsborg, we began to discuss our next option. This storm was still far enough northeast that we were afraid it had outpaced us, and Ed knew State Troopers would block the interstates if a tornadic circulation would pass over. With that plus it’s dubbed forward speed, we felt as if the time had come for real to leave the storm and head south for the next one in line.
When we got to Lindsborg, we turned south on Bus-81 to get on I-135 on the south side of town. The storm to our north continued on, and radar elongated the storm a bit, but left the hook intact. I flipped on the HAM and was hearing reports that a funnel was trying to redevelop.
We laughed at ourselves as we approached I-135. Obviously going south just wasn’t going to be in the cards. We decided we were satisfied with the day after that show. So the plan then became to get to Salina, see what this storm was doing, and if it hadn’t put down anything by the time we got to I-70, we were going to call it a day as dark was settling in and head west for our steak dinner.
We turned north on I-135 and enjoyed the newly appointed 75mph speed limit to Salina. When we arrived on the south side of town, we were slowed in traffic, likely due to the Troopers blocking traffic while awaiting the wall cloud to cross. As the storm moved over Salina, it started to get its act together, displaying several funnels and eventually stirring up some dust beneath it. It counted, we thought, so when we hit I-70, we decided to pursue it east.
We were again stopped briefly a couple miles northwest of New Cambria while the meso and the developing tornado crossed I-70. We were quickly on our way again and we decided our intercept on this was going to be north of Solomon. We got to the exit and fired north. Enroute, the large bowl funnel had multiple episodes of dust swirls under it, but nothing fully condensed.
When we exited I-70, we moved north and it was very quickly our tornado finally made it to the ground (Tornado #5). This would become one of the coolest seven miles of chasing in my career. A back-lit at sunset BEAUTIFUL tornado and we were looking to put a leash on it and walk it up Solomon Road. I don’t know where all the other chasers disappeared to, but it was felt like literally it was us and a lone pickup truck. Everyone else took a different exit or was well behind us. I have no clue where they all were, but they weren’t with us, we don’t think.
As we pushed north, the tornado morphed into the most beautiful tornado I had ever seen. I was snapping photos while shooting video and pulled some amazing shots. The tornado closed within a half a mile of us and the road and the RFD was throwing rain in the car. In the past in similar situations, I would close the window, but I held the camera in the rain, pulling it in only to wipe the rain from the lens. The amazing lighting was insane, and this tornado, as close as it was, had that waterfall sound. Pieces of debris swirled at the base as it churned in the field and smaller objects such as leaves floated down around us. The biggest concern at the time was the thick grove of trees we had found ourselves in. We saw a clearing up the road that we were aiming for, but with the strong RFD cutting it, we wanted to clear the trees before anything came down.
Once we cleared the trees, the show of the year began… a beautiful tornado within half a mile, taking an amazingly classical shape as moved northeast toward the road. We slowed to enjoy it and let it gain ground on the road. Once we got to KS-18, we knew the tornado was going to cross within a mile north of that intersection. But we immediately noticed two things; the road went to dirt and there were now power poles on the left side of the road. We know how this works, a tornado crosses the road and yanks down the lines and/or the RFD pushes them down. In the interest of safety, we elected NOT to go north on the road, and instead pulled safely off the road and watched the tornado cross roughly 3/4 a mile to our north.
We ventured east about a mile and a half to a pull off that pointed north. We pulled in and enjoyed the amazingly long rope out. We don’t know exactly how far north the tornado was from us at this point, but Topeka estimates it to have done so about a mile east of Manchester, which would put it roughly 4-miles north of us. We decided we were NOW going to call it a chase. Third time is the charm, I suppose. We waited for the lengthy chaser caravan to move on (it took a few moments for the first cars to finally pass us after we stopped), then pointed ourselves back to I-70 and into Salina where we enjoyed a very big steak dinner!
The night wasn’t over as the nighttime show was underway southwest of us. One of the supercells with a large tornado confirmed on it was making a bee-line straight for Salina. We had some time, so finished our dinner after meeting with Tim and Paul Samaras again, let the manager know that it was coming and to be watchful of the TV, and we ventured down to Lindsborg and set up shop at the very exit we turned north of at I-135. To our distant west, we could see power flashes illuminating the tornado (Tornado #6). One flash and it briefly knocked out the power in Lindsborg, but we think the tornado lifted prior to town. We jumped back on I-135 and cautiously made our way to Salina where the storm again spared this town something devastating. This time, we DID turn west on I-70 back to Russell where I dropped off the Grubbs at Verne’s Casa, and I continued to Oakley where I tried out the Free Breakfast Inn.[nivo effect="fade" directionNav="button" controlNav="true" width="700"] [image caption="Tornado #1 - Rush Center, KS"]http://www.tornadoeskick.com/images/2012/20120414_02.jpg[/image] [image caption="Tornado #2 - Timken, KS"]http://www.tornadoeskick.com/images/2012/20120414_06.jpg[/image] [image caption="Tornado #3 (Geneseo, KS) & Satellite Tornado #4"]http://www.tornadoeskick.com/images/2012/20120414_19.jpg[/image] [image caption="Tornado #3 - Geneseo, KS (EF-4)"]http://www.tornadoeskick.com/images/2012/20120414_01.jpg[/image] [image caption="Tornado #5 - Solomon, KS"]http://www.tornadoeskick.com/images/2012/20120414_08.jpg[/image] [/nivo]
It was a career chase. And it led to some of the most amazing photos I had ever shot of any tornado. I probably have three of my top shots from this chase alone! And credit to my XR500v for shooting the Salina tornado with its photo-while videoing capability. It lead to several of those amazing shots and took some great photos. I was virtually flawless in video as I didn’t make silly mistakes such as leaving auto focus on or hitting record instead of pause.
Ed and I also were able to give his daughter her first real tornado day. Yeah, we saw a couple of brief tornadoes the day before, but this was a helluva first tornado chase. And she had been left out of the tornadoes for a couple years in chasing with us, so it was great to finally see her share this experience with her father. Of course, we’ve turned her into a monster, but fortunately she’s had her share of busts to realize this was a rare day indeed. None the less, I was honored to share in the experience with them!
For me, the days that followed were filled with a ton of interviews with various local and national media affiliates. I’m not sure why they went after me as I was on mostly un-news worthy tornadoes. But none-the-less, I had several very early mornings in the few days following the outbreak. It was fun to tell our story and share with the world what we experienced that day. This was easily a top 3 chase for me, and many of the images I gathered will find spots on my wall very shortly. It’s hard to describe how incredible this day was, and how fortunate we were that we ultimately made the decisions we did. We stayed safe, got some great imagery, and enjoyed an amazing experience from start to finish. The Salina tornado was icing and on its own would’ve made the entire chase. That is my favorite tornado to date.
The outbreak as a whole did have some devastating impacts on several towns across the Plains, but overall could’ve been much worse. Our thoughts and prayers go out to those in Woodward, Oklahoma where six souls were lost that night. But our thanks go out to those above who spared countless lives in an outbreak that easily could’ve been much worse.