Chasers living on the extreme

Apr 29, 2004
Norman, OK
I can't help but wonder why so many chasers were caught in that wind and hail barrage on Thursday near Silverton. However, since I wasn't there to know the exact situation, I probably shouldn't judge the actions. I sure hope that folks are chasing with a level head, and nobody gets really hurt out there. It could possibly put a damper on chasing in the future (via emergency roadblocks, legislation, etc).

But I couldn't help noticing this on one of the posts in the Target Area:

I'm still digging glass out of my eyes, hair, equipment, etc. Had to stop in the emergency ward in Amarillo cause a piece of glass cut my eye - even though I had my racketball goggles on partly.
My question is - was this chaser expecting to be in this wind and hail, and actually stocked a pair of goggles as "standard chaser gear" for these kinds of situations?

(Actually, glad to hear he is ok - it could have been much worse)
I don't know ... I feel like there are times with some storms that a person just cannot help but get pounded. By far the majority of the time, experienced chasers are capable of remaining under inflow for the most part ... but occasionally (and it happened to me once this year), the downdraft manages to catch up with you somehow. The safety reminders are always in good order, though ... we should never allow ourselves to lower our guard for one second out there.
Originally posted by Greg Stumpf

My question is - was this chaser expecting to be in this wind and hail, and actually stocked a pair of goggles as \"standard chaser gear\" for these kinds of situations?

(Actually, glad to hear he is ok - it could have been much worse)

In his defense, I think it's just fine to carry safety devices, even for those "just-in-case" situations. I mean, some chasers carry helmets for hail, and life jackets when chasing hurricanes. Are they expecting to get bombarded by monster hail or face flood-water situations? Probably not, but things happen.
In my situation, I was enjoying a nice close view of the large tornado near South Plains, TX. I had purposely stayed north of it to avoid being slammed by intense RFD on the south side (deliberate SAFETY move). However, when we came to the next intersection, I chose to go east and stay behind it, as there appeared to be what looked like a new tornado forming just NE of us, on the other side of the east road. Because this new circulation was beginning to develop south over the road, I stopped to avoid driving underneath it (deliberate SAFETY move). I went out of my way to avoid driving into tornadic circulations, and in doing this lost track of the hail core, which was obviously about to cream us from behind (west) as it was moving east with the tornado as it wrapped around the meso.

I screwed up, yes, but I did it to avoid an even worse fate (IMO), which is driving into a tornado. Given the choice of tornado or hail, I'll take the hail everytime. One could say I was too close to begin with and this caused my predicament, but I like getting close. I'm not too bad at it and I'm getting better. I learned a valuable lesson yesterday that will make me even better next time. This is how I've always done it - trial and error. What did I learn yesterday? I'll take RFD winds on the south side over a hail barrage on the north side anyday.

I don't consider what I did yesterday to be "living on the edge" but rather just an experienced chaser using his knowledge (along with a small bit of experimentation) to position himself in close to a tornado. Every mistake I make is a lesson, and every lesson makes me more experienced. That's the goal, to experience, to learn.
I certainly wasn't there - but understand that this is simply choices that people made. As everyone here knows it is not at all uncommon for supercell storms to be accompanied by large hail, sometimes quite close to the updraft region. While I would think that very few chasers would hope to drive into extreme hail just to improve video marketability - I could see how for some getting the closeup high contrast video of a tornado is more important than preserving their vehicle - at least it is evidently worth the risk to them. In this case, based solely on reading the posted reports, it sounds like Bill had a choice between escaping from the large hail via driving under a new developing wall cloud, or sticking it out in the hail core and keeping clear of the tornado that was already on the ground. Was it bad judgement to be there in the first place? For many of us, the answer might be a resounding yes - but if folks choose to take risks, it is there right to do so. For any newbies who may have followed them in unknowingly - perhaps they learned an important lesson yesterday in the hazards of supercell storms that will make them think twice about doing so in the future.

Glad to hear noone was seriously injured - but I understand your point Greg, in that if there had been a string of serious injuries, then the next time severe storms returned to that area the local police may try to deter chasers from driving into storms to keep there own work load under control. Let's hope it never comes to that.

This supercell storm was a greatly complicated beast - moreso than many tornadic supercells. We sat on the storm for literally hours, watching and becoming jaded as we saw cold air from north of the front get entrained into the updraft region/wall cloud again and again and again. Once or twice the wall cloud would take on a good bowl shape, and an RFD would begin to cut in. As I mentioned in my report - we saw a few dust whirlies.

What appears to have happened is that one compact updraft from this cell seemed to FINALLY manage to root and turn violently to the right - to the southeast or SSE. If we had been paying attention to our laptop rather than watching the cheezenadoes close to us, we would have seen the suspicious telltale signs as our storm tracking algorithm moved the expected cell motion from north-northeast to southeast, and the correctly-placed TVS began showing (GREAT if you chase TVS' - LOL!!!). But we didn't see this in time - and were overwhelmed by the gusty look to the storm.

