Tornado Weather Enters with 2012 Meteorological Spring

Today is the first day of meteorological spring, and while March is poised to come in like a lion, there may be nothing lamb-like about its exit. Not if these past few days and tomorrow's setup are any indication of what to expect. Tuesday saw 25 tornadoes in Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois, with several fatalities. Wednesday logged another ten in Indiana and Kentucky. Today is another light-risk day, and tomorrow the SPC has outlooked a large swath from southern Indiana and Ohio down through Kentucky and Tennessee to northern Mississippi and Alabama in a moderate risk. Like most storm chasers, I've been watching this system for several days. Typical of early-season setups, it will be a dynamic system driven by crazy upper-level winds and a strong low-level jet overspreading weak to moderate instability. With this kind of setup, 500 J/kg CAPE can get the job done. But with storm motions this fast, intercepting them will be more like a skeet shoot than a chase. Regardless, I expect to head out tomorrow for my first chase of the year. I've been casting my eyes on southeastern Indiana and southwestern Ohio, not far south of where the peak 500 mb jet energy will be nosing in. I notice that the latest NAM is a bit more conservative with instability, nudging it southward, so I guess the question is, how far south does one want to travel for this kind of fast-moving system? Probably not very. I don't see the point of going after fast-moving storms in Kentucky or Tennessee in hilly, woodsy terrain that obscures the view. That's a discussion point with Kurt and Bill, since the three of us will likely chase together. This looks to be a dangerous situation across northern Dixie Alley. Crossing fingers and hoping for minimal impact on communities tomorrow afternoon into the night.

April 27, 2011, Southern Outbreak: When a Nightmare Becomes Reality

The death toll from yesterday's tornadoes in the South presently stands at 231,* and it continues to climb. In the battered town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 36 people are dead; in Birmingham, at least 30 more.** From Mississippi to as far north as upstate New York, the worst tornado outbreak in 37 years has left communities sifting through a battleground of leveled buildings, crumpled automobiles, downed power lines, tortured trees, and a horrifying number of casualties. This has been no mere tornado outbreak; it has been a tornado nightmare. "You're talking about whole neighborhoods of housing just completely gone," said Birmingham Mayor William Bell in an NPR interview. "Churches, gone. Businesses, gone. I'm not talking about just roofs being blown off, but just completely gone."** I knew that a dangerous weather event was brewing in the South yesterday. But with my mother undergoing a knee replacement, I spent most of the day at Blodgett Hospital here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I knew nothing of what was transpiring down in Mississippi, Tennessee, and the epicenter of the outbreak, Alabama, until later in the evening, when I finally left the hospital, fired up my laptop, and got my first look at the radar. There it was, spread out before me: a blitzkrieg of intense supercells swarming across Alabama and Tennesse, attended by so many tornado reports that they obscured parts of the map. My heart dropped into my gut. I didn't need any news reports to tell me that something awful was happening and people were getting killed. Immediately I thought of my long-time friend and storm chasing partner, Bill Oosterbaan. He was down there somewhere in Alabama. I had no question that he'd seen tornadoes, but was he safe? I couldn't reach him at first on his cell phone, but eventually we connected and Bill shared his story. He had been about a quarter-mile behind a tornado that hit Huntsville and gotten rained on by debris. It sounded bad, but Bill was okay, had witnessed five tornadoes, and had gotten video footage. After talking with Bill, I began searching for news on Facebook and the Internet. The first video I saw was Chris England's footage of the Tuscaloosa tornado as it chewed through the city. "Andover!" I thought. "It looks like the Andover tornado." (An F5 monster that struck Andover, Kansas, on April 26, 1991.) More YouTube videos followed: Mind-boggling views of the Tuscaloosa storm. TWC footage of a violent, mile-wide wedge moving through Birmingham. An intense tornado striking Cullman. It was horrible. The storms were ongoing even as I watched, and it dawned on me that, overworked as the word "epic" has become, here was a situation where it applied. I am appalled by the news and deeply saddened. As good as today's weather warning system is, nevertheless the death toll is mind-numbing. I frankly expected a few score fatalities, and that in itself would have been too many. Lives are lives. But this many lives...it is just sickening. Were it not for the unswerving vigilance of the Storm Prediction Center and the National Weather Service; and were it not for today's NEXRAD system that blankets the nation with Doppler radar to provide coverage that far outstrips what existed during the historic 1974 Super Outbreak and 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak; were it not for these things, then the death toll from yesterday would have been apocalyptic. As it stands, it is horrifying, and the number continues to grow. My writing on this event is finished for now. There is simply too much to say and too much news that is yet breaking, along with countless hearts. The story has just begun, and more can be told only as it becomes known. My thoughts and prayers go out, with those of countless other storm chasers, to the survivors of this terrible disaster. ------------------------------------ * From CNN's live blog. ** From NPR's news blog, "The Two-Way."

