May-June 1997 STORMTRACK features the tornado outbreak in West Texas on April 10, 1997.


I. COMMENTARY by Tim Marshall

This chase season was disappointing to say the least. A "death ridge" developed over the Rocky Mountains the first week in May literally killing the chase season for the southern plains. Each evening, I looked at the long range numerical models in disbelief, hoping that there was some way I could see some hope in moving the ridge east. I leaned precariously to the right in my chair as if to use my "body English" to help move the ridge east- the same "English" people use at the bowling alley when they lean to one side as if to help the bowling ball curve towards the pins!!! Of course, this never works. So, I end up shouting nice and slow at the computer monitor instructing the ridge to "GET OUT OF THE WAY!!"

Little things start knawing at this chaser during such a lean year. How about those many television weather personalities who seem to avoid talking about the thunderstorms in the plains and concentrate on the storms along the east coast? I’ve lost track of how many broadcasters stand right in the center of the weather map while talking about the weather on the coasts throughout the entire time the satellite loop is going. The last thing I want to see is them! Once again, I try using my body English to move them out of the way, and it does not work. So, I end up shouting at them on the television set nice and slow to GET OUT OF THE WAY!!.

Now, I’m driving through southwest Oklahoma on a chase last month. A storm develops near Hollis and moves northeastward towards Hobart. All-of-a-sudden chase vehicles begin to arrive on the scene. A line of cars develops as one slow poke storm chaser is podunking down the road looking at the storm and not paying attention to the road or the backup behind him. Maybe he’s afraid of hydroplaning at 30mph! Once again, I try using my body English to help steer him off the main road, and it does not work. So, I end up shouting at him nice and slow within the privacy of my car to GET OUT OF THE WAY!

Now, one bad experience deserves another. So, as I cruise down the road -after passing that chaser - I come up to a hilltop and find a second chaser who just parked his car on the side of the road with the right set of wheels on the grass and the left set of wheels on the road (there was no shoulder). Of course, the chaser was standing on the pavement with the car door open taking almost the entire right lane of this little two lane road. I swerve to avoid taking out the door and the chaser but probably wouldn’t have if there was oncoming traffic. Once again, I shouted nice and slow: GET OUT OF THE WAY!


So far, the chase season has been short but sweet for some. Several chasers including Corey Mead and Gene Moore witnessed tornadoes from a monster supercell which formed west of Seminole, Texas and tracked east-northeast to Paducah, Texas on April 10th. Next, a series of tornado days occurred on May 25, 26, and 27th. Charles Edwards, head of Cloud9 Tours, filmed the wedge tornado near Wellington, Kansas on May 25th and successfully deployed his "dillocam" which is a small lead case that looks like an armadillo shell in which he placed a video camera. The dillocam recorded the sound of the tornado and road gravel striking the shell. On May 26th, several chasers saw tornadoes south of Tulsa, Oklahoma including Chuck Robertson who made a very close approach and held onto a guardrail when a developing tornado passed nearby. He captured great film of rising and swirling air filled with leaf debris. Then on May 27th, Lon Curtis captured a series of tornadoes which formed from a supercell which moved south-southwest down I-35 including the tornado which struck Jarrell, Texas killing 30 people. Chasers are encouraged to send ST their chase accounts along with any supporting material like photographs, maps, newspaper clippings. You can also email Tim Marshall your chase account at If you have CompuServe then use 105566,1564 (note comma instead of period).

The 1997 chaser picnic was held on Saturday May 31st at Robert Prentices house in Norman, Oklahoma. About 45 people attended including three television news crews. Photographs will be posted on-line as well as in a future ST.

Thanks to Robert and Tracy Prentice for having us use (and abuse) their house.



Chuck Doswells’ Tornado Chaser Questionnaire

Please answer yes or no.

1) Have you ever driven through a house?

2) Is a backsheared anvil a new kind of haircut?

3) Have you ever strapped yourself to a pipe -for any reason?

4) Is your dream to graduate from Oklahoma Polytechnic?

5) Do you believe in ghosts, the tooth fairy, or Santa Claus?

6) Wouldn’t it be neat to lay down in a barr ditch in a tornado?

7) Do you think of Batman when someone mentions CAPE?

8) Is a supercell a long lasting Durocell battery?

9) Is EHI a greeting in Texas?

10) Is "total-totals" the bottom line in a financial statement?

11) Does a tanker truck full of fuel weigh less than a pickup truck?

12) Can you tell a storm is approaching by running dirt through your hands?

13) Do you think "dry punch" is Koolaid and water?

14) Is a "low level jet" an airplane on final approach?

If you answered "yes" to any question, you are encouraged to seek another form of entertainment.

