The Ultimate Storm Chase

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Austin Kennedy writes, I remember running toward the storm cellar as the wind howled around me.

I remember running toward the storm cellar as the wind howled around me. Before the door closed I remember seeing my favorite tree to climb fly up into the air, never to come back. My dad locked the door tight and joined my mom and I. The wind roared above our storm cellar. In a few minutes the roaring died down and the wind returned to a howl. We cautiously emerged from our cellar and looked around. Our house was gone. Gone. Destroyed. The concrete foundation was all that remained. My family and I were one of the few people that experienced an F-5 twister, and survived. I was five at the time, and that wasn’t the only tornado that I had experienced, but it was the only F-5 tornado I had experienced. It definitely wasn’t the last one though. “Get in! Get in!” I yelled to my partner as the tornado closed in. “Back up! Back up! BACK UP!” “I can’t go any faster!” he shouted over the roar of the wind. The F-3 roared across the highway just where we had been. That tornado was the first of the season for us. I was twenty-six now. Our storm was a good one. Not to a civilian but to a storm chaser it was perfect. We had just finished building “Tornado Intercept Probes” or TIPS for short. We hadn’t been able to deploy any TIPS in the path of the monster tornado, it had come too fast. The next week we found ourselves in the Texas Panhandle, a place that gets a lot of tornadoes. A super cell had spawned five tornadoes during the night. The place looked like it had been hit by an A-bomb. Fortunately, no one died. One man was injured but he would make it. Every time something like this would happen, my whole perspective would change. “The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning for all of the Oklahoma University area, take shelter immediately. Get to a basement or storm cellar. If you do not have one, get into a windowless closet or bathroom,” the radio cackled as we drove along Highway-85. Oklahoma is famous for its amount of tornadoes. “There’s the wall cloud,” I told my partner. “Yeah, if we keep going south, maybe we can watch any tornadoes move across the highway.” The rotation was strong, and a tornado was imminent. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a tornado twisted itself down from the clouds. “Tornado!” I shouted. This one was beautiful. It twisted this way and that sliding itself about. ” Winds now at 130 mph,” I informed my partner, “alright go! It’s crossing the road! Go! Go! Go!” We sped toward the twister in a desperate attempt to intercept the on coming tornado, in vain. The tornado was already past the road just as we were coming up. We watched as the tornado thinned out and disappeared in a field. As we were driving back home, a lightning storm illuminated the dark sky. Suddenly, as we watched in amazement, a lightning bolt flashed next to us. There was a huge twister right beside us! “Step on it!” I shouted. We shot forward like a bullet. As I looked back, the tornado had just crossed the road. If the lightning hadn’t been there, we would be flying through the air going 200 mph at the least. When we got to our hotel, we were scared out of our wits. We collapsed on our beds. The next day we sped out to Nebraska where some storms were predicted. We watched the clouds move for a couple of hours, then we moved to the next place, and watched. Finally it was time to go home. The next three weeks were like that we went to the place, watched, and went home. The reason for this is called a lid. A lid is a pocket of air that prevents any storm turn into a super cell, so as long as the lid is on, we sit. After three weeks of no twisters, we drove to Wisconsin where some promising storms were brewing. Suddenly the radar screen lit up and we saw the familiar blue dot of the tornado. “This is definitely an HP twister,” I told my partner, he agreed. HP stands for High Precipitation. HP tornadoes basically kill people on the road, simply because you can’t see it. So when you think you are driving into a thunderstorm you will be face to face with a monster twister. It’s one thing when you can prepare for it coming, but it is another when you have your eyes closed and this monster is just lurking around. “Let’s go,” I said to my partner, “I don’t want this day to be my last.” Before we even started, we agreed that we would not chase HP twisters. It’s just too dangerous. The next two weeks were a bust, and we finally got another twister. It was humid that morning and we set out to Nebraska. When we got there we observed towering Cumulonimbus clouds and the familiar anvil head of a super cell. I looked on the radar and directed my partner on where to drive. CRAACK! Thunder came to my ears. Lightning sparked everywhere. As the day wore on, we kept watching. I looked to my left and saw a small needlepoint hanging down from the sky. “There it is!” I told my partner. The chase was on. The needlepoint lowered and touched the ground. As the tornado matured, it got bigger. Finally, it was a stovepipe tornado. The field that it was in was freshly plowed, so dirt flew up everywhere. Lightning flashed around the tornado and we saw the full power of it. The twister was now a wedge tornado. Dirt clogged the air. A small barn splintered to pieces. Ten minutes later, it finally roped out and dissipated. Despite all efforts to deploy a TIP in the path of the tornado, we couldn’t find a road that would take us in front of the twister. That was only round one. I pointed to the radar. “I can see some more circulation to the southeast so that may spawn a tornado,” I told my partner. We drove to the southeast to try and intercept the new storm. As we arrived though, there was no tornado. The wind kicked up as we watched for any sign of a funnel. The radio cackled, “A tornado has been sighted. Get to a sheltered area. If you are outdoors, find a ditch or low lying ground.” We still could not see any tornado. The