Tornado Video Resembles Paul Huffman’s Famous Twin-Funnels Photo from the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak

On April 11, 1965, Elkhart Truth photographer Paul Huffman parked his vehicle by the side of US 33 northwest of Goshen, Indiana, and began snapping pictures of a tornado passing within a half-mile of him. One of those images, captured as the twister was in the process of devastating the Midway Trailer Park, became what is probably the most famous tornado photograph ever taken, and the icon of the nation's second deadliest large-scale tornado outbreak. Paul's image of twin funnels straddling the highway is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak. Like countless weather weenies, I've been fascinated with Paul's photo. As a storm chaser, I'm familiar with multiple-vortex tornadoes. Today meteorologists understand that they're fairly common. Yet multiple vortices take all shapes, sizes, and behaviors, and I've always been on the lookout for something that seemed to approximate what was probably happening in Paul's photograph (really his series of photographs depicting a single funnel undergoing vortex breakdown into the infamous "twins"). Just a few minutes ago, I came across a new YouTube video that is the closest I've ever seen to what the Midway tornado--and very likely the one that hit Dunlap 45 minutes later--may have been like. I don't normally feature YouTube videos in this blog because I hate discovering that the video I had included in a post a year ago no longer exists. But besides being truly impressive, this clip is just too strikingly reminiscent of Paul's historic photo to pass by. The video was shot just yesterday in southeast Oklahoma by storm chasers Marc Austin, Robert McIntyre, and Gabe Garfield. At 1:08 into their clip, you can see two large twin funnels embedded in the parent circulation. It's a spectacular display, and my hat is off to these guys for catching the storm of the day. Tragically, the tornado killed at least one person and caused significant damage in the towns of Tushka and Atoka. The system that produced the Tushka/Atoka tornado and a number of others yesterday is moving east today. Mississippi and Alabama lie within a moderate risk, with a good possibility of strong to violent tornadoes. The storms are ongoing this morning as I write, and a whole day lies ahead of them for moisture and instability to build across Dixie Alley. It's not a pleasant prospect. Let's hope that the damage will be minimal and no more lives will be lost.

