June 12, 2004

The thinking today was that it might be the last realistic opportunity to see a tornado in the southern Plains this spring. Still being tornadoless at this point in the year, I was going to go all out and chase today - even if it meant missing work. So I called in at 10am telling work I wouldn't be in, and bought myself a few extra hours of sleep. I woke up at 1pm to check data, when I noticed the setup showed some interesting similarities to May 29, 2004. Although mid-level winds were much weaker today (only around 25-30 knots at 500mb), the surface setup looked remarkably similar. A dryline separating dewpoints in the 20s and 30s from dewpoints in the mid to upper 60s was oriented in a SW-NE fashion across the eastern Texas panhandle and northwestern Oklahoma. Meanwhile another dryline was oriented in a north-south fashion just west of I-35 that separated the mid to upper 60s dewpoints from the 70s dewpoints. For the second day in a row extremely humid air was pooling in the Ponca City and Wichita area, with dewpoints in 75-78 degree range!!!! By 2pm, towering cumulus were going up along the western dryline in northwest Oklahoma (just like May 29) - but I wasn't going to be falling for that again. It was Wichita or bust today! So after downing a quick meal at Sonic, I left Norman at 3:15pm and headed north up I-35.

By the time I got to northern Oklahoma around 4:30pm, I could already see anvils from storms to my distant north in south central Kansas. But just to the west of I-35, I began to notice towering cumulus going up along a north-south line just to my west. As I approached the Kansas/Oklahoma state line around 5:15pm, two of the northernmost TCu's appeared to begin anviling out. Although I was most interested in the storms further north, I didn't want to ignore these either after getting gobbled up in a similar situation on May 29. So after crossing into Kansas, I pulled over at a truck stop at the intersection of I-35 and US 166 to watch the developing storms, which were about 10-15 miles to my west. After about 5-10 minutes I started heading east down US 166 to stay ahead of these storms, wishing I could just blow these cells off and go for the main cell (which was now warned) in northwestern Sumner County. Once I got near Arkansas City, I looked off to my northeast and noticed all kinds of low stratocumulus feeding into the warned cell from the east. The two baby cells were not getting any of this moisture, and were remaining high based, so I ditched these cells and focused all of my attention on the main cell in northern Sumner County. So once in Arkansas City I drove up US 77 to Winfield, then from there went west on US 160.

As I headed back west on US 160, I noticed that one of the baby cells had died out - with the other one taking on some interesting LP'ish characteristics as the updraft (which at this point no longer had a base) was leaning over and spinning like a top to my SSW. I also was getting a good view of the main cell to my northwest, which was producing copious amounts of cloud to ground lightning. Around 6:20pm the storm's base came into my view, and I saw it was producing a large, low hanging wall cloud to my northwest. This wall cloud persisted as I turned north to Belle Plaine. After a short drive through that town I found a good vantagepoint just west of town at 6:30pm to pull over and set up my camera. When I got there, there were only a few people pulled over at the stretch of road, so for the first twenty minutes I was mostly on my own there as I watched the storm to my north-northwest display some strong cloud base rotation, and taking occasional peeks at the sideways LP'ish updraft to my south. Around 6:52pm, some locals pulled up and stopped to chat. They were out following the storm too, so we chatted about what we had seen so far. They even told me about previous chases they've been on, and claimed to have narrowly escaped the Conway Springs wedge from two weeks earlier after being stuck on a dirt road. A few minutes later another local from Belle Plaine stopped and joined us - he didn't want anything to do with the storm though, he was on his way out of there. So all five of us continued to watch the storm as its mesocyclone was occluding. Meanwhile, a new meso was forming just to its east. By 7pm I noticed the LP'ish updraft was getting drawn towards the new meso. A prominent RFD clear slot developed beginning around 7:05, and by 7:08pm thin, transparent curtains of precip slammed down and began wrapping around the meso. At 7:09pm the wall cloud tightened up into a broad, silver cone shaped funnel about 5 miles to my NNE. Although I couldn't see a debris whirl below it - I was fairly certain my long tornado drought dating back to October 9, 2001 was finally over!!! We watched in amazement as the cone shaped funnel came about 50-60% of the way down from the cloud base. The funnel persisted until about 7:14, when it began to lean over and become ragged before vanishing altogether. With the storm moving off to the east I decided it was time to head up the road, so I asked the group if they wanted to follow me. Of course, the frightened Belle Plaine resident declined, he wanted nothing to do with it, but the other locals enthusiastically agreed.