wind grew fierce. Dirt flew around us. Now the wind turned into a roar. I yelled at my partner, “Let’s get in the car! It’s too windy!” We turned around to walk back to the car. A tornado was only one hundred yards away! “Get in the car!” I yelled. The tornado was closing in. The wind roared. “GO! GO! GO!” I shouted. We zoomed forward. Dirt stung our eyes. Debris hit our car. The deafening sound of a window shattering came to my ears. I looked behind me; our back window was completely blown out by a fence post. Suddenly the car jerked around and stopped. “Are we out of gas?” I franticly asked my partner. “She’s full!” came the reply. I got out of the car and searched for the cause. The twister was almost at the road! I looked at the tire. A piece of wood was stuck in it. The tornado was almost there! I dived back in to the car. “Put your head down!” I yelled. The classic freight train roar came to our ears. Glass shattered as the pressure outside the car changed. In a few more seconds it was over, all over. As we cautiously lifted our heads, we saw debris strewn all over the place. The tornado was still out in the field. We could still hear the roar of the twister as glass shattered and debris smashed into each other. “You okay?” I asked my partner. “Just a little shaken up,” he said. We drove back to the motel and hit the sack. The rest of the season was a bust, and my partner drove back to his home in Kentucky. I soon got home and made preparations for next season. The radar was old. I needed a new car. The TIPS needed a few extra features. The season started at the end of April, in May and June the cold air from the winter and early spring was still floating around above ground level. The warm air has to rise so that makes the air unstable. The more unstable the air is, the more storms form. We set out on May 1st and went to Kansas. The storm we watched never turned into a rotating super cell. The next day was a bust. On May 3rd we set out to Oklahoma. As we looked at a small cloud structure, we saw it explode up into the sky in a matter of minutes. The familiar anvil head of a strong storm was seen as we drove towards it. We finally reached the super cell. We saw an ominous lowering to the east of us. A cone shape lowered from the sky. The chase was on. We screamed toward the tornado and tried to predict its path. The twister grew and was a large barrel tornado when it suddenly changed its coarse, right towards Oklahoma City! The tornado grew to an enormous size. Soon it was a wedge. “Holy Cow!” I exclaimed as it still grew. I could not believe my eyes. The twister was almost a mile wide. I looked at my partner. He was staring wide-eyed at the radar. I peeked at it, and I was awe-struck. It was going 313 mph. After an hour of tearing through neighborhoods and pulling huge trees out of the ground as if they were weeds, it thinned out and dissipated. We could not plant a probe in front of it. It was moving too fast. As night came we still watched the storm. It was pretty dark. A few lightning bolts would occasionally strike down. Then, I saw something. I stared at a monster tornado, even bigger than the first. A lightning bolt struck right beside it, but it didn’t matter. The light only illuminated a fourth of the tornado. This was going in the record books. The wind speed was going at 318 mph, the fastest speed an EF-5 can go. I finally came to my senses, and got in the car. ” Alright go to the East of it!” I told my partner. He then came to reality and said, “What? Oh yeah, East, got it.” We blasted to the East of it. The occasional lightning strikes revealed the tornado. We screamed into a neighborhood and saw that many houses had lights on and people moving around in them. They had not seen the storm. “We gotta warn those people,” I said. We didn’t even bother to knock. We opened the door of a house and shouted, “Tornado! Get in your cellar NOW!” and then went to the next one. “Get in car!” I shouted to my partner, “Let’s go!” I said. We broke the speed limit as we sped away (the law does not apply when a tornado is about to rip you to pieces). The tornado was very close. “Okay, stop here!” I told my partner. I jumped out of the car and opened the back door, or at least tried to open it. The door was jammed shut. I rolled my eyes and thought, “Just the time for a malfunction.” The tornado was too close. I jumped back into the car. “The door won’t open!” I yelled to my partner. We raced ahead of the tornado. As we blasted ahead, the trunk suddenly flew open! “NO!” I shouted. The TIPS were sliding out! I grabbed them just before they slid out. “Alright stop here!” I told my partner. I jumped out of the car and sprinted towards the trunk. The monster twister was still behind us. I lifted one of the 50- pound probes and set it on the side of the road. I hopped back in the car, and we sped off. The twister suddenly changed direction right before it would have hit the probe. Now it was in a field. I made a risky move. “Go!” I said. “Go?” My partner looked at me wide-eyed, “in the field?! We’ll get killed!” “Just do it!” said I, “Get way in front of it!” We then veered of into the field. Tall crops prevented us from being able to judge how far away the twister was. We couldn’t see it anyway. I hopped out of the car. I slammed open the trunk and set the last probe down. I jumped into the car. We weren’t moving. “Go!!!!” I yelled. “The car quit on us!” he replied. He tried to start the engine, but it would just start up a little then die. An overpass was just ahead of us. “Come on!” I shouted, forgetting that overpasses were bad. We got under it as the wind started to kick up. We immediately noticed that the wind speed was faster under the tunnel than out of the tunnel. A deafening roar made our ears hurt. Of course, we did not notice that because debris was nailing us. We were even getting sandblasted. After a horrifying minute, it was over. Debris was still raining down. I was in a ton of pain. I suddenly blacked out. I woke up lying on the floor of a gym in a school. A volunteer