Tornado Chaser

Tornado Alley - storm chasing and tornadoes




Storm chaser dream

Tornado Kansas 2002

A storm chaser often has dreams of tornado encounters, dreaming of the perfect setup for seeing many tornadoes in one day on wide open roads. May 7th 2002 was a dream day where storm chasing was as good as it gets.

Monday May 6th Tornado Tim started out for Salina Kansas to get in position for storms on Tuesday. By the time Tim and crew approached Salina they found plenty of storms to chase immediately so they followed one cell with a tornado warning on it until after dark. Then they drove back to Junction City Kansas to rest for the night. After checking SPC predictions for Tuesday everything looked like it was setting up for a round of severe weather for Kansas.

Here is Tornado Tim’s account of that day

The next morning I again checked SPC and NWS for their predictions to see if there were any changes. It was hard to decide where to start, but I decided we would head towards Wichita, Kansas.

Friendly people of Kansas

Along the way down we stopped at Lindsborg, Kansas also known as Little Sweden, USA.

What a great place to visit, there is much to see but first we proceeded to use the local library that was part of the Bethany College campus. Very warm and friendly people greeted us and each one was willing to give us directions to the Internet computers. Once on the computer we felt the data was pointing even more West than what it first appeared to be. Before leaving we went downtown to see the local culture. It was interesting to see all the dalas in downtown. If you don’t know what a dala(daw-lah) is you will have to check their town out.

Decision time

After leaving there I began to think over the data I had looked at on the Internet before and felt that we should head more West then south. So when we came to Hi-way 81 we headed to Hutchinson, Kansas. As we headed for the city we saw ads for the Cosmosphere and Space Center and wondered what it was. Check out the site if you would like to know. In Hutchinson we stopped at the local Library for any new updates.

Storm Chase Vehicles

In the library we ran into 2 chasers from the Netherlands. We conversed for a while. They told us of the tornado they filmed in Texas 2 days before. They were at the Happy Texas tornado. I was very jealous of their close encounter with such a huge tornado. As we left they were not sure where to go yet and were going to wait for newer updates from the SPC. While we were talking more chasers were coming into the library to use the Internet. The local librarians began talking and we over heard them say they thought they had better turn the weather channel on and be listening to it the rest of the day. This many chasers descending on their town made them feel a bit uncomfortable.

Change of direction

I felt the data was pointing to the south, but still the west looked interesting. The dry line was way over in the Oklahoma panhandle and the moisture line appeared to be ending around Dodge City Kansas. From Hutchinson we headed south towards Kingman, Kansas but after 10 miles I told Kyle to stop, turn around and go back to hi-way 81. I felt southwest was the best so we turned the car towards Pratt Kansas. I just kept vacillating between more south and more west, so both at the same time sounded best.

Visiting the Library

In the old days, this was how it was done by most chasers, we used the libraries.  Once in Pratt Kansas we looked up the local library. When we entered the library there were over 8 chasers already using the Internet computers.

Using the Library internet

A chase tour guide was there with his paying guests. He kept thinking more north and they left shortly after that prediction. We don’t know which way they ended up going but he is known for always being in the right place at the right time. It is hard to discount such successful chasers conclusions, but I felt West was looking best. (I am not a follower) but prefer to make my own predictions as to where to chase. There have been times I had missed tornadoes because of this, but I also have gotten tornadoes that the others didn’t. The Basset Nebraska tornadoes was one time I was correct. On the Basset chase I left the group of chasers huddled together most of whom were more experienced than myself to venture on my own. I was the only chaser to get good footage of two of the tornadoes from that day.

Back to the chase. We then began talking with 3 chasers from Washington State. They had bragging rights to seeing several tornadoes in Kansas on Sunday. My face turned green again for the second time that day. They also thought going west might give us a good view of where the dry line might clash with the moisture line. 2 other chasers came in about then and got in on the conversation. Also having been successful already this year at seeing tornadoes they wanted to head west for a view with the eyes. We all left about the same time and headed west on Hi-way 54 towards Greensburg Kansas. We noticed several other chase vehicles on the road as we headed due west.

Storms on the horizon

We came up on hi-way 183 and saw a chaser parked on the side of the road. We stopped to see what they were thinking about the storms and it turned out one of them was from the NWS office in Oklahoma with a few friends. As we drove we saw several other groups of chasers.

