Wild Week of Oklahoma Storm Observing

The period of 21-24 May 2011 was not the most prolific in terms of tornado numbers (3 May 99 alone beat it); but for day after day of storm-observing action, fascination, beauty and sadness, all in one, it was unparalleled in my experience. Now that the pattern is calmer, and I am back on forecasting shifts again, I have had some time to calm down and reflect on it. Now if I only can find the time to finish sorting through the chase logs and photos!

To summarize:

21 May:

This was my birthday. I never have seen a tornado on this date before this year, despite the seemingly ideal time of year for them. Hold on! Tornado climatology isn’t always how it may seem. For strange cosmic reasons that shall remain a cryptic mystery, that date (green in the graph below) also is an inexplicable and pronounced low-day for tornadoes in the U.S. during this time of year, as shown by Chuck Doswell in one of his research papers published in the Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology.
Click to open an enlarged version:

Elke was navigating, and David Fogel was following, accompanied by his cousins Samara and Ellie, her friend Ella, and his dog Porthos — the “Dude, Three Chicks and a Dog” chase team. [Yes, I was chasing with Elke, Ella and Ellie…good times.] We intercepted a supercell from Sulphur to Fittstown OK that produced at least three tornadoes and several funnels in multiple occlusion cycles. This included two multivortex phases where intermittent spinups or suction vortices would form and vanish quickly under a merry-go-round cloud base. I don’t know, for sure, how many true tornadoes we saw. In between those merry-go-round stages was this spectacular little cone tornado near Hickory, puppet-mastering a miniature multivortex marionette of its own.

How we got such great views amidst the hills and trees of that part of Oklahoma was both good navigation and good fortune. These were my first birthday tornadoes in a quarter-century of active, mobile storm observing, beating both my personal tornado drought for the date, and the nation’s.

22 May:
This day was remarkable for for anything I chased; indeed that was rather unremarkable. Choosing not to go into the densely forested Ozarks of northeast OK and AR, we stayed west of the rugged terrain, seeing a nondescript LP storm and some multicells. Well to our NE, an HP (heavy-precip) supercell engulfed Joplin, MO with the deadliest tornado in modern times: an EF5 that killed at least 130. This horrifying casualty count came despite being in a tornado watch and warning. It’s a sobering lesson on so many fronts, not the least of which being that good forecasts and warnings are not good enough. Awareness matters. Response matters. Safe sheltering matters.

Here’s what else matters. I want to bring attention to an astoundingly selfless action the part of storm observers and physicians Jason Persoff (a longtime friend of Elke’s and more recently mine) and Robert Balogh. These licensed medical doctors and storm enthusiasts were trying to observe the Joplin storm, and couldn’t see the tornado. They arrived in the devastated town mere minutes behind it, stopped the chase, made quick contact with local incident command, and began treating patients in a horribly bloody hospital traige reminiscent of the worst war zones. In ensuing hours, they dealt with all manner of mangled human beings, dead and alive, hundreds of injured patients at all levels of severity, as well as processing bodies. Yes, way too many folks died that awful night in Joplin; but I don’t doubt that Jason and Robert saved many others. These guys, to me, are true heroes within the storm-observing community.

All hospitals have plans for handling major catastrophes in their cities and towns. Very few count on being directly demolished or or disabled themselves. That’s what happened at St. John’s Regional Health Center, the main hospital there. Jason and Robert, by luck, fate, providence or whatever, were right there to step in and save lives. Jason, who practices at the Mayo Clinic, now aims to do research and education in hospital-disaster preparedness, using what he and Robert have learned and will learn from their Joplin experience. I have strongly encouraged him in this regard.

23 May:
Finally, a more laid-back storm-intercept experience in friendlier terrain, without casualties. This is how I wish it could be always. Jack Beven (on vacation from Miami FL to Oklahoma) and I, in caravan with DF and his crew, saw two supercells near Okeene and Watonga, and a small tornado W of Okeene.

