Don’t Believe Everything You Read About Storm Chasers/Trackers/Spotters

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I hate when people post RadarScope pictures of “convergence” and their scale is 50 miles. Of course it looks packed! Now zoom in and you’ll see hundreds of yards between the five vehicles on a single road. And a significant portion of those “red dots” are actually spotters – not chasers, sitting in their house looking out a window, or ARES operators doing their thing.

ERMAGERD! It's a "convergence!"

ERMAGERD! It’s a “convergence!”

Even at the Greensburg, KS “convergence,” we still had hundreds of yards between us and our fellow chasers. Even when we stopped at the gas station, there were no more than 25 of us (people, not cars). The gas station owner was glad to see 25 people in his gas station buying drinks and snacks and filling up their cars because the next gas station was in a town 50 miles to the west.

Everywhere we stop people ask us about our equipment and the weather and what they should do and where they should go and thank us for doing what we do. People honk and wave at us all the time. Not once have we experience anything negative with locals. Not. Once.

I have no doubt that at some point there will be a “convergence” on a road that becomes dangerous because it limits evacuation routes. But I haven’t seen that yet personally (I have seen one video of a clogged road, but no one was in danger and the storm was still over 20 miles away). For me personally, if I come across a road that does have too many chasers on it, I’ll find another road or another storm if I have to. Maybe one day I’ll run into that, but so far, I haven’t.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m not in it for the money. Never have been. Never will be. Even when media outlets offer money or ask how much I want, I never accept and let them use it for free. My response is usually, “No money necessary, please share with credit, and get the word out to make the public aware of these dangers.” Public safety is why I do it. I report to NWS, 911, or the local EMA as necessary. I post on social media to let people know what’s happening on the ground.

Have no doubt, this isn’t public service for public service’s sake. I absolutely get a joy out of the weather and chasing. But the love I have for it provides an opportunity for use in public service and I do just that.

Now the reason why I wrote all this is because I absolutely agree with this editorial.

Attacking storm chasers doesn’t accomplish anything, and it’s often misinformed

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20160525-28: Kansas Storms

Lane, Nick, and I all arranged to be off work Thursday and Friday in order to chase in Oklahoma and Kansas. We had glorious plans, but plans don’t always go as planned. And boy oh boy did this trip not go as planned!

I arrived in Denton, TX at my hotel Wednesday night. The hotel’s WiFi didn’t work and because it was a cheap ass Howard Johnson’s (yeah, those still exist), they didn’t care at all. So I checked out a day early. The owner doesn’t give his employees the ability to refund nights. Was the owner there to do it? Nope. It took 48 hours before he refunded my money back to my debit card.

While waiting on Nick and Lane to arrive my inverter fried and the engine in my car started making this weird sound. The sound went away after I stopped and restarted the engine and it drove just fine as we went to Walmart to replace my inverter.

Lane calls and says he’s going to be late because he’s stuck in traffic. While waiting I notice that the 127,500 miles for the next oil change sticker in the window actually says 121,500. There’s an ink smear that made it look like a seven instead of a one. So I have to go get a last-minute oil change while Lane and Nick head to drop off their vehicles.

Two hours later we’re finally heading north (three hours after when we originally wanted to leave). We have to race north where storms are already developing in Kansas with Enid, OK as our next destination. From Enid we see development north of us and head toward Kansas. We watch it develop an overshooting top, but it was moving too fast for us to catch up to it. So we decided to head to the storms in west Kansas instead.

Our original target as we were heading north from Enid, OK.

Our original target as we were heading north from Enid, OK.

As we came into Greensburg, KS we got to see amazing mammatus clouds and then some great structure, a forming shelf cloud, an awesome wall cloud, beautiful lightning, and some 1” hail. We got to hang out under the whale’s mouth and watch the rear lightning on a passing cell while two more cells came in from the west of Greensburg. We ran into a mini chaser convention in Greensburg, including the two mobile radar vehicles and their chase team.

Mammatus east of Greensburg, KS

Mammatus east of Greensburg, KS

Then we saw it. The most beautiful sunset the three of us had ever seen. A cell to our SW with a developing wall cloud, a cell to our NW with heavy rain shafts with the sun behind the shafts coming through, but making the sun appear to be an obscure yellow dot, all while there was a whale’s mouth above us and a shell cloud to our NE. All moving very slowly and while finger lightning illuminated all around us. It was mind blowing and gorgeous.

One example of  the amazing sunset that night.

One example of the amazing sunset that night.

We then started back toward Enid. We were making good time and suddenly the cruise control failed and the engine was running at 5,000 RPM at 50 mph. We tried going from neutral and back to drive, going to third gear and back to drive, turning the engine off and back on, but nothing worked. So we drove at 45 mph at 4,000 RPM in order to not burn the engine out. The goal was to get to Enid, get a hotel, and check it in the morning when local mechanics were open.

