November 17, 2013


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Bloomington, IL
Springfield, IL 10:13 AM 11/17/2013
Springfield, IL 5:49 PM 11/17/2013
Lincoln, IL Gifford, IL
0 mph
Rain Wrapped Wedge Tornado, Wall Cloud


Late season, extreme shear, modest instability cold front setup across Illinois. Targeted Bloomington, IL for noon initiation of fast moving, low topped tornadic supercells. Split between Washington/Peoria and Lincoln cells. Targeted Lincoln cell noting wall cloud until fell behind HP transitioning supercell near Bloomington. Retargeted SE to cell moving toward Gifford, noting rain wrapped wedge. Encountered damage path and called ambulance for injured resident.

Crew and Equipment

Solo chase. Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony HDR-xr500v..




November 17 was forecast well in advance to be a severe weather outbreak. A negatively tilted trough with a 110 knot midlevel jet was forecast to eject over Illinois with a cold front at the surface sweeping east into Indiana during the day. An 80 knot low level jet was also forecast over the warm sector. The shear profiles were extreme and featured huge curving hodographs. Instability was modest, but 1000 J/Kg of forecast CAPE is more than enough with the dynamic forcing. Storms ahead of the front looked to be discrete supercells capable of potentially violent, long track tornadoes. I had some reservations about the setup, however. If storms couldn’t get off the cold front, they could be undercut by it, and cloud cover and convection in the warm sector could limit instability or choke off updrafts. Storm speeds were also going to be excessive, making keeping up with storms impossible. Northeast motions greater than 60 mph were possible, forcing chasers to setup well downstream and do point intercepts before letting the storm go. The Storm Prediction Center was well on top of the event, having highlighted it on the Day 7 outlook and issuing a high risk for a tornado outbreak the morning of the event.
Expecting an early show with a wide open cap and the upper level forcing already in place by morning, I prepped the van for one last chase of the year on the night before the event. After getting my laptop wired up, the software running, and monitors connected, I stepped out to watch the sky. It was nearly midnight, but the temperature was rising, becoming uncharacteristically warm and muggy for the time of year and the time of day. The low level jet was kicking in already. A layer of cumulus was screaming across the sky, moving so it fast it appeared as if it were time lapsed. A pale yellow moon shone above the clouds casting an eerie light and glare in the haze of the moist boundary layer. It was a surreal, unnatural scene. It was a bad omen with creepy vibes.

Distant Towers
3 miles SSW of Shirley, IL
10:15 AM
For once I was waking up at my house and in the target instead of having to drive hundreds of miles to some far off target, but I still had to get up early in the morning. Over a quick breakfast I checked the radar and satellite. Storms were already firing in Missouri and moving into Illinois. Clearing in the warm sector across Illinois meant that more than enough instability would be available for storms. Combined with the extreme shear profiles, this was quickly turning into a dangerous situation. The high res models were highlighting an area from Peoria to Kankakee to Champaign and then into Indiana. I decided to get a little downstream and picked an initial target of Bloomington, IL. With lines of low topped storms racing northeast across western Illinois I left the house just after 10am, heading north up I-55. I could see the storms building to my west, stunted anvils from lines of low topped storms. They looked rather multicellular and linear on the radar so I wasn’t in any sort of hurry to intercept them quite yet. It would take time for them to organize, and I hoped to catch something more discrete ahead of these lines. I stopped on the southwest side of Bloomington to gas up and hone in on a target. The clouds were low overhead and racing north with the low level jet.

Inflow Tail
2 miles NNW of Lincoln, IL
11:10 AM
Storms were starting to get their acts together quickly by late morning. A discrete, but small supercell was taking shape south of Peoria and another was forming west of Springfield tracking toward Lincoln. The question was which one to pick. I was almost due east of the cell heading for Peoria, which meant I could quickly fall behind it trying to catch it heading northeast. Because of the storm motion I decided on the cell tracking toward Lincoln. I headed back south down I-55, the way I had come for the intercept. Soon after my departure, the Peoria storm took shape, forming a perfect hook echo with ball at the end. The storm was beginning to produce the Washington, IL EF4 and would become the storm of the day. I had committed to this other storm now though, and could do nothing but watch this cell head toward Washington as tornado reports streamed in. My storm didn’t look terrible, however. It too was trying to hook and was now tornado warned. Given the storm motions would be too fast to keep up with the cells, I figured that I would have one shot at catching a tornado on this chase: as soon as the base came into view. If there wasn’t already a tornado in progress I would have no chance of catching one as the storm would leave me in the dust, rocketing off to the northeast. As I rounded Lincoln, the horizon darked to the west and a thick inflow tail extended off to the north, feeding into the base of the storm.

Wall Cloud
3 miles W of Lincoln, IL
11:14 AM
I got off the interstate on the west side of Lincoln and headed due west for the interstate. The base quickly came into view and underneath a nice wall cloud with tail cloud. My heart immediately sank. Normally I’d be quite excited to see such supercell structure, but here I knew that since there was no tornado in progress, I’d more than likely be going home not seeing any while my friends to the north were making tornado reports on Spotter Network.