We went east on Hwy 55 back through Belle Plaine to keep up with this storm. Once we got to the Arkansas River, we got to roadblock due to a bridge being out. One of the locals got out of the truck to tell me about some dirt roads to get around the roadblock, so we backtracked a little ways and turned south on the dirt road. Not even 1/4 mile down the dirt road, they slam on their brakes at 7:23, jump out of their truck, and frantically point north shouting "it's coming down again!!!". I look north and see a silvery gray elongated cone shaped funnel extending a little more than halfway to the ground. I frantically reached for my camera and set up my tripod, then began shooting just as the condensation funnel reached the ground as a magnificent stovepipe. The condensation funnel connected to the ground for less than a minute, transitioning from a full stovepipe to a more elongated cone shaped funnel about 70% of the way to the ground. The locals expressed their disappointment, shouting "don't go back up!" I reminded them however that the tornado was doing damage, as I could see a faint debris cloud below the funnel. The locals feared that the tornado was heading towards Udall, so they decided to head on that direction to warn their friends. Before the left they gave me directions on how to get back onto the Hwy 55, and I thanked them for their assistance. But I wasn't going to be going anywhere just yet, as the light gray cone shaped funnel continued to grace the sky about 4-5 miles to my NNE. Winds were absolutely calm at my location however, although the air was very humid - I measured a temperature of 89F and dewpoint of 76F at 7:29pm. The funnel maintained it cone shape about 60% of the way to the ground until about 7:31, when the condensation funnel reached the ground and the tornado turned a more southeasterly direction. As this happened, the tornado moved out of the shadows and began glowing a brilliant white as it moved into full sunlight. I just about lost it at this point, repeatedly shouting, "WHAT A TORNADO!!! WHAT A TORNADO!!!!" as the brilliant white elephant trunk tornado moved southeast. It was apparent at this point the tornado was probably strong, possibly even violent, the funnels intense rotation and vertical velocity quite obvious in the late afternoon sunlight. By 7:33 the tornado was kicking up copious amounts of red dirt as the funnel took on snakelike contortions and became increasingly thinner and thinner - appearing to dance and shimmer like a white cobra as it coiled off to the southeast. Also I noticed what appeared to be small white pieces of airborne debris (which I later found out to be true). By about 7:36 the incredible show was over, as all that was left was a red dust cloud underneath the cloud base. After a few minutes I got back on the road again, navagating around the detour to keep up with the storm.

I got back on Hwy 55 and went east to Udall, then picked up Hwy 15 from there and continued to east. Once east of Udall around 7:50 I noticed another large, low hanging wall cloud to my north with some impressive rotation. By now there were lots of locals and chasers pulled over along side of the road, so I continued east to the intersection of Hwy 15 and US 77. I pulled over at 8:01 and got out of my car to what at first seemed like a cool breeze out of the northwest. I soon realized this breeze wasn't as cool as it seemed, and a measurement on my Kestrel revealed a temperature of 85F and a dewpoint of 73F! I was within the warm rear flank downdraft I had heard so much about, so I got back in my car and decided to head back south, looking for an east option. At first I was unsure about how far south to go, so I passed on the first east option. But soon it appeared I was heading too far south. Meanwhile numerous locals and chasers were parked along side of the road - one that caught my attention in particular was a long haired person sitting on top of a vehicle who appeared to be female and appeared to be wearing nothing but a pair of blue jeans! Just to make sure, I turned around and made a U-turn and passed by again. Sure enough, this person WAS female....but wearing a string bikini top that was hard to see at first because of her hair. Anyway.....as I was heading back north I decided that the east option I passed on earlier was in fact probably my best option, so I headed in that direction. All the while I was getting a spectacular view of the supercell to my north - which now had three wall clouds hanging from its base. The largest wall cloud was to my due north, with another wall cloud several miles to its east and another smaller one even further to its east - with perhaps 5 or 6 miles separating each wall cloud. At 8:20 I noticed a small funnel briefly develop on the side of the middle wall cloud, and by 8:23 the same wall cloud had developed a suspicious dip that just screamed out "I'm fixin to drop another one!". I briefly lost view of the wall cloud due to trees, but once I got into a clearing just a minute later a dark gray cone shaped funnel was hanging down halfway to the ground. At this point I hit my east option.

