2008: "Lessons Learned," A Rookie's Retrospective

Darrin Rasberry

I guess it's time to do a REPORT: 2008 for my rookie year. All comments, criticisms, witticisms, or any other -ents or -isms you can dream up are welcome in this thread. I wrote this piece with the dual interest in reporting both my learning as a fledgling chaser and the memorable chases themselves, successful or no.

I want to thank Craig, Fabian, Elton, Josh, Jason, Cool Chicago Guy whose Name I Forgot, Shane, Mike H, Scott, Brice, TimV, Dave Drummond, Reed and Joel, Jim L., Dennis, Heidi, and many others whose names I can't remember or unwillingly omitted in my foolishness. I'd also like to thank all of you at Stormtrack/tornadovideos.net for putting up with a newbie chaser for so long; don't worry, though, because I'm not done with the dumb questions yet. :D

Although my evidence doesn't look like much, you all have given me an experience that I would enjoy for the rest of my life if I quit this "hobby" (or, as Shane better describes it, "passion") right now, but by hook or by crook, I'll be on the roads when the storms fire up again. Many hobbies have come and gone in my lifetime, but passions are things to keep to the grave.


"Look at us. We drive more than a thousand miles and spend tons of money just to get our ass kicked by bad weather, and we go home happier the worse we get it. That's awesome." -Craig

When I first started chasing this year, my initial "solo practice chases" consisted of checking the Convective Outlooks and just driving to the middle of the area with the highest probabilities. I'd plan ahead by looking at extended Convective Outlooks; I couldn't have read a model if I had a children's book-style instruction manual next to me.

My first real storm chase was near Abiline, TX, with Craig; getting lost in the sticks at dark in Coleman Co. with a TOR over my head due to some dumbbell driving on my part reminded me how much of a n00b I truly was. We did, however, drive unwittingly into my first gas station chaser gathering, and were greeted courteously by Reed, Joel, and the tv.net crew. They somehow recognized us before we did them, and the fact they came over to shake our hands and meet us gave me a good first impression of the community, even though the chase itself was mostly a bust.

My second chase came on March 30th, where we caught monster hail and listened to the Guthrie sirens beautifully blow early in the morning - even though the drive was too long once again, and even though I didn't catch my first tornado, that chase day is #1 in my head for 2008 due to the combination of my first real, confirmed rare severe catch with my first taste of true excitement with an Oklahoman siren chorus. :)


As the year grew on, I began learning all the aspects of the models that I could. I asked advice here, from stormchasing partners, and from Haby's Hints. But many forecasts of mine fell short; April 7th saw a total bust in Oklahoma, and the rest of that month gave nothing as well.

But my biggest botched forecasting attempt in retrospect was May 10th, when all three of my stormchasing partners knew that Northern Oklahoma was the place to go while I insisted on going further south. Fortunately more experienced heads overruled me and we nearly caught the Pitcher bullet that day; we missed it by chasing the Tulsa storm to the south, however. It was a good dose of humility and realizing our helplessness before Ma Nature.

But that was no fault of my experienced crew - sometimes the dice just don't fall. My partners were right with their forecast that day, and I was wrong despite my struggling efforts to learn and to forecast effectively. It wasn't a matter of competition, but it was a matter of stung pride; if I'd spent so much time on these models, how could I have been so wrong?

When May 22nd rolled around, after a season of very-near-misses and extreme frustration, I finally caught my first tornadoes of my chasing career after spending half the morning red-eyed going through my routine on Earl's model site and the College of DuPage. May 23rd was no different; I had no time to celebrate my previous day's victory. All night, models models models; five hours of sleep; all morning, models models models. We nailed our target again but jumped around too much, and ended up on the "wrong side" of the Quinter wedge. I still took pride in my forecast, until I thought about it a bit more ...

May 22nd-23rd was 2008's "broad side of the barn" chase for us Iowans/Illini. Sure, it was a success: Fabian and Elton captured a long-lasting wedge on videotape while Craig and I caught the Wakeeney tornado at sunset - both great memories. But my "forecasting success" was an illusion, and I wouldn't see that until much later. The only chasers who missed tornadoes on those days just got an unlucky hand, like we did on the 23rd - forecasting was truly as easy for Western Kansas those days as just looking at the Day 1.



