I can’t believe I’ve only been in Tornado Alley for three days. I’m already seriously sleep-deprived, and I haven’t had time to edit any of the video I’ve shot. But I did just post photos from yesterday’s epic chase with friends, from a storm near Ness City, Kansas, to the last two tornadoes from a storm west of Larned, Kansas – both on the ground at once! Check out the photos and report here.
On the second day of my Tornado Alley sojourn, meant to get me in position for subsequent chases, I managed to catch up with a cluster of pretty storms in northwest Kansas. They were, at one time, severe, but when I photographed them in a gorgeous twilight, they were simply prolific lightning producers. I’ll add video later, but for now, click to see some photos from Thursday.
Sometimes social obligations make it hard to chase storms, but a nasty severe storm came to me on Sunday in Rockledge, Florida. I was at a party and went outside to shoot photos of the approaching storm. The lightning became very intense as it neared, so I retreated from the home’s driveway to the alcove at the front door. Note: This is not a safe shelter from lightning, but I felt less exposed there. I shot a little video, then switched to stills, just before a lightning bolt hit a tree just on the other side of the home’s garage. The flash and bang were instantaneous – what storm chasers call a “flang” – and it scared me thoroughly. I was lucky it didn’t hit any closer. Afterward, I got photos of the palm tree that was damaged. There was a hole blasted in its trunk.
Read the full report and see the photos here.
You can tell it’s been a dull storm-chasing season for Tornado Alley, at least so far. Storm chasers on social media are posting a lot of “from the vault” and computer-model-related posts and not much in the way of recent storms.
In the last year – May 2012 to April 2013 – there have been just seven reported tornado-related deaths in the United States, Harold Brooks reports on NOAA’s U.S. Severe Weather Blog. That’s the lowest 12-month number since 1899.
What’s good for the public in terms of gentle weather is pretty dull for weather fanatics – who would prefer to see tornadoes in unpopulated areas – but Italy is picking up the slack. Several tornadoes struck in the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy on May 3, a date that shall go down in infamy in the States as the anniversary of the deadly 1999 outbreak, including the F5 that devastated Moore, Oklahoma.
Here’s an amazing compilation of the May 3, 2013, Italian tornadoes from YouReporter.It:
I’ll be heading out to Tornado Alley soon, I hope. There will likely be interesting storms there this week, but I’m still waiting for a more active period … or I will take my chance on what comes, perhaps as soon as next week.
I chased a severe storm this evening in hopes of catching a little lightning. I got lucky with this shot over Port Canaveral, Florida, with a cruise ship in the foreground. My Tornado Alley chase is on hold (shades of 2012) while the pattern continues to be un-May-like in the Plains. So any storms I get to see in Florida are a bonus. See a few more pictures from tonight’s storm on my Sky Diary site.
Meanwhile, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. I’ve adopted the new layout, which better organizes my videos, and you’ll be able to keep track of my storm chases when I post new ones as I travel.
Chasing tornadoes at night is rarely wise, but the ability to get radar images almost instantly, almost anywhere, has made taking that risk a little bit more palatable.
Sunday night, when a tornado-warned storm approached my neighborhood – with lots of attendant lightning – I decided to take a chance and see what I could get. Mostly, I wanted lightning, but the persistent rain made it hard to get a clear shot. However, I found myself in the path of a tornado-warned storm headed for Rockledge, Florida, and according to the radar, I was really in the path. The “hook echo” was pronounced and on track to collide with me. So I watched and photographed the storm with nervous anticipation.
What I saw at the time and in my photos was, shall we say, suspicious. Again, chasing at night, it’s very difficult to see and identify significant features such as funnels and tornadoes, when so-call scud clouds can mimic them easily. Yet the persistent feature in this photo (in several photos, actually) sure looked like a funnel. Was it? Maybe not. See the report and photos, and see what you think.
This will be my 17th season chasing storms, and in all that time, I’ve never had a proper car mount for my laptop. Before you freak out, fear not; I’m not surfing the web while driving. But like other chasers, I like to run GPS software in conjunction with a program that displays radar information so I know whether I’m driving into a storm; basically, it’s your GPS on steroids. And when stopped, I can page through other data online.
Over the years, I’ve tried some nutty solutions: a metal rack with a 90-degree bend in it, the kind you put in a roasting pan; a child’s lawn chair; and various perches on my center console and passenger seat, depending on whether I had a chase partner. None worked well. I decided this year to get a real laptop mount – but the really nice Ram and JottoDesk mounts aren’t cheap. From what I’ve read online, I also had doubts that there would be one that perfectly fit my current model of car, a 2010 Honda Element. So I did some searching online and found this excellent page put together by Mike Davis, who built a laptop mount for his Toyota Tacoma using PVC that fits into his cup holder. I don’t know Mike, but I’m grateful to him for sharing his design with the world.
Using a cup holder almost sounded too easy. And it is, in a way. I still haven’t been able to achieve the perfect snug fit that he apparently did, but nonetheless, inspired by his design, I’ve put together a pretty functional laptop mount for less than $30. Mine isn’t exactly like Mike’s, so I think it’s worth sharing. Between Mike’s page and my page, perhaps you can find a design that will work for you. I’m no engineer (obviously!), so you’ll have to judge for yourself whether your version safely fits your needs.