Storm Chaser Vehicles

We all were looking at the fast building clouds just west of Bucklin to Kinsley. They were building rapidly and appeared to be the beginning of the storms for the night. The guy from the NWS was very friendly and helpful, they choose to sit there for a while longer but we headed north to Kinsley. Slowly we drove up 183 trying to figure out what was going to happen with the storms next, which way would they go. With several cells to choose from it was hard to decide, but I decided on going all the way up to Kinsley.

Pick your favorite storm

Once there it was clear the storm to our south, just north of Bucklin, was the strongest. It had several small funnels trying to work down and looked very strong. Lightning grew stronger and the winds began to wrap towards the cell giving the appearance of being powerful enough to effect the winds. Finally a severe thunderstorm warning was issued on it and then a tornado warning for just north of Bucklin. We now were shielded by rain from seeing south so we headed back south on 181. We jockeyed for position, and parked just north of the bend in 181 clearly visible on a map.

Tornado producing supercell

Here we shot some video of the strong updrafts going into the clouds and the inflow winds from in front of the cell. The supercell was now turning into a giant vacuum cleaner sucking all moisture and clouds towards itself. The whole cell rotated and caused small rotating columns to develop on the side of the storm cloud where the updrafts were being twisted. The winds were so strong now they rocked our car. Hail about 1/2 of an inch fell around us.

Tornado Intercept

We decided to get closer to the center of the storm so we drove to the bend in 181, and headed west on a small paved road. The road started due west then made a sharp turn to the south and continued heading

Tornado forming over Kansas farmland

south getting us closer to the center. Here a large funnel was forming at the very center of the storm. Debris began to swirl at the base of the funnel and started to connect the funnel to the ground. It was now a full tornado and growing in strength rapidly. As it intensified another funnel broke off from this one and started strong ground disturbance. Now we had twin tornadoes side by side growing in intensity. The second tornado had many small vortices clearly visible. These tornadoes look like a merry-go-round with six or eight mini tornadoes circling the main center of the tornado. Little did we know this storm would put down multiple tornadoes over the next 40 minutes as we followed it.

Storm Chaser dream setup

As the new tornado strengthened it started to pull the larger cone tornado towards itself, and then they both joined into one large tornado. The tornado was mostly cone shaped at this point, but would go through several shape changes over the course of its life. From the cone shape it slowly changed into a larger wider tornado.  The power of the tornado grew as the funnel widened at the base.

Tornado in Kansas in 2002
Kansas Tornado 2002

At this point it reached it’s widest size. It seemed monstrous in width engulfing a wide area. From this enormous wide based tornado it shifted to a tighter column funnel. At one point it looked like the storm would die out and the tornado event was ending. This tornado was roping out, but then the storm picked up intensity and another tornado formed.  The storm roped out and reformed new tornadoes at least 4 times as we followed it. Seldom do you get the chance to follow a storm that puts down multiple tornadoes in a row and have it follow a road at the same time.

It looked very tight and strong as it ripped up the terrain next to the road. We were now less than two miles from it.  This tornado was fierce and dangerous as we came closer to it.  It roped out again only to reform a new tornado. It was about this time we noticed that the storms newest tornado might be heading towards a farm.

Kansas destructive tornado

We were still about a mile from the tornado, debris began to hit the car and fly by our windshield. We strained our eyes to see if a home was in danger of being hit, but we could not tell. Right about this time it hit the Douglas farmhouse, but we did not know it at the time. A piece of debris can be seen in this picture coming at us. Probably something from the Douglas farm. When we replayed our video we noticed significant debris flying by our car and floating in the air above and around us that we didn’t notice while filming the event.  It hit the house dead on and leveled it.

Tornado chaser to the rescue

The tornado completely destroyed the Douglas farmhouse leaving nothing of the house standing with debris spread all over. You could not tell there was a house here because no walls were left standing.

Tornado Destroys house

Debris from the house had pelted our car as we drove up. We tried to identify one object coming down from the sky, it appeared to be a spool of ribbon now unrolled but still attached to the holder. Boards were lying around in the fields, large pieces of plywood thrown around and the road was blocked with trees, debris and power lines. We quickly went from chasers to Search and Rescue assuming someone may have been injured. Remember at this point we didn’t know if there had been a house here, but with all the debris it appeared there must have been. The only evidence of a house was the debris; there wasn’t any structure standing that was a house.

