To the Plains: My First Storm Chase

By Francis Tarasiewicz

The storm that produced a very wide area of violent rotation and the one that we had to quickly outrun.

Like most other meteorologists, I went through a childhood weather geek phase prior to being a certified bachelors-degree-geek. A large part of my geek street cred came from the media I consumed growing up. It’s embarrassing to admit but my screen time as a kid was filled with the Weather Channel’s Storm Stories, Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers and any number of natural disaster documentaries. I remember the wild scenes of storm chasers roaming the plains in search of tornadoes and severe weather. These grown-up weather geeks were my heroes. I knew that if I ever had the chance to chase severe weather when I was older that I would jump at the opportunity. My first opportunity to chase storms and bad weather came from my Grandfather. You see, he was a huge fan of all things car: Collecting classic cars, car parts, accessories, and of course, driving them. A perfect match for a budding meteorologist.

I will forever be thankful to my grandpa and his 90s Ford Aerostar for their patience with getting us around the entire state of Connecticut through driving rain, blinding snow, and monstrous thunderstorms. Many of our chases weren’t fruitful because well let’s face it, I was 10 and for all intents and purposes knew nothing about the atmosphere. These chases were not only quality time together but also foundational transformative experiences that shaped me into the meteorologist I am today.

Fast forward to May 4th of this year. I was faced with the choice of a lifetime.

It’s funny how opportunities can come from seemingly nowhere, in this case, a phone call from a fellow weather geek.

“What are you doing on the 6th, because umm I’m going to Oklahoma to chase.”

Just like that, I had plans for the 6th.

At the time of the call, the forecasters at the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) had most of Oklahoma under a 4/5, moderate risk for severe weather. Specifically, their forecast discussion mentioned a risk for “violent long track tornadoes” (EF4-EF5 strength) as well as a friendly nod to “large destructive hail.” A lump formed in my throat; was I really going to do this? Sure, I’ve been through 150 mph winds, week-long blizzards, and everything the rockpile has to throw at me, but was I ready for tornadoes?

Another concern of mine: Was I going to be in the way of first responders and any potential recovery efforts? One unfortunate part of storm chasing is paradoxically how much it has grown. Storm chasing is no longer a niche scientific endeavor and is increasingly a tourist opportunity. If I was going to chase, I was going to make sure that I was part of the solution. That’s why I teamed up with a group of chasers, one with 16 years of experience. The coolest part about this crew? They were also volunteer first responders.

Moral debate aside, I decided on flying to Tulsa on the night of the 4th. On the flight I somewhat loudly told the guy next to me that these would be my first tornadoes to which another passenger responded, you aren’t from here huh? I looked to see who said it and was met with a friendly toothy grin, maybe I was naïve but I was quickly falling for Oklahoma despite being it still being a 1,000 mile flight away.

I landed in Tulsa after an uneventful flight, picked up the rental and began the hour and a half drive to Oklahoma City.

Morning brought news that put my stomach in my throat. The SPC had upgraded the previous day’s moderate risk of severe thunderstorms to a once in a generation high risk.

Their morning forecast said the following:

“The concern is high for at least a few cyclic, tornadic supercells producing multiple significant tornadoes along potentially long paths. The threat for such tornadoes, as well as very large/destructive hail, will be maintained well into the late evening, and may even increase as hodographs further enlarge beneath the LLJ.”

A rare high-risk outlook was issued by the Storm Prediction Center for my first Great Plains chase.

Simply put, the forecast here was calling for long range significant tornadoes that were expected to regenerate multiple times. This was as bad as it gets in the heart of tornado alley. I’ll never forget the brief but intense anxiety and hesitation as I sat in my La Quinta Hotel room. Horrific images of destroyed towns flickered through my head. I needed to be on my game today.

After a lot of internal debate I rendezvoused with my party in, of all places, a Wal-Mart parking lot. Upon pulling into the lot I noticed movement of the flag, it was stiffly flapping from the south. The movement of the clouds that were a mere thousand feet above the ground? Well, they were moving from the west. This change in wind direction with height, or wind shear, was the key ingredient that separates normal thunderstorms to tornado-producing supercells.

Looking around the crowded parking lot it was not hard to find our chase vehicle- a ford explorer with anemometers and ham radio antennae. Our driver, Jon, with 16 years of chasing under his belt was visibly nervous for the day ahead. After gathering our supplies we began driving northwest to get into position.

Our chase vehicle in the foreground with a rotating updraft and wall cloud well in the background.

I felt like a tourist as I marveled at the vast, expansive green plains and their seemingly endless expanse. Little did I know this clear visibility was a sign that the high-end forecast was going to be tempered somewhat by the afternoon.

Our first stop was a short jog to the northwest of Oklahoma City which landed us in small town of Kingfisher. We settled at a gas station and intently stared at the satellite and radar, ready to move at any sign of storm initiation. For storms to really get going, we needed skies to clear to heat the surface up. By noon we got what we had wished for. Storms fired up along the dry line, a boundary that separates dry, dense desert air to the west and moist air to the east. We raced west along route 270 through Watonga and into the more desolate parts of the state. Then it emerged: A formation of clouds that looked like a cross between cauliflower and a mushroom cloud towering over the western horizon.

Supercells getting started along the dryline. The blue circle was my location as we raced west to catch them.

We were approaching the first storm of the day.

Storms went from bubbling cumulus clouds to bonafide supercells within 20 minutes. This truly was a high-end severe weather environment.

The moment we saw our first two target storms. At this point they were already over 50,000 feet tall.

The day’s first tornado producer.

After some careful maneuvering, we ended up near the tiny town of Mutual, Oklahoma with a rotating storm to our southwest. After waiting 20 minutes for the storm to approach, I saw what I had came for: From underneath this monstrous supercell emerged a brief funnel. The funnel touched the ground, raising dirt and debris, making it official– I was witnessing my first tornado.

The sight of this caused hoots and cheers to erupt among our small posse. Celebrations were cut short as the storm hurled a bolt of lightning that sent us packing back into the Explorer. The waiting was over and the chase was on!

Our chase took us on a sprawling 500-mile journey through pastures, small towns, and dirt roads. Along the way we chased and were chased by funnels, hail, and destructive winds. We even got to meet with Reed Timmer and his formidable “Dominator” vehicle-designed to directly intercept tornadoes. One especially harrowing moment involved high-tailing away from a mile-wide area of rotation and a rain-wrapped tornado that engulfed most of the western horizon. The chase came to a close around 11 that night as most storms had moved east or were transitioning from tornado to wind makers. The night, however, was far from over.

The heavily armored Dominator 2 in its natural habitat.

As I settled into my admittedly sketchy 2-star hotel near the center of Oklahoma City, the now all-too familiar sound of an emergency alert came over my phone. Another tornado warning. The building moaned with the sound of the wind, and the rain, illuminated under the street light, rapidly shifted directions. Tree branches snapped as rain hit the window in a similar manner as the summit– a little slice of home. Little did I know, I was witnessing the outer edges of my second tornado of the day. Just three miles away, a weak tornado moved across the southern part of the Oklahoma City metro.

Most storms underperformed that day but a single, powerful supercell took advantage of the exceptional conditions, dropping a violent EF-4 tornado near Barnsdall, Oklahoma. As we in the weather industry frequently say, it only takes one, and unfortunately this tornado took the lives of two residents. This was a sobering reminder of the power and destructive potential of these storms that has still left me humbled.

At least two confirmed tornadoes touched down near the hotel I was staying.

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