May 31, 2013
Ardmore, OK 10:31 AM 5/31/2013
Springfield, IL 10:38 PM 6/1/2013
Wedge tornado, anticyclonic tornado, wall cloud, RFD clear slot
Triple point chase in central Oklahoma. Targeted El Reno for afternoon initiation of tornadic supercells. Intercepted tornado warned supercell southwest of town, noting prolific positively charged lightning, and rain wrapped, cone tornado. Took escape route east as tornado approached and expanded into rain wrapped wedge. Watched tornado southeast of El Reno as it tracked northeast as a multiple vortex wedge. Tornado became rain wrapped and dissipated as a new anticyclonic tornado was noted to its southeast. Noted several powerflashes on southeast moving anticyclonic, before it became rain wrapped and dissipated. Attempted south escape from encroaching complex of supercells, but hit gridlocked traffic in Mustang, OK. Traveled west noting wall clouds from embedded supercells in storm complex, before attempting south escape on US 81 encountering more gridlocked traffic. Escaped south before wall cloud passed over Minco, and diverted around OKC to avoid storms and fleeing traffic.
Photography courtesy Jennifer Brindley Ubl
Nick Nolte's Chase Log
Crew and Equipment
Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley Ubl. Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony HDR-xr500v..
In memory of Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras, and Carl Young…
On May 31, 2013, the storm chasing community lost three of its most passionate, highly respected, sincere, and outgoing members. May their legacy live on forever. May we continue to learn from their research and be inspired by their dedication.
Our fifth day on the plains, two thirds of the way through the season, and Brindley and I still hadn’t caught a photogenic tornado for the season. We were ready to start clawing the walls. Friday, May 31, looked like any other decent setup in the southern plains to me. Nothing in particular really jumped out at me that this was going to be a huge event, especially in the days leading up to it. The numerical forecast models were showing a sagging cold front, broad southwest flow aloft, a sloppy dryline, and moderate instability in the warm sector. The ingredients were there for tornadoes, but we had been burned on similar setups several times this year already. It looked to be our last good chase day before the system finally ejected, so we were determined to make the most of it, however.
We awoke in Ardmore, OK, where we had spent the night from the previous day’s bust. The morning was warm and muggy. Rich moisture from the gulf was flooding into Oklahoma, and clear skies allowed the sun to bake the ground, warming the lower layers of the moisture saturated atmosphere, making them extremely unstable. After checking out, we sauntered across the highway to a Denny’s to wake up with some much needed coffee, check data, and make a forecast for the day. We were joined by friends and fellow chasers Nick Nolte and David Mayhew, and the hot topic this morning was where everyone was going. The night before, the primary boundary and source of lift looked to be a cold front, which was more of a stationary front in northern and northeast Oklahoma. Earlier model runs had shown the dryline as being much too diffuse to be a good focus for supercell initiation. Things had changed though. The morning’s high resolution models painted a different picture than the low resolution mid and long range models. The dryline looked sharp, and there was a well-defined triple point. Moisture convergence at the triple point was forecast to bring the surface dewpoints into the low 70’s, and with the strong solar heating, CAPE values were forecast to soar toward 5000. With that amount of instability, anything is possible. Broad southwest flow aloft and veering wind profiles made it appear that we would have ample speed and directional shear for supercells and tornadoes as well. The combination was very favorable for tornadoes, and it prompted the Storm Prediction Center to issue a moderate risk for tornadoes across much of central Oklahoma.
There were a handful of targets to pick from: the stationary front in northern Oklahoma, the triple point in central Oklahoma, and further south along the dryline in southern Oklahoma. Storm mode looked a little questionable on the stationary front to me, since flow looked to parallel the boundary. The dryline to the south often offers more discrete and isolated supercells that are much more preferable for chasing, and the location also avoided populated areas near Oklahoma City. However, the 700mb temperatures looked a little too warm to the south. Any updrafts that could breach the cap, would still struggle against the warm temperatures aloft, resulting in anemic towers and orphaned anvils. It was the same story as yesterday on the Red River. The triple point was where it was at, forecast to be about 50 miles or so west of Oklahoma City by midafternoon. Immediately downstream from the triple point, and placed on a favorable network of intersecting highways, we picked our target to await initiation: El Reno.
The following plots are from the SPC Mesoanalysis and represent the current conditions (or approximations of them) at the times just before and during the El Reno tornado. They provide a good overview of the setup, and are fairly close to what the forecast models were showing in the morning, which is what we based our forecast off of. This plot shows the sharp dryline, moisture convergence with dews in the 70’s near the triple point, being enhanced by a deepening surface low in southwest Oklahoma.
Mixed layer cape was forecast to reach 4500 just ahead of the triple point. Storms tracking into the environment would have explosive updrafts, which could support extremely large hail, and violent tornadoes.