We made it another 20 miles to Cleo Springs, OK when the car simply quit driving and wouldn’t respond to the gas pedal being pressed. After pushing the car to the shoulder we called AAA to get a tow truck started to bring us to Oklahoma City.

Why OKC instead of Enid? The plan was to leave the car in OKC with a scrap yard and rent a car. Then I realize I don’t have my credit card on me, just my debit cards. Rental car companies don’t take debit cards, at least none that I have ever dealt with. So we have to come up with a new plan and have no idea what we’re going to do at this point except go to a mechanic in OKC instead of a rental car place.

Hours later we’re cramped in the back seat of a tow truck. The tow truck dropped the car off at a mechanic we found and went on his way.

We made a reservation at a more expensive hotel than we wanted. We get there (it’s 5 am at this point) and they cannot find my reservation. A call to corporate and they finally find it. The A/C in the room is not working correctly. At this point we are so exhausted that we no longer care and go to bed sweating. We overslept and didn’t get to the mechanic until almost 11 AM. Can you really blame us at this point for oversleeping?

We talk to the mechanic and he immediately says, “We don’t work on transmissions, but even if we did we wouldn’t be able to get to you until Tuesday.” He was at least willing to listen to us and take a precursory glance and then recommend a local mechanic who worked on transmissions. After a second and third mechanic got involved they determined we had a leak and came up with a possible temporary solution to at least get us home: fill the transmission fluid up over and over again to maintain pressure until we got home. We filled it up and the car drove just fine.

We bought jugs of transmission fluid and hit the road to Denton, TX. We made it 60 miles. We pull over, let the engine cool, and fill the transmission back up. We made it 15 miles and repeated the process.

This time we only made it 5 miles before a huge plume of smoke appeared behind us. We had a little less than two miles to the next exit and struggled to get there, leaving a trail of smoke behind us. We found an abandoned parking lot near the exit and pulled in with the engine smoking, screeching, and whining.

At least we made it off the Interstate. Totally dead at this point.

At least we made it off the Interstate. Totally dead at this point.

We notice that the back of the car is literally covered in transmission fluid. The “leak” was not just a leak, but a transmission that exploded and blew all the fluid out. Transmission fluid is literally dripping down the back of the car, from the rear window to the exhaust pipe.

Transmission fluid literally dripping off the back of the car.

Transmission fluid literally dripping off the back of the car.

The tow truck, which is really a Ford F150 with a trailer bed, shows up and wenches the car up on the trailer and gets us to Denton, TX. The plan for the car is for Nick to sell it to a local scrap yard and send me the money (and keep a fee for himself, of course). Lane heads off to his house in DFW while Nick uses his truck to drive me back to Austin.

We are 70 miles north of Austin when we get a flat tire. Yep. That’s right. Another f&*%ing car problem! Seriously? To make it more interesting, there’s a nail in the spare tire. UGH!

A flat tire just 70 miles from home...

A flat tire just 70 miles from home…

While waiting on another tow truck, a car pulls over to see if we’re okay. We tell him we have a flat and a spare, but we’re missing the lift rod for the jack and the lug nut remover. He offers to help. He pulls out a large tool box, cardboard box to lay on, a really good jack, etc.

I turn to Nick and say, “You realize this is a scam for us to pay him, right?” Nick replies, “Yeah, but he’s cheaper than a $100 tow truck.” He never asked for money and even refused the money we offered him, but of course that’s part of the schtick, where he ultimately accepts it, at our insistence.

The nail in the spare wasn’t piercing the air and the spare was fully inflated. We made it to Austin at 1 am and went immediately to bed.

All the hassle. All the problems. All the suffering. All the trauma. It was all worth it because we spent time together. We saw beautiful storms. We saw an amazing sunset.

Some more pictures from the chase:

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20160517: Texas Storms

Lane and I headed out around 1700 with the goal of Junction, TX in mind. We didn’t make it as far as Junction because of traffic, but that worked out as we hit a new cell forming near Harper, TX. The cell exploded quickly and became severe quickly as well. We found a great vantage point of the structure, lightning, and what we think was at least a funnel (possibly a tornado, but the ground was obscured by trees along the horizon). We only saw rotation for a single radar sweep and then it was gone, and the video/photo suggests if it was there, it was very brief.

Afterward, we attempted to head to Kerrville to head off the line of storms approaching I-10. We didn’t make it because the rain and hail from the Harper cell, winding and flooding roads make going very slow. By the time we got north of Kerrville we were in the core of a larger cell dropping 2.5″ hail on us with accumulation on the road and hail fog dropping (along with pouring wind-driven rain) dropping visibility to 10 feet at times and extremely difficult to even see the lines on the road. It was very slow going.