April 22-23 TX-OK-KS Storm Chase

As I begin this post, the first major tornado-producing storm system of 2010 is moving to the east after taking 10 lives in the South yesterday. Already a tornado-breeder, the system matured yesterday into a wide-scale outbreak driven by hefty bulk shear, massive low-level helicities in the order of 600 and above, and CAPE values up to 2,500. Yazoo City, MS, was hit hard by a powerful, rain-wrapped wedge. The verdict remains open as to whether this was a single, long-lived tornado that traveled as much as 200 miles, or one in a series, which seems likelier. Sorry, I can't offer a write-up on yesterday's storms. I was home sleeping, and I have no regrets that I missed anything. With the models suggesting rain-wrapped, low-visibility tornadoes rocketing along at 50 mph or more; with the potential for hydroplaning while driving at gonzo speeds in order to keep on top of fast-moving, rapidly morphing storms and avoid having them get on top of us; and with the logistical madness of three sleep-deprived chasers--Bill Oosterbaan, Mike Kovalchick, and me--having to backtrack afterward to Saint Louis where my car was parked and then drive 450 miles back to Grand Rapids, the negatives of chasing this big, messy, and dangerous tornado outbreak seemed to easily outweigh the potential payoffs. So Bill, who was determined to catch the action, made arrangements to hook up with Kurt Hulst and Bill's brother, Tom Oosterbaan, in Illinois, and then he dropped Mike and me off at my car. The two of us headed home, and I can tell you, it felt mighty good to crawl under the covers upon my return and sleep until 1:00 in the afternoon. After talking with Tom yesterday evening, I'm glad I chose as I did. I may have more thoughts to share about yesterday's scenario, but I'll save them for another post. The previous two days in Texas and Kansas deserve some attention in their own right, and not just as the prequel to the big, day 3 outbreak. They may have been a bust for me tornado-wise, but they were nevertheless the first decent system of the year and my first chase out on the Plains. It was a blessing to get out on the road once again and see the vast, textured expanses of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. Naturally, the landscape included the TIV2, which at this point should be designated a mobile national monument of the Great Plains. Back in 2008 we had bumped into its predecessor in Nebraska; this Thursday, we pulled into a gas station in Pampa, gassed and Rain-Xed up, then drove around to the other side of the station, and surprise! There it was--the Tank and its entourage. Cool! Who can resist taking a few photos? Not me. As for chasing storms, Thursday was a should'a. We should'a either listened to Mike and headed for western Kansas, where most of the tornadoes occurred later in the day, or else gone with Bill's and my initial impulse to chase the bigger CAPE, albeit forecasted low helicities, near Childress, Texas. For that matter, if we had endured the initial grunge in Wheeler, or better yet, just parked along US 60 east of Pampa--in other words, if we had just sat and waited--we'd have been golden. Instead, we sacrificed an opportune position and went after some cells that fired to our northwest along the dryline. Doing so made a certain amount of sense, as those storms were already looking supercellular and were moving toward the warm front and better helicities, while the cells popping up to our south in advance of the dryline seemed to just sit there and languish. So after the northern storms we went. Bad decision. One of the southern cells developed steam shortly after we made our move. We could still have turned around at that point, but we chose to commit to our decision and wound up betwixt and between the vortex breeding grounds to our south and north. As a result, we found ourselves looking forlornly at the radar as the southern cell shaped up beautifully and began churning out tornadoes, while our storms struggled valiantly but never quite got their act together. If there's a lesson to be learned, it's that good things come to those who wait. And, I might add, that model SRH is nice if you can get it to cooperate, but it can be deceptive. Helicity is prone to change with the storm environment in ways that forecast models don't anticipate. If CAPE and 0-6 km shear are sufficient, storms may just generate their own low-level helicity. Anyway, we chased the dryline storms and busted. Our storms tried hard to tornado, but they just couldn't quite manage to produce. So instead of the blue ribbon, we wound up with honorable mention: some decent structure, including cool-looking wall clouds, a few funnels, and--as tail-end Charlie went high-precip in the Oklahoma panhandle--a nice, banded-looking storm with a formidable shelf cloud. As for Friday, we picked exactly the right target up in northeast Kansas along US 75 just south of the Nebraska border. We were smack in the axis of a nice moisture plume. But nothing happened. As the afternoon progressed, the cumulus field we were sitting under began to generate towering cumuli, but these turkey towered and busted against a mid-level cap that just wouldn't erode. So that was that. Looks like a lot of other chasers got disappointed as well by the northern play. It happens. We finally cut our losses around 7 p.m. and headed back east toward Saint Louis and a band of storms that was moving toward I-70. Ironically, one of these produced a series of tornadoes. If Thursday had been a should'a, Friday was an if-only. If only we'd targeted northeast Missouri...but there had been no reason to do so that we could see. Now another storm system looks to be moving into the Midwest later this coming week. The action could be closer to home, but I'll think about that in a day or two. Right now, it's time to make this post, rest up, and get on with the rest of life.