A shallow trough but with strong flow, and hints of a smaller scale disturbance was also moving into western Oklahoma, providing lift for storm initiation and the shear necessary to maintain updrafts.
Effective shear was more than ample for maintaining supercells.
Effective storm relative helicity, was also favorable for tornado development. The values weren’t huge, but still more than enough to support tornadogenesis, especially given the extreme instability.
As a result, a composite parameter, which combines many of the ingredients needed for tornadoes, was showing very favorable values for potentially violent tornadoes near the triple point.
We were anxious to get to the target, so didn’t linger long at the Denny’s. Brindley and I headed north up 35, with Nolte caravanning behind us. Mayhew opted to see if the southern target would pan out for starters. Coming into the Oklahoma City suburbs we hit traffic, and we soon saw what the cause of it was: the Moore tornado damage. An EF5 tornado had devastated the town and killed more than 20 people just 11 days earlier. The trees were stripped of bark and branches with sheets of metal hanging from them. Buildings were reduced to piles of rubble. Traffic came to a crawl on the interstate as people slowed down to gawk at the damage. It was a humbling, sobering sight to see and made us mindful that some of the same people would again be in the paths of tornadoes today, and that the entire city would be on edge as a result.
We cleared the Moore damage path and were moving once again, now through Oklahoma City. Nolte noticed we had picked up a tail. A car was following us. The dome camera enclosure on the roof of the van makes us stick out like a sore thumb, and occasionally interested people follow to see what we’re up to. The car followed us all the way to El Reno, pulling into the gas station where we stopped. A young man got out and introduced himself, saying he had come from one of the southern states, was chasing solo, and asked if he could follow us. Trying not to be rude, I told him no, explaining that we often make quick maneuvers, don’t want to be encumbered by a large caravan, and don’t want to be responsible for others’ safety within the caravan. It’s a breach of chase etiquette to follow others when not invited, but this chaser at least had the courtesy to ask us first. Storm chasers need to be responsible for their own forecasting, positioning, and safety, and not rely upon others. In hindsight I’m really glad we said no. We would find ourselves within the path of a violent tornado during the chase, only a minute ahead of it. Had somebody who was following us fallen behind or gotten into trouble at that moment, they could have been killed.
After getting fuel and some snacks, I walked over to a nearby Radio Shack to see if I could get a power adapter for my handheld ham radio. I had forgotten to charge the radio, didn’t have the charger, and it would have been nice to use it to communicate with Nolte during the chase. Radio Shack didn’t carry anything that fit it, however. Having that line of communication during the chase would have been extremely beneficial. I won’t be making that mistake again. The clerk commented on my Storm Assist shirt, but seemed otherwise unconcerned about the day’s forecast. The lax attitude toward tornadoes seems common among many of the locals that live in the heart of tornado alley.
We stopped at the Subway for lunch. With initiation still a few hours out, we had plenty of time. There was a line and a good number of people in line were sporting storm chasing t-shirts. Just a few miles outside of Oklahoma City, on a big moderate risk setup, I knew there were going to be a lot of people on the roads and that it would be crowded under the storm. It was something to keep in mind for later, as crowded roads under a supercell are a threat to safety.
After getting our sandwiches, we tried to find a more scenic place than a parking lot to await initiation, preferably a place with a view of the western sky. There was a golf course, park, and lake on the southwest side of town so we headed over there. The restaurant at the golf course was called the “Hook-N-Slice.” Hook slicing is one of our favorite storm chasing maneuvers, so it seemed a fitting start to our chase.
We headed over to Lake El Reno. A parking lot came right up to the edge of the lake, perfect for watching the western sky. By midafternoon temps had risen into the 80’s, and the muggy air made it uncomfortably warm. Families were coming down to swim in the lake. Other chasers started to congregate with us, and after an hour or two we had more than a half dozen chase vehicles lined up at the lake edge. The array of antennas, cameras, and hail guards was an odd juxtaposition against the families coming down to swim in the lake. We got a few odd looks, but given the mostly sunny skies and puffy cumulus field, most folks seemed completely unconcerned with the weather.
Hanging With Friends
Tony Laubach stopped by to hang out with us while we awaited storm initiation. One thing that stood out in my mind was the foreboding feeling that Tony had before the chase and how serious he was about the situation. I recognized that the ingredients were there for violent tornadoes, but they were on lots of chases, many of which did not have violent tornadoes, or any danger for chasers. Rumors were going around that the Storm Prediction Center was going to upgrade to a high risk on the 3pm outlook. They didn’t, but it seemed to me that perhaps the setup was being overhyped a bit to get the attention of the people in Oklahoma City. I was quite nonchalant, and even joking about the day with folks. Residents would stop by and ask what we were up to and whether they had to take action. I’d lightly reply that if they saw us piling out of the parking lot, they should head for shelter. Tony, however, was solemn, giving stern warnings to those coming up to talk to us. He pulled Brindley aside and stressed how careful we had to be today. Perhaps Tony is especially serious on all big setups, maybe it was coincidence, but it was as if Tony knew that this day would put many chasers in mortal peril.