As I continued down this east option towards Floral, I watched the tornado to my NNE as it transitioned from a dark gray cone halfway to the ground into more of a broad dip. Occasionally my view became blocked by trees, but once I found a place to park with a clear area to my north, the condensation funnel had reached back down all the way to the ground at a 45 degree angle. The funnel went from a cone to an elephant trunk, appearing a purplish shade as the sky behind it glowed a blaze of yellowish-orange. The funnel then began to rapidly narrow into something resemebling dental floss before vanishing altogether around 8:31. I then decided to continue tracking the storm from the south, dropping down to New Salem and continuing east towards Burden. Between New Salem and Burden I looked off to the north at 8:46 and saw what appeared to be a broad funnel developing on an occulding, rain wrapped meso - but this stayed well above the ground and was fairly short lived. From Burden I decided to head back north up towards Atlanta.

As I was heading north up the county road to Atlanta around 8:52, I saw a snaky black funnel slink down to my NNE. This funnel came briefly came about 40% of the way to the ground, but over the next few minutes would mostly extend just 10-20% of the way to the ground. This was a tornado though as I could just make out a faint debris swirl below it. By 8:58 this tornado was difficult to see as darkness was rapidly setting in, but frequent lightning strikes continued to reveal a small, stubby funnel. By this time I was getting pretty close to the storm, and with few safe places to pull over due to the deep ditches running along side the road, I decided to turn around and head back to US 160.

As I headed back south down the county road, I looked back northeast at 9:02 and saw a needle thin funnel extending all the way to the ground. I was not sure if this was a new tornado or a continuation of the old one, but either way I wanted to get footage of it. Unfortunately it was just about impossible to completely pull off the road here, so I had to settle on watching it as I drove. The funnel extended to the ground for several minutes, before it became dental floss thin and vanished at 9:06. Around this time I got back to US 160, which I took east to keep up with the storm. Although it was almost totally dark by now, frequent lightning was making it possible to see storm features. When I got to Cambridge at 9:12, I looked due north and saw yet another funnel extending all the way to the ground - this one fairly thin as well but thicker than the one I saw at 9:02. I lost it however as I passed through Cambridge, and didn't see it again after that. Soon after that the storm began taking on more HP'ish characteristics - and after I got to a part of the highway where there were only letting one lane of traffic through at a time, I decided to break off the chase right there and go home.

What an absolutely unbelievable storm to chase - a slow moving supercell dropping tornado after tornado that I probably could have kept up with on a bicycle. Except for a few raindrops when I drove underneath the anvil of that sideways LP'ish updraft early in the chase, I didn't even have to contend with any precipitation. As of this writing, I believe I witnessed 5 tornadoes.....the event south and southeast of Atlanta was a bit confusing due to darkness, but after reading accounts from other chasers I believe there was one single tornadic event between around 8:52 and 9:06. The 9:12 event I believe was a separate from the 8:52 to 9:06 event. An interesting thing about the tornadoes was how they tended to spent most of their life cycle with condensation funnels extending only partially to the ground, not totally reaching the ground until towards the very end.....tornadoes #2, #3, and #4 all behaved in this fashion. The second tornado of the day of course was the most unforgettable - and unfortunately the most damaging as well. That tornado damaged numerous structures as it tracked southeast of Mulvane - demolishing a well constructed house and tossing vehicles hundreds of yards during its brilliant white phase.....which gave this tornado a rating of F3. All of the other tornadoes were ranked F0 - although tornado #3 appeared as if it were possibly capable of doing at least F2 damage. Tornado #3 was also reported to have a northwesterly component of movement - most tornadoes move in an easterly direction.

There has been a lot of discussion on on-line mailing lists as well as the media about the amount of people who were out watching this storm. It is true, there were quite a few people out there (especially from Udall on) - but for me it never got to the point where there was so much traffic I couldn't get where I needed to go. I attribute this to keeping more of a distance from the storm - the heaviest traffic seems to be within a mile of the storm. Most people were well behaved and pulled well off the road - although there were numerous exceptions south of Atlanta, where many people were parked partially (or in the case of a fire truck that was out spotting, completely) in the lane of traffic. Also I need to give props to the locals today - although the locals don't always have the best reputation among chasers, I was really pleased with how they helped me out today. The three of you who followed along with me for the first two tornadoes, if you're out there reading this, you don't know how much I appreciate your help getting around that roadblock - I owe you big time. I also appreciated the passing motorists who made a conscious effort to stay out of my shot.

Enough of my rambling.....here are the goodies you all came here to see.......

Video captures
Quicktime movie of Mulvane tornado #2 (55 seconds, 1.8 MB)

Total Mileage: 481 miles
Total Driving Time: 10 hours, 8 minutes

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