My First Storm Chasing Trip
Just a Little Bit of Background
If you have the notion to go storm chasing, I’m not going to be one of those people that will tell you not to. Storm chasing is dangerous and it’s probably not the tornado that is going to get you. As with any road trip or vacation, a lot of things can go wrong….but a lot of things can go right. I’m going to tell the whole story of my storm chasing experience from start to finish, or as I called it “chasecation.”
I’m the type of person that I get affixed on something, an idea, a new hobby or whatever, I tend to go all in. Maybe that is a good trait, a bad trait, I don’t know. Weather peaked my interest when I was a kid, I’ll admit I was the nerdy kid who watched The Weather Channel, a lot. I drew weather maps, made forecasts–even though they were straight up rip offs from TV. Yes, at one point I wanted to be a “weatherman.” Not sure why I got off that idea, there is a good career path in meteorology if it is something you’re really passionate about.
What I Took Along
Back in February, in the middle of winter, I decided that I would go storm chasing in the plains for a vacation. I took two weeks off from work in May with the expectation that more than likely somewhere in the middle to late May something will happen somewhere and it would give me time to learn as much as possible, obtain gear and so on. The “gear” ended up having was pretty bare bones compared to other chasers, I also chased alone and having done so I do not recommend it. I already have a dash cam in my car, but it is something you might want to have for uninterrupted video recording. There are some dash cams that are better suited for storm chasing, as in the video quality is better (color, metering, resolution, etc). The one I have is the Thinkware X550D (two channels) and it does ok. I also got the WeBoost Drive Sleek cell phone booster which worked awesome. There are many places where I would not have got a usable cell signal without it, coverage otherwise was alright in most places but your mileage may vary. One tip, take your phone out of its case if you’re using a cradle booster. I brought my iPad and used a seat rail mount. I used my phone’s hotspot to get the iPad an internet connection. I used the phone for navigation and used the iPad for radar and satellite updates. Of course, I brought my (old) Nikon camera with a telephoto lens. Nothing remarkable, for me this was a vacation and not about trying to sell footage or photos. I did bring my drone but never flew it once on the trip and I can tell you right now you will lose your drone if you try flying it. The Phantom 3 I have will only handle about 35 mph winds and I have flown in high winds and the winds in the plains will overtake that type of drone, at best it will be parked in the air.
That was pretty much all I took as far as gear. I wanted to keep it as simple as possible, I mean there’s all sorts of stuff you can take for sure. Many chasers I seen in the field had anemometers and various sensors. Me, being by myself, it would have been another distraction and there’s plenty of them.
Before You Get Any Ideas…
I really cannot stress enough that someone really should learn as much as possible about meteorology, how super cell storms work along with a whole host of things before embarking on a trip. Your local Skywarn spotter class is not enough, in my opinion, to go storm chasing on. Of course there are no rules or laws that I am aware concerning storm chasing, but you’re really better off listening to folks who do storm chasing and take heed to their warnings. I won’t go very deep on what you need to know but it is certainly one of those things where the more you know the better off you’ll be. Skywarn is a good place to start but take advantage of resources like Storm Track and the internet, there’s plenty of information out there. Just look at what comes up on YouTube! If YouTube isn’t your sort of thing, one book that I and many others recommend is the Storm Chasing Handbook by Tim Vasquez. The only thing I fault with the book is the camera and video gear that is recommended, a lot has changed since 2008, the meteorology hasn’t changed so much and there’s a ton of valuable information. Don’t hesitate to look something up, there’s a lot of things I didn’t understand at first and I continue to learn more.
Don’t Go It Alone
Do not go storm chasing alone. I know I did it, but I feel like not only did I miss out on good opportunities as I either called off the chase or simply getting overtaken by the fast moving storms on May 20. Having someone help navigate, spot and be able to help keep up with what the storm is doing is very important and could be a lifesaver. There’s a lot of sky you cannot (easily) see out from your windshield. Having at least a 2nd person can not only help navigate, they can help spot, help drive and make the drive less boring.
The Many, Many Hazards
There many hazards with storm chasing and while it may seem obvious that a tornado is one, that is not as likely. Things like monster hail, getting into a wreck, getting stuck on a dirt road, livestock in the middle of the road and even running out of gas are just a few of the things that can go wrong. The road network out in the plains could lead you into dangerous parts of the storm if you’re not careful. Keeping situational awareness is important and luckily for me losing situational awareness only got me into hail. A chase vehicle doesn’t matter so much, I chased in a Prius. I didn’t get stuck in the mud, I didn’t get blown off the road and the headwinds, crosswinds didn’t give me any problems – but they could have. If you’re not used to driving on dirt roads, I suggest you make a detour on your trip, at the very least and get a feel for how your car feels, because when you’re having to drive 40-50 MPH on a muddy dirt road trying to get out of the hail that might bust your windows you don’t want to find out your car can’t climb up that hill. Know your vehicle’s capabilities and don’t think that AWD or 4WD is going to keep you out of the ditch. Best advice is to void dirt roads if at all possible.
