June 4, 2003

After a long hiatus from chasing following my aborted chase trip, things finally began looking up by the first week of June. The upper level ridge over the West and upper level trough over the East which were putting the Plains under northwest flow aloft and cutting off the deep Gulf moisture were finally going to retrograde westward slightly. Supercells had fired in eastern New Mexico and the western Texas panhandle each of the first three days of June, as upslope flow was prevalent over the western Plains and the upper level winds had strengthed and become more westerly. June 4 looked like it was going to be another promising day in the same region, as a strong surface low was expected to develop over central New Mexico, and easterly winds were expected to continue to transport moisture up the higher terrain of the western Plains. Just my luck, I only had to work until 2pm today, and didn't have to work tomorrow. As a result I could travel as far as possible without having to worry about a long drive home later that night. Jay Barnes, who had missed out on our earlier half hearted attempt at a chase trip, had been sitting down in Austin itching to finally get a chase in this year. So on the evening of the 3rd, I called up Jay and told him to be in Norman by 2pm the next day!

Jay met me at work in Norman at 2pm to pick me up. Based on data I had seen that morning, I had targeted northeastern New Mexico. Figuring we were 7 hours from our target and had 7 hours of daylight left, we opted to drive straight through to our target without stopping for any data. The drive to Amarillo was mostly uneventful, as for most of the way we were still in the cool air left behind from that morning's MCS. By the time we got to Amarillo, we learned of a severe thunderstorm warning in Oldham County to our northwest and tornado warnings in Quay and Curry Counties in New Mexico. Since New Mexico had been my target, we opted to go for the storms there. So we took US 60 southwest out of Amarillo towards Clovis NM. We were slowed a bit by some junky storms between Hereford and Friona which produced copious amounts of rain and some very close lightning strikes. We even heard a few severe thunderstorm warnings for these cells, which led Jay to briefly wonder which cells to go after. But after seeing a radar image on Jay's TV which showed the Texas cells were clearly junk, and the New Mexico cell was still sporting an impressive hook, the choice was obvious - proceed on to New Mexico! We finally cleared the messy storms just before crossing the New Mexico state line, where we finally caught sight of our prize to the west. There it was, a towering updraft just to our west with a large anvil spreading across the sky. An impressive beaver tail was feeding into the storm from the southeast, and scud also was rapidly racing towards the storm from the southeast. I had not seen inflow features this intense since October 9, 2001, so I was getting excited. This excitement was compounded by the rapid darkening of the landscape created by the storm. With the updraft to our west and precip core to our northwest when we arrived in Clovis, the entire sky appeared nearly as dark as night, even though it was only 7:53pm MDT. Although it was difficult to see much in the darkness, I heard from NOAA Wx Radio reports that the storm's circulation was south of St Vrain and moving southeast at 15 mph towards Portales. I felt it we headed towards Portales, we could make it ahead of the meso or tornado. But with storm features being difficult to identify, we would also need to give this bad boy its space when possible. So I told Jay to take US 70 southwest out of Clovis. This road would give us our only shot of seeing a tornado, and would give us an eastern escape route (Hwy 202) if things got too hairy.

Well things did start to get hairy. Shortly after leaving Clovis (8:00pm MDT), the hail core started to overtake us from the northwest. The hail started out around marble size, then increased to dime and quarter size while increasing in intensity. Jay was starting to get a little worried about the hail size. Although it wasn't that big yet, it wasn't getting smaller, and we were short on options east. Recognizing Jay's concern about the windshield, and also sensing that maybe we weren't going to beat the meso to Portales, I surmised it would probably be a good idea to play things safe and bail out to the east while we could. So I told Jay to turn east once we got to the Hwy 202 junction. By the time we got to the junction, the dime to quarter sized hail was falling so heavily it was difficult to see the turnoff, so we ended up driving right past it. Jay had already expressed doubt that Hwy 202 even existed in the first place since it wasn't showing up on his GPS, so I had trouble convincing him that we actually missed our east option. However, Hwy 202 was showing up on my paper atlas, and I insisted that the road was there and we needed to take it. So Jay pulled a U-ie and began heading the other direction to find our east option. But shortly after we turned around (8:09pm MDT), we began getting pounded by hail almost the size of golf balls. Jay wanted nothing to do with this, he wanted out of the core now! Despite my insistence we head east, Jay made another U-ie and started heading southwest again. Knowing what usually happens southwest of the large hail, I was not excited about this. But since the storm was moving with us instead of against us, and we had a town (Portales) 5 miles ahead of us where we could possibly take shelter if necessary, I went along with the plan.