Stair Stepping
6 miles WNW of Lincoln, IL
11:16 AM
I immediately started stair stepping on the road grid heading north and east, trying my best to stay ahead of the storm for as long as I could. There was quite a bit of low level rotation in the base of the storm, and I was still hopeful I might yet catch the tornado show as the wall cloud looked quite healthy.

New Lowering
4 miles NNW of Lincoln, IL
11:23 AM
A new lowering started to form to the northeast. The storm was either cycling or starting to gust out.

Robust Lowering
6 miles WSW of Atlanta, IL
11:28 AM
I raced to keep up as a robust lowering developed under the still tornado warned supercell. Anywhere else in the plains, and I would have not been able to keep my position at these storm speeds. However, the entire grid in Illinois is paved, allowing for much faster speeds than the gravel and dirt roads out west.

Storm Pulling Ahead
5 miles WSW of McLean, IL
11:36 AM
North and east, and then north and east again, I was flying down the roads, occasionally dipping into the rear flanking precipitation core of the supercell in order to make my next road. The storm was pulling away from me, however. Despite the paved grid and my lead foot, I could not keep up and the updraft base was pulling away to the northeast.

Going HP
4 miles NNW of McLean, IL
11:45 AM
The storm was also transitioning into a high precipitation state. In addition to falling behind the storm, my view was being cut off by rain in the green core of the storm.

3 miles SW of Shirley, IL
11:50 AM
I had lost my position on the storm, and approaching Bloomington, I decided that it was time to bail on the storm and find a new target. More storms had gone up in a solid cluster to the southwest of the supercell I was chasing and they were rapidly approaching my position from the west. The core of the supercell I was chasing can be seen here in the background, but another core was encroaching from the west, is visible on the left side of the image.

I try hard to not get run over by storms, especially when I don’t have visibility and when the parameters support tornado outbreaks. I was caught within the core of the flanking line cells as I maneuvered around a town, however. I was hit by blasts of wind and sheets of rain. The fallen leaves whirled in the air and were swept upwards, not a sight I wanted to see. I was worried I might be encountering a rain wrapped circulation within the line of storms. I made it out to clear air in a couple minutes heading east, but it was a tense couple of minutes.

Behind the Storm
3 miles WNW of Mansfield, IL
12:27 PM
Another small, but discrete storm was coming up from the southwest, north of Decatur. It was moving so fast that I would have to give it everything I had heading east if I had a chance at intercepting it. I got on 74 south for a few miles and then started racing east on the road grid. The storm rapidly organized with a nice hook echo and picked up a tornado warning. Through the rain from adjacent cells, the back end of the storm emerged. It was almost east of me now and I was still several miles behind it. I started frantically stair stepping north and east again trying to head it off. Bright white streaks of precipitation fell along the back side of the storm, masking the updraft base and what was occurring underneath it.

Hook Slicing
2 miles NNE of Mansfield, IL
12:31 PM
A black Jetta was following me, which turned out to be Matt Phelps and crew, but they gave up the frantic intercept in favor of another storm to the south. I got almost even with the forward flank of the storm and decided to make for an intercept heading due east into the back end of the storm, a maneuver known as hook slicing. Hook slicing can be extremely dangerous since it’s possible to drive into the back of a tornado in the process. If I timed this correctly, however, the potential tornado would cross the road well ahead of me, and I planned on stopping short if visibility became an issue or I lost my situational awareness. I punched into the streaky white bands on the backside of the storm expecting some hail, but only got blasted by wind and rain.

A Dark Shape
3 miles SE of Rantoul, IL
12:52 PM
Visibility dropped and I had no view of any storm structure. My radar scan indicated the hook was still to my east, however so I pressed on into the driving rain. A few miles in, I could start to see the base, low to the ground and low contrast. A dark shape loomed underneath, a large wall cloud?

3 miles SE of Rantoul, IL
12:53 PM
The shape churned rapidly, the motion was tornadic. If this was a tornado, it would be a wedge, a tornado wider than it is tall. A layer of fog on the ground made it falsely appear as though there was a gap underneath it, but it was indeed a very large condensation funnel extending all the way to the ground. I stepped up my speed, racing toward the shape, hoping to get closer and get a better view of it.

Invisible Tornado
4 miles SE of Rantoul, IL
12:53 PM
Always the skeptic, and before I could be entirely sure I was watching a large wedge tornado, it raced northeast off into the rainy core of the supercell, becoming invisible from my position. It had crossed the road though and I was out of its path, so I continued racing east hoping to get my view back.

Green Flash
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
12:53 PM
I was buried in the precipitation of the hook. Up ahead I saw a green flash.

Power Flashes
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
12:53 PM
There was another moments later. The first thing that popped into my head was that I was approaching an airport and seeing the rotating beacon light. I waited for the third flash, but there was none. I quickly realized I had seen power flashes. The power lines were being taken down by wind up ahead.