Don’t chase fast moving storms. On May 20th the SPC issued a high risk area over western Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas, something the SPC has only one one other time. It was also a textbook day in terms of severe weather, it was only a matter of time. The storms that fired were moving at times faster than 50 MPH to the northeast. The problem is adding in chaser traffic, having to get gas, etc. makes it very difficult to keep up with the storm. After all, the majority of the road in the plains either go east and west or north and south and not diagonally. Roads can be flooded, closed, washed out or simply wrong. Pecos Hank has a video called “Tornado Death Traps,” which does a good job describing just some of the unknown hazards you can come across.
The other thing I would suggest is getting your amateur radio license. Many storm chasers also have 2 meter radio in their vehicles, they often go with a whole team to help navigate and stay with the storm and where it will likely drop the next tornado. Getting your technicians class license is easy and you can find study guides, practice exams and question pools. Amateur radio (aka Ham Radio) has many purposes including emergency communications and out in the plains storm chasing you might find yourself without cell service and needing to call for help. It could very well save someone’s, if not your own, life.
That all being said, I’ll get on with the story so this doesn’t turn into a “How to Go Storm Chasing for Beginners.”
The first day, I left home in Hayesville, NC and drove to Oklahoma City, OK. That was about 940 miles. I will not lie that is too much driving. Luckily I got an early start and because you change time zones, eastern to central, you “gain” an hour. Of course, this was not a chase day. Earlier in the week the models suggested western Texas would be a likely spot. However, if I had looked more to the north I would have seen that Nebraska would have been a better target. Not just because of the CAPE, but the wind shear would have also been very good. However, I was set on Texas. The night before the models (in the sector I was looking at) favored more of a western Oklahoma. Logic says that being east of storms that fire up would be better than being too far west. So I stayed in Oklahoma City for the first night so that I would be in a good position for the next day.
I got myself up early, I can’t remember what time exactly, but I think it might have been 5 or 6 AM CDT so I had time to look at the forecast models, specifically the HRRR (High Resolution Rapid Refresh) and some of the other models. The models suggested western Nebraska and Kansas would likely see super cells that would form. I had a inkling that western Nebraska would be a good target area, but I could have gone into western Texas as well but I didn’t feel quite as confident. I won’t lie either, I looked around social media to get an idea where folks were headed which did reinforce going to up to Nebraska which was a 700 mile drive. So it was a good thing I got an early start. My estimation was that I would be close by when storms fired up. I cannot stress how long of a drive it was.
Kansas is Flat
In some parts of the state, Kansas is very flat. Having lived in western North Carolina and not being able to see out to the horizon, I was mesmerized by the sight to be honest. Perhaps the landscape is under appreciated. I suppose you could say the same thing living here in the mountains. You don’t notice the beauty so much when you see it every day. I do like Kansas’ state route signs, I suppose it is a sunflower. It is nice to see something different. Most states have a circle, square, Tennessee uses a triangle.
One of the big problems when you’re not on an Interstate is the lack of…well everything, including rest areas. Here’s the problem, I’m on my way to North Platte, NE and I got to go to the bathroom. The catch 22 is there is a supercell off to the west, at the time it was in north west Kansas and I’m still off to the east a pretty good ways. I could have positioned myself to have intercepted the storm earlier, or go to the hotel in North Platte first. There aren’t really any towns between where I am and North Platte, nothing I could quickly find on the map. So I decided to just truck on into North Platte, go to the bathroom, get checked in and then go intercept the storm.
You know that feeling you get when you’re about to do something exciting (and possibly quite dangerous) the first time? Yeah that was me as I was approaching the storm.
If I had skipped checking into the hotel I could have got on this storm earlier I could have got a lot more footage and photos and stayed with the storm a lot longer. This storm dropped 7 confirmed tornadoes including one that was rated EF3. I was in a state of awe. I cannot say I had ever laid eyes on a tornado on the ground at this point. I have seen funnel clouds in the past, most notably when I was 5 years old. Seeing the skies turning dark as night and a funnel cloud is kind of scary for a 5 year old and still is today.