Feeding the Wildlife
Then we played the waiting game. Hours went by in the parking lot, which were spent chatting with chasers, sitting in the A/C in the car, and checking weather maps. A very friendly duck stopped by to see if we had any food. I got some cheerios out of the van and was able to hand feed him.
A couple of Swiss chasers parked next to us, stripped off their shirts and jumped in the lake with the locals. It was so hot and muggy, and the water looked so inviting, I almost did the same. I didn’t want to be dripping wet while chasing in the hot muggy air afterwards so passed.
A tornado watch went up at 3:30 with the strong wording, “this is a particularly dangerous situation” and a 90% chance for tornadoes within the watch. Towers were trying to go up in the cumulus field as we had our first attempts at storm initiation. The cap was holding tight for the time being though, and the first towers went up only to immediately fail. It was a good sign, however, and meant storm initiation was not more than an hour out probably.
At 4:30 pm we had storm initiation on the triple point several miles to our west. Several updraft towers were going up and starting to form anvils. I joked with Nolte that we weren’t even going to have to move. We had arrived at our target location and would simply watch the tornado go by from the parking lot at the lake. I didn’t know how close we were to being able to actually do that.
Kids continued to swim in the lake as the western sky filled with huge white towers. We held our ground for the moment, waiting for the storms to mature.
A shadow was cast over the lake as the anvil of a storm stretched overhead. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Chasers started to file out of the parking lot one by one. Initial storm movement was to the northeast and a north south line of cells had formed. I decided that we better get downstream from them and wait for one to become dominant before intercepting. We left the lake heading through town to get to US 81 North. Hopefully, the kids were quick to leave the lake as well.
Driving on US 81 out of El Reno, we stopped several miles north of town to watch the line of storms approach from the southwest. There wasn’t much structure visible at this point, just the forward flanking precipitation cores of several cells and distant, featureless bases. The lightning was a different story. Smooth bolts without branches were striking from the anvil out ahead of the storms at an alarming frequency. They were positively charged superbolts, more than 10 times stronger than the usual negatively charged bolts. The thunder from each was a single, gigantic blast like an exploding mortar round. The lightning kept me in the van for much of the duration of our stop.
We watched line of cells for several minutes, but they appeared to be congealing into a solid mess. Tail-End-Charlie just south of I-40, however, was rapidly organizing, intensifying, and also appeared to be making a right turn. The right turn is common in developing supercells. We had our storm. We turned around and went back down 81, south through town, to intercept southwest of town.
There was a decent grid of roads south of El Reno before the Canadian River. I looked to see which might be best for our intercept. The first couple of east west roads looked to be within the path of the forward flank of the supercell. I didn’t want to sit in the rain and hail, as it would only screw up my video, so those were out. After that came Reno Road. It appeared to be a more major, paved road, and I figured most chasers would pick it as a result. Trying to avoid traffic, I opted for the next road further south: 15th. We took the gravel road west for several miles just as the supercell picked up its first tornado warning and a low contrast base started to come into view from the west.
We went a few miles east and stopped in a turn off, still several miles out from the storm. The storm looked to be still maturing and in a high precipitation state. I didn’t want to get too close right off the bat if there was no view, so I figured we’d stop and let the storm approach our position.
Inflow winds were howling into the storm at our position. The wheat in front of us churned like waves on the sea, while big chunks of scud appeared to fan out from the storm’s rear flank.
The positive anvil to ground lightning bolts continued. I looked up toward the anvil of the storm as a bolt appeared to radiate out in all directions from the top of the storm. I put my arms up to describe to Brindley and Nolte what I saw, and just as I did, two big bolts of cloud to ground lightning fired from the updraft tower. It was as if the storm had seen me thrust my arms toward the sky, and in response it thrust two arms of its own back to the ground. The shot is one of the most dramatic I’ve captured while chasing.
Brindley captures the structure of the high precipitation supercell as it approaches:
Looking southwest, the anvil of our storm can be seen stretching far overhead with rows of faint mammatus. To the south, the anvils of other storms developing along the dryline can be seen. These storms would not last long against the stouter capping to the south.
A beaver tail formed on the northern end of the storm’s updraft tower while the blue green core continued to obstruct our view of the details happening underneath the base.