Note how strongly displaced the debris cloud at ground level is from the condensation funnel. This was a defining characteristic of this crazily stretched tornado. It might have offered a spectacular visual connection at this point, had there been more subcloud moisture.

We also witnessed explosive supercell formation near Watonga that was well worth witnessing for its own sake, even if the storm could not produce a tornado.

24 May:
A “High Risk” and “Particularly Dangerous Situation” forecast day that verified as such for central Oklahoma…three different violent (EF4+) tornadoes arose beneath three different supercells, with a fourth big tornado rated EF3 in northwestern Oklahoma. After leaving an outflow-dominant supercell near Watonga, Jack and I intercepted the El Reno supercell as it left that area and headed for Piedmont. A fat stovepipe tornado emerged from murk to our distant SW, occasionally accompanied by multiple vortices. Moving NE at 40-50 mph, it grew into a barrel shape, then a wedge (first shot below), then a bigger wedge with horizontal accessory vortices coiling up its outer edge (during our repositioning), then a massive and rain-wrapping wedge orbited by a satellite tornado (second shot below). The tremendous speed and ferocity of cloud motions accompanying this tornado was something I had not seen in person since 3 May 1999, and otherwise, only in videos such as Andover (26 April 1991) and Tuscaloosa (27 April 2011).

Looking SW…

…then looking WNW as it wraps in rain, with satellite tornado to its near left (its SE)…

As it was expanding, it also was moving in our general direction (first photo); so we had to dodge S about a mile…meanwhile it conveniently zigzagged NNE (second photo) then ENE around us, passing about a mile and a half N of our second position and 1/2 mile from our initial stop. I’m still glad we moved…half a mile from the edge would have been unsafely close for a certifiably violent, still-expanding, precip-wrapping monster with proved tendency for satellite tornadoes and accessory vortices writhing around its rim.

Even experienced, knowledgeable and conscientious storm observers are not immune from errors in judgment or in tactical approaches afield. I have before…thankfully, not on this day. While intercepting an earlier, rain-wrapped stage of the El Reno/Piedmont tornado, Chris Novy (someone I respect, not just for his normally sane approach but for his willingness to admit error) does just that — screws up, ‘fesses up, and vows not to do that anymore. Many people make such promises fresh out of trouble; but I see Chris’ as authentic.

His lesson is a wise one: back off and keep extra distance when the tornado can’t be seen. His statements are not hollow. Unlike some other well-known “storm chasers” who appear on TV, he has no prior track record of dangerous behavior afield, and is a longstanding educator with an extensive history of spotter-training and safe storm observing under his belt–the farthest from a hype-fueled adrenaline junkie. He simply made a mistake and was lucky to live to “man up” and tell of it.

Already having withstood a firehose of heavy rain while standing outside for the second photo, we lost sight of the tornado in the same rain as it crossed Highway 3 and headed for the Piedmont area. Still, my longstanding dream had come true, to get high-contrast photos of a violent wedge tornado. Then came a realization of horror–it was headed generally toward the residence of my friend (and fellow storm observer) Rocky Rascovich N of Piedmont. I tried to call and nobody answered; fortunately, they already were in shelter. His wife assured me later that it (barely) missed them and they were OK. It was the sort of tornado–fast-moving, expanding, wrapping in rain–that is the most dangerous and hardest to observe safely. It also killed several people near El Reno and Piedmont, news of which doused any sense of gratification I had that evening at getting the shots I long desired. This is the ethical paradox and dichotomy of conscience for any storm photographer.

After leaving that storm, Jack and I tried to get S of Norman, but were stopped by a traffic jam on I-35 in town (flipped car unrelated to tornadoes) and couldn’t get to Goldsby to observe that event. Instead we waited a short time for what was left of the Newcastle storm (by then, nearly nothing), then backtracked some back roads to I-240/40 and saw the old Goldsby supercell produce a small tornado that crossed I-40 near Dale.

I’ll post fuller summaries with more photos to our storm intercept BLOG as time allows. It has been a wild week…


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