This tornado stayed on the ground long enough for me to stop and get a lot of pictures, unfortunately, not all the photos were in very good focus. Hey, you can’t win them all. Frankly, I thought I did a good job navigating to a spot where I could see the tornado or just plain lucky. At any rate, I consider it a success and got awesome photos of the tornado and later the funnel cloud that passed overhead.
Photos and video as with many things never really does the experience of being there justice. The size of the funnel cloud, the whirling of the wind and just taking it all in is like nothing else. You really give mother nature a renewed respect. We know that nature can be destructive and without mercy but seeing it versus hearing about the statistics and the numbers.
Although this storm tried to produce another tornado, it didn’t at least while I was parked on the side of the road. I later found out it did produce another tornado, an EF2. This probably happened after I lost data connection (this happens as cell towers are overloaded from “chaser convergence”).
I cannot tell if this funnel cloud was anti-cyclonic. Assuming it was not part of the main rotation, it might have been. Given that this was my first chase, I’m not going to straight up say it was one thing or another. This storm could have dropped another mean tornado, and it did. At times this storm looked as if it had at least 2 areas with strong rotation.
A Hail of a Time
Of course, I should have took notice when most of the chasers turned around heading back down the road I came (east) after the wall cloud broke down. That being said, you don’t always want to follow everyone else. You don’t know why they’re going back down the road, could it be another tornado? Could it be the hail core you’re about to find yourself in?
This is where I made a bad mistake. I lost situational awareness in the euphoria of intercepting my first tornado. I took my phone off the booster so I could take video and some photos, what I learned later on was that having taken it out of the car would leave me without data service due to chaser convergence. So I lost radar updates and not sure why I chose to continue north when I should have gone east (as I would have likely seen another tornado touch down). It might seem in the video that I’m obviously driving into trouble, it was not so apparent from the driver’s seat. This is why you should have a chase partner. The dash cam makes it look very clear that I’m driving straight into the hail core.
Ending of a Successful Chase
Despite the hail and having a few dings on the car. No broken windshields. I suppose I could have made better choices and paid more attention but hindsight is always 20/20. After the hail and still not having radar updates I decided that after driving over 730 miles I would call it a day. However, I had some concerns when I did get data again.
Thankfully this storm isn’t rotating and unlikely to produce a tornado. Hail however, is another story. Likewise I wouldn’t want a storm to chase me away from getting to the hotel room. The storm did pack some decent wind, heavy rain and pea sized hail. Also had a pretty cool looking shelf cloud.
All in all I was ready to turn in for the night, get some photos uploaded and start planning for the next day.
May 18th fell on a Saturday, the risk of severe weather, not quite as high as yesterday’s but there was still some potential in some portions of Kansas. I did happen to check things out on the car, after all I did get caught in hail and wanted to make sure everything was fine. I found that my antenna had worked loose. The crosswind the day before must has been the culprit. Every time a semi truck passed by it was like a bomb of air hitting the car and I suspect that was what cause it to come lose. The wind shear was very evident, you could see it in the clouds.
I stopped in Dodge City for lunch and got back on the road. It was another long day of driving. When I left Dodge City I had to choose which storm I was going to track. I did have some time to kill as most of the storms hadn’t matured.
I started west as if to cross into Colorado. I don’t exactly remember why I decided to bail on the storm, it might have been losing intensity but I do remember being concerned about time. After all who wants to waste 2-3 hours of driving only to find the storm you picked dies out.
However, I decided to head back east and drop down to the south and intercept a storm just south of the Kansas/Oklahoma border, this is was near Alva, OK. This set of storms were looking more promising.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same luck as the day before. Although the storm I was on did have rotation, did appear so on radar, it never dropped anything. To make matters worse, the storm further to the east did have a tornado on the ground and was tornado warned. That all being said, I did get some good photos of storm structure and so I was satisfied with that.
I made it to Elk City, OK that evening and was able to relax some knowing that Sunday was an off day and could sleep in as much as I felt.
Although you could see rotation on radar the storm never really got it’s act together, you could see plenty of twisting motion in the clouds but thing just didn’t come together. Then again, I may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Sunday was a free day as there was a break in the severe weather. So I took advantage of it and slept in as long as I could. I decided I would drive out to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge which is in southern Oklahoma. It was surprisingly nice. Now I’ve decided I would make a separate blog entry about the refuge and the Babbs Switch Fire. Sunday, I drove from Elk City, OK back to the same hotel I stayed in over in Oklahoma City. That hotel was pretty nice, it was new and had EV charging, so I took advantage of that as much as I could.