A flash of lightning captured by my video camera lights up the rain wrapped structure underneath. A classic looking wall cloud with tail cloud can be seen on the right side of the frame, just seconds away from spinning up a tornado.
A low contrast wall cloud approaches our position and drifts slightly south:
At 6:03 pm a tornado developed under the wall cloud, appearing initially as a multiple vortex with several small spin-ups. Contrast was so low at our position that we couldn’t tell exactly what was going on underneath, just that there was motion underneath the wall cloud.
We squinted and strained to see through the haze for confirmation of what we were watching. A lightning bolt struck from the rear of the storm and backlit the structure in front of us. For a moment, the image of a cone tornado was etched into our eyes. We had our confirmation.
The churning mass of tornado and wall cloud, cloaked in haze and rain, loomed closer and closer. Its southeast track was not readily apparent as we struggled for glimpses of the tornado.
Another flash of lightning and another glimpse of the rain wrapped condensation funnel. Chasers positioned north of the tornado, would have much better contrast, but given our lack of visibility and not wanting to tangle with the core of a high precipitation supercell on unpaved roads, we opted to hold our ground and wait for the view to improve. I was hopeful that a surge in the rear flanking downdraft would sweep the precipitation out from under the base and we’d get a high contrast view, as I had seen other storms do.
It was obvious to us at this point that the tornado had a significant southern component to its motion. It would actually pass to our south if it continued on its current course. Between lightning flashes we debated exactly where it was.
Lightning backlit the tornado, revealing an unusual corkscrew shaped funnel. At this point I did not think we were in any real danger. A very large high precipitation supercell with tornado was approaching our position, but I felt confident that our current road options, which went in any direction, would allow us to navigate around and away from the storm. The tornado also appeared to me to be a fairly modest sized cone, something you could get fairly close to without much risk. I had no idea that the wind field surrounding this funnel was rapidly intensifying and expanding to more than a mile in diameter.
The cone shaped funnel appeared to be growing in size. Other chasers were now moving to get away from the storm. Several passed us heading east to get ahead of the storm or went south, getting out of its way. The rain of the rear flank was getting closer, but I figured we had a few minutes before we had to move to stay dry, still unconcerned about the tornado itself.
The tornado’s southward motion ceased. It was just left of west now, apparently moving east. The updraft base of the mesocyclone was starting to move overhead, and as it did so, the inflow winds went slack. Beyond a few variable gusts, an eerie calm had descended. The quiet enabled us to hear for the first time that a news helicopter was behind and above us, hovering in front of the storm.
The rain bands of the rear flank wrapped around the buried cone shaped funnel, while carving a big notch out of the updraft base, providing a view into the storm’s blue green heart. It appeared as if there was a gigantic waterfall within the storm
Streaky, spiraling bands of rain danced around a monstrous cone. I had no idea of the scale of what I was looking at, or the immediate danger that it represented.
Something was wrong. Brindley was the first to recognize it. I had become fixated on the rain wrapped condensation funnel that still appeared to be a couple miles away, but Brindley noticed the rain immediately in front of us. It wasn’t that it was rain. It was the motion of the rain. I paused a moment to watch it. The bands were careening at high speed from left to right. The huge column of rain shrouding what I thought was the tornado was rotating, and it was rotating at the speed of a tornado. The realization sunk in that the entire column of rain shrouding the funnel WAS THE TORNADO. The rotating wall extended across our entire western view and filled the frames of our cameras. It was less than a mile away, huge in size, and approaching fast. It was time to move and move NOW. “Jump in!” I shouted to Brindley as I scrambled to shut the camera enclosure and get into the driver’s seat. We were immediately rolling, squeezing in between a couple other chasers that were also bailing east down the road. At this point our only option for escape was to scramble east and gain ground on the tornado behind us. Turning north or south without putting ground on the tornado first, would result in the rotating wall of wind and rain slamming into us.
We were rolling east at a good speed, about a minute ahead of the outer edge of the tornado, but after a mile or so the couple cars in front of us came to a stop at an intersection, perhaps talking to the driver of a pickup facing the storm. It was a tense moment for Brindley and me as we were trying to execute an escape route and were momentarily stuck in traffic. We passed the truck facing the storm. I don’t know who this is, but I hope they made it out alright. The center of the tornado tracked over this intersection about a minute and a half later, and a motorist fatality was reported at the location.
We were making good speed away from the storm again, and I started to relax. Thinking back on the rain curtains we had seen, I tried to reassure Brindley that those were probably just curtains of rain being pushed by the rear flanking downdraft, and not part of the tornado. I was wrong. Behind us the curtains of rain marked the outer edge of a tornadic wind field, which was rapidly expanding from a mile to over two miles in diameter. The camera was facing the rear, but we couldn’t see what it was picking up, which was probably for the best. The sight would have made our blood run cold. The camera captured the left edge of a massive wedge tornado, rapidly expanding to consume the road behind us.