Forecasting went down the terlet for me on the 24th of May. Desiring to get back to Iowa, we didn't pay a whit of attention to Oklahoma and missed the big show there. Lesson learned. I did, however, catch a nice funnel near the town of Tilden, Nebraska, pictured in its dying stages here due to Craig accidentally leaving his camera cap on throughout most of his own footage of this storm. I have my own video of this feature when it was more well-defined, but I have to figure out how to effectively lift my Hi-8 footage from the tapes. :(


I think the biggest wakeup call for me came on, of course, May 25th at Parkersburg. We bit on what I call the "Parkersburg decoy," that northern storm that developed 25-30 miles to the north at Blairsburg before Parkersburg proper was born; although it was a storm that had massive structure and what I thought for sure was to be the monster of the year, little did I know the true beast developed later on the "southern end," and when we finally caught up with it all I got was a glimpse of a oil-black wall of rain that covered that deadly dragon completely. I felt a pang of guilt for insisting to "stick to our cell" since jumping around had cost us big on the 23rd. Jumping around may have changed my whole perspective that day; I may have saved one more life - or, then again, it may have ended my own life! "We'll never know" is another truism that I've learned via hard knocks this year.


(This is my first Youtube vid ever, by the way.)

The next morning I toured the damage (I was mistakenly let in improperly, I later discovered) and felt so helpless, useless, guilty, and sad that I spent that whole next day after touring the damage driving to Peoria and back just to get it off my mind. It didn't work at all.


As far as forecasting proper on Parkersburg day, though, my stormchasing partner Fabian had, in retrospect, planted the seeds for an intense study that would last all the way from the latter half of June to the end of September. Fabian's simple but smart observation - that an A.M. thunderstorm's OFB would intersect the boundary in that fated area and would likely fire a surprise storm - kept us in Iowa long enough to not fully bite out on the first PDS of the day, in Minnesota.

I realized that his effective forecasting helped put us in a position where we had a chance to help out relaying info on the nation's second EF-5, and even though I only saw it wrapped invisibly in rain much later as it destroyed a (empty) trailer sales park near the Waterloo Airport, I will always be able to say I was there with at least a chance to catch the beast from its birth and help relay information that my own hometown didn't get thirty years ago. I always owe thanks to Fabian, Elton, and Craig for at least giving me a positive chance to help, even though I messed up big time picking the wrong storm once again.

Most importantly, I realized a month later that Fabian's important forecasting isn't done with just models. It was done by intuition, radar, and hand observation done by a very skilled, experienced forecasting team that knew their storms.

The first half of June sounded the death knell for what would have been, in my opinion, very bad habits for a stormchaser - looking at the models only, maybe double-checking if the SKEW-T curve was fat and the hodograph was at least a good enough sickle shape for rock 'n roll, and reading forecasts on the Day 1 that I didn't at all understand. Now, after this event prompted me to study even more intensely, I'm ready to do some gruntwork hand analysis and chart making, and giving the RUC only a cursory look instead of a two-hour puzzled consideration. Curiously, I'm almost to the point where I'll use the SPC's graphics and descriptions again, all the way to Day 1, when the skill of hand analysis (and later for me, experience) tells the real story.

My stubborn insistence to go with what I thought was the prettiest color scheme on the models cost us a tornado-filled May 29th, when I ended up driving us the WRONG WAY to the NE/SD border and coming home with nothing but a bird-shattered window (ironically just a few dozen miles south of a multi-vortex wedge we could have been able to catch in SD). I had been so lost trying to put together a forecast for that day that I just wanted to stick with the 30/hatch and cross my fingers.


Didn't pay off.

Then came a blown call while I was soloing out in Eastern Nebraska on June 4th, thinking there was no way I could catch the beautiful, long-lived Iowa supe because I didn't think once to check storm motion that day; turns out the majestic cell crawled so slowly I had to worry about its path when I drove home from Central Nebraska some seven hours later. Although I saw a nice rotating wall cloud develop and begin to spin like a top right in front of my eyes, I missed yet another tube by a mere handful of miles due to inexperience and jitters. Although Fabian nowcasted me through a hailcore like none other to give me a chance for a tube, I came home empty handed and watched the clips of the "sitting duck" supercell in my own home state with disappointment.

This day was followed by the humbling High Risk June 5th "experience," when my forecast guess for the normally surefire Beatrice went downhill, and we ended up experiencing a "tornado report" from public safety in SW IA that consisted of no more than a few deputies parked on the side of the road watching wind and scud blow semi-ominously in the cool squall outflow. Once again, my models I'd grown to love had failed me.

We had one last successful forecast, however, on June 11th, our last serious chase day, where Craig planted us right at the birthplace of the deadly Boy Scout killer storm only to remember in a collective sigh that we needed a bridge to cross the Missouri. Logistics!

We spent the rest of the day fighting the Omaha traffic running from another squall, far south of the real action, but as the radar went out at OAX we took what I consider my best shot of the year, despite my lack of any ability with photography:


As the season wound down, I had the opportunity to take a few more local shots, but that's about it. I had an exciting experience chasing an early-morning derecho that roared across Iowa, and prided myself on reporting the hail to the NWS along the way (as if they didn't have worse things to worry about from the 100+ mph wind). A few other interesting storms came, but the season gave way to dead winds and not much else followed as far as tornadoes. But that didn't mean a few beautiful shots of other things weren't in store:





Compared to the spring, the weeks now speed by like days, and the chill of the Artic is already knocking on the door here in the shivering Iowa cornfields. Even though I've returned to my other loves and hobbies in life, there's a part of me that hungers for this beauty, for this challenge, and for this cause.