As the quarter to ping pong ball sized hail continued to loudly bang off the truck, we began to make out orange flashing lights in the road ahead of us. When we arrived at the source of the lights 2 miles northeast of Portales at 8:14pm MDT, we were forced to come to a stop. Why? An 18-wheeler was tipped over on its side, blocking both lanes of southbound traffic! If that wasn't bad enough, there was a white pickup which had rear-ended the 18-wheeler! Fortunately the pickup did not appear to be seriously damaged, apparently the driver was able to slow down sufficiently before hitting the 18-wheeler. The flashing lights were from a police car parked in the middle of the road behind the 18-wheeler and pickup. Within a minute of our arrival, the cop emerged from his car, braving the dimes/quarters/ping pong balls and 30-35 mph winds to check on the drivers. We ended up sitting there helplessly for 20 minutes, not knowing the condition of either driver or the cop, and trying to decide whether or not we should risk injury from hail to see if everyone was OK. The hail and wind never let up the entire 20 minutes we were there! But because five other people (in addition to the cop) were there on the scene before us, we felt that the situation was in as much control as could be expected. At 8:34pm MDT, other emergency vehicles arrived, so we felt comfortable about finally leaving the scene and proceeding south to Portales.

When we arrived in Portales at 8:36pm, all of the power was out and many of the roads were flooded. Our sustained 35+ minute hail beating was finally over, but we were still getting rain. Jay found a gas station overhang to park under while we discussed our next plan of action. While parked there, we noticed that part of the metal awning from the overhang was strewn in the street's center divider. We decided we were done for the day, so once the storm let up some more we headed back north to Clovis for the night. Once there, we saw that Jay's hood was full of craters, and discovered that his drivers side rear view mirror had been shattered.

Today's chase gets a 10 out of 13. Easily the longest duration hail encounter I've had....chasing or otherwise. This storm had an extensive hail core, and was moving slowly - it's no wonder we were in the hail for so long. I believe the truck was toppled and the gas station overhang was damaged by at the very least a rear flank downdraft - or perhaps even a tornado - whatever hit those two things came from a westerly direction. A tornado did pass through Portales at around 8:20pm MDT, I suspect this may have been part of the reason why additional emergency vehicles were slow to arrive - keep in mind this all happened just two miles northeast of the town. Amazingly, the truck driver was unhurt. I haven't heard any info on the cop; if he suffered any hail related cuts or bruises, I hope they were minimal. The same goes for the driver of the pickup - again, the collision with the 18-wheeler did not appear to be serious. Although it was a tough decision for us whether or not to render aid, the fact there was already others (including a cop) on the scene before we were made the decision to stay in the truck a little easier. The most important lesson we learned today was that sometimes the well-maintained, paved roads won't get you where you want to go. Although we could have avoided the accident scene altogether had we taken Hwy 202, that road could have easily been blocked for whatever reason as well. Heck, for all I know there could have been a construction crew several miles up the road fixing to shut down the highway for 40 minutes due to "blowing asphalt". You just never know what kind of surprises will be waiting for you just up the road. These "surprises" certainly won't keep me from chasing again, but they will make me think about what I'll do should I ever get into a really ugly situation I won't be able to get away from.

Total Mileage: 430 miles
Total Driving Time: 8 hours, 30 minutes

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