 APRIL 10, 1997: WEATHER ANALYSIS by Tim Marshall

The first potential chase day of the year was April 10, 1997. As typical with early spring storms, the upper air dynamics were extremely powerful with a deep trough moving through the intermountain region. I analyzed the weather situation that morning to see if I was going to chase. Strong low, middle, and upper jet streams were in place across west Texas that morning. The 12Z Amarillo sounding showed 50 knots or greater at 850, 500, and 300mb with 40 knots at 700mb. There was good low-level turning of the wind with height, around 90 degrees. To me, a big negative was the surface parameters. A cold front had passed Amarillo and the air temperature had dropped to 39 degrees Fahrenheit by 14Z. With building pressure gradient behind the front, I figured the cold air would move southward during the day and be near Midland by nightfall. Also, surface temperatures were in the 50’s ahead of the front in the "warm sector". With low clouds and fog I figured the surface temperatures would be kept down most of the day. Surface dewpoints were in the upper 40’s and low 50’s until you got to central Texas where the deep moisture was and dewpoints were in the low 60’s. The dryline was backed up to the mountains that morning. I did expect it to move eastward to the Texas-New Mexico border, however, given the strong dynamics and marginal instabilities I figured a squall line of mostly hailers would occur. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) predicted a slight risk of severe storms for west Texas in the 12Z outlook. Forecasted convective available potential energy (CAPE) was 1000 and 2000 j/kg. Isolated thunderstorm activity was expected along the dryline where low-level convergence was expected to increase during the evening hours. The "T" word was not mentioned. Thus, I felt the SPC was luke warm about this situation as I -and I chose not to chase.

At 19Z, SPC upgraded west Texas to a moderate risk of severe storms citing weak convergence near dryline should be sufficient to initiate widely scattered severe storms within the next one to two hours. Forecasted storm relative flow favored a "few tornadoes" as well. Convection was expected to congeal into an mesoscale convective system (MCS) by evening. This upgrade was significant, but too late for me to head out west. A tornado watch box was issued soon after the upgrade and an outbreak occurred. In retrospect, the cold front had made little southward progress although Amarillo had a north wind at 20 knots and Clovis had a north wind at 30 knots. The dryline became quite pronounced along the Texas-New Mexico border with a 30 degree dewpoint difference between Wink and Midland. Supercells developed along the dryline and fed off the deep surface moisture which finally had been advected northward by afternoon. Midland cleared out and surface temperatures warmed into the lower 70’s realizing larger instabilities than expected. The result was Mother Nature 1, Tim Marshall 0.


97's First Spin - The April 10th Tornadoes by Gene Moore

Background: On 10 April 1997 a mini-outbreak of tornadoes occurred in the central Texas Panhandle. Most of the severe weather came from a few isolated supercells that formed in the mid-afternoon. Additional severe storms developed during the late evening along a boundary left by the southern extent of the activity. The dominant storm of the day initiated on the dryline and was located at the south end of a broken line. This storm fit the description of an HP (heavy precipitation) Browning Model* supercell. Along a path from Seminole to Post, Texas, eight separate rotational "events" occurred from this system. Of special note, the storm deviated from the classic Browning Model after the first tornadic events. The storm developed numerous updraft regions that matured into a large (approx. 3+ mile diameter) circulation. The outer boundary of this type of circulation is generally the outward extent of the gust front. Within the major circulation, multiple (small) mesocyclones, consisting of large cumulus updrafts, produced numerous funnels and short track tornadoes. These rotating updrafts moved as eddies within the flow, and were located along the outer edge of the circulation. The tornadoes and funnels imbedded in this circulation were occasionally influenced by its rotation more than the storm movement. Two of the tornadic events on the north side of the major circulation, appeared to move west (cyclonically) as the storm proceeded east. All towns are in Texas, except for Hobbs, NM.

The Chase: The route for the intercept after leaving San Antonio was I-10 across South Texas, and north into the Texas Panhandle. This morning, deep moisture from the Gulf of Mexico was pouring up the Rio Grande. The high mesa country of South Texas was buried in fog, drizzle and intermittent rain. Sky conditions broke at Ozona giving way to fast moving cumulus against a warming blue sky. The turn north zigzagged through the pumping oil and gas fields of Pecos County. The sharp bite of the hydrogen sulfide gas made the value of this shortcut questionable. Upon entering Upton County, a row of towering cumulus lined the low western sky growing into tall towers in the distant northwest. The building clouds were in the target area for today's chase which was between Midland and Hobbs. Exactly where, would depend on the eastward progress of the dryline. The previous night's model runs played this scenario out in the microchips, favoring Plainview. Past knowledge of the region, and this type of pattern, led me to look further south. The main concern was the strength of the dry push coming off the Sacramento and Guadalupe Mountains. The MM5 forecast was for 15-20 mph surface winds and temperatures generally in the mid-seventies. The system appeared to be capable of higher downslope winds and surface temperatures. During the late afternoon a NOAA weather broadcast from San Angelo announced winds were blowing 45 MPH across the measuring station at Guadalupe Pass (8,000 FT MSL). Strong down- sloping winds off the mountains helped southeastern New Mexico heat into the low 80's and move the dryline east. At 1515 CDT tall cumulus began forming into a thunderstorm along the northwestern horizon. Eventually, two penetrating storm tops rose above the cirrus and severe warning was issued over NOAA weather radio. The white-knuckle driving began.