This storm appeared to be Sitka-esque, whereby if you were south or west or south-southeast of the action area, you literally had NO clue what was happening in there. Your vision was totally obscured by the huge hail and precip in the hook.

Also, this storm seems to have had a spectacularly dangerous and meaty hook - the likes of which are rarely seen in association with tornadoes. We have reflectivity images saved as well as velocity, and the reflectivity shows ridiculous Dbz returns (purple) from the hook region - from northwest of the tornado to west of it, to southwest of it and south of it. It was completely encircling 60% of the circulation - and everybody's video attests to this - showing dark, dull green background color. What do you suppose that was?? Hook-from-hell - that's what!!!

In short, I don't think this storm was conventional, I don't think it's circulation was conventional and I don't think its hook was conventional. You would have had NO idea of what awaited you in that hook until it was already too late. I've punched hooks before - and while punching the 6/24/03 hook towards the Manchester wedge we had nary a trace of hail - perhaps two clicks of pea-sized stuff, and it was very transparent and unobscuring. Comtrast that with yesterday's storm's characteristics - and one can see how so many chasers got caught in the big stuff. Talk about between a rock and a hard place.....

Whether people decide to drive into stuff like that or not is up to them. If WE had known of this tornado and had driven towards it and encountered the hail - we would have immediately turned away. We can't afford truck/mobile mesonet repair bills and our Tahoe's too new to risk it. But that's just the way we are. I won't berate anybody else for doing it....

....Also I can sympathise with folks who got busted out windows additionally because the dangerous features are always moving. Where once you had an escape route, you now see hook-from-hell wrapping in. The gates are already slammed shut - and you're done for. No matter how aware you are, you cannot avoid *that* sort of situation sometimes. Much the same as our May 22nd 2004 Alma, NE experience.

I've always been curious what window-smashing hail is like, and now I know. I also know it's not something I want to try again, once was enough. I didn't do it purposely, but I'm not real upset that it happened either. Yeah, it will set us back a few bills, but the experience was well worth it. I agree with Karen about the storm's hook nature - off the charts. This hook had the extremes in hail that the May 5, 2002 nighttime Lesley/Lakeview, TX hook had in RFD. Just a freak hybrid of much-more-than-usual power.

In retrospect I should've kept moving south at touchdown and then moved east ahead of it, affording a great close view and an escape route (not to mention the bonus feature of a frontseat for the next meso).

Live and learn :)
I was in the same situation as Shane, stuck there between a rock and a hard place. No option that was available was a good option.

I lost a front window and the drivers window. That was a scary experience. But would I do it again to get the views that I got? I dont know. I would have positioned myself differently I think.

As for safety percautions like goggles, I actually wish I had mine! The glass flying around the car was enough to cut one of my cochasers in the arm and luckly nothing else happened. THEN, I had to drive home with the broken windshield dropping little shards of glass every few minutes. That thing looked like it was going to fail any second. THANK YOU Shane for sticking around and making sure I made it home!
I've never been so close to a tornado that I feared for my life, but I can commiserate with the experience of getting cored by gorilla hail. It's downright terrifying, and is a big "lesson learner" -- which is to say, having done it once, I go through great pains not to repeat it.

As for those who get "too close" --yeah, getting that close to a tornado is rife with risks, but tornado chasing isn't exactly a tame sport to begin with. I personally try not to because I have a lot of things I want to accomplish in life before I die. :lol: My guess is that chasers will continue to push the "how close is too close?" envelope until someone is ultimately killed. I don't wanna be that guy. But there are some that don't mind that risk, and in some sense, they're the current pioneers of stormchasing -- learning how to dance with the tubes. I liken it to BASE jumping -- it's taking a mostly safe sport and making it terribly dangerous -- but coming up with new strategies and methodologies in the meantime.
I attempted to drive south behind the tornado after it crossed 207 to avoid the approaching hail and RFD winds. I drove into the dust cloud still lingering from the tornado until I saw the power lines that had been on the west side of the highway hanging over the pavement. I decided to turn around and try and make it to Farm Road 689, my nearest paved eastbound option. Just before I got there I encountered hail larger than golf balls. At that point I pulled into a farmhouse driveway hoping to find a carport or open barn. Seeing neither I pulled up to the east side of a metal building. This helped protect me some, though I did lose a rear side window and the windshield as the hail grew to larger than baseballs. I will praise the light tint on the window for keeping the glass together, though shattered. No water leaked in entire trip home. My rodeo did suffer some severe body damage, though. All the unpaved roads in this area tuned to slick mud when wet, so they were not an option. Given the limited road options I feel I handled the situation as best as I could.
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I really don't think that it was chasers trying to get the "extreme video" this time. If that was the case, then only a couple chasers would have gotten into trouble. This time there were quite a few, and I doubt EVERYone was trying to get the extreme closeup.