Elkhart County Historical Museum Remembers the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornadoes

My friend Debbie Watters, prorieter of the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado Memorial Park in Dunlap, Indiana, sent me the following article from the Elkhart Truth newspaper:
It's been almost 44 years since the Palm Sunday tornado tore through Elkhart County, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. It will be the focus of a special program at a local museum.
The Elkhart County Historical Museum is organizing a remembrance of the April 11, 1965, di saster. The memorial will be from 2 to 4 p.m. April 5 at the museum, 304. W. Vistula, Bristol.
Nicholas Hoffman, director and curator of the museum, said the tornado is an important part of local history.
"It was a really big occurrence that impacted many people," Hoffman said.
Patrick Murphy, a meteorologist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, will talk about how tornadoes form and the factors that led to the 1965 tornado outbreak that spawned 40 tornadoes across the Midwest and left 271 people dead.
"We're really excited to have NOAA participating in this event with us because they're certainly the experts on these events," Hoffman said.
A panel of survivors of the Palm Sunday tornado will take questions after Murphy's presentation.
The panel will include John Clark, a retired Elkhart police officer, and Paul Huffman, the retired Elkhart Truth photographer who snapped the famous photo of the twin twisters.
"[Huffman] captured the horror of that day with one photograph," said the curator.
There will be an open microphone portion for anyone interested in talking about the disaster.
The museum will also provide table space for collectors to display items they found in the wake of the tornado.
For more information call the museum at 848-4322.
Of course I plan on attending. My interest in the Palm Sunday Tornadoes extends back to my childhood, and in recent months it has become an area of increasing research. I am particularly excited to learn that Paul Huffman--whose photograph of the twin funnels striking the Midway Trailer Court, remains one of the most dramatic, all-time classic tornado photos ever taken--will be one of the panelists. That's just my opinion, but I think that many severe weather meteorologists, tornado historians, and storm chasers will agree. Over the years I have viewed hundreds of tornado photos. I have seen some incredible images, ranging from the sublime to the scary, but nothing quite like that old black-and-white snapped over forty years ago by a young press photographer as he stood in the inbounds with his camera just a few hundred yards from mayhem, witnessing the last moments of a community.
I hope to get a chance to talk with Mr. Huffman. I also look forward to meeting Pat Murphy, lead forecaster for the Northern Indiana NWS. He and I have connected previously concerning the Palm Sunday Tornadoes, and have made plans to get together next week Sunday, April 11--the 44th anniversary of the outbreak--to trace the paths of some of the twisters. But that's a separate story, and while this is an area of personal fascination for me, there's also another, parallel motive which I'm hesitant to divulge just yet.
Stay tuned, though. You'll be reading more about the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornadoes in this blog.
And on that note, I invite you to leave a comment if you experienced the Palm Sunday Tornadoes firsthand. If you are a storm survivor, or if you possess personal, unpublished photographs or old film footage of one of the actual tornadoes, I would love to hear from you.

Remembering the Super Tuesday Outbreak

A year has passed since a swarm of eighty-seven tornadoes churned across Dixie Alley, claiming fifty-seven lives over a two-day period from February 5-6, 2008. Beginning on the day when twenty-four states were holding their Democratic primary elections, the Super Tuesday Outbreak has gone down in the books as the deadliest tornado outbreak since the full implementation of NEXRAD, and one of the worst in history. The outbreak packed twenty-one confirmed strong tornadoes, including five rated at EF3, and five violent EF4s. One of the latter carved a 122-mile swath across Arkansas--the longest continuous tornado path in that state's records. My storm chasing partner Bill and I made it as far south as Louisville, where we intercepted one supercell and then headed back east to Corydon, Indiana, parked, and let the squall line slam into us. You can read my chase account here. Had we left a little earlier, we'd have made it farther south and likely would have seen some of the tornadoes. One came as close to our position as Brandenburg, Kentucky, just a handful of miles away. Storm season 2009 is drawing near. Today the skies are blue, clouds are scooting along on a brisk low-level jet, and temperatures are in the fifties. This next week looks to be an active one, and while I don't expect much more than rain in the Great Lakes, it's nice to see the Gulf of Mexico setting up shop and giving us a taste of springtime weather. Rain instead of snow is good! And warmer temperatures will be with us for at least this next week. I doubt we've seen the last of mid-teens, cold-air intrusions, but if we have, I won't go into mourning.