Damage Path and Deer
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
12:54 PM
Soon afterwards I started to see damage: a buckled guard rail and signs down, strips of dirt strewn northeast across the road. I was coming into a damage path, and my suspicions were confirmed. That was indeed a tornado I had seen cross the road ahead of me. A house came into view. Visibility was poor in the rear flanking precipitation, but I could tell that it was damaged. The trees were stripped with broken limbs. My attention was fixed on the upcoming damage. A young deer stumbled out into the middle of the road, walking slowly in front of my van. I saw him just in time, hitting the brakes. I almost hit him in the rear, but he cleared the van and scampered away into the field.

Stop to Help
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
12:54 PM
A power pole had been snapped at the base and lay across the road blocking my way. The house was badly damaged. The roof was gone, the windows and doors had been blown out. There appeared to be structural damage to other parts. I would have to check to see if anyone inside needed help.

I rarely find myself in this position, since I usually go at lengths to avoid damage paths or stay ahead of the tornado as I’m not trained to act as a first responder. I had stumbled into this damage path, however, and was the first on the scene and felt obligated to make sure everyone was alright.

I parked the van in the road, got out and started running toward the house. The front door had been blown away so I stepped inside and into what looked like it had been a kitchen, but the floor was now piles of debris. Up ahead everything in the house had been turned upside down or was buried under rubble. There was no roof and the storm raged inside the house with wind and rain. I spotted someone emerging from the rubble, stooped over. An irrational thought popped into my head and most likely because I had never been in this situation or seen anything like it, but I immediately thought that this is what this building always looked like, and somebody was living among these ruins like a disheveled, homeless s squatter. I quickly snapped out of it and realized, no this is somebody’s home and this person had just been through a tornado and needed help. I stepped over the piles of debris and found a woman who appeared to be shaken, but otherwise did not appear to have any immediately obvious injuries. It was difficult to tell, however, since she had been blasted by debris and dirt in the storm. I asked if she was alright, but got a quiet or incoherent reply. She could walk and her house was no longer in a safe condition or providing any shelter from the still raging storm, so I decided to walk her over to the van where we would figure out what to do next. We stepped out through her side door, which had also been blow out and I guided her across the front yard toward the van, careful to walk around the power lines that were draped across the ground. We got blasted by RFD heading to the van, and I was completely soaked through by the time I got back inside.

Waiting for Help
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
1:25 PM
A neighbor in a pickup pulled up. He lived just down the road and had been baking some pies when he looked out the window and saw the tornado. After it passed he went to check on his neighbors and found us. The woman had seemed alright, but she told us her head hurt. Suspecting a head injury, we called for an ambulance. I gave the 911 dispatcher the address, but they seemed quite busy. The tornado had directly hit the town of Gifford. We called for relatives and left messages and then waited for to help arrive.

Help Arrives
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
1:28 PM
We waited for quite a while, and finally two police cars and a truck from the fire department showed up, but no ambulance. The officers were helpful and tended to the woman though. The fast moving storms had raced off into Indiana, and the cold front had pushed through with sunny skies and a cold west wind. We sat in the van with the heat on. A relative arrived to take the woman to the hospital. A stream of cars filed past, driving around the downed power pole in the grass. They appeared to be locals stopping to gawk at the damage.

Damaged House
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
1:51 PM
I shot a couple pictures of the damage before I left.

House Close Up
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
1:51 PM

Downed Pole
4 miles ESE of Rantoul, IL
1:51 PM
The downed power pole and local traffic driving around it.

I left the scene and headed for home under sunny afternoon skies. I was completely soaked still. One of the best parts of the chase was getting home and being able to peel off my wet clothes and put something warm and dry on. The frantic chase and events afterwards had left me a little dazed.


This event turned out to be one of the biggest and most damaging outbreaks of the year. Over 90 tornado reports came in across Illinois and Indiana, and adjacent states. Tragically there were 8 fatalities. The cell that tracked through Peoria and Washington spawned the largest tornado of the event, a deadly EF4 and another EF4 occurred elsewhere. The Gifford tornado was rated EF3 and caused several injuries but luckily no deaths despite the town taking a direct hit. I was able to capture the tornado in my video, but it was difficult to see or confirm at the time. Combined with the frantic, stressful chase and the heart breaking encounter with an injured resident in her destroyed house, this was not an enjoyable chase. This encounter and dealing with the disaster situation has not negatively impacted my views on chasing. I realize that this is what tornadoes do, and people get caught in their path, and I have no impact on that by chasing these storms. It’s motivated me to take steps to getting first aid or first responder training though. Unfortunately a storm chaser was again impacted by a tornado on this event. Near Tuscola, a chaser attempting to shelter their vehicle from hail under an overpass was impacted by a rain wrapped tornado, but luckily escaped injury or serious damage. Adam Lucio, Nick Nolte, and Jon Williamson got some of the shots of the day on the Washington, IL storm. Adam was able to deliver a check from Storm Assist to the town of Washington to aid in their rebuilding.

Lessons Learned

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