Coming up to US 81 now, we had to make a decision on which way to go. Do we continue down our gravel road staying in front of the tornado, or do we turn onto US 81 and get out of the storm’s path? Brindley asked if I was going to bail south, the default escape direction away from the storm, and a direction in which many other chasers attempted with disastrous consequences. I briefly considered it, but decided that we had the road grid to stay ahead of the storm, as 15th continued east for many miles, and dropping south now would just cause us to get slammed by the rear flanking downdraft and lose our position on the storm. We approached 81 with anxiety. I anticipated gobs of chaser traffic and getting caught at the intersection. A few vehicles were moving southbound, but there were large gaps, and after a brief stop we were able to cross the highway, Nolte not far behind us.
15th went paved for a short ways east of 81 and we were able to pick up quite a bit of speed. Behind us loomed a massive wedge tornado. Brindley noted that the tornado was on a collision course for the center of Oklahoma City on its current course. What we and many other chasers didn’t realize at the time was that the tornado was beginning to make a significant turn to the left. Chasers north of the tornado were now in mortal peril.
The tornado accelerated to 55 mph, while continuing to expand to a diameter of 2.6 miles. For a short while, the tornado was actually gaining ground on us even though we were driving directly away from it, details that we wouldn’t learn until long after the chase. We drove for several miles down 15th, until I could see that the tornado producing region of the supercell was off to our northwest and that we had pulled ahead of the mesocyclone. We stopped atop a low rise in a turn off and got out to check out the storm. The view was awe inspiring. A gigantic barrel shaped mesocyclone extended far overhead. The smooth, cyclindrical white cloud looked surreal, with a classic RFD horseshoe shaped base underneath.
Brindley snapped several photos and stitched them together to form an epic panoramic encompassing half the sky. The mesocyclone filled with entire western sky and went straight up overhead. The view was one of the most awesome that I’ve seen while chasing. Under the base, it looked like the rear flanking area had finally been mostly cleared out, but the tornado producing region of the storm was still heavily shrouded by rain. This area cloaked in rain, however, essentially was the tornado, as the 2.6 mile wide circulation consumed almost the entire area marked by the rain bands.
Nolte pointed the tornado out to us. The left edge was becoming more and more visible and the velocities on the radar were showing extreme values. A distinct hole in the correlation coefficient on the dual pol scans indicated a large tornado with debris was in progress. We were indeed looking at a huge tornado.
Finally the rain cleared out and the tornado reared its massive, ugly head. A contrast enhanced photograph shows the gigantic, turbulent mass.
The condensation funnel of the wedge emerges from the rain. The colors were exquisite in the low light of early evening. The field in front of us glowed green, the storm had a deep aqua tinge, the tornado in shades of brown and purple.
A closer view of the wedge tornado:
At 2.6 miles in diameter, the El Reno tornado is the widest tornado on record.
The wall cloud and tornado cyclone, the circulation that is the parent of the tornado, appeared to condense all the way down to the ground like the entire mass was becoming the tornado.
Several very prominent subvortices started to spin up on the outer edge of the tornado, rapidly orbiting around it.
These subvortices were the size of average tornadoes. Mobile radar scans of the storm measured these subvortices moving at speeds of over 100 mph, with windspeeds inside of them approaching 300 mph.
Brindley spotted a needle sticking out of the southern end of the horseshoe shaped updraft base, between us and the tornado. On the anticyclonic end of the updraft base, there appeared to be a small funnel. This area would soon spawn an anticyclonic tornado, meaning it spins clockwise, opposite of the direction of most northern hemisphere tornadoes.
The wedge tornado developed bizarre, grotesque bulges. I had never seen anything like it before. The needle anticyclonic funnel can be seen just left of center.
The tornado continued to morph into unusual shapes, now resembling a bulging bird with a collar cloud tail extending off to the west and sides that overhung the center part of the funnel and sloped down toward the ground. Nearly clear air within the rear flanking downdraft clear slot allowed light to filter through and light up the back end of the collar cloud.
A wide angle shot shows our view to the north and northeast, with clear air out ahead of the storm and tornado. Winds were nearly calm at our location. The only sounds were the chirping of birds, cows mooing in the field behind, and a deep, continuous rumbling. Even though the tornado was almost three miles away from us, its roar was still plainly audible.
Looking west down 15th toward the RFD clear slot:
I was surprised at how few other storm chasers we had seen during the tornado and the chase in general. Only a handful of vehicles were on 15th the entire time we were on the tornado, and now as the wedge churned to our northwest, our location was practically deserted.
