EXPEDITION VIDEO 1: Tornado at Sharon/Medicine Lodge, Kansas - Watch video
EXPEDITION VIDEO 2: Strong tornado at Attica, Kansas - Watch video
EXPEDITION VIDEO 3: Tornado after dark near Harper - Watch video
ATTICA, KS - I returned to West Virginia on Friday, after a 3,500 mile storm photography expedition, my first of 2004 and my best ever. I thought I would have to photograph storms for many, many years before I would see photogenic tornadoes, a multiple-tornado day, and a close tornado - close enough to hear the sound. I never imagined I would be blessed with all three of these with my first-ever tornadoes on May 12, 2004.
This phenomenal day began for me at 6:00AM in Watertown, South Dakota on May 12. StreetAtlas had calculated a 12 hour drive to Wichita, Kansas, my original target for the day. I had finished my SD chase at midnight the previous day (more on that later in another report), which also began at 6AM after the first of two 5-hour sleep nights and all-day drives from West Virginia to Wisconsin, then Wisconsin to SD. I figured I would make it to Wichita at around 6PM, possibly getting there an hour or two after initiation and hopefully having time to get to a storm before dark.
I knew that StreetAtlas sometimes overestimated driving time, but just to be safe I still planned on an ETA at Wichita at 6PM. Well, I made it to Wichita at 4:00PM. StreetAtlas overestimated drive time by almost 2 hours, probably not taking into account the 65mph/70mph speed limits on Nebraska and Kansas rural roads. At 4PM, WxWorx showed all-clear, nothing was firing yet. I stopped on the west side of Wichita and did a brief analysis. I could see the front and sharp dryline clearly to the north and west, respectively. Nice triple point setup, with awesome T/Tds in the warm sector averaging 82/70. I figured on either moving northwest or west, cautious about getting too close to the dryline as we did on May 8 last year. After a call to Dave Crowley who was already at Alva, I decided to head west on US 160 to meet them at Medicine Lodge, despite the apprehension of getting close to the dryline. Justin Teague and Dave had nailed many targets before and I was more inclined to trust their judgement than mine - which was a good decision.
Just east of Attica heading west, I noticed Tcu going up straight ahead - signalling initiation:
I passed through Medicine Lodge and kept going until the sun dropped below the anvil of the storm, revealing a breathtaking cell just ahead:
After several hills and valleys on US 160, I came upon a very convenient scenic overlook at the crest of a hill that provided a perfect view of the storm and a new cell to the south.
A small chaser convergence was taking place at the overlook, including Gene Moore and a couple of storm photographers all the way from Florida. I had a good time meeting and chatting while we watched the incredible development to our west and south. What a show - LP-like structures, mammatus, 'reverse convection' from the anvil, big CGs arcing down from the anvils, incredible vertical motion on the Cb towers. Saw the DOWs go by, followed by a long caravan of storm photographers. When the first fat raindrops started falling, we all packed up and headed out.
Like many others, I too was tempted to go for the northern cell(s) as the first mesos showed up on WxWorx and the tornado warnings for Pratt came out, but I knew I would get cored by the southern storm if I tried it, as it was already bearing down on Medicine Lodge. I decided to move east out of the precip of the southern storm and find a place to set up and watch its now huge rain-free base:
As I stopped just east of Sharon on US 160, I noticed a nubby lowering to the southwest but could not initially see rotation due to the backlighting. From my vantage point it didn't have 'classic' wall cloud/clear slot structure, but I decided to frame it anyway and start filming. Just a few seconds after hitting 'record', the first debris cloud rose from the ground and the 'nubby' lowering became a pointy funnel, extending down to meet the rising dust whirl. The first tornado was in progress:
I watched this beautiful high-based tornado for probably 15 minutes, snapping 35mm and digital photos while the video rolled.
To the southeast of me, an incredible show of cloud bands wrapping around the meso made for more photo ops:
Soon, the tornado began to move behind the precip and lose contrast, and hail and rain was picking up at my location - so I packed up and moved east toward Attica. Just west of Attica, the new meso was wrapping up and the cloud tags on the wall cloud were displaying rapid upward motion:
Another group of 8 to 10 storm photographers pulled up and we had another friendly chaser convergence watching the new meso get its act together. Just then, a jagged baseball-sized hailstone slammed the ground and bounced onto the road just feet from where we were standing.
Time to get east! We all packed up again and moved toward Attica. By now I was getting pounded by hail ranging from quarter to baseball sized, which started to cover the road.
I slowly moved east until I spotted dust under the wall cloud to my south:
I could not see rotation at this point, so I kept moving east to just west of Attica. Stopping at the beginning of the s-curve just outside Attica, I could see the wall cloud rapidly wrapping up into a tight, fast circulation. Another dust cloud appeared on the ground, but this one was clearly rotating. A small cone begain to take shape above the dust whirl:
Attica's sirens began to sound. Tornado #2 was under way. I filmed the developing tornado from the s-curve spot, but the tornado was moving behind trees and out of view. I decided to head into town and try to find a better view. I took one of the first side streets in town and went south all the way to the railroad tracks. The tornado was really getting its act together at this point. I wanted to get out and tripod, but couldn't because 1.) huge hail was still falling, and 2.) the tornado was getting very close and I wanted to stay in my truck in case I needed to leave quickly.
