Apologies about the lack of team updates from us thus far but I can now elaborate on the events that occurred on May 29th. For the record, our chase team consists of myself, Gareth Poile, Dave Ewoldt and Chris Terrill...a new and short term edition to our team. Chris is making a documentary for ITV and is along for the ride. This is going to be a fairly long account of the days events but I feel I need to be as thorough as I can as this turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life thus far!!
We had chased 2 days prior to the May 29th event and I will be updating these days in due course. For now, I will be covering what happened on May 29th in its entirety..the unabridged version.
So we start the day in Concordia, KS having positioned ourselves there the night before so we had a quicker journey to Nebraska for the high risk that had been issued for Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa. Tornadoes looked likely this day, with ample shear and some juicy moisture return...we were looking at a high probability that storms would produce. We were chasing with the Brit chase team from Net Weather (Paul Sherman, Nick Finnis, Ian Cameron and Andy) We leave quite sharpish and head north, making the usual stops along the way to refuel, eat and reevaluate things. This sounds a bit whimsical but this day had a 'feel' about it. Any day that I have seen a tornado there has been a special tension in the air, a feeling of anticipation that is almost tangible. I recall saying to one of the guys that I was going to take some pictures throughout the day so that I could look back at them and remember what happened before the event....so my confidence was running high!
Our intial target storm was near Kearney, NE. There was some impressive development and we initially targeted a storm that had a healthy core to it. Chris wants to get into some big hail and so we core punched a couple of times...successfully finding some golf ball sized hail for him to be pummelled by as he jumped out, dressed in his goggles, shoulder pads and crash helmet. The storm we were on looked like it could be organising on radar and so our interest was pricked as it drifted toward the town of Kearney, NE. RFD winds battered us on the road into Kearney and these were impressive enough to knock over a train that was sitting on the tracks to our west. Things evolved and a wall cloud was now evident, with rotation becoming apparent on radar. Minutes passed and we had the possible report of a tornado...all radar indicated but sure enough...a cone was visible through the poor contrast of rain we had as it snaked its way to the ground. This tornado was fairly brief and so we drifted into town, where there was some damage from the winds that had howled out of the storm. Awnings were down, trees limbs snapped and roofs damaged with electricity out and we carefully weaved through the damage to emerge the other side, near I-80. At this time, our storm was moving off to the east but it still displayed a strong couplet on radar. Everything had become rain wrapped and so we accepted the fact that we were unlikley to see anything now, even if a tornado was concealed in amongst the mess. There were storms developing back to our SW and so we decided that we would pull into a gas station along I-80, refuel, grab some dinner and see how things evolved.
Just before 7pm and we arrive at the gas station, which was positioned around a mile South from the town of Aurora, NE. I go in and grab an Arby's and notice the sheer volume of people sat around, all glued to the Weather Channel. Many had looks of concern on their faces as they gazed up at the TV screen. I realised we were under a tornado warning still and also that this was left over from our storm that had previously been warned. I made my way over to the toilets and could hear the chatter amongst the women as they discussed the warnings and what might happen. There was an announcement over the gas station intercom that a tornado warning had been issued and that possible evacuation and closing down of the gas station was imminent. I walked back into the restaurant and could hear the manager of the gas station preparing his staff for possible evacuation into the toilets as and when the storms arrived. I will openly admit that I thought, those these precautions were mighty impressive, that we were in no immediate danger having looked at radar when we had pulled up. Although severe, the storm approaching from the SW did not appear to pose any tornado threat to the area...We all mulled around for a while and eventually met back at the van. Chris was inside the gas station interviewing people when the lights started to flicker on and off. I remember thinking that was peculiar...not too sure why as any strong wind would easily knock power out but this had an eerie feel to it. The horizon was black to our W and SW and I distinctly remember asking Dave what sort of winds we were likely to experience. He replied 'it could get pretty rough'.
It was too late to hit the freeway now as conditions deteriorated and so Paul and co (in the Tahoe) and myself and our crew decided to ride the storm out. Paul Sherman, Nick Finnis and Andy were in the Tahoe (we had adopted Ian Cameron onto our crew as he had wanted to core punch some large hail with us.) Bearing in mind we are driving in a Ford 350 van, what happened next was unbelievable, shocking, scary, exhilerating, bordering on ridiculous and the most amazing insight into just how powerful these storms can get.