nurse was rubbing something on my forehead. I felt a throbbing pain in my head. I blacked out again. I woke up an hour later. The throbbing pain in my head was still there. I sat up and looked around for my partner. Thankfully I saw him. He was in much worse condition. “Will he be alright?” I asked the nurse tending to him. She looked up, “He’ll make it, he’s unconscious,” I laid back down. The pain in my head had not gone away. My partner and I stayed at the hospital for a week until they let us go. My partner and I went to look for the probes that we had set down. We soon found one of them. It had no information on it. It was the one that the tornado had missed. We went out into the field that I had laid one of the probes in. It was gone. Gone. Just like so many homes. Gone. The storm hit the entire state of Oklahoma hard. Those weren’t the only tornadoes that had happened that day. Several other tornadoes had formed and done damage. We didn’t chase for the rest of the year. I spent my time making a new probe. This time I made it have spikes that could dig into the ground but fold up while not in use. The next three years went without an interception with the probe. Then, the Manchester storm hit. On June 24, 2003 a massive storm gathered over Manchester, South Dakota. As we arrived we were amazed that the storm was already organized and severe. In about an hour the first tornado formed. It was a multi-vortex tornado. A multi-vortex tornado is a tornado that has several suction vortices in one big tornado. A satellite tornado spun around it. A satellite tornado is a weaker tornado that rotates around another tornado, like a moon orbiting a planet. The tornado was short lived, and we still watched. A huge lowering in the clouds showed us that a tornado was forming. Dust was starting to fly around on the ground. The tornado was a half-mile wide EF-4 tornado. The tornado roared in front of us, carrying the small town of Manchester with it. Everything you would need to build a town soared through the air. We could see a car that was very close to the tornado. On the side it said “TornadoVideos.net” on it. They were backing up as fast as they could go. I could see why. A small farmhouse became a victim of the monster tornado, flying into pieces of glass and wood. Fortunately, It was abandoned and nobody was in there. The tornado eventually turned into a large stovepipe tornado. Dirt still flew up into the air. Eventually, the tornado roped out and pulled up into the clouds. The whole town of Manchester was completely wiped out. A few more tornadoes formed that day, but they weren’t as severe as the EF-4 was. The rest of the year we got a few tornadoes but no interceptions. The next three years we got a few tornadoes but still did not get an interception. On May 4, 2007 a huge super-cell was forming in southern Kansas over the town of Greensburg, Kansas. There were no tornadoes when we got there, the storm was still very intense though. As night came, a brilliant lightning storm illuminated the sky. On our radar the circulation was very intense. A funnel dropped down from the sky eventually and we could only catch glimpses of the tornado as it was growing. “Let’s go!” I said to my partner. The tornado was huge now. Every sight we saw it, it got bigger. Soon it was a monster wedge. We raced toward a place in front of the oncoming tornado. We soon reached the town of Greensburg. I chose a lawn and put my probe there, planting it in with the nails. I vaulted back to the car and we were off. Eventually, the tornado shrunk and dissipated. As dawn broke, the sight set before us was devastating. The whole town of Greensburg was wiped off the face of the earth. The monster wedge tornado had nearly been as big as the town. I couldn’t even recognize the place where I had placed the tornado probe. Eventually, I found the probe, which had been right in the middle of the tornado. It was obvious that the tornado was an EF-5, the highest ranking on the enhanced Fujita Scale. Many dents in the probe showed that many pieces of debris had impacted the probe. The data that was retrieved during the tornado was amazing. It provided scientists information on the strongest rating tornado on the EF scale. The Greensburg tornado was an infamous tornado whose story would last for years to come. The next year, we were out again earlier than usual. The year was already on pace to be a record setting tornado year. Rare winter or early spring tornadoes had caused millions of dollars in damage. On May 22, 2008 a promising super-cell formed in north Colorado. Hail and rain were the calling card of a tornado. As we watched, a huge tornado formed and dirt started kicking up. It was a nearly mile wide wedge. These were rare in Colorado. “Get in the car! GET IN THE CAR!” I yelled at my partner. The tornado was getting closer. The way I could tell that was that the tornado wasn’t moving left or right, it was only growing bigger. We sped off but not before laying a probe down. “Come on. Come on, hit it,” I said to myself. Then the tornado hit. It hit the town of Windsor. Debris flew in the air everywhere. After the tornado hit, one man was dead. Many homes had levels of them destroyed. The tornado was a solid EF-3 tornado. I went and checked the probe. Just like the town of Windsor, it was hit. The information was spectacular. I got everything I wanted. Everything had worked perfectly. On June 13 we got a good example of a tornado situation you don’t want to be in. In Omaha, Nebraska, we intercepted a good storm. We did not know it, but a killer was hidden in the storm. Radar images showed a severe tornado. As it got dark we saw that it was a dangerous situation. Lightning strikes could not even show the tornado. The rain was so intense that it was impossible to see. Unfortunately, at least 4 people died that day. We got a few tornadoes the rest of that season, but didn’t get an intercept. As winter now comes I will turn my attention to a new subject. Hurricanes.

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