An hour later, while traveling north of Odessa, the severe warning expired. The south storm which had previously been feeding off a long line of cumulus towers (from the dryline) broke the connection. At this point the storm appeared to move off the dryline. The west flank of the storm died, promptly followed by the collapse of the storm top. Off to my east only tens of miles away lay a blanket of haze and low cumulus. While proceeding north of Andrews the low cumulus intersected the storm. A new cumulus tower started building on the south side of the storm. As a new flank developed, a wall cloud became visible to the north-northeast. Simultaneously, the top of the tower ballooned well beyond the old anvil cirrus. Chunks of clouds below the storm base began to tear loose pushing south. The remaining low hanging clouds located further east began to move rapidly to north. The rotation had started; so soon. The first funnel spun up amazingly fast, less than fifteen minutes from the time the first updraft shot out of the south side of the storm. The funnel was not close, about five miles away, but plainly visible. Initially, two funnels condensed and rotated around each other and then combined as debris rose from the fields. A warning signal broke the squelch of the NOAA weather radio. It was a tornado warning for Gaines County. The funnel at cloud base narrowed and tightened as a second needle shot to the ground producing a classic elephant trunk tornado. About three minutes later the tornado bent erratically, thinned and appeared to lift off the ground. A lowering to the northeast of the dying tornado became more pronounced and began to spin. It was time to move east.

A concentric rotating tower had moved to just north of the road and the image of a funnel appeared out of the dust and haze. The second tornado grew larger while drawing an obscuring curtain of red dirt into the air. A thin sheet of striated rain wrapped around the circulation further reducing the visibility. Short strokes of lightning snapped to ground around the tornado adding to the violence of the scene. The base of the tornado swelled while rotating sheets of rain thinned the dust. About ten minutes after it crossed the road the tornado began to slowly narrow to a long tube. Baseball size hail briefly whacked the right side of the vehicle, then quit. Scattered large stones littered the roadside, but the width of the hail track was less than one mile. Rain and cool downdrafts engulfed the tube as it slowly disappeared from sight. The event with the two tornadoes began at 1725 CDT and lasted 20 minutes.

Strong south winds and blinding dust made traveling east on highway 180 and north on Farm to Market Road (FM) 829 terrible. The storm, although still sporting a warning, had weakened. The main core of the cell stretched across the northeast horizon and a large optical vault was to the north. The vault appeared like the opening to a huge cavern. Rain and hail were occurring to the west and southwest. A low tail cloud formed marking the path of a high speed wind jet rising into a newly forming wall cloud. The easterly surface wind increased to an exceptional speed, lifting and condensing overhead. Tumbleweeds were not bouncing merrily along as usual, but were flying a couple feet off the ground. During this time a Lubbock News Channel 11 vehicle parked across the road. We chatted about the storm and decide to team-up. The strong inflow winds made it a challenge to get back to my vehicle.

The storm's back building ended and the eastward movement resumed. We moved northeast through Welch and east on FM 2053 past O'Donnell. While on FM 2053, a lowering began to rotate and we attempted to tape a few brief touchdowns. As we reached highway 87 storm chasers from Texas Tech began to show up and cars started parking along highway to watch the storm. Near the intersection of FM 3332 and 87 the storm began to release some pent-up energy. A large cyclonic circulation stretched about three miles in diameter from the north through northwest. The cloud material on the north side of this low hanging curtain of scud and fractus moved west, then turned south, and sped by us going east. A small mesocyclone to our northwest was first to spin-up. It put down numerous "filament funnels" that made a couple of turns around the main funnel and dissipated. These thin condensation funnels were making it to the ground, but no debris was visible. Their narrow snake appearance resembled suctions spots in a strong tornado. The large circulation was breaking down in may areas causing spin-ups along its circular path. Dry air descending into the circulation at random points wrapped around the rotating towers. Three distinct areas of rotation began to our east through north-northeast. The two south spin- ups formed funnels, and one extended condensation to the ground for a couple of minutes. This tornado was documented by a Texas Tech team. The largest circulation to the north-northeast had a curtain of rain rotating around the outside. A small but impressive mini-wedge tornado "appeared to be" on the ground in the rain. Late in the cycle of this circulation the rain diminished. We video taped the dissipating tornado moving west.

Gas was very low and a stop in Tahoka was necessary. It proved to be an error that would cost me a great photo opportunity, but "walking" out of a tornadic thunderstorm is not fun either. The town was awash in flash flooded streets and hail. Blasting east on highway 380, the sun, now below the horizon, brightly illuminated huge cumulus towers pouring into the storm. Near the intersection of FM 1054 we came upon tornado in progress (about three miles north). The funnel was black and contorted as it whipped across a field heaving intermittent surges of dirt in to the air. Individual smaller funnels spun around the base of the tornado. It was the third best tornado of the day, and firmly planted on the ground. The funnel's motion looked to be west along the northern edge of the main circulation. Unfortunately no pictures are available as we were moving in traffic at the time and obviously too late. Others may be able to confirm the true movement of the tornado. Vehicles equipped with brightly flashing lights lined the road accompanied by cars filled with wide-eyed kids and cameras hanging out the windows. The curtain of clouds, with the 360 degree rotation was breaking down due to shallow cold air under cutting it from the north. At the surface, this tornado had to be in the cold outflow air. At cloud base strong inflow was pouring into the tornado from the east. It dissipated in the cold air about one minute after we saw it.