Tendrils of condensation began to form between us and the tornado, and we watched them closely to make sure that we were still in a safe position. The tornado had taken on an apparent northeast track now, and our spot south of the tornado was safe. However, we kept a close eye on the rear flanking downdraft to make sure that we were not in the path of adjacent severe winds, new mesocyclones, or anticyclonic circulations. The initial development under the base appeared to be kicked up by the RFD winds, like an outflow feature, but the back edge of it had a distinct right to left motion.
Watching the tornado for a few minutes, it changed very little in size or location and had apparently stopped, churning over the same location for an extended period of time. Given that we were a couple miles south of El Reno, and the tornado was a couple miles to our north, I was worried that the tornado was basically sitting over the town. A large, stationary tornado can do incredible amounts of damage as the same areas are subjected to extreme winds for long durations. Nolte pointed out that the circulation looked like it had passed south of town and was now east of El Reno, which was reassuring. We were still worried about anyone or anyplace caught in the path of this beastly tornado, however. Brindley commented out loud, hoping everyone we saw at the lake and all the chasers were safe.
The motion of the condensation in front of us was become much more rapid. Something was building on the southeast corner of the updraft base. Meanwhile, the wedge had moved into the precipitation core of the supercell. The rain enveloped it and we were quickly losing our view of it. Only a faint purple shape could be seen to the north.
We lost view of the wedge finally, even though it was still very much alive within the rain to our north. I repositioned the camera and van to focus on the development to our northeast on the southern end of the updraft base, just as condensation appeared to kick up from the ground (far left).
We were behind the feature and it was moving away from us. We’d have to get back on the road heading east to keep up with it. We started to pile into our vehicles. Brindley snapped this picture just before we departed, clearly showing a circulation on the ground: a new tornado.
Traveling east down 15th, there were intermittent spin ups beneath a ragged cone funnel. On the southern end of the updraft base, the rear flanking downdraft curls in a clockwise direction. We were watching an anticyclonic tornado.
After a few miles, 15th intersected a paved north south road that had some traffic on it. A car in front of us was stopped at the intersection, not attempting to move in any direction, even though they were clear to do so. We pulled around them on the left and proceeded through the intersection quickly so as not to block anyone, and immediately saw why they had halted. On the other side of the intersection, 15th was closed. The sign marking the closure had blown over, and I couldn’t see it until the van bumped into it. Our road forward was out of commission. I hastily turned us around, rerouting us to drop south a mile before continuing east again to keep up with the storm. In the confusion and traffic, we lost Nolte, and were now on our own.
We drove south for a mile with a fair amount of what appeared to be local traffic. I didn’t think too much of it, and turned us east onto 29th to pursue the tornado. A ghostly white funnel hung in front of a dark blue grey core. White tendrils whirled up from the ground every now and then.
We drove southwest of the tornado, trying to catch up to it. It struck power lines and a bright blue flash exploded from the ground, lighting up the funnel above it.
Another brilliant blue green flash occurred within the next second, lighting up the white tendril of condensation at the ground like it was made of electricity.
As we continued east, the funnel appeared to be moving south, and we were on an intercept course with it heading east. Soon after the power flashes, the funnel was enveloped in rain or had dissipated. Our view now consisted only of a massive precipitation core looming to the north. We had no visual on any supercell structure, and the core was encroaching on our position from the north. Brindley made note of the southward movement of the storm complex, and we decided to pull the plug on our chase and take our escape route south away from the building storm complex.
Our south escape route was a paved road that went through Mustang, OK and then onto Route 4 across the Canadian River. Coming up to the intersection, a line of cars was piling up at the intersection, waiting to head south. Where did all this traffic come from? It was alarming to see, especially since we were now trying to take an escape route.
We got in line with the other cars and headed into Mustang. We were briefly caught within a gusty rear flanking downdraft and precipitation, but were soon ahead of it again. Clear skies could be seen just a few miles to the south. We were so close. Traffic quickly increased in volume until we were in a bumper to bumper standstill in town. We were still a couple miles from Route 4, one of the few roads across the Canadian River. I knew we’d never make it south before the storm complex hit, there was just too much traffic. Route 152 looked clear to the west weather wise though. I figured that most of the traffic was probably locals trying to stay south and east of the storm complex. If we headed west, toward the rear of the storm complex, we’d hopefully avoid much of the traffic and be able to get south of the Canadian using US 81. I turned us onto some residential streets and we threaded our way up to US 152, the tornado sirens wailing as embedded supercells within the storm complex approached our position from the northwest.
We turned left onto US 152 heading west. A mean, green core loomed off to the north, and sunny skies just to our south, with no road south to get to them. We raced west, trying to beat the storm complex to US 81 before it crossed 152. Along the way, we passed a wall cloud and clipped the trailing rear flanking downdraft behind it. We were momentarily blasted with wind and rain, bits of leaves swirled around us. It was a tense moment. Behind us, Nick Nolte was attempting to get west on 152 as well. Between us, a tree came down onto the highway, and Nolte was forced to divert around it using the unpaved grid.