Monday, May 20th is the big day. The second time since 2011 that the Storm Prediction Center issued a high risk area for western Oklahoma, and as it turned out it was quite the day. The biggest problem and danger was that the storms were moving very fast to the NE, some over 50 MPH. That makes chasing these storms not only challenging but also dangerous. I left Oklahoma City fairly early in the morning, I don’t remember the exact time. I decided I would head to Childress, TX and try to hang out there for a while because I had a feeling that storms would initiate around that area but I didn’t want to go too far south. One of my problems is simply being patient and just hanging loose. Instead of hanging out at the truck stop in Childress I had to get on the move. This ultimately wasted gas and even though a Prius gets good fuel economy, at 85 MPH you’re barely cracking 40 MPG and having only an 11.3 gallon tank that gets used up noticeably quicker. All in all I drove about 130 miles I didn’t need too and got gas at the same gas station so many times that my credit card wouldn’t work–just used a different one. Sure enough, as soon as I get back to Childress after “joy riding” around for the last couple hours storms start firing up right about where I had been not so long ago and the two storms popping up have “that” look–they’re going to be supercells.
Crazy Texas Roads
Once you cross into Texas the speed limit is 75 MPH and the feel of everything changes. First thing I noticed was cattle in the road. I thought someone’s livestock got lose…well there were not any fences. I quickly realized that’s just how it is. Even the side roads (which are thankfully paved) still allow you to go 70 MPH, after seeing a herd of hogs along the shoulder of the road, it’s no wonder the hazards that you don’t think about.
This is Where Things Got Dangerous
Fast moving storms can get you caught in the middle of it, all it takes is a bad road network, missing a turn and your chase is botched. This is what happened to me. Luckily, nothing bad came of it. Flooded roads is another hazard to contend with, although the roads might be fine but when you roll into town it is a different story.
In other words Monday’s chase was all but a bust, an exhausting 930 miles and not a whole lot to show for it. There were plenty of tornado producers but I spend a great deal of time trying to get ahead of the storm to get back into position. However, the point where I almost got ahead I came across a closed road due to damage from the tornado that passed by. I did not take photos of the damage; that’s not my cup of tea. It would be different if I was the first person on the scene and was able to report it, help people, etc. but there were people already on the scene. So I headed north back into the storm which at this point was beginning to lose intensity. I don’t know if the storm produced any additional tornadoes but the chase was already over. It was a mess of navigating and trying to drive as fast as possible without hydroplanning. You also have to wonder if you’re about to drive into a rain wrapped tornado. The radar updates I was getting did show rotation not too far away at times and you have to realize that the data you’re looking at is already 5 minutes old.
The above picture was really the only decent picture I got on Monday. I spent most of the time in the rain trying to get out ahead of the storm which never really happened. My advice is not to chase fast moving storms and that advice was given to me and look what it got me and could have been much much worse. During my chase I came across what I thought was a wreck, a car had slid off the road into the ditch, not sure if they hydroplaned or were blown off the road. The advice I was given was not to chase storms that are moving faster than 30 knots. Think about it though, you have to drive to the east, then find a northerly route, then go back south, go east and on and on. If you have a storm hauling tail at 50 knots, it’s very difficult if not impossible to keep up–you’re not driving 70 MPH on a dirt road, especially if it is wet. I could go on but hopefully anyone reading already knows better and got a chuckle out of my mistakes.
Day 6 and Beyond
Overall I had a great time. It is something I want to do again, maybe next year. I know that I did get lucky as I could have have 2 weeks of a bust. This year, 2019, is turning out to be a very active for severe weather, perhaps even record breaking. We have had to date over 200 tornadoes.
The only casualty I have had was a rock hitting the windshield from a semi-truck, so no the hail didn’t crack the windshield. I thought for sure after Friday’s hail I was in the clear. There are a few dings in the hood and the roof but it’s stuff I can live with. I’m sure sooner or later someone is going back into the car at the store or something.
So next year I do want to have a chase partner, so hopefully between now and next March I can be better prepared and hopefully have a good time. I do think I need to look at getting a newer camera, something that can perform in lower light and something for recording video. That way I can leave the phone in the car, leave it alone on the booster and hopefully not experience the loss of service but that may not be preventable.
Should people go storm chasing? I think as long as you realize your plans, your trip can be ruined quicker than you think. If you can tolerate lot of driving, many hours in the car and crappy fast food, then yes you’ll have a good time. Learn as much about these storms, look at the roads, think about how long it takes to get to places and be able to anticipate where a storm will be. For me, I didn’t too all that bad for it being my first time chasing. There’s tons of resources out there to use and is very helpful but how you apply it in the field makes all the difference.
Also, check out my Flickr album. Has all these photos and more. Don’t forget to subscribe and check out the next blog about the Wichita Mountains!