Saturday, May 23, 2009

An Intense Texas Chase To End the Chasecation

DAY 14 MAY 15, 2009

I was enjoying my sleep when someone came knocking on my door. The knocking wouldn't stop, so I groggily got out of bed and opened the door with my eyes halfway opened and my hair a mess. I was expecting Ron, but it turned out to be one of the cleaning ladies. All she had to do was look at me and apologized and said she would be back later. I closed the door, rubbed my eyes and looked at the time. 10:30 am?! What are they doing knocking on our doors a half hour before checkout time? What if I was in the bathroom? Would she have walked right in and start cleaning right away? Yeeesh. Well, I figured since it was getting rather late in the morning, I decided to get dressed and turned on TWC to see what Vortex 2 was going to do today. Apparently they were heading to Kansas. I looked quickly at the RUC models for later today. Interesting. Tons of instability, helicity, convergence, a moisture pocket, southerly/southeasterly surface flow, a cold front and a dryline in the eastern Texas panhandle. There would be storms across OK and KS as well, but it looked to be more linear. I didn't like the surface winds there either. SPC outlined a moderate risk with 10% tornado for eastern Kansas and a slight with 5% tornado over the eastern Texas panhandle. The whole stretch was hatched for large hail as well. I was a bit puzzled as to why Vortex 2 was headed up to Kansas. Ah well, I ain't with them after all, and I wanted our last alley chase of the year to end with a bang.

We all went to Denny's for breakfast. I ordered the Pancake Puppies, which actually resembled 3 inch deep fried hailstones. Yum! We then headed northwest from Wichita Falls, towards Amarillo. The cold front was expected to move southeast through the late afternoon. Ron and I were hoping for an isolated supercell today. Actually, Ron was certain we would see something today.

A little while later sometime in the mid afternoon, we ended up a rest stop. We could see the boundary developing. A new storm had quickly gone up north of Pampa. While I was taking pictures of the distant cells, Jack called me over. He mentioned a tornado watch had gone up and we were on the western side of it. Perfect! So far everything seemed to make good timing. We continued on our way north. A new cell was developing just to our west. The newly devleoped anvil was nice and hard, but the base of the cell did not look very healthy. We stopped to get some pictures of the anvil's edge, then Ron wanted to take one of his shortcuts to get to the supercell near Pampa, which included a road basically made of peanut butter. Some of the ruts were a little deep but the van did quite well getting through it. Luckily it was not raining because this is one road that any chaser should avoid when it's wet. Some of it was so deep it was scraping underneath the van. Clay came up out the sides just like going through a puddle. Nothing like a little Texas clay off-roading adventure! After about 10 minutes, we worked our way to a main road again and headed off towards the storm.

Soon after, a tornado warning was issued for the storm. This supercell was starting to look like a beast on radar and it was moving slow in a southerly direction! As we got closer, we could make out some of the structure. I could see some banding along the flanking line and wrapping around the meso. All of a sudden, Ron said there was a funnel cloud off to the left under the rain free base! I zoomed in and took some pictures. What a nice funnel cloud (I later learned that another chaser was right near it and it was actually a tornado with only a funnel cloud visible and debris underneath)! Unfortunately there was moisture in the air which made the contrast very low. A few minutes later as we neared the meso, we stopped on the shoulder of the hiway to take some pictures of the great structure. As we stood in the inflow, a wall cloud could be seen inside behind the precipitation. It appeared our storm was going to be one mean HP beast. A few minutes later, I could feel the winds change to outflow and it was starting to rain. The storm was heading toward us. A couple seconds after everyone loaded back in the vans, I saw a powerful CG strike near us. CRRAAAAACCCK! Holy crap!!! Oddly enough, Jack, Pam and the three clients, who were in the other van, said they did not even hear thunder with that strike. It was highly possible it may have struck the van or right next to it. Yikes talk about timing to get back in the vans! Good thing I brought extra undies!

After that electrifying experience, we headed to the storm to get on the backside out of the path. We pulled on to hiway 273, just a few miles southeast of Pampa. It was starting to hail and the rain was blinding. We pulled on the shoulder to watch. Thunk! Thud! Wham! Tennis balls of ice were falling and bouncing on the ground. Not from straight down either... with the winds, they were hitting us almost sideways! Everyone put on safety glasses.