We made it to 81 before the tail end storm in the complex hit. We turned south, finally heading toward sunny skies as the anvil and gust front of the complex surged southward, covering the sky like a dark blanket. We immediately hit traffic again. It seemed that everyone within the path of these storms was trying to get south. Unbeknownst to us, Mike Morgan, a local TV meteorologist, had warned residents in the path of the El Reno tornado to get out of its way by heading south. Word quickly spread, and a mass evacuation was underway with thousands of people attempting to flee south using the few river crossings. The resulting traffic jams trapped thousands in the paths of tornado warned supercells.
We crept along in bumper to bumper traffic for many minutes as the tail end storm approached our position. A thick line of trees prevented us from seeing the structure to the west, which was probably a good thing, as a wall cloud was approaching our position. Overhead, shards of cumulus surged rapidly to the southeast. I was convinced that the complex was gusting out with massive amounts of outflow, and that the tornado threat was minimal, despite the active tornado warning. The reasoning kept us calm as we waited to cross the river, but was not entirely accurate.
Looking southeast at the surging gust front of the storm complex:
We were finally across the river. Police cars sat atop the bridge, blocking the northbound lane, and apparently that was part of the snag, along with the massive amount of traffic backing up in the town of Minco. In Minco, the heavy traffic continued. I could see something looming off to our west between the buildings, a low cloud mass. We had a road grid again, so we turned east out of town and headed for the unpaved grid to get away from the traffic and viewing obstructions in the town.
East of Minco, we had a view of what had been approaching our position while we were trapped in traffic: a wall cloud. We would have been quite a bit more alarmed had we been able to see it coming. Safely on the open road grid now though, we stopped for a few minutes to watch it.
A tail cloud started to form on the northern end of the wall cloud. Rows of cumulus screamed west overhead into the storm’s base, while layers above that moved north. It was dizzying to watch, and the winds started to pick up, rocking the van.
The gust front approaching our position, we decided to keep moving south so as to not get run over. We passed a wind farm along the way, the blades spinning like mad in the strong winds, with a dark and ominous stormscape in the background. It was a creepy, unnerving sight.
South of the core once more, we stopped again to watch it and figure out where Nolte was. A few locals had also figured out that they could avoid the traffic on US 81 by using the unpaved road grid, and we were seeing more and more vehicles starting to come down the dusty road. A couple of them stopped to ask for information and instructions. One told me that he had been told to simply drive south, and was wondering how far south he should go. He had no idea where he was going or whether he was safe. Since the storm complex was still moving southeast toward us, I told him to keep heading south until he was clear of its path, and we eventually did the same.
Approaching Chickasha, it looked like we were finally clear of the storm complex’s path. We went at lengths to avoid the town and any paved roads near it, fearing gridlocked traffic. We decided to start snaking our way east, the long way around Oklahoma City and the storm complex to start heading in the direction of home. We passed over I-44 on a bridge to see an amazing sight. The southbound lanes of the interstate were completely gridlocked, jammed with cars all trying to flee south. The northbound lanes were deserted. The scene reminded me of a hurricane evacuation route or an apocalypse movie. Similar scenes occurred on I-35, I-240, and Route 4.
Looking north at I-44:
We stair stepped our way along the dirt and gravel roads east and south. The anvil and gust front ever surging further and further south. We never made it to the sunny skies to the south. The dark blanket overhead stayed above us until nightfall as the last bit of twilight faded on the southern horizon.
We finally caught up with an east west paved highway. A dilapidated, grungy little gas station and convenience mart sat at the corner and we pulled in to refuel. The owner and clerk inside were colorful country characters, slightly distrustful or amused to see storm chasers. While we were gassing up and getting a couple snacks from the store, a pickup truck also pulled into the gas station. Out spilled seven people crammed into the truck, an entire family that was trying to avoid the tornadoes. Their dog had vomited in the back of the cab, and they were forced to ride in extreme discomfort as they fled south. The family was frazzled, stressed out from their escape, trying to cope with the current situation, and worried about their home back in Tuttle. They had nothing with them but themselves, and gathered survival supplies at the gas station, which had become almost a place of refuge for them. It was heart breaking to watch, and made Brindley and I realize what these people go through when dealing with the violent weather that frequents the region.
We passed on what little information we had to the family and were rolling east once more. Every west and southbound highway that we came upon was lined with evacuating traffic, now hours after the initial tornado warnings had been issued.