The lights to the gas station finally cut out and power was lost. The skies were darkening at such a rate that we did not even have time to reposition the van under another disused gas station that sat across the road. The storm hit hard and fast...so hard that everything was blanketed in sheets of driving rain, howling winds and darkness within seconds. Luckily we had managed to position the van so that the side was not facing the wind but we were all taken aback at the sheer ferocity of the storm as it bore down. Everything was shaking and I was agog as I watched outside. This is when Chris did something that perhaps he should have rethought had he had the chance. Being a documentary maker, he wants the best shots and wants to get close to the action. He reaches his hand across and I just have time to hear Dave, over the tremendous noise of the weather, shout 'Don't open the...' but he had no time to finish his sentence as I hear the door open and the wind catches it, almost ripping it off its hinges. It slams into the side of the van and we are now at the mercy of the extreme winds that are driving rain and small hail right at us in the van. I will never forget looking outside and seeing everything blowing horizontally...reminiscent of the sorts of scenes you see filmed whilst a large hurricane is moving through. Dave and Gareth are working together to try and keep the van's backside facing the wind as Dave shouts instructions to Gareth over the commotion. I am ducked down and getting absolutely blasted by wind, hail and rain. The van is being shifted across the road..quite a bizarre feeling seeings as we are in something that weighs tons. Chris is filming and Ian is crouched down in the back. The strength of the wind was just getting more and more powerful and there were times when I was convinced that we were going to roll. I recall trying to figure out where I should lie as and when we did get lifted or rolled as I wanted to reduce the risk of injury as much as possible. Weirdly I was not that scared..on reflection I think I was in shock at just how violent conditions had become as I had not anticipated it. I have sat in severe storms before but this was wholly different, on a completely new level. I did know that we were in danger as the extreme winds continued to shift us around on the road. Visibility was literally zero but I had the feeling that there were some bad things going on outside. So we keep our heads down and I feel something showering on top of me. I look down and shards of glass are everywhere. Someone shouts that the back window had smashed and it appeared that a projectile of some sort had penetrated the back window, punching another hole in the van that would leave us vulnerable to the incredible conditions outside. After what seemed an age, conditions started to ease a little and we all emerged from our cowering positions. This sounds quite strange but we were laughing..some of us hysterically, I think a reaction of shock and absolute amazement at what we had just witnessed. Dave and Gareth made a couple of quips about the van door and Chris continued to roll his camera. I will openly admit that I was quite exhilerated from the experience, partly because I knew that I had survived something that had been pretty serious and also relief that I had survived!. At some points it had seemed like the world was ending...armaggedon almost as the driving rain and fierce wind had shifted us around as we sat...sitting ducks to mother nature.
Once conditions had improved enough we were met with a scene of severe damage to the Love's gas station. We had been parked on the road and so drove back into where cars had been damaged by awning that had been ripped down, pieces of debris lay strewn across the forecourt and cars sat underneath where the pumps are based...some battered and damaged as the debris had rained down. Many people had taken shelter in the gas station and they started to emerge from their place of hiding, a look of confusion and shock on their faces. We clambered out of the van to assess the damage as Chris grabbed his working camera (2 had been severley damaged due to the water) and started filming the aftermath. Initially we were not sure what had occurred, we were pretty confident it had not been a tornado and I even mentioned that RFD could have been to blame, having experienced it earlier on in the afternoon with our initial storm. We were all ina little bit of shock and managed to find Paul and co who had parked nearer the building. News crews had already been at the gas station and the cameras were switched into action to capture the minutes following the damage. Emergency service crews started to appear and we looked up the highway to see that damage had occurred as far as the eye could see. Semi's had been flipped over like toys. We eventually managed to look at some radar footage and it was apparent that the storm had managed to wrap itself up pretty good just minutes before it reached our location on I-80. Verification was needed but there was talk amongst various other people that a tornado had either passed over us or nearby. The van sustained some damage to the side door that had flung open but, surprisingly, it shut adequately enough and we boarded up the back window before heading out of the gas station and back east. We noticed some significant damage to our north and realised that there could very well have been a tornado come close by our location...as we drove east I think the realisation of what we came close to began to hit. Information and data started filtering through that a tornado had occurred just to our north and that we were more than likely caught in some extreme RFD winds. Personally, I felt a sense of shock sink over me as I contemplated what had happened. Dave was pretty convinced that we were not far off severe injury. All in all the worst of the conditions lasted for around 6 minutes we think.
A couple of days later and, after a damage survey, it appears that a half mile wide, EF2 tornado had touched down just south of the town of Aurora and curled its path around, coming with 3/4 of a mile of our location at the gas station. Dave thinks that there was some interaction with the tornadic winds and the RFD that enhanced the speeds at our locations, which were purported to be between 100-120mph in strength. A NWS forecaster and friend of Dave's mentioned that he was impressed at the speed in which the circulation tightened up prior to it touching down south of Aurora. It seems it only took 8 minutes for it to produce a large tornado that narrowly missed our location.
So on reflection, after a few days to take it all in, and I realise just how close I came to being caught up in a tornado and potentially become a victim of these storms, rather than chasing them. I respected what these storms could do before May 29th 2008, despite the fact I have always been far enough away that I can appreciate their beauty rather than witnessing the conditions inside first hand. I have gained a whole new level of respect for the sheer brutality and violence of that RFD. It shocked me and still does, looking back. We all experienced something incredible on Thursday...something I will never forget for many reasons...some good...some bad. One thing is for certain, I do not want to get that close ever again and feel thankful that circumstances played out in our favour.
Images to follow....