Once we reached the I-10 we tried to race SE toward San Antonio to catch the line there, but again, we didn’t make it. This time because of pounding rain and winds, jack-knifed trucks, hydroplaning cars, etc. We were under the front winds for over an hour. We couldn’t get ahead of them and waiting for them would have put us in the harder rain and hail for the entire drive to San Antonio.

After reaching north San Antonio we decided to call it a night and head over to the I-35. There we ran into major flooding, vehicles stuck in the water with people trapped and water rescues occurring (one of which we had to call 911). It was slow going but we finally got clear of the heavy rain and into smoother sailing on the Interstate between New Braunfels and San Marcos. Ended the night at Denny’s at 0230 eating pancakes and french toast. Then up until 0500 trying to figure out if we actually saw a funnel or not on the Harper storm. We submitted what we had and the evidence we had to NWS San Antonio for them to determine what we may or may not have seen.

With that said… let’s get to pics and videos! As always, click on an image to see the full size.

It was pretty dark when we got to Harper. Luckily the camera increased the ambient light so we could see the structure better, but doing so makes the pictures a bit grainy:

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Lightning helped us see the structure better:

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When it got too dark for even the camera to use ambient light, we had to rely solely on lightning. We saw a lowering several times and then finally caught a wall cloud:

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The wall cloud continued to develop quickly and became this:

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Then we started to see what we thought was at least a funnel, but just could not be sure in the dark, even with the aid of lightning. It wasn’t until we got home and went through the video frame by frame that we feel we were in fact looking at a funnel and possible tornado.

There was one lightning strike that shows a funnel. However, we fully concede that this is possibly a trick of the light. But given the other frames we caught, we are including this one as well:

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Then there’s this single frame:

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Then we found five frames where it seems clear to us that there’s at least a funnel and possibly a tornado on the ground. I’ll include all five frames below and then the GIF we created with the frames where you can see rotation. I used ACDSee to lighten the frames up so their more visible.

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And here’s the GIF:

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Then we drove through that core with 1″ hail and head toward Kerrville. Along North Ranch Road 783 between Harper and Kerrville (about 5 miles north of I-10) we encountered hail and fog, then hail accumulation (oh, that’s why it’s suddenly foggy lol), and then increasingly larger hail up to 2.5″ with horrendous visibility.

A quick stop in Kerrville at a gas station then the long windy and rainy ride down toward San Antonio where we encountered this (luckily the lightning helped illuminate the shot):

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While heading into the north San Antonio area we passed eight fire trucks and two ambulances heading west on the I-10. Either we had just missed on helluva pileup or there was an 8 alarm fire somewhere. We never could find any news about it, though.

We gave up the chase essentially as there was no way to catch up to the line after taking so long to get from Kerrville in the pounding rain. Then we ran into flooding, floating cars, and water rescues…

This one we had to call 911 on. There were two cars stuck total and neither would roll down their windows and answer our calls. The drive of the vehicle behind this one finally got out and pushed his floating car back south until he hit concrete and then kept pushing. When the Fire Department showed up, it turned out no one was in this car and they had already abandoned it. While the firetruck was sitting there, with two cars swamped, several cars went AROUND the firetruck and tried to make it through. The Lincoln made it through the water, but stalled out less than a block after the water. The Kia Soul tried to run with a set of tires on the sidewalk, which helped mostly, but in the long run they got too much water in the engine and bogged down after they hit the edge of the flooding. People are stupid.

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Then it was zig-zagging between I-35 and the service road to avoid flooding on each. The second one we encountered had two vehicles stalled in the right two lanes of the I-35 and a vehicle stalled on the exit ramp with a Sheriff on the service road with his lights on stopping people on the service road. Traffic was not stopped on the I-35. The far left lane was passable, but was already getting water on it. Our concern, especially since the two cars on the Interstate still had people in them, was that someone was going to come barreling in and hit them.

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We passed two more water rescues happening in underpasses, but at that point kept driving instead of stopping.

20160426: Bangs, TX Storms

On 4/26/16 I head out to Lampasas as a significant chunk of Texas was under threat. The long track tornadoes didn’t materialize as the CAP held and the storms ended up forming a line that ran through five states. I was on the southern end of that line and ended up going a bit more NW to Bangs, TX to catch the southern tail. No tornadoes, only a little bit of pea-sized hail, but once again Texas came through on gorgeous lightning!

The southern end approaches, view from Brownwood, TX:

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Man, I love the way distant lightning lights up the underside of a storm!

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20160417: Austin, TX Flooding

On 4/17/16 lots of rain came into the Austin area. We were under a severe storm threat, but not severe storms materialized, just lots of rain and flooding. Joining me on the chase was Suzie and Krystal from the Austin Weather Enthusiasts.

Click on an image to see the full size.

Brushy Creek near Round Rock, TX.

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Spicewoods Springs at Bull Creek:

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Another section of Bull Creek. This road was not closed, but everyone we saw driving down it turned around.

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