First, I went to the big box store and played Tinker Toys with the PVC pipe pieces. A two-inch width was the closest to fitting into my cup holders – there are two holders between the front seats. Though you may opt for different pieces, these are the ones I chose – two 90-degree elbows, two 45-degree elbows, and a coupling with vertical ridges that gave me a little more width for a better fit in the cupholder. I couldn’t find the flange I needed to fit the laptop tray, so I bought a drain fitting. While the design that inspired me, as mentioned above, did away with the drain itself, I chose a brass drain so I could put the screws/bolts through its slots when attaching it to the tray.
For the tray, I thought a wooden cutting board might work – it would be thick and already finished, so less work for me. I found one with rubber feet (on clearance, to boot). It seemed perfect – I’d put the “bottom” with the rubber feet on top, to help keep the laptop from sliding around. After installation, the rubber pads have a pretty good grip on the laptop, though Velcro would probably do the job, too. I also nailed a small piece of quarter-round molding to one edge of the platform to keep the laptop from sliding off. Position the piece depending on how your tray is angled. Since mine tends to lean backward a bit, that’s where I put the quarter-round.
My husband helped with assembly of the board to the drain piece. He marked the center of the board and then marked the positions of the three bolts, using the drain as a template. He drilled pilot holes, then used a bigger bit to drill into the top holes slightly so we could counter-sink the bolts (meaning they would not stick up above the surface of the platform). Washers and compression nuts (chosen so they wouldn’t loosen with vibration) secured the bolts.
Next, I worked on fitting the bottom piece with the ridges snugly into the cup holder. I’m not sure I succeeded as well as I would have liked. I used a razor knife to gradually trim away the ridges at an angle, since the cup holder is tapered. Mike’s – the one linked above – involves less pipe because the cup holder is higher, so it may be inherently more stable.
I marked the pipes where I wanted them attached, pulled them apart, then used PVC primer and glue to stick them together. I spray-painted the pipe (without the drain/tray piece) a dark brown (I like to think of it as a steampunk brown – ha ha!) so it would blend into the car’s interior a little better.
I did NOT glue the drain/tray piece onto the rest of the pipe, so that I can adjust the angle of the tray if I want to. After some use, I may choose to glue it, but it seems quite tight. I also screwed a small wooden block into the plastic box that surrounds the cup holders to support the elbow of the pipe. I expect I may do more to enhance stability as this setup gets some use. If you decide to do something like this, you’ll have to figure out the best way to make it stable for your vehicle. (See update, below.)
Update, April 23: We added a little more stability to the laptop mount last weekend in two ways. The cupholder is actually a piece that nests in a box built into the car and pops out for cleaning. I took it out and cut off the bottom of the cup where the pipe would be inserted. This allowed the pipe to rest deeper in the box and more snugly in the cupholder hole. The snug fit, however, exacerbated the cupholder piece’s desire to pop out, given that its latches aren’t designed to experience the stress of a laptop mount. So we screwed a strip of metal over the cupholder to hold it tightly in its box.
The wood block was trimmed a bit and helps support the elbow of the pipe; it’s also screwed into the box. So while this solution isn’t as elegant as Mike’s, since screws were required, I think it will work pretty well. And I can still remove the mount easily.
You’d think, as a freelancer, I’d always have some time to be in the right place during a storm. No – I’m a working stiff, too, and so I was shooting restaurant photos when the funnel clouds/waterspout were reported Friday in Brevard County, Florida. A friend called me to tell me she’d filmed a funnel in the Suntree area, and it was a beauty. Leave it to the storm chaser to miss it …
So after my last assignment, I rushed north to Melbourne to catch the tail end of the storms as they went out to sea. The motion and structure were pretty, but I didn’t see any funnels – just a deceptive feature that was sort of the right shape, but not, as far as I could tell, the real thing. The feature, which appears to consist of condensing scud clouds, is pictured below (at right in photo). At least I got a lucky daytime lightning bolt. I definitely didn’t have “Funnel Vision” on Friday!
The Aug. 15 lightning show in Brevard County, Florida, wasn’t (for me) easy to catch, but I got a few photos that may be of academic interest, if not as artistic as I’d like. There were technical challenges, one being that most of the bolts were embedded in rain. Another was that during the ten minutes they were really good, I was driving and stuck at Cocoa’s many stubborn traffic lights. Nonetheless, you can find the photos here. Above is one of the better ones.
I have a “Highway to Hail” sticker on my car. It’s one of those storm chaser puns, with nothing to do with the AC/DC album but everything to do with those icy, rock-hard missiles from the sky that are always a hazard when chasing tornadoes. I’ve had two car-remodeling encounters with hail. One was May 30, 2001, in the Texas Panhandle, the event known among my friends as “Mile Marker 6.” That’s the sign on I-40 that featured prominently in the video I shot that day.
Even worse was May 12, 2005, near South Plains, Texas, a day that was at least partially redeemed by the really nice tornado that preceded the assault. I’ve remastered my video and produced a new edit that I’ve uploaded to YouTube (below).
All of my hail encounters helped inform the hail barrage that happens during one of the action sequences in my novel Funnel Vision. I once took shelter in a country airport, for instance, though it was in Colorado, not Kansas. And if you turn up the sound in this video, you’ll understand that visceral, chilling feeling of having your car destroyed while you’re still inside it. Enjoy.
Note: For best quality, roll your cursor over the lower right of the video window, click on the gear symbol, and choose 720p HD.