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GREENSBURG, KS - A large, violent tornado devastated parts of southwest Kansas on Friday, May 4, 2007. The tornado was rated EF5 on the (enhanced) Fujita scale, the first F5 rating in almost exactly 8 years. Literally the entire town of Greensburg, Kansas was obliterated by the massive tornado, which struck after dark on Friday evening. While I feel priveleged to have witnessed an F5 - the strongest of tornadoes and a rarity in storm observing (and in tornado history for that matter), it is hard for me to call this expedition a success. The tragedy of the lives lost and property destroyed puts a damper on this event for me, and precludes any celebration of the intercept. The following is a account of the day's expedition.
I began the day in Pratt, Kansas with Fabian Guerra and Craig Maire. We lingered around the Dodge City area before moving east as the dryline began to mix eastward. I was watching two areas of interest - an area of surface convergence and cumulus west of Wichita, and the area south of the dryline bulge in northwestern Oklahoma. As the afternoon wore on, no signs of immediate storm formation were evident. Finally the cumulus near Wichita began bubbling up, so we started heading in that direction - passing through the town of Greensburg on the way. I was keeping a cautious eye on our secondary area to the southwest.
The development near Wichita soon lost its promise, and about the same time we noted strong cumulus formation in the northeast Texas panhandle. A small blip showed up on radar near Canadian, TX, and I knew it was going to put on a show. It quickly grew into a massive supercell with confirmed tornadoes. We immediately began the long trek to intercept. At some point, I got separated from Fabian and Craig and was solo the rest of the way.
The tornadic storm soon split and sent a cluster of weak cells northward. I ignored these at first, focusing on getting to the main southern cell. I caught up to the storm at Mooreland, Oklahoma just before sunset, where it took on an LP structure. By this time, the storm was long done producing tornadoes, but the combination of sunset and clear skies surrounding it made for an impressive sight.
At this time, I noticed the cells to the north were intensifying as the Mooreland/Woodward storm weakened. Even though it was now getting dark, I shifted my focus to this development and began heading north out of Mooreland.
As I closed the gap on the storm, it was growing into one of the largest supercells I'd ever seen on my WxWorx radar display. I had a good visual on it the entire way north, and it filled the sky in front of me with constant lightning. As I got closer, well-defined supercell structure was evident - a bell-shaped updraft, tapered tail cloud and inflow bands. Rotation markers on WxWorx began appearing and strengthening.
I was about 15 miles south of the storm, passing through Coldwater on Highway 183, when Fabian called. He and Craig had arrived on the storm a few minutes before me, and were already watching a large wedge tornado in progress. Before that point I was not sure what I was going to find once the storm's base came into view, though I was nearly certain a tornado was in progress based on the storm's radar presentation. I was not surprised to hear about a wedge, as WxWorx showed 161mph shear markers on the storm - the highest I'd seen on the data display yet.
Minutes later as I drove north on 183, the tornado became visible - and I could hardly believe what I was seeing.
This was not just a wedge tornado - it was an absolutely huge wedge. All I could think about was Greensburg up ahead and how similar the situation was to Hallam, Nebraska on May 22, 2004 - a massive tornado heading straight for a town.
I kept driving toward the tornado as lightning kept it in sight.
A power flash appeared on the right side of the funnel.
As I neared Greensburg, I began encountering damage where the tornado began tracking across and along highway 183. The sawmill-like smell of shredded trees and wood filled the air.
A loud hissing sound and the smell of natural gas ahead signaled to me that a gas line was leaking. From the volume of the hissing sound, I expected to pass it any second. But as I kept going north, it only got slowly louder. As I approached the source, the hiss turned into a whistling roar before I realized what it was coming from - a large gas pipeline, around 16-18 inches or more in diameter. A natural gas pumping station next to the road had been destroyed, with at least five major leaks screaming loudly and propelling large amounts of gas into the air. Some of the leaks were jetting out into the road. It was the sound and smell of these leaks combined with the mangled metal of the pumping station that started driving home the reality of how strong this tornado was.
The drive north became more harrowing as I progressed. Power lines were lying everywhere and cows were wandering on the road, set loose by destroyed fencing.
By this time, I had re-joined Fabian and Craig. The gravity of the disaster became more and more apparent as the chaos of destruction increased with every minute toward Greensburg. We stopped briefly where a group of storm observers including Dick McGowan were assisting a man who has just escaped the rubble of his house.
Continuing north and maneuvering around debris, I looked over to the right to see a new tornado fully condensed to our northeast. I immediately stopped and started filming.
The next lightning flash revealed another tornado had already formed within seconds, right next to the first. The tornadoes either rotated around each other or merged, as lightning flashes revealed them getting closer together.
Progressing north, our path was finally blocked by toppled power poles a little over a mile south of Greensburg. This ended the expedition for us, and we turned around and headed back south. We ended the day in Pratt, where the scale of the disaster was evident. All night and into the morning, the sound of ambulance sirens in Pratt and highway crews blocking the road west to Greensburg were signals that we had just witnessed a tragedy.
Our next chase target for Saturday took us through a damage path from Friday's tornado, near St. John. Damage was noted for nearly two continuous miles. Amazingly, Saturday we would witness more tornadoes touching down within the damage swaths of Friday's tornadoes - the same locations being hit twice in 24 hours.
Prayers and thoughts go out to all affected by this outbreak.
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