It was pouring rain now and very dark, but Kyle volunteered to search the farm to see if there were any victims. He quickly returned saying, “Dad, it took out and house and there are people over here.” We all got out of the car and ran, I started yelling, “Anyone here? Where are you?”

Tornado Destroyed home

Kyle found Mildred Douglas sitting in the middle of the road bleeding from the face as rain poured on her injured body. Kyle yelled to me and Mildred also yelled where she was. When I saw her face bleeding I ran back to the car and tried 911. In the meantime Mr. Douglas fired up a tractor and begin to move debris out of the path so Mildred could be taken to the hospital. Mr. Douglas was not injured because he made it to the shelter just in time.

Emergency rescue

An officer answered the phone and I explained we were at the Douglas farm, the house had been destroyed and that Mildred was injured, bleeding from the face. The officer quickly acted and got help started on the way.  In fact it was within 5 minutes and the first police officer arrived on the scene to help. But before the officer had arrived Mr. Douglas had removed enough debris from the road to get his truck out so he and Mildred started on the road back to town to get help. A neighbor next door came over right then and helped guide Mr. Douglas down the narrow path between the debris to get to the clearing on the road. They passed the first police officer in their truck about a half mile down the road.

Tornado Damage

The officers in Kiowa County responded professionally and quickly. I have the greatest respect for everyone that serves our country in Law enforcement and appreciate his or her hard work and professionalism. They certainly don’t receive enough thanks for all they do for us everyday. So I would like to thank the Kiowa county sheriff’s office for their help and assistance in a timely and professional manner. The people in Kiowa County are very blessed to have dedicated officers serving their community.

Surviving the tornado

While Kyle helped Mrs. Douglas she explained how she remembered looking up from under the debris seeing the sky so she pulled herself out of the debris. She was unable to see clearly though, since her glasses were missing and she was afraid to walk as she might step on a power line without seeing it. So when Kyle found her sitting in the road he was able to help guide Mildred to a vehicle to get her out of the rain. Mildred and Mr. Douglas were in the house when they heard a terrible wind sound. Mildred said the wind sounded very bad so her and her husband agreed they had better get into the basement right away. Being closer to the door he made it, but Mildred did not as the violent tornado hit the house before she made it to shelter. Miraculously she survived the tornado with cuts and bruises.

Scene of destruction

Krystallin called my attention to Mildred’s feet. One foot had a shoe and sock intact while the other foot was bare, no shoe, and no sock. Yet the foot was not cut or injured. The tornado had removed the shoe and sock from only one foot. My kids recalled their conversation with Mildred as they led her to the truck. At one spot she pointed to a Christmas pillow lying on the ground. She explained how that pillow was in the attic, but now it was covered with dirt and rain lying in the field. A little further she pointed at a tabletop, “That was under my bed” Mildred said.
To me I saw tornado debris everywhere, on the ground, in the trees and fields. Mildred saw pieces of her life spread around her yard. Thank God she and her husband were still alive.

Keep your eye on the sky

It is sad to think that as this tornado bore down on the Douglas farmhouse they were unaware of the danger. How is it that we were filming this tornado for over 30 minutes before it slammed into their farmhouse destroying it and they were unaware of the approaching tornado until it hit them? Think about it, multiple chasers in the area watching this tornado for over 30 minutes, tornado warnings out, yet they were not in their shelter. This is a real problem we need to overcome if we are going to save more lives. The National Weather Service is doing a great job at getting out tornado warnings well in advance of the tornadoes path. The Storm Prediction Center is doing a great job at putting out tornado watches well in advance, as they did for this storm. Why is it that people sit in their mobile homes while a tornado watch is issued for their area and not think about what they might do for shelter if a tornado does materialize? It appears to me that we have vastly improved our technology for tornado warnings, but we have not made the same strides in getting people to react properly to the watches and warnings. We hope our site will make people think. It is all about reacting appropriately to severe weather, and the potential for severe weather.

Mr. and Mrs. Douglas moved to Greensburg Kansas and never rebuilt their home.  In 2007  Greensburg was annihilated by a deadly EF5 tornado. Mildred Douglas was still alive living in Greensburg when it hit, and the building she was in was destroyed by the massive tornado. She again survived this tornado.  Amazing.

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