With so many displaced residents, we figured that we wouldn’t be able to get a room anywhere south of Oklahoma City and would probably wind up camping in the van. Brindley started making calls, and after several attempts we were able to reserve a room at a mom and pop motel on the north side of Shawnee. We turned north once we were southeast of Oklahoma City, not wanting to chance I-35 N since Nolte reported back to us that it was blocked. Heading toward Shawnee, we approached the storm complex once more. Terrific amounts of cloud to ground lightning arced out of the storm, and we slowed our north progression so as not to drive into the storm complex. The tornado warnings had been dropped at this point, but we weren’t going to take any chances.
The motel was a grubby hole in the wall. We got the last room. Our smoke detector chirped for a new battery. We were so happy to just have a room, however, and not be crammed into the van all night. Outside, the storm complex streamed past to the north, raging with lightning and thunder. We got all of our stuff from the van into the room before torrential rain hit.
The next morning, Brindley and I awoke refreshed and recuperated from our frayed nerves and the stressful chase. We began our long trek home, stopping in Rolla, MO to celebrate our first real tornado intercept of the year with a steak dinner. We were just starting to hear reports that chasers were hit by the tornado, including Brandon Sullivan and Brett Wright and a crew from the Weather Channel. Details were few though, and we had no idea about any deaths yet.
Brindley spent the night at my place in Springfield. A little after midnight, I had just settled down with my wife Jenny to go to bed, when Brindley got the call from Tony Laubach. Jenny and I found Brindley balled up on the driveway a short time later and she delivered the crushing news that Tim, Paul, and Carl had been killed. The words were devastating and heart breaking, and even more so seeing their impact on Brindley. We stayed up much of the night in shock and disbelief that it could have happened to them, some of the most experienced chasers in the field. The news slowly sank in though as more details emerged on Facebook through the course of the night, and then grief as Brindley and I realized that some of the people we respected and admired the most, were gone.
The track and damage path of the El Reno tornado, as measured by mobile radar.
Our location and the location of the tornado, just prior to us taking our escape route east away from the approaching tornado. The intense core of the tornado, marked visually by a large cone shaped condensation funnel, is represented by the shaded area in red. A tornadic wind field extended much further out from the funnel, however, shaded in blue. Courtesy Gabe Garfield.
A perspective view of the Oklahoma City WSR-88D base reflectivity scan at the time of the El Reno tornado, with map and damage path overlays.
El Reno will forever be remembered by the chase community as one of the most dangerous and infamous chase events to ever occur. Prior to May 31, 2013 no storm chaser had ever been killed by a tornado that they were pursuing. That Tim, Paul, and Carl were among the first to be killed on a chase by a tornado, was shocking and unbelievable. Additionally, a local chaser with limited experience, Richard Henderson, was also killed by the tornado, and 8 fatalities in total were directly attributed to the tornado. The El Reno tornado also stands out as being the widest tornado on record, with a radar measured width of 2.6 miles. With mobile radars measuring wind speeds close to 300 mph, the tornado was initially given a rating of EF5 by the Norman, OK weather office. Current policy at the National Weather Service, however, dictates that a tornado must be rated based off the damage it creates. The El Reno tornado stayed over mostly open terrain and impacted few buildings. Based on the most significant damage that could be found, the tornado’s rating was later downgraded to EF3, sparking a large amount of debate in the weather community. Further debate and sharp criticism was also directed toward local media for directing residents to flee the storm south in their vehicles. While intentions were good, the resulting traffic jams could have resulted in large numbers of fatalities had a violent tornado impacted one of the ensnarled river crossing. The storm chaser deaths from this event were not the only incidents. Numerous other chasers were impacted by the tornado resulting in injuries and damage to vehicles. Many chasers attempted escape routes that crossed the tornado’s path, took their escape routes too late, or did not have situational awareness while chasing, which resulted in them being impacted by the record sized, erratically moving tornado. Extensive research and safety practices need to be developed using this event as an example to prevent future storm chasing incidents and deaths.
Personally, this event is one of my most loathed chases despite the many awe inspiring aspects of the tornado and supercell. The chase itself was stressful and nerve racking, as we had to take an escape route twice, while encountering nightmarish amounts of traffic. The tornado was often obscured and not very photogenic. However, the news of the deaths afterwards was by far the worst part and will forever mar this event and mark it as the first to kill chasers. The evacuating residents of OKC make chasing near that city extremely dangerous. As a result, I’ve vowed to never chase within a county of Oklahoma City again. It’s too dangerous, and many deaths will result the next time a tornado impacts fleeing traffic near that city.
- Never take an escape route that crosses the tornado's path.
- Keep ample spacing between yourself and the tornado producing region of the supercell.
- Take your escape route immediately upon recognition that you are within the path of a tornado or have lost situational awareness.
- Do not chase near Oklahoma City.