The large circulation responsible for dominating the storm structure continued to deteriorate. Meanwhile, the intersection of the forward flank and precipitation core "took over" forming a ragged wall cloud. This circulation contained violent areas of rotation. "Angel hair" was drawing into the base of the mesocyclone. This occurs during high speed up-motion. Near the small community of Pleasant Valley a dirt (mud) circulation began on the ground. No obvious funnel was above this circulation; although, the news photographer stated he saw one before we stopped. Lights on the horizon were going out as this debris cloud passed. At this point we let the storm go. It was moving into an isolated area north of Post. Within the hour the storm would pass over White River Lake causing injury and death in the night.

* Reference: Browning Model. The widely accepted conceptual supercell model/drawing that shows one main flanking line, wall cloud and a precipitation core to the northeast. Additionally, it is used for spotter training to show the main elements of the supercell structure. The writer understands this example is dated and not all supercells fit this model, but many do. It is referenced to provide a familiar starting point to explain the visual appearance of the storm.

Closing: The events are stated as factually as the author perceived them and may be supported by photography with the exception of one tornado east of Tahoka. This storm produced multiple funnels and circulation’s that may, or may not have been tornadoes depending on one's definition. One may argue the filament funnels were not tornadoes; although, visible condensation did reach the ground. Gene Moore may be found at

"THE COLD FRONT" APRIL 10, 1997 CHASE by Dean Cosgrove

I awoke early in anticipation of a chase into the Texas Panhandle. My target area was between Clovis, New Mexico and Lubbock, Texas. I left home in plenty of time to reach this area by around 12:30pm MDT. What I had not counted on was the extent of the ice storm over eastern Colorado. A thin coat of ice covered my car as I prepared to leave early on the 10th. The icing did not turn to snow as soon as was forecast but continued to get worse and increase in coverage. Driving over 40mph was nearly impossible. By the time I was around 50 miles north of Lamar, I heard reports of roads being closed due to numerous accidents. Soon after that my CB tuned to CH 19 informed me that my route out of the state was also being shut down due to wrecks blocking HGY 287 near Lamar. I was still determined to try to get out of Colorado and to feel the other side of this cold front. I took out my detailed Colorado map and decided to take gravel roads the rest of the way. Even the gravel roads were very slick due to the nearly one-half inch of ice on the ground. The weight of the ice was enough to break one of my antennas off my vehicle. Had I known just how bad this was going to get I would not have even attempted to drive through this ice storm. Turning around and going back home was no longer an option since the roads were now closed behind me too. I knew that soon I would make it far enough south that I would get into warm enough air that icing would no longer be a problem.

To make this long and exhausting white knuckle drive out of Colorado took over 8 hours. This usually takes less than 5 hours. As I entered the Oklahoma Panhandle, I was still north of the cold front but at least the temperatures were a little above freezing. I arrived in Dalhart, Texas with the temperature of 37 degrees. From NOAA WX Radio out of New Mexico, I heard that the temp at Clovis, New Mexico was 73 degrees with a stiff south breeze. I continued south as the cold front had just passed Amarillo and I was still north of it. I was north of Vega when I heard of a severe thunderstorm near Herford., Texas. By the time I got to Herford there were breaks in the low clouds and I was able to get my first glimpse of the towers in the area. I decided to let the severe storm continue northeast without me since I could see that it was headed into the colder air and would soon not be worth chasing. I continued south to Dimmitt, Texas and then southeast towards Hart. As I arrived in Hart, a tornado warning (WSR88- Denadic type) two miles east of Hart. I was now about four miles southwest of this impressive mesocyclone but still out of position to see any tornado since the outflow dominant storm obscured the "area of greatest interest". I could now see a storm well to my south but decided I couldn't make it into position. If only I had been able to make it to my target area by the time I had planned I would have been on the monster cell to the distant south from the beginning. Frustrations like this are part of a Chasers life that we learn to accept.

Meanwhile back in the Hart area, the Weather Service said they still had a possible tornadic cell just to my northeast--the chase was still on. Chunks of ice were still falling from my vehicle from driving through the morning ice storm. Now chunks of hail to two inches in diameter covered the ground as I proceeded east on Road 145 out of Hart. However, I never was able to get into position to see if this storm put down a tornado or not. However, I heard the storm actually formed a tornado west of Plainview as I was slowed down by some road construction on Rt 179 near the town of Halfway. Road crews had removed the pavement from a portion of the road leaving a bed of dirt which had turned into a nearly impassable area of mud. I barely was able to get turned around and by then the mud splashing onto my windows had nearly made actually seeing the road. Of course storms don't wait for chasers to get through these type of things and by the time I was out of this mess, I no longer had any chance of getting back into position to see any action with this storm.

