During a busy summer, I’ve been posting videos here and there, which you’ve noticed if you subscribe to my YouTube channel. Since I’m about to do a presentation on storm chasing, I thought I’d include video from this year, so I made a shorter edit (about 4 minutes, 40 seconds) of the incredible tornado I saw May 9 near Wynnewood, Oklahoma. (Also near Elmore City and Katie – I think the storm chasing community has not quite settled on the unofficial geographical location.) If the music bugs you, check out the longer version.
I’ve been slowly updating my 2016 storm reports at SkyDiary.com after the most incredible and successful storm season I’ve ever had. And this May 24 storm was one of the most amazing. I’ve never seen a supercell produce so many tornadoes, with incredible structure to boot. This photo is one of my all-time favorites.
Here are a couple of videos from that day. One tells the story of the tornado chase; the other is simply a stunning time-lapse of the spinning storm as it spawned tornadoes just south of Dodge City. If you ask, why do you chase storms? The answer is: days like this. Especially because the city was mostly spared. (Though photos from that day and the aftermath show pretty much total destruction at the landfill.)
I’ve had three chase days and a day “off” (to work) this Tornado Alley trip, and two of the chase days found me in front of tornadoes I could not have imagined. In fact, the first tornado I saw on Monday was the most dramatic in my 20 seasons of chasing – or at least compares to the 12 May 2004 chase in Attica, Kansas, that saw a house destroyed.
Unfortunately, several houses were damaged or destroyed by the EF4 (upgraded from EF3) tornado I saw near Elmore City, Oklahoma, on Monday, and it killed one man. A hundred feelings rushed through me as I watched the tornado get close to my location on a hill in the difficult-to-chase, tree-filled terrain of southern Oklahoma. First, I considered my escape route, because the tornado was coming my way. And then I was filled with dread as I saw the tornado approach the structures near where I was parked – even though I had no idea so many homes were in the path. Once it started hurtling debris with incredible force and speed, I felt sick, even as I was filled with wonder. This was the most stunning tornado I have ever witnessed, partly because of my proximity to it, but also because of its unusual visibility, manifest power, long duration (it was on the ground for about 25 minutes), and sheer beauty as it shifted from a multi-vortex serpent to a swirling white stovepipe wreathed in dust to an ethereal white rope. And the roar – it had an incredible, clearly heard roar.
It was also a thrill to see two scientific research vehicles speed past me to plant probes in the tornado’s path. For a second, it was like a scene from one of my novels.
You can see all of my photos and video at my sister site at SkyDiary.com, though I’m embedding the video in this post as well. I hate to see tornadoes destroy people’s lives, but I am humbled to be a witness.
This is my twentieth season chasing storms. Dude, that’s two decades. I’m pretty sure the older generation of chasers still considers me and my contemporaries post-“Twister” whipper snappers, but seriously. I’ve been around. I’ve seen more tornadoes that I’ve bothered to count (but have had prints made of the photogenic ones). I’ve had cars remodeled by hail and a deer (unrelated to storms, except it happened during one of those trips). I’ve learned stressful situations help forge great friendships. I’ve chased storms with friends and, often, by myself. I remember when you could have a storm all to yourself – a virtual impossibility today as storm-chasing culture, fueled by TV, has exploded (whipper snappers!). Perhaps this is all a way to say that I’m kind of old.
Nonetheless, I just started my twentieth chase trip to Tornado Alley. In between, I chase storms in Florida and take photos of weather (and other things) wherever I am, but every year, this is the time when I fuel my passion and try to capture the incredible storms of the Great Plains with my cameras. Some years have been better than others. This one started with a bang – just one day into my trip, I saw one of the best tornadoes of my career, near Wray, Colorado.
Lots of things have changed in storm chasing since I started, not least of which is the availability of Internet, and therefore radar data, in the car. (Making it SO easy for the whipper snappers.) One of the side effects of all this instant connectivity is that after you have an incredible experience filming a tornado and feel all warm and fuzzy about it (at least when they occur in the middle of nowhere), in a few moments, you see a better photo or angle on Twitter on Facebook and kick yourself for not getting the same thing. There were amazing photos of the big Wray tornado from the other side – better than mine – but it was still amazing to be there.
That’s the joy of life, isn’t it? We all have different experiences, at least when we actually get out and experience things, instead of having them spoon-fed to us on television and in other media. And one of the beautiful things about storm chasing is that every experience is not just unique to the individual, it’s unique to the moment. There will never again be a storm exactly like the one I saw Saturday that produced that dusty tornado. And the challenge will always remain to get the forecast right, to get into the best viewing position, and to avoid being swept away to Oz.
Though I wouldn’t mind seeing Dorothy’s tornado.
Given the epic amounts of driving I’ve done so far just to get into position and then chase on Saturday, I haven’t had time to update my 2016 chase reports yet. But stay tuned to SkyDiary.com, where I’ll have a full report on the Wray tornado soon (which I caught with Jason Persoff), along with photos of other chases. And you can also click through to track my location during active chases. See you under the meso!