The days will pass quickly until January or February, and when the storms return in fury over the Southeast, I know the anticipation will grow and I know my Red Book's spine will crack and the 2008 videos will roll across my screen. I will begin to study hard again, to dream again, and pretty soon, the 2009 season will be upon us, where the days of careful preparation and patience for the next big system will seem longer than all of the dark, cold months before them combined.

There are two seasons to me now - those with storms, and those without - and the carpet of breathless emerald nothingness that forms the Great Plains, that stage for these beasts, won't any longer be a place I will wish to leave as fast as I can, as I did all my years before now.

Now, these forgetful waves of grain will be home for the rest of my life.
LOL, your welcome Darrin and it certainly was an interesting 1st season for you. Lets hope you got some of that bad luck out of the way, btw, I love the picture of you calling the windshield guy when sitting at Casey's in O'Neill.
ill tell you this year has been refreshing...this is the third year running for me, and like i said its been pretty refreshing...for me, 2007 sucked for one reason or another...i didnt get many decent storms and i simply wasnt capable of doing the things that i can do now...

certainly didnt meet the standards of alot of you plains chasers, but it wasnt bad for around here i guess...

the season started off hard, january 10 2008 was initially a no-risk day but worked its way to a high-end MDT by the early afternoon...there was an exeptional amount of cloud cover in the area, but you could feel it in the air that the low-level wind shear was stronger then usual...


it wasnt long before storms became warned...a tornado had struck caledonia, MS and caused extensive damage to the school house down there...another choice SVR warned cell coming out of pontotoc/union counties had just become warned from a law-enforcement verified tornado near new harmony...this storm was going to make an intersection across hwy 45N somewhere near baldwyn at the lee-prentiss county line...thats where i found it...


it was kinda scary because it was just so cloudy and rainy...you couldent see much, i wanted to get pretty close to it but not underneath of it...you could not see anything until it was there, and even then im not entirely convinced of what i saw...sometimes, you just never know what your looking at...

it didnt stop there though, a super tuesday high-risk...february, 5 2008 brought some serious weather to the south...many of you may remeber a very rare and powerful supercell that traveled through northern, MS with a large damaging EF-3 that tore up the caterpillar plant in lafeyette county, MS...it stripped trees and pavement from the streets and even kept going all the way to tennessee...


i did not chase this day, the main reason was that storms did not form in my region until after the sun went down...going after such a storm like the one in lafeyette county would be reckless and wouldent net much in the way of photo oppurtunitys so i just watched the event unfold at the house...

after one of the deadliest days...the storms were not finished with the south...several high-end events struck MS, TN, AL, SC and GA including a tornado that come through atlanta, GA itself...

it wasnt until may that storms entered our region and i was out chasing again...may, 2 2008 brough another high-end moderate for my region and at that point, one of the best storms of my carreer...


i caught this one on highway 78 near holly springs...i knew the storm had a warning, and as soon as a reached a clearing i could see that wall cloud...it liked to tornado in the city itself!


eventually after 15 or 20 minutes, you could see the clear slot and RFD that started eroding the cloud material on the backside of the wall...


the RFD choked the storm out and it seemed to break apart and come right over top of us, then redevelop across the four-lane...storm motions were fast, so i discountinued following after it had moved on...there was just no way to stay on it with the way roads are out here...

just a few days later i was out again, this time on a reputable storm that caused EF-3 damage to the furniture market on coley road, just narrowly missing the NEW callcenter and tupelo airport...it passed though open fields and made a few brief touchdowns at the barnes crossing mall with EF-0/EF-1 to several department stores such as lowes and scruggs...


i met the storm outside of saltillo just 5 minutes before it caused EF-2 damage to several homes SW of marietta, MS...after this event the weather reached a point of stability for a while...there were a couple low-risk events and plenty of days with good non-severe storms, but the bottom line was it was summer and hot and blocked out...



nothing has happened since then and ive been awaiting this time of year...a good november day could make this my finest year...
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My first real storm chase was near Abiline, TX, with Craig; getting lost in the sticks at dark in Coleman Co. with a TOR over my head due to some dumbbell driving on my part reminded me how much of a n00b I truly was. We did, however, drive unwittingly into my first gas station chaser gathering, and were greeted courteously by Reed, Joel, and the tv.net crew. They somehow recognized us before we did them, and the fact they came over to shake our hands and meet us gave me a good first impression of the community, even though the chase itself was mostly a bust.

That was my second storm chase! I do remember bumping into you once not too far outside of Anson, TX and once again at the gas station when we bumped into the TV.net crew.