I continued east after escaping the construction area and cleaned my windows as lightning was striking around me and the icy chill told me I was again north of the cold front. I was determined to just once get far enough south of this front to feel the strong south winds in my face. I headed east to just west of Floydada and pulled over as I could tell I had made it to the strong south flow. I got out and just stood in awe of the lightning show--feeling the energy in the air as south winds of 25-35mph raced towards their collision with the cold front. I pulled into the first Motel on the west side of Floydada and asked for a upstairs room facing southwest so that I could get some shots of the lightning as several storms were still south of the area moving in. But soon, the cold front had passed this area and the icy north winds along with frequent lightning all quadrants made for an eerie scene. I wasn't able too stay awake long enough to get much video of lightning but I thank God for getting me safely to the motel and for allowing me to experience such an amazing variety of weather that day.

TORNADOES IN TEXAS: APRIL 10, 1997 by Tim Doggett

It was a rather spectacular day in West Texas on April 10th, 1997 -the 18th anniversary of the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado. SPC and Lubbock NWSFO forecasts picked up the threat area pretty well, good enough for me to gas up the car and load the chase gear the night before. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately as it turns out) I was stuck in a meeting until 3:00 pm, missing the departure of my usual chase colleagues. This left me solo, which I don't mind but also don't prefer. The 3pm surface analyses showed a southwest to northeast moisture convergence axis cutting through Lubbock, with maximum values north of Lubbock County. Maximum theta-e advection was also located north of Lubbock. Progged shear values were also best for the areas north and northwest of Lubbock, though shear looked good over most of the region.

On the other side of the coin, best surface heating was in southwestern areas, and as noted above, moisture convergence was increased in this area as well. By 3:45pm, an isolated storm had fired up near Seminole (north of Midland). Torn between going north or south, I headed west, as this leaves ample opportunities to go move north or south later. Not completely by chance I ran into members of the Texas Tech Storm Intercept Team in Ropesville (about 10 SW of Lubbock). I knew they were in the area as we had coordinated a few hours earlier. At this point storms were beginning to get going in the counties north of Lubbock, while the storm near Seminole also continued to strengthen nicely. As we compared notes and decided which direction we wanted to go, I was impressed at the strength of the surface winds. Winds were blowing from the southeast at 25-30mph, with much stronger gusts. This provided plenty of dust and tumbleweeds and gave the day that special West Texas ambiance.

We eventually experienced chaser convergence as a second Tech team vehicle joined our ranks. After coordinating with the other two Tech chase teams, one north and one south, we opted to go south. The southern most storm had intensified further, and a second storm had developed north of it. As we headed south from Ropesville, we took a series of Farm-Market Roads, slipped by the first storm, and headed in towards the larger second storm. As we did so a tornado warning went out for this storm, now east of Seminole, heading for the community of Loop. As we proceeded down FM 179, the base of the storm came into view, as did some of the spectacular storm structure. We continued down to FM 1066 and positioned ourselves on a rise in the terrain, about 10 miles east-northeast of Cedar Lake, or 15 miles east-southeast of Loop. At this point we got a fabulous view of a large, strongly rotating storm, with very strong inflow from the southeast. We were positioned due east of the storm base. Even though we were well away from the main precipitation core of the storm, we were continuously pelted by pea to marble size hail. In addition, lightning from this storm was also very frequent... and close by. Needless to say, we remained in our cars.

Although the whole storm was rotating and had plenty of inflow, there was a lack of lowering in the rain-free base. Occasional scud beneath the main tower was about all the indication of the updraft we had. The storm continued on to the northeast and as we got a better look at the whole storm, and it was really impressive. This was one of the best examples of a rotating supercell I've seen in seven years out here... definitely not bad for April 10. Somewhere along the way we lost one of the Tech vehicles, which had opted for a different route, and been joined by the other Tech vehicle that was on this storm. We eventually we decided to move to catch up with stay east of the storm. We moved through the town of Welch, before moving east on FM 2053 and north on FM 3112. By this time a nice Beavers tail had formed, along with a distinct hail shaft to our north. Also, a well defined lowering also developed as we trekked on looking for a good observation point. We stopped about 2 miles south of the intersection of FM 213 and watched the storm strengthen, as the inflow to the storm increased. As we fought the inflow, we were again treated with a view of strong, "firm" updrafts, along with great storm rotation... with the near classic barber pole appearance.

Finally, we headed east on FM 213, across Rt 87, and turned north on FM 2956 before pulling off to watch the storm again at about 7:30 PM. The storm continued moving northeast. At about 7:50pm, with the lowered base to the northwest of our position, two well defined funnels lowered from the base, and several minutes later a well defined hose appeared. By my best estimates, the tornado was located about seven miles southeast of Tahoka and was on the ground for approximately two minutes. The tornado was followed by another funnel cloud, which moved over FM 2956 and continued on to the northeast. We followed this storm for about another 20 minutes, before losing sunlight and calling it a day. At this point the storm still seemed to be strong, but the wall cloud had dissipated and we had lost all visible cues of storm rotation (as we were now under the storm). This storm later strengthened and produced more tornadic damage in Crosby and Dickens counties after 10pm that night... resulting in one fatality in near White River Lake. Overall, a great day and one heck of a storm. Really got spring fever jump started in a hurry! It was nice to have a storm in April that wasn't moving at 50 mph out of the area. My only regret is that we didn't get another hour or two of daylight so we could have chased this thing further. email:

 I HAD A DREAM: My 4/24/97 CHASE ACCOUNT by William Reid

I had a dream that the clock alarm went off at 6 a.m. Wednesday, April 24th. I got up and loaded my Pathfinder with all of my storm-chase essentials and drove to the other side of the valley to pick up my chase partner, Charles Bustamante, and we left Los Angeles. We were on our way to Texas. We were on our way to witness supercells!