A few minutes later, radar detected a couplet and hook just ahead of us (we were facing east southeast). Through the rain streaked windows, a collar cloud with rotation could be seen right down the road. We saw a fat funnel cloud on the left and to the right, there was a much darker creature hidden in there. I took a picture of the funnel cloud when a CG actually made it in my shot. Cool another unintentional lightning shot! There was so much rain and hail, it was actually hard to see anything hidden in there. We pulled up a few feet and stopped again because the storm was moving away from us. Jack got on the radio and said a hailstone made a crack in the windshield. The winds increased. It was starting to look more and more intense. Ben and I huddled in the middle of the van trying to get away from the side windows when I felt my ears pop. Uh oh. Something's not right. My adrenaline kicked in. Next thing I knew, Rita yelled. The side window at the rear imploded all over her and the backseat. She crawled up to the middle seat and we checked out her back. She had a small scratch on her lower back which was nothing serious, but the stinging made it feel worse. We saw a truck drive past us and towards the possible large rain wrapped tornado. They continued down the road a bit before they realized they had to turn around. I said, "We gotta get outa here, we gotta get outa here".

We turned around to get out of the heaviest precipitation and pulled over on to some road in front of some homes. I was shaking from the adrenaline rush. Apparently the other van had all three side windows implode at the same time! I mean the entire windows. Frame included. None of us never heard a smashing sound when the windows blew in and there were no big stones in the back seats, which made it even more of a mystery on why they imploded at the same time. However, everyone in the van I was in felt a pressure change which caused the ear popping. Were we too close to a potentially strong tornado? Ron said according to the velocity scans, the tornadic winds must have been about 161 mph. Yowsa, that's enough to blow your socks off. The guys tried to find stuff to cover up the windows, including jackets and duck tape. I said to Sandra, "So does that mean the chase is over?" in a somewhat disappointed voice. Sandra chuckled. Unfortunately we could no longer chase because there were no windows to protect everyone from the rain.

We pulled into Pampa and found a sheltered area at Ranch House Motel. The owners of this run down place instantly came to assist us in what ever help we needed to get cleaned up. They handed us brooms and buckets, and said if we need anything to let them know. This is why I love it in the plains... the people here are very kind and they look out for each other. Mammatus was soon overhead and I took a couple pictures. Pam and Rita kept picking small chards of glass off of them.Ron booked some rooms for the night. When Rita got her room, she went to shower to remove any glass. The rooms were small, so I had to get a separate room. It was quite run down, but at least it appeared clean. The people here offered us help and I felt the least I could do in return was stay for a night. Once I threw my stuff in there, I grabbed a broom and started sweeping up the billions of pieces. Jack's van had a spiderweb pattern in the windshield on the driver's side. Rita went to grab her Monster energy drink, but it was mostly empty. It was never opened. What the? After looking at the can, there was a small puncture hole in it from the glass! Wow that's bizarre! Jack apparently had his laptop open at the time the windows imploded, so he ended up getting some tiny glass shards inside. A couple of emergency vehicles drove by headed east. The motel owners asked if they could call up the local media news, but we had to politely decline. After all, things needed to be cleaned up and we were a bunch of hungry storm chasers. Ron and I still wanted to chase, but the supercell was getting away and we would need new windows.

Ron said there was a report of someone getting glass (no not from our vans!) in their eye and there was damage east of Pampa. After most of the glass was swept and our lugguge in our rooms, we decided to head just west of town to look for the damage. There was a large tree knocked over and it looks like it hit part of the house. The family seemed fine and the kids were playing on the trunk. Since it was getting dark, Ron decided to drop Pam, Rita, Sandra and myself off to eat dinner at Granny's Home Cookin', which offered great tasting food and wonderful service, then we called it a night.

I said I was hoping our chasecation would end with a bang, but I didn't expect it would be that gnarly! Be careful what you wish for LOL. The next day we looked for more damage, talked to a few kind folks and headed on our long journey home. Talk about timing too... the infamous death ridge would be showing its ugly face for a while in the plains according to models.

The NWS surveyed the area and rated a half mile wide multi vortex tornado as EF-2 near the area where we were when the windows imploded. There were other tornado reports, including the funnel/tornado we saw earlier on the storm which was rated EF-0.

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