May 10, 2003


Initial Target: Between St. Louis, MO and Springfield, IL
Departure: Urbana, IL 6:00 pm CDT
Arrival: Urbana, IL 12:00 am CDT
Intercepts: Chillicothe and Pekin, IL 9:30-10:30 pm CDT
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: None
Wind: Non-Severe
Features: Anvil Crawlers, RFB
Miles: 285.58


Night chase.  Left Urbana late and took I-72 to I-155 passing through Lincoln.  Caught up with tornado warned cells approaching Peoria and witnessed some beautiful anvil crawlers accompanied with CG.  Passing through Peoria, weather radio indicated Chillicothe, IL in path of a tornadic cell.  Encountered only heavy rain and blaring sirens entering the town.  Stopped for grub and headed towards home on I-74.  Caught up with a tornado warned cell passing through Pekin.  Lightning illuminated a nice precip core and rain free base but did not witness the reported tornado.  Drove through the cell encountering more heavy rain, dozens of overpass clinging motorists, but no hail.

Crew and Equipment:

One vehicle chase team included:  Jon Tantiwongse, Mike Collart, Jenny Campbell, and Dan Oliva.  Nowcasting courtesy Adam Nekola.  Equipment consisted of a NOAA weather radio and cell phone.


This was my first chase.  I would have liked to have waited to make my first chase with a team or a veteran chaser but I couldn't pass up today's setup.  Stranded at college without a car is problem if you are trying to storm chase, but I was able to convince my friends who don't share my passion for severe weather that they would have fun and that it was a worthwhile way to spend the day.


This week had seen a major tornado outbreak.  Hundreds of tornado reports from all across the plains starting in Oklahoma and moving through Kansas, Missouri, and finally Illinois.  The Storm Prediction Center put a high risk up for central Illinois as well as a hatched 35% forecast for tornadoes on this day.  A rare event.

After spending the day in the dorm and at the mall I was able to convince my friends to do a spur of the moment storm chase.  After dropping everyone off, swapping cars, and buying a car adapter for the weather radio, we finally hit the road.  By this time it was 6pm and we had under two hours of light left.  Driving west on I-72 and verifying with Adam over the phone that the cells had just begun to cross the MO/IL border meant that if we were going to see any storms, it would be at night.  I loathed the idea of chasing at night.  Visibility is poor and storm structures remains hidden unless illuminated by lightning.  I wasn expecting, at best, a good lightning show.  PDS Tornado watches were in effect over most of the state, however.

Watching the weather channel and seeing the initial development before we left led me to believe that the action would be in Southern Central Illinois so we headed down I-72 with a location south of Springfield in mind.  Nearing Decatur, Adam informed us that the best cells were heading towards Peoria so we turned around and headed up IL-48 and IL-10.  We stopped in Lincoln at the NWS office parking lot to get a bearing and an update from Adam who told that the storms were rapidly approaching Peoria and probably out of reach.  The St Louis area storms were even further out of reach, passing near Vandalia.  Thinking this was it, we paused to admire the Doppler radar dome.  Almost every car in the lot had a ham antenna mounted on the roof, the owners of which were inside busily pouring over data and issuing warnings.  Adam was watching the radar loop and, changing his mind, decided the storms might not hit Peoria for another hour.  We're off!  Took I-55 North towards Peoria. 


We had now lost all daylight yet I had decided that we hadn't come all this way for nothing.  We were half way up our I-155 route when we saw our first flashes of lightning out to the West.  As we drove North the storm came closer and the flashes became brighter.  There were some breathtaking anvil crawlers.  Finger like tendrils of lightning raced across the top of the storm often followed by a powerful CG.  The light show was mesmerizing, everyone in the car was impressed. 


It probably would have been a good idea to find somewhere to pull over and watch the show but we were picking up Peoria on the weather radio and tornado warnings were being handed out left and right so we foolishly raced North into the city.  Jon was having trouble locating the towns on the map that were being called off on the weather radio.  We were now getting into some moderate rain in the metro area.  The weather radio called off the town of Chillicothe as being in the path of a tornado.
As luck would have it, at that moment the next exit was for the town of Chillicothe.  We traveled up IL-6, the rain getting harder and harder.  Now it was to the point where I could barely see the road.  I used the tail lights of the car in front of me to stay on the road.  The weather radio warned, "Do not try to see the tornado take action now to save your life!" 
Over the hammering of the rain hitting the car roof I could hear a whine coming from outside.  "Is that a tornado siren?" I asked.  Jenny, just as nervous as I was and flustered at our foolishness sharply replied, "Yes!"  The other guys in the car were having a ball but I was scared.  We had lost the other traffic and were driving alone in the blackness and heavy rain.  The wail of the siren sounding ominously in the distance.  I thought at any second we were going to get rolled over by a tornado.  At last, lights came into view as we entered the town of Chillicothe.  We stopped at McDonald's to wade out the storm.  As soon as we had stopped the rains subsided and the sirens had shut off.


We stopped for some grub and still shaken up retired the job of driving and let Mike take over.  The locals at the McDonald's were talking how they had been in their basements only a few minutes before.  We left and drove South taking I-74 home to call it night.  The weather radio was still giving out warnings for a cell south of Peoria.  Sure enough we caught up with it, lightning illuminating it in the dark.  I could make a dark precip core and a well defined rain free base.  A tornado had been reported at Pekin yet we did not see it.  The weather radio said that strong rotation was still associated with the storm.  I-74 took us into the storm from behind.  Scud was racing around the base.  The next three overpasses had a cars under them. 
We pulled off under one and asked the college aged girls in the car if they had seen anything.  "No, we just heard there was a warning for the county we are driving into it so we stopped."  Continuing on we started to enter the precip core.  The rains picked up to a heavy downpour but no hail.  The next overpass we drove under had about fifteen cars pulled off trying to use it for shelter.  We outran the storm and found ourselves in clear weather all the way home.  We made it back to Urbana by midnight.


Lesson learned:
  • Chasing at night without proper information and orientation is very dangerous and foolish.  It will probably be some time before I attempt a night chase, and hopefully I will be more prepared.
  • Good data and knowledge of locations are critical, especially in the dark.  We drove not knowing exactly where the core was or the meso.  A laptop with internet and mapping software would be a good bet as well as a mobile radio rig.