A major storm system was developing in the West. The storm had been anticipated for at least a week, and now it was digging southward into the Great Basin. Weather forecasters and computer runs painted an ugly picture for the High Plains of Eastern New Mexico and West Texas....ugly, that is, if you live in that region and dread severe thunderstorms. Springtime systems of yore similar to this one have produced violent and destructive storms in Tornado Alley. It was late April. It was a potent storm. It was red in West Texas for Thursday and Friday on The Weather Channel's map. It was what storm chasers like to see. In this dream we were pushed eastward by strong winds along Interstate 40 from Barstow to Needles. Plumes of dust reached skyward along the mighty and waterless Mojave River. News updates during Rush Limbaugh said that wind gusts were to 85 mph at Mojave Airport. God was helping us get to the Plains!

We were in Arizona by noon. Just east of Kingman we came upon a slow-moving vehicle which was spraying a layer of oil or tar ---- your basic black gook for the road surface ---- onto the highway's right shoulder. The spray was also spreading through the air across all of the east-bound lanes of traffic ---- not because it was supposed to ---- but because very strong southwest winds existed. I passed this highway-maintenance vehicle and its dimwitted operator, and, presto-change-o, instant oil-spotted windshield! The mega-supercells and wedge tornadoes will look terrific through that! Not! Oh, the joys of the open road! We stopped at the next gas station to see if the stuff would easily come off, but it would not. Other unlucky eastbound motorists, one with a new vehicle and a useless bottle of cleaner, were saying naughty words. Funny, that sort of thing doesn't usually occur in my chase dreams....

Dry southwest winds howled in northeast Arizona. Gusts at Winslow Airport were close to 60 mph. This Arizona dust will go good with the California dust and the Arizona tar on my car. I was barely able to open the car door against the wind at the Winslow convenience store. In fact, part of the roof of the convenience store across the street had just blown off. "I better get my Tootsie Roll quick before this store becomes airborne, Charlie." The sky grew dark and foreboding to the north as we neared New Mexico. "Was it a storm or just thick dust?" We turned on the AM radio and heard lightning static! Soon a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for the Navajo Indian Nation just to our north (and read in English AND "Navajonian" on our AM station out of Window Rock). Thunderstorm gusts had overturned a mobile home at Dilkon, and Ganado was in the path of the storm. Now, I don't know about most people, but I did not know where Dilkon and Ganado were located. A check of the map showed them to be about 30 miles north of the Interstate ---- and our dark sky was indeed due to a severe thunderstorm! We stopped near Sanders to set up the cameras and my new tripod. This, we hoped, would be good practice for us in anticipation of the hectic chase days to come. I joked that if nothing happened the next few days, at least we'd have this storm for our efforts. Outflow winds and light rain soon hit us. Lightning was sporadic, but pretty, and the sky had a turbulent and squallish look to it. Our "end" of the storm was pretty weak. At Gallup and Grants light rain fell, northerly winds blew, and temperatures remained barely above 40F. My tootsie nearly froze while gassing up in Grants. "Charles, we're not in Van Nuys anymore."

In a Super 8 Motel lobby in Albuquerque a clerk inquired as to what kind of a room we were interested in. I said that a square one would be satisfactory. This female clerk was only marginally amused by the response, but Charlie seemed to like it. She was quite attractive, by the way, but that is not surprising given dream conditions. We watched a couple of strong squall lines (on The Weather Channel local radar) plow eastward through the vicinity of Clines Corners and Santa Rosa. We had seen lightning from these storms to the east as we approached Albuquerque. The radar loop also showed a nice isolated supercell which nearly traversed the entire state of New Mexico this day. It went up near Gallup, and was now north of Roswell. Wild! That would have been a heckuva chase! I've gotta look into re-programming these dreams.

The Weather Channel and weather data acquired via my laptop and modem indicated that Thursday's best potential chase area had shifted south, compared to the early morning forecasts. Big, bad severe storms were still considered likely. I figured that we would likely want to be near Hobbs by the following afternoon, and I set my watch alarm for 6:30 a.m. I woke up at 8 a.m. and told Charles that we were late and that we must get a move on. It was actually already 9 a.m. CDT, and it was about a six-hour drive to the southeast corner of New Mexico. Frightening headlines flashed through my mind: "BILL REID MISSES BEST SUPERCELL EVER BECAUSE HE WAS LATE!" "REID OVERSLEEPS, SHOOTS PHOTOS OF TORNADIC SUPERCELL ANVIL FROM 60 MILES AWAY" "CLINTON RE-ELECTED"

Weather from Albuquerque to Roswell was overcast and cool, in the 40s most of the way. A light dusting of snow covered the ground south of Clines Corners. We figured that the area from Hobbs to Midland still looked best, as the surface low and the triple-point were down there. From Roswell I phoned Jason Laney at Ch. 7 in Amarillo. He said that it looked like the area around Lamesa, Texas, was about ready to fire. Some sunshine was getting through in Roswell now, it was quite a bit warmer, and the clouds had a good convective look to them. It was about 1 p.m. MDT. We soaked a cloth with a little gasoline and wiped the windshield ---- it worked! Those annoying oil specks were gone! Time to head east.