The cone filled downward and the now-huge debris cloud rose up to meet it, completing a more photogenic tornado than I thought I'd ever see, at least this soon in my photography life. At this point, the tornado was about 1/2 mile away and I could hear the 'waterfall' sound clearly over the wail of the siren. Unbelievable! I zoomed in on dust getting pulled into the base of the circulation just blocks from my position.
I became slightly concerned at this point, as I could not initially tell if the tornado was coming directly at me or not. I had an easy escape route on nearby Highway 160, so I stayed and watched the tornado's progress closely. In the meantime, the dashcam caught some dramatic views of the approaching tornado:
Dashcam video captures:
After a minute or so, I could see that tornado was going to pass about a mile to my east, and that my current location would be safe. After it became apparent that I was out of the tornado's path and the hail had stopped, I got out and walked over to the railroad tracks where I had a wide-open view of the tornado, now taking on a tube shape with a very large dust fan at the base. It was an incredible sight to be standing out in the open watching the massive spectacle in full view just a mile away in front of me.
After this, I headed east where I along with hoardes of storm photographers were blocked by law enforcement at the railroad overpass, next to the destroyed house and barns:
Video frame capture:
StreetAtlas showed a detour around the roadblock on dirt side roads. The roads were still dry enough to drive on easily, so I was able to get around the roadblock and continue east - but I lost many precious minutes which cost me the additional daytime tornadoes to the east of Attica.
I stopped again east of Attica where absolutely incredible cloud motion was taking place directly overhead. A new wall cloud appeared imminent just a few hundered yards to my northwest, almost overhead, with fast rising motions and inflow tails forming and dissipating around it:
I thought I might get a tornado less than 1/4 mile to the north of the road, but this feature never showed any clear rotation and soon fizzled. Heavy rain began again, and I resumed the trek east. It was getting dark at this point, and even darker as extremely heavy rain poured down, reducing visiblilty to several car lengths. WxWorx was now showing a new meso to the south, so I kept moving east until I found the north-south road just south of Harper. I lost my GPS signal and for now was doing without it.
I drove south for about 3 miles on Highway 2 until I was out of the rain, then pulled onto a side road facing west. By then it was too dark to see anything without lightning. A huge rain-free base was visible in the lightning flashes just a mile or two to my west:
I set up the cameras again - one on the meso and another pointing up at the awesome display of constant anvil lightning:
Soon, a wall cloud became apparent in the strobing lightning flashes:
Tornado #3 quickly formed shortly thereafter, growing into a strong long-lived tornado with a large debris cloud. Despite the pitch black night, the whole event was clearly visible in the frequent lightning:
After the tornado moved behind trees, I got back on the road and slowly headed north until the tornado became visible again:
Dashcam video captures:
At this point, the tornado quickly roped out before I could tripod my other cameras. This was the end of my expedition evening and I was more than satisfied with the day's catches, even though there were still a slew of mesos and tornado warnings in progress to my north. Things were getting chaotic with storm photographers, police, fire and EMS everywhere, and I didn't want to contribute to the traffic jam. I headed back toward Tulsa, catching a glimpse of a DOW and the IMAX armored vehicle at a gas station in Anthony, KS:
Made it to Tulsa at 1:30AM - a big thanks to Dave Crowley for the guest room at his house after a long, exciting, exhausting storm photography day. Also, a huge credit to Justin Teague and Dave for steering me out to Medicine Lodge. And as always, a huge thanks to the Lord for his blessings of success, keeping me (and everyone observing) safe on the roads, and keeping the truck running for those many miles.
May 13 & 14 - Thursday the 13th brought a slight risk for severe weather that extended over the Tulsa area. The setup was marginal at best and didn't warrant a drive to a target, so we decided to stay in Tulsa, keeping an eye out for anything worthwhile. A large, messy MCS eventually developed over most of eastern Oklahoma which didn't contain much in the way of photo opportunities. Although a brief tornado (embedded deep in heavy rain) was reported in southwest Tulsa (in the Bixby area), the overall marginal situation kept us watching from Dave's house rather than venturing out on an expedition. We actually spent most of the day working on video and developing film rather than being concerned about the storms outside.
The next week's observing prospects looked nonexistent, so I decided to head back home on the Friday the 14th - more than happy with a two-storm photography expedition that yielded three tornadoes. After arriving back in West Virginia, I kept an eye to the west for the next severe weather opportunity. It would come just a few days later, making my trip home a short one - as I was heading back to Kansas on Monday for another week or two of observing on the Plains.
NEXT EVENT: Back to the Plains for trip #2 and an expedition in Kansas