Chase Area: Woodward, Oklahoma and Protection/Greensburg, Kansas
Observations: three tornadoes (one was a multi-vortex EF5), four funnel clouds, three wall clouds, at least two supercells, baseball- to softball-sized hail (~4 inches), lightning, and some wild turkeys
Distance: 610 miles
Time: 14 hours
Chase Team: Car 1 - Ryan Surrage, Hin Pang, Esther White, and myself; Car 2 - Joe Daron, Gemma Ebsworth, Duncan Geere, Lorna McLean, and Jayne Reveley
SPC Convective Outlook: Moderate Risk (Click to see SPC products, data, and storm reports)
Chase Setup: A negatively tilted upper-level trough was ejecting eastward from the Southwest with 50-knot 500 mb flow and strong diffluence over the western High Plains. A frontal boundary extended from central Nebraska southward into southeast Colorado. Winds were from the southeast and dewpoints were in the mid-60s ahead of a dryline, which extended from western Kansas through the east Texas Panhandle. MLCAPE was between 1000 and 2000 J kg-1 in southwest Kansas with 0 to 1 SRH around 300 m2 s-2.
Chase Log: May 4, 2007. My 10th storm chase. The day I saw 4-inch hail and an estimated 1.7-mile-wide tornado, an EF5...the first top-rated tornado since the May 3, 1999 F5 that struck Moore, Oklahoma. The day I will never forget.
My initial target area was just southeast of Dodge City, Kansas...and I had a bad feeling about the day before it even started. I almost didn't chase this day, as I had a test to study for, but Hin offered to drive so I wouldn't have to. I wanted to go for my southwest Kansas target area right away, but a friend of some of the Brits, John Esterheld, who caravanned with us early on, insisted that we go to Alva, Oklahoma. In Woodward, we stopped for a bit to reassess. I still wanted to go up to Kansas, but John wanted to go to Alva. My group continued on to Alva, but there we parted ways with John and headed north.
We drove up to Medicine Lodge and then on to Coldwater, at which point we saw a nice-looking supercell on radar that was crossing into northwest Oklahoma from the Texas Panhandle. We made a quick decision to go back south to Oklahoma again, and soon afterward heard that a number of chasers had spotted a beautiful tornado near Arnett, Oklahoma.
By the time we got back to Woodward, we caught up with the supercell, but it was too late to see a tornado. We did see the largest hail any of us had ever seen, though, as we found some hailstones by the side of the road that were baseball-sized and bigger. Some of the hailstones were nearly softball-sized.
We then decided to drive back north to Kansas again, because there were more supercells forming in the Texas Panhandle and moving up into northwest Oklahoma towards southwest Kansas, and also because we wanted to chase in the Dodge City area the next day and were planning on spending the night up there. p>
At dusk, we drew near a supercell around Protection, Kansas, where Esther first spotted a tornado lit up by lightning, at 8:56 pm. None of us had cell phone reception at this time, so we were not able to tell anyone what we'd seen (there was a tornado warning out on the storm, but no tornadoes reported yet). At first we were excited to see a tornado, even though it was after dark, but in the ensuing half hour, our shouts of joy turned to prayers and exclamations of horror.
The lightning continued to light up a stovepipe tornado to our north-northeast, and it seemed that with each successive lightning strike, the tornado grew larger. We were getting a little low on gas, though, and weren't quite sure we wanted to continue chasing after dark; so Esther looked at the map and suggested we fill up in Greensburg, before heading on to Dodge City. We thought we could beat the tornado, but we never did make it to Greensburg.
We drove north at Highway 183 towards Coldwater, at which point the tornado just seemed to explode (we assume this was the same tornado, though there is some speculation that this first tornado could have been a different one). Suddenly we were chasing down a monster wedge tornado, and for a little while we wondered if what we were seeing was the entire wall cloud just touching the ground. We could not believe our eyes.
About two miles south of the tornado, we had to stop, as the road was blocked about a mile in front of us due to damage. As we stood by the side of the road, looking north, the inflow winds just howled. We noticed a solid satellite tornado moving about the wedge, and also believe we briefly saw a rope tornado just west of the monster.
A gentleman probably about in his 50s or 60s pulled up behind us and asked if we knew what was going on. We could only imagine the horrific scene in Greensburg, as it appeared that this nearly 2-mile-wide beast was swallowing the city. We were all pretty much freaking out at this point, and the tears started to flow as this gentleman told us that his uncle, I think it was, was in Greensburg and he couldn't get ahold of him. He said that he kept calling and calling him, but there was no answer. He nearly started sobbing, and my heart really went out to him. I often wonder what ever happened to him.
This night was the most surreal experience I could ever imagine. The reality of the situation began to sink in more when I saw ambulance after ambulance fly by. Many of the ambulances were coming from as far away as Dodge City and Pratt. I felt just sick to my stomach.
The tornado became rain-wrapped, and we lost it not long after we stopped. When we finally decided to head on back to Dodge, we had to backtrack and take a much longer route as several of the roads we would have taken were blocked.
We chased again the next day, though I felt like I was still in a trance after what we'd seen the previous night. As we chased this next day in the same area, we saw some of the damage from the tornado as well as from the even larger tornado that formed just after this one, northeast of Greensburg. We saw wheat fields that were scoured, we saw previously paved roads that were scoured to where only mud and some gravel was left, we saw large stands of trees that were completely debarked, we saw power poles snapped clean off about a quarter of the way up, we saw a crumpled grain elevator and silo, and we saw houses that were destroyed (even saw one house that looked like someone had taken a knife and cleanly sliced off the roof and then carefully laid it down next to the house, right-side up). There were also some dead cattle in places, and the smell of natural gas at times.
I had nightmares about the tornado for weeks afterwards...for at least the next couple of weeks after Greensburg, I saw the tornado lit up by lightning every time I closed my eyes. The tornado sirens went off in Norman a couple of days after we got back, as a funnel cloud was spotted less than a mile from my apartment. I freaked out more than I normally would have, and felt quite scared.
At the time, I wrote, "I never want to see another tornado, I might add...I obviously didn't live through the tornado but witnessing it and some of its damage affected me profoundly. I think it'll be a little while before I can stop freaking out every time I hear thunder and every time there's a tornado warning nearby (these thunderstorms in central Oklahoma the past few nights haven't helped in any sort of emotional recovery)."
It still makes me sick to think back on this day. I will never forget May 4, 2007. It changed my perspective on storm chasing to some extent, and I nearly quit chasing altogether.
The following March, during spring break, Esther came out for a visit. We drove up to Greensburg, to see how the rebuilding was going. Nearly a year after the tornado and our last storm chase, we wanted to see the city again in the hopes of finally setting some of our nightmares to rest. We were very pleased to see that many new homes had been built, and the town seemed to be doing quite well again. I finally was able to get back up on the horse again, and began to chase again in March 2008. However, I did it quite cautiously and did not see any tornadoes that year. I now seek to report any tornadoes and large hail that I see to the National Weather Service, in an effort to assist with improved warnings.