Just east of Roswell we noticed a decent thunderstorm just south of town. I liked the way it looked ---- it had good easterly inflow at the surface and a nice separation of the rain-free base and the precipitation area ---- but I didn't seriously consider stopping to watch it. It wasn't in the best place. I had to stick to my guns. I was still nervous that the show in Texas might start without me. About an hour later, near Tatum, New Mexico, we saw another decent developing thunderstorm southwest of town. Should we watch this one? It was in the cool sector, and there was a lot of low cloud crud around. I didn't like that. Let's keep going east ---- it looks brighter that way. Soon after entering Texas at Bronco, we learned of the tornado watch from about Midland to Abilene, and a tornado warning near Welch, between Brownfield and Lamesa. That's the storm we want!

As we neared Brownfield we could see the "warned" storm. Ugh. It did not look strong anymore. There were a lot of medium-sized towers with hard tops, and these quickly changed into medium-sized towers with soft tops. Nothing looked supercellular. There was a lot more sunshine evident to our south now, and I wanted to get into the warm sector. At Lamesa I phoned Bary Nusz, whom I thought I had seen going the other direction a bit earlier. It was he! Bary was on his way to Plains, as he had learned that a storm near there was rotating and had dropped golf-ball-sized hail on Tatum. That must be the one we abandoned. It was in the cool surface air, though, and I still didn't want to chase in that slop. At the Lamesa Dairy Queen we met Matt Moreland, a chaser from Norman, and we heard about the new Tornado Watch from Fort Stockton to San Angelo. That lifted our spirits! Time to go south!

The temperature rose quickly south of Lamesa, from about 65F to 80F. Charlie stuck the digital hygrometer into the wind, and, to our dismay, relative humidity was about 30%. That meant that dew points were in the mid-40s ---- a good reason for the pathetic-looking convection in the area. Between Patricia and Andrews, in eastern Andrews County, a new cell blackened the sky. Several other chase vehicles scooted around, lightning increased, and the base had a bit of a green tinge. It was about 6 o'clock magic time, we were in position and pretty psyched ---- but the storm pooped out big time. Cold outflow winds surged southward, and the storm soon looked like a California thunderstorm. This chase now had "bust" written all over it.

There were no storms on the horizon from east to southwest, where that second tornado watch was. We drifted south to Odessa with a line of activity following us. After sunset we set up the cameras for some lightning photos ---- that was the kiss of death! Occasional lightning activity decreased to zero lightning activity upon opening the shutter! We slept for 10 hours in Odessa. Charlie and I were not going to chase farther south and east on Friday. If a tornado was to form near Del Rio, it would do so while we were on our way home. We stopped towards sunset in extreme southeast Arizona (along Interstate 10) for some pretty cloud and landscape photography. At 4 a.m., near San Bernardino and only an hour from home, we heard radio reports of an aftershock to the Northridge earthquake. It was a magnitude 5.0! Maybe now we were chasing earthquake weather! This dream is getting wierd! Since we both live less than 10 miles from the epicenter of the large 1994 Northridge earthquake, we were quite concerned. As it turned out, the only thing rattled were windows and nerves. Man, what does it take to dream up a decent disaster?

Well, I am awake now. That was quite a dream. It's hard to imagine a 2400 mile trip in just three days. It's hard to imagine going so far with the intent of chasing supercells and tornadoes, and actually seeing just a bunch of garbage storms. I would never subject myself to the frustration. I would never spend all that time and money for wild goose chases like that. I'm sure glad it didn't really happen -but it did.


We Texans pride ourselves on "bigness", often to the derision of the rest of the country. We even take pride in our most-feared natural calamity -- the tornado. Ours are bigger and badder than those the rest of "y'all" experience, or so we like to tell ourselves. Still, some of the numbers back up our claim. One of the deadliest single tornadoes on record killed 114 people as it plowed through downtown Waco in 1953. One of the worst damage-doers of all time roared through Wichita Falls in 1979. Indeed, almost every major city in the northern half of Texas has, at some point in our recorded history, felt the fury from nature's most intense breed of storm. Consider Lubbock (1970), San Angelo (1953), Paris (1982), or Amarillo (1949) -- they've all been there.

But for reasons known only to God, the sprawling cities of Dallas and Fort Worth have largely escaped the wrath of killer tornadoes. Many of the Metroplex's suburbs (Lancaster and DeSoto are recent examples) have been hit, and hit hard, over the years. But the two biggest cities in north Texas still wait for the day they'll be the target of a deadly, damaging tornado. There's one storm, however, that Dallas remembers with great clarity -- not because it was the biggest (it likely would have rated a strong F3 on today's Fujita scale), or the baddest (10 dead, 200 injured, $4 million in damage). Rather, Dallasites remember the April 2, 1957, tornado, simply because just about everyone saw it. And for those who weren't around to see it in person, there's thousands of photographs, and hours of film, that have preserved almost the entire life cycle of the tornado.

