The week of May 23 2011, started off with some excitement in the Ninja household. All weekend long model data suggested a good chase situation in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas on Tuesday the 24th and into Arkansas on the 25th. It was too good to pass up, so I got together with my chase partner Erich Hopkins “ChaserErich” on Twitter and we decided to go for it.
Erich secured a rental car so we could save a little cash since gas prices were still up around four dollars a gallon and his 4wd truck drank gas. We figured we knew we were going to put drive some miles so why not do it in a rental. Earlier that afternoon, I was in contact with a couple of WGA (Weather Geeks Anonymous) members and they were talking about going as well. We could team up.
I met Erich at work Tuesday morning and we planned our day. We had some business to attend to so we could not leave until lunch time. Based on model data, that would give us plenty of time to get to our target area of North-Central Oklahoma or South-Central Kansas.
We picked up the car (don’t ever try to rent a car after a few flights have come in…long line) and got on the road around 11 and headed west. As we approached Ft. Smith, storms were beginning to fire across western Oklahoma and that made us want to get there quicker. We had to make a decision. Would we go northwest towards Tulsa and then Wichita or towards Oklahoma City? After looking at radar data and getting a report from Paul Wilkerson and Chad Gardner who were an hour or so ahead of us we decided to head west with a possible turn NW towards Chandler Oklahoma.
Storms continued to develop and a few quickly became tornadic across west and central Oklahoma. As we got closer to our turn towards Chandler we decided to continue west, then south towards Norman and try to intercept storms coming up from the SW. Paul and Chad were chasing the El Reno storm and we were watching their stream. It was tempting to head up that way but there was no way we could catch up. They had a significant tornado to their west but they got caught in traffic. While looking at the storm to their west, Chad had some sort of issue with his shirt in what would later become the “Tuck Incident” and could have contributed to them not getting to the tornado.
As we approached the eastern suburbs of OKC ,I was in contact with Todd Yakoubian at KATV in Little Rock to get some additional data on the storms to our SW. Todd suggested we take Sooner Road and head south. I remembered that road as we took it when we attended the National Weather Festival in November.
With Erich driving, I was watching not one but two tornadic storms to the SW of Moore and Norman and we were right in between. It was hard to choose which one to go after, but we stayed with the Moore storm. Both storms were rain-wrapped (you could not see the tornado). We encountered some large hail and some strong winds but did not get the tornado. We did discover though if we would have continued on south a few more miles we would have been on a strong tornado that hit just south of Norman. In fact, the Storm Prediction Center had to take cover from that storm.
At this point, all eyes were on the El Reno storm as it was moving across the northern OKC metro. Chad and Paul were trying to get video of it but it was rain wrapped and I think they encountered a bit of traffic as then attempted an intercept.
Erich and I decided to head back north and then east and attempt an intercept near Shawnee OK.
As we got back to I-240, we stopped briefly to take a look at a strong storm that was approaching our location and was tornado warned. We saw some rotation but no tornado so we quickly headed east. As we traveled east, I found a location that I thought would be good for an intercept and Erich quickly got us there. Erich located a nice field with a view to the SW so we stopped and waited, monitoring both radar and sky conditions.
As the storm approached from the SW we could see the wall cloud with a funnel starting to develop. The funnel dropped to the ground and quickly picked up debris. It traveled to the east/northeast across Interstate 40 and then weakened and dissipated. Chad and Paul stopped on the interstate to check on a tractor-trailer driver who had his rig blown over by the tornado as it crossed I-40.
Funnel dropping from the wall cloud
Tornado on the ground.
Tornado moving to the east near Interstate 40 west of Shawnee, Oklahoma
Nice elephant trunk tornado as it ropes out. It still had strong winds at ground level.
We left that storm and headed towards Shawnee where we attempted another intercept of a storm coming up from the SW. I called Paul and let him know where we were and he and Chad arrived shortly after.
It was at this point we saw Reed Timmer and Dominator 1 & 2 along with some other chasers. The storm didn’t produce at our location so we tracked it eastward and at one time were in between D1 & D2 (we felt special). The storm moved NE and we could not chase it anymore so we stopped at a gas station just off I-40.