Storms of 2008 DVD

I just received my new Storms of 2008 DVD in the mail a couple days ago, and I have to say, it's fabulous! Having been thoroughly smitten with its predecessor, Storms of 2007, featuring its remarkable coverage of the historical Greensburg, Kansas, EF5 tornado, I was skeptical that any subsequent effort could live up to such high standards. But I have to say, this latest in the celebrated "Storms of..." series has more than met the challenge. Simply put, this is a stellar work, and if you're at all a fan of storm chasing, you need to buy it, period. And when you make your purchase, know that your $24.95 goes directly to helping disaster victims across the United States. The "Storms of..." series is an organized effort on the part of the storm chasing community to make a tangible difference in the lives of people who have been directly affected by severe weather and other natural disasters. Judging by the remarkable footage in this DVD--often sublime and at times mind-boggling--you'd never guess that it is a grassroots effort. Yet, as with all the videos in the "Storms of..." series, Storms of 2008 is strictly a product of the storm chasing community. As such, it is a tour de force of the remarkable talent pool within that community. Videographers, meteorologists, seasoned storm chasers, gifted amateurs...all these and others besides have worked hard and long to produce a world-class video and a true labor of love. The history-making Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak that scoured Dixie Alley on February 5...the late-May tube-fest that blotted SPC storm reports with red for the better part of a week...the beautiful Dighton wall cloud...the Quinter EF4 duo...the tragic Parkersburg, Iowa, EF5...they're all here plus a whole lot more, complete with synoptic analyses and topnotch narration. Am I saying that you have absolutely gotta, gotta, gotta purchase this exceptional DVD? Yup, that's what I'm saying. Just do it, okay? You can thank me later for being so pushy. Your money will help to make a real difference in people's lives, and trust me, you'll love what you get in return. Storms of 2008 is the definitive anthology of last year's convective Armageddon in the United States. Buy here. Or visit the Storms of 2008 website to obtain more information and view a video trailer. To the devoted cast of producers, editors, and engineers who faced the challenges and frustrations of making Storms of 2008 happen--BRAVO! And thanks!

Significant Tornadoes, by Tom Grazulis

Man, what a busy day it has been! It's amazing how occupied I can be without hardly budging from my La-Z-Boy couch. But then, my couch is as much my office as it is a piece of living room furniture. More, for that matter. With my computer keyboard in my lap and my screen parked on a stool to my left, here is where I earn most of my living as a freelance writer. I've spent most of my day hammering out copy for a couple clients. I just finished a project a short while ago. I still have a chewy assignment that I haven't even begun yet, but that can wait till tomorrow. This weekend will be a busy one, but in this tough economy, it's great to have the work, and I can say in all honesty and with much gratitude that I have some truly wonderful clients. I am richly blessed, not just with consistent work doing what I love to do, but also with good relationships with people who, besides clients, are friends and brothers in Christ. But the working day for me is over, and I am now turning my focus to other things. In my spare time, I'm acquainting myself with cPanel and--now that I can actually access the code--revamping the metatags for my Stormhorn.com website. The switchover from GoDaddy to Tablox as a web host, and from b2evolution to WordPress for blog software, has freed me up to take a more hands-on approach to my website and blog, and the next phase of the learning curve for this non-techie has begun. And that's just what's happening on the sidelines. Today I went to the Hastings Public Library and picked up the copy I had requested of Significant Tornadoes, 1680-1981, by Tom Grazulis. It's a formidable volume--the authoritative, exhaustive record of virtually every significant tornado in United States history that can be traced. Grazulis's work is nothing short of remarkable, a real labor of love, and the result is a book whose poundage alone is enough to impress. This is one you want to load on a pack mule if you plan on taking it anywhere, but the information it contains is priceless. And I need that information because I've been working on a book on the 1965 Palm Sunday tornadoes. I'll tell you more about that some other time, but if you've followed this blog for a while, then you know that the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak has been a recurrent theme. There is a reason for that, and the time has finally arrived for me to do something about it. I wrote the prologue a couple months ago, and now, after a bit of a delay, I've written about two-thirds of the first chapter. I expect to have it completed within the week, and then it's on to the next phase, which will consist of a fair amount of research. And that's enough on that topic. I've done enough writing for the day, and my bowl of cottage cheese and mug of abbey ale are demanding my attention.