Forty years after the Great Tornado of 1957 blazed a path through parts of south and west Dallas, the twister remains one of the best chronicled ever. The clear skies behind the funnel made for easy viewing, even from many miles away. And because it passed just a couple miles west of downtown just before the end of the work day, thousands of business and factory workers saw a show they would never forget. The tornado started south, went north, and even bent a little to the west near the end of its 45-minute life -- it was not your textbook twister in this regard. The damage trail started in Dallas' far southern reaches, close to where Interstate 20 crosses west-to-east through south Dallas County today. For the first 10 minutes of its life, the vortex was barely visible. Only a small funnel and a corresponding debris cloud on the ground gave notice that a tornado had formed from the heavy thunderstorm that seemingly ended almost 20 minutes before.

If you drive up Polk Street in south Dallas today, you'll see nary a trace of the tornado that traveled along this road 40 years ago. Damage here was spotty -- a few roofs blown off, some minor structure damage, broken windows and tree limbs. As the tornado traveled north, no doubt it gave downtowners a scare. Just a scant twist to the right would have put it on a collision course with the center of the city. Instead, for those watching from skyscrapers only two or three miles away, the glass that separated them from the elements outdoors doubled as a theater screen serving up a Tuesday afternoon matinee. Dallas radio stations gave "live", moment-by-moment descriptions of the twister's doings and undoings. The tornado's slow trek allowed time for even large cameras to be pulled out from the nearby TV stations' studios and on to their respective rooftops.

Not until the tornado was 13 minutes old did the vortex appear to reach all the way to the ground. By the time it passed Singleton Boulevard in West Dallas, it was leaving behind a continuous trail of debris. Lillie Fuller still lives on Vilbig Street, between Singleton Boulevard and the Trinity River. On April 2, 1957, she was a 31-year-old homemaker, and pregnant. She remembers a friend screaming at her door, "Tornado, Tornado". As she looked out the window she could see it coming her way up the street, tearing up houses and cars and trees. Everything. She grabbed her keys and ran for her car. She started the engine, and made it to the corner intersection in front of her house. But the car died, and she was stuck. She says she remembers thinking she was a "goner". But she does remember -- that is the good news. Lillie Fuller had a front-row seat for Dallas' worst-ever tornado. As she sat frozen in her car, the funnel blew her home apart as it passed, less than a 100 feet away from the intersection where she sat. She considers it a miracle she escaped unhurt. But others weren't so lucky. Three people died in Lillie's neighborhood.

Across the river, many of the homes along one block of Riverside Drive were never rebuilt after the 1957 tornado knocked them all down, one by one. Only a few overgrown driveways leading from the street remain as witnesses to that deadly day. Robert Curry was at work when the storm damaged part of his home and destroyed others nearby. He later found out that his wife's cousin who lived across the street suffered twice. Two of her children, who were home alone when the tornado hit, had been thrown out of their house and on to the street, without any apparent scratch or bruise. But still they lay dead.

The tornado began to weaken ever so slightly as it crossed the Trinity River and headed toward the Love Field airport. The track began to veer a little west of due north, bringing a sigh of relief to Parkland Hospital, which only days before had practiced for a disaster. In the hours and days that followed, Parkland's doctors and nurses would care for nearly all the 200 wounded and dead. The end of the tornado's 15-mile, 34-minute trail of terror came just north of Bachman Lake, which stands guard across the north end of Love Field. In the twister's final moments as a small spindly rope, it still packed enough punch to damage a few final homes. A Dallas policeman traveling down Harry Hines Boulevard said, however, he drove through the tornado there and didn't suffer any damage.

The final totals: 10 dead, more than 200 injured, more than $4 million in damage to homes, churches, and businesses. But this tornado's greatest may be these: hundreds of photographs, hours of moving pictures, thousands upon thousands of eyewitness accounts -- all left behind by the killer storm. Dallas TV station WFAA-TV produced a 30-minute documentary, "Disaster Dallas", which aired perhaps a week after the tornado. And the Weather Bureau itself, led by Robert G. Beebe, published a lengthy study of the storm -- complete with photographs, professional and amateur weather observations, weather maps. Perhaps no other tornado has ever been chronicled so well.

(Author's note: Both the documentary film and the Weather Bureau's report are available for viewing at the Dallas library's downtown headquarters. Storm enthusiasts will enjoy a close reading of the written report, in particular, as it lends great light on the prevailing wisdom and knowledge of tornadoes at that time. )

** About the author: Chip Mahaney is the newsroom computer manager and a special assignments producer at KDFW-TV in Dallas-Fort Worth. He is also the station's severe weather producer, which means he's always inside while the big stuff happens outside. Chip is a Fort Worth native, and a former resident of both Oklahoma City and Tulsa. He lives in Flower Mound, Texas, with his wife and son. He can be reached by phone at 214-720-3156, or by e-mail: .