My 2013 chase season started with a bang, witnessing tornadogenesis in northern Arkansas on day one, among the hills, trees and winding roads of the Ozarks, considered by many to be too difficult for chasing. Over the next 10 days I’d chase more tornadoes across southern Oklahoma and along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River. And then things went quiet. Really quiet. The kind of unnerving, unsettling quiet that breeds unrest in my bones. Day after day passed with marginal setups and no tornadoes. As mid-May approached, I hadn’t seen a tornado in nearly a month of daily chasing. It was all I could do to keep my growing concern from turning into full-on panic.
And then suddenly, explosively, it all changed. In a world dominated by mathematics and odds and probabilities it was quality, not quantity that would define the 2013 chase season. On May 15th we narrowly missed tornadoes in Texas, then missed out on others over the next two days, having played some targets farther north. On May 18th we chased several storms in northern Kansas before finally getting on the correct one, seeing the final few minutes of the Rozel, KS tornado. Nothing hurts more than seeing images and videos of the tornadoes you’ve missed, and though I was happy to have finally seen a tornado after weeks of silence, when I saw footage of the tornado earlier in its life cycle I ached to the core. All the hours and thousands of miles spent of chasing every day had produced so little to show for it. I didn’t know it that night, but Rozel had marked the beginning of a two week period of intensity I’d scarcely imagined was possible.
There are often signs that show a volcano is preparing to blow – from days or weeks of increased seismic activity to smoke and gas rising from vents and craters. May 18th was that rising smoke, because on May 19th the atmosphere erupted. I saw tornadogenesis over Edmond, OK and followed that storm most of the day, seeing an incredibly violent (underrated) multi-vortex tornado near Wellston. Eventually we dropped to the southern storm, with debris from the Shawnee falling from the sky, before seeing our last tornado of the day east of Prague. At the end of the day I’d seen 6 tornadoes, a personal high, and the strongest to date in the Wellston tornado.
And then Moore happened. I’ll never forget the hopeless horror watching the radar and the materialization of that beast. I walked through part of Moore later that night to recover a vehicle with another tour guide and a tv meteorologist, people’s homes and dreams lay splintered and scattered in all directions. Our guests would later see some of the damage along I-35, and that was horrifying enough, so I’m glad we were chasing the southern storm and didn’t see that tornado. Witnessing devastation on that level can be crippling to the psyche. For me, it made me want to press on and share my knowledge with our guests, so that they could go home more educated about tornadoes and pass that on further to family and friends and coworkers.
The next week brought incredible storm structure and more tornadoes on May 27th in Kansas. The next day I watched the Bennington, KS tornado form directly overhead, dropping the initial rope a few hundred yards from the position we’d sat at for nearly 20 minutes. We repositioned a little further east as it occluded and the new, larger circulation took over and eventually dropped a wedge that churned nearly stationary for close to an hour. A few more days of chasing followed, bringing us back to the Oklahoma City metro for May 31st.
Conditions couldn’t be more perfect for tornadoes than they were on May 31st. Parameters were maxed out, it had been apparent in the models for several days that it would be a big day, but that morning the heavy energy hanging in the air filled us with dread. There wasn’t a question of “if”, only a question of “when”. We were positioned in El Reno nearly all afternoon, doing our best to stay cool in the sweltering heat as more and more conditions came together, confirming what we already knew. It was obvious the PDS watch was coming. We positioned ourselves on the storm near the airport, close to the intersection of Airport and Reno. A few miles away, a cone touched down. Then another. Then two touched down and crossed. Then we realized these weren’t tornadoes – they were vortices. The other guides were as quiet as I was, our minds being silently blown by the scale and intensity of it all. Understanding the situation we enacted our exit strategy, zigzagging southeast as the tornado became too large to define visually. Despite the mass exodus we were able to cross the river and get away from traffic, staying a step ahead of the mass of storms as they swept across the metro. The following evening we heard the news that Tim, Paul and Carl had been killed by the tornado.
I don’t know a single chaser who wasn’t emotionally lost in the weeks and months after El Reno. The loss of the Twistex team was crushing, and the scale of the tornado (2.6 miles wide) was mind-altering. It required individuals in the chasing community to reevaluate why they chased and whether it was all worth the risks. A day or two after El Reno, I got an email from a man I had talked to the night before the tornado. He was traveling with his family and was unfamiliar with the area and the weather risks so many Oklahomans take for granted. He thanked me for taking time to speak to him about the dangerous situation that lay ahead the next day, and told me that my advice had helped keep him and his family safe that day, away from the nightmare that unfolded as people scrambled to get away from the storms. As I read the email, I knew the course of my action could only be to continue to chase, and to share my knowledge of storms and tornadoes with others.
The weather got quiet again after El Reno, and I only saw two weak tornadoes the rest of the year, but nothing could take away from the second half of May and the 14 tornadoes in 14 days. Looking back at it all, it was hard to know what to take from it all. What event would have the most impact going forward? Was it the sheer violence of the tornadoes in late May? Was it Moore getting hit by yet another EF5? Was it Bennington, the chaser’s dream? Was it the record breaking 2.6 mile wide El Reno tornado? Was it the tragic loss of the Twistex team and the affect it had on the weather community?
In the end I think the most important event of 2013 wasn’t an event at all – it was the implementation of a program that has received very little attention in the chase community or the media. It went back to the first day of the 2013 tours, back in Arkansas on April 10th. I remember the moment we were driving through the mountains and many of the cell phones in the vehicle simultaneously sounded an alert notifying us that we were located within a tornado warning area. Using the built-in GPS in the newest cell phones, tornado warnings can be issued to individuals based on their specific location.
Warnings that scroll across the bottom of network tv stations can be easily ignored (or missed by people watching cable television). People might get information about tornado warnings by listening to the radio in their cars, but often these don’t let people know where they are in relation to the tornado, and more and more people are listening to MP3s. As the cell phone becomes the standard for personal communication and access to the media it has become an incredible tool for tornado safety. I don’t have the data to verify this, but I think that most fatalities from tornadoes come from people who weren’t taking adequate precautions. People with weather radios or shelters have already decided that storms present a real threat – it’s the uninformed who are in the most danger. As the program reaches more and more people, and the system is refined, I think that this single advance in technology has the potential to save more lives in the future than all the other warning systems combined.