Dominator 1 along I-40
As we pulled in there were several chasers that were hanging out including storm researcher Josh Wurman, also known from the Discovery Channel’s StormChasers. I got a picture of Josh and Paul and one of Josh and me.
We got a chance to talk to Reed Timmer and crew and got an up-close look at the new Dominator (D2). It was at that stop that they said they were headed to NE Arkansas or SE Missouri to chase the next day.
We hung around for a while and chatted and looked at a couple of DOWs (Doppler on Wheels) then left for Arkansas. It was a good day.
Paul Wilkerson and Josh Wurman
Dr. Wurman and me
Joel inside Dominator 2 near Shawnee Oklahoma
Erich Hopkins, Paul Wilkerson (Paul the Weather Guru) and Chad Gardner
As we approached Ft. Smith, tornado warnings started flying for storms in NE OK and E OK. Tornado warnings were issued for the Fayetteville area and areas to the north and also for the Ft. Smith area. We talked about chasing but in that terrain at night is very dangerous. We continued on and stopped briefly at a rest stop near Ozark. Paul and Chad had been monitoring radar and alerted us to a tornado warned storm to our south. We watched radar and noticed we were very close to the expected track. Looking at the latest radar scan, the tornado passed just to our east and was moving northeast so we took off to attempt to track it down from the backside. It was 1:30 AM. We headed north of Ozark but could not catch the system as it was moving at more than 40 mph and since we were low on gas, decided to head back. We got some gas and learned that the small town of Denning had been hit so we headed that way to see if we could help if needed. We got to the town and you could tell a tornado had just gone through. The smell of natural gas plus there were emergency personnel throughout the town. It was pitch black as all power had been lost. We stopped and talked to a couple of residents who said they were shaken but ok. They told us there had been some fatalities due to the tornado. We headed east and could see a lot of damage but because the road was blocked we had to turn back and head towards Clarksville. As we worked our way through Coal Hill and Clarksville it was evident that a pretty strong tornado had moved through. I called Ned Perme at Channel 7 to relay our report. As we hit I-40 west of Clarksville there was no power at all anywhere. We headed east and stopped at a rest stop west of Russellville where we got a few hours of sleep.
The next day (Wed) started with some breakfast and a plan for the day in Russellville. Conditions were favorable for tornadoes over a large part of Central and Eastern AR (another high-risk day). Paul and Chad made a brief stop at their homes while Erich and I headed up towards Searcy.
Models indicated that storms would develop around 2pm in the central part of the state and were forecast to quickly become severe as they headed to the northeast. My choice was Oil Trough, near Newport but after talking to Todd and hearing his concern for Central Arkansas, we decided to hang closer to the central part of the state near Searcy or Bald Knob. Paul and Chad joined us just as storms began to develop in Central AR. We could see a thunderstorm near Maumelle starting to rotate and plotted it to a location near Beebe for an intercept. As we got to Beebe the rotation weakened but we stayed with the storm to see if it would cycle. We saw the wall cloud but no funnel or tornado. We did get hit with some 1″ hail.
Next stop was an intercept near Bald Knob but apparently we were going just a little fast on 67/167 and had to stop and have a chat with an Arkansas State Trooper who was very kind and even gave us a tip on a tornado on the ground (guess where? Oil Trough). I determined we could intercept the storm if we took a route near Augusta and then east towards Harrisburg. That is what we did and we got on a beautiful wall cloud that looked like it was going to drop a large tornado at any moment. We tracked the storm towards Trumann as we streamed live on KATV but it never produced anything other than a wall cloud.
Wall Cloud near Trumann Arkansas
We had to leave the storm south of Trumann as we ran into a flooding situation and our road network ran out. So we headed to Trumann and got some dinner, then worked our way back to LR.
I decided that I am going to start a collection of town/city signs that I pass through and Weiner gets to be the first one.
We drove a total of 1200 miles in two days and felt it was a successful chase as we intercepted two tornadoes and saw a couple of wall clouds and a weak funnel all while being able to report what we saw to the National Weather Service and KATV.
I think Paul, Chad. and Erich might have been a little tired after going non-stop for two days, but I could have gone another day if I had the chance.