Fact is, this storm didn't quite do things by the book. Chase strategy (at least mine) on a ENE-moving supercell is to position yourself east or slightly southeast of the tornado. This affords a great view, while the tornado can pass safely off to the north. Having a south road makes for an easy escape route. This storm was moving ENE. The tornado in it was wrapping around the parent meso, moving slightly west and then rocketing SE around the backside and strengthening as it did. The speed at which it did this took us totally by surprise. It cut off our escape route before we could get to it (with downed power poles), and there were no valid east roads at all. So, no choices left but to get nailed. When your choices are trying to beat a 1/4-mi-wide violent stovepipe across the road or getting creamed by hail, I'll take the hail!

Besides, most times the hook isn't nearly this bad. Last year (5/12/04) in Attica KS we punched into the hook from the west with only a few large hailstones. Not this time!

We are guilty of one thing though...standing around taking pictures for too long as the tornado touched down. It is a bit mesmerizing, and you really have to keep a keen eye on where the tornado is moving and how this will affect your next move. We probably waited too long and it made the next move for us....

Shortly after touchdown, looking west. (Waited too long here)

The tornado cutting off our escape route before we could get there, looking south.

This is what softball hailstones do to a wire mesh hail guard. At least it protected the glass...Can't say as much for the rest of the vehicle!!
Originally posted by Dave Lewison

The tornado cutting off our escape route before we could get there, looking south.


Off topic, sorry, but awesome pictures Dave!
If someone wants to take risks, I think that is there prerogative. I wasn't chasing on Thursday, so I can't really comment on the particular situation, but I would imagine they weren't planning on getting caught in the situation they were in. Yeah you could err on the side of caution and stay 5 miles South of the business end of the storm, but where is the fun in that. $hit happens sometimes. I carry a helmet in the car and I think it is a smart thing to do. I sure don't plan on putting myself in the way of a tornado or monster hail, but if it did happen, I would be glad I had that helmet with me (especially since I have a soft top jeep and I am not sure whether or not my roof will stop soft ball sized hail and I know it won't last long in tornadic winds). Sliding off a muddy road and getting stuck in front of a tornado is one of my biggest concerns and the primary reason I cary a helmet. If you were wearing a helmet when you got hit by a tornado I think your chances at living would be greatly increased since debris hitting you is what is going to do you in. I don't see this as being irresponsible. I see it as being prepared. I don't think anybody should question or look down upon what happened to anyone on 5/12 because it could just as easily happen to you.
Very enlightening discussion. I'm typically overly cautious (usually one of the first ones to relocate another couple of miles down the road), but this particular storm's behavior and the lack of road choices put me a little too close for comfort.

(Edited after Jay's post:) Road choices were problematic. Older paper atlases and GPS showed that the easterly road option ended in dirt roads after a couple of miles. Apparently, only a newer version of Roads of Texas showed the correct paved road going east to Quitaque.

So as chasers watched the tornado stengthen in a field several hundred yards west of the only apparent road option, it was either stay north or south of the expected path. No one is comfortable being that close to the circulation, but at the time it seemed like a good idea (perhaps that is the biggest threat...being mesmerized by an intense tornado).

I chose the southern position. As Dave L. described, the expected ENE direction, or even a bit of a right turn to an easterly direction, would have meant the tornado would pass a half mile to my north. Even a sharp right turn done at a steady speed wouldn't be such a bad thing.

But as Dave puts it:
The tornado in it was wrapping around the parent meso, moving slightly west and then rocketing SE around the backside and strengthening as it did. The speed at which it did this took us totally by surprise.

While the tornado was strengthening, I was southeast of it (the blue area just south of the damage path) in what seemed like a safe position. But within a fairly short time, I found myself much closer than I would have chosen. Once it registered that this stovepipe was headed almost straight at me, I took the clear road to the south.

When I cleared the RFD and stopped, I actually worried that some of the chasers north of me were caught by the beast. Glad to hear everyone is safe and apparently made the correct decisions in a dangerous situation.

Greg, I'm also concerned about both someone getting seriously injured (or worse) and the impact on chasing, but maybe everyone's behavior in this situation shows that those skilled enough to get that close to a tornado have enough understanding/common sense to stay safe (and in a worst-case scenario, sacrifice their vehicle).
As this thread continues (not surprised at all), I guess I'll add a few more observations to the mix. After things settlerd down, we went south on TX207 towards Floydada. Well after the tornado path, there was even more powerline damage, as an obvious intense RFD associated with the tornado had leveled several more power poles, well-south of the tornado's path. Anyone who would've been caught HERE would've had power poles in their laps as opposed to a few large as it were, my initial plan of action proved to be the correct one (staying north of the tornado).

I've seen much video from this incident, and you might be surprised at how many steps were taken AFTER the barrage started to minimize the damage to the people inside the cars that were destroyed. Even after the gorilla hail was savaging folks, they were making calm, collected, experienced decisions to alleviate (as much as possible) the damage. Sometimes, sh*t happens.

Replace the experienced chasers that day with a bunch of newbies, and the story might not have had as happy an ending.