May 25, 2011


Initial Target: Sykeston, MO
Departure: Westchester, IL 8:30 am
Arrival: Westchester, IL 1:45 am
Intercepts: None
Tornadoes: 0
Hail: None
Wind: Non-Severe (not measured)
Features: Mesocyclone
Miles: 935


Strongly sheared, high risk warm sector setup across southeast Missouri. Chased with Jennifer Brindley targeting Missouri Bootheel which had a strong instability shear combination and chaseable terrain. Deviated west from target as storms initiated over south central MO, heading to Fredrickstown and then south toward tornado warned storm. Did not attempt core punch from north as storm crossed highway, but noted tornado debris path after storm crossed highway. Hills and trees prevented view of base of storm, but rapidly rotating, white base was visible. Headed back to Fredricksburg to get ahead of storms, but storms lined out so headed south to original target in MO bootheel catching storms coming out of NW AR. Attempted core punch on severe warned supercell, but exit ramp was blocked by trucks and highway closed due to flooding. Lost side mirror attempting to pass spooked truck driver before calling it a chase and nearly running out of gas on the way home.

Crew and Equipment:

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley.  Equipment:  Kenwood TH-F6A Tribander, Dell Inspiron Laptop.  Millenicom 760 USB datacard and cradlepoint router, Holux 236 GPS, Robotic camera dome with Sony XR-520V. Canon 60D and EF-S 10-22mm

Photography courtesy: Jennifer Brindley



May 24 was one of the biggest chase days of the year with a tornado outbreak across Oklahoma and Kansas, and I missed it due to work obligations.  Wednesday, May 25, the same system was taking aim at the Mississippi river valley with much of the same dynamics.  I didn't want to miss another potential outbreak and this one was much closer to home, so I was able to get out of work for a day. 

Jennifer Brindley, the pro photographer, was free so we teamed up for the chase.  The setup called for a very moist, strongly destabilized warm sector extending through eastern MO and into IL.  A nearly stacked surface low was forecast to move over Kansas City with a very strong jet streak rounding the base of the trough and ejecting over the Mississippi valley.  Speed shear was going to be incredibly strong, but I was worried that directional shear might be a little lacking with the unidrectional wind profiles that stacked lows usually create.  We could potentially be chasing quasi linear complexes racing at 60 mph through the bad terrain of Missouri.  Forecast helicity was also very high, however, so SPC was forecasting multiple lines of discrete tornadic supercells, issuing a high risk for a potential tornado outbreak.

The Missouri boot heel is flat and treeless and was favorably positioned within the target area, so we targeted SIkeston and points south to intercept one of the lines of supercells that moving through, hoping to let them go at the Mississippi and catch the next line.  Brindley and I headed out from my place early, making our way down 55 toward St. Louis, and then turning southeast on the west side of the river.  We got a text from Jon Williamson, chasing with Adam Lucio, trying to sell us on the northern end of the target up by the warm front.  I didn't want to get caught in the St. Louis metro area, on the river, or in the bad terrain of western IL, and we had an EHI bullseye to work with further south so we stuck to our guns.  We stopped for gas and fast food in Perryville before continuing on.  The skies were soupy and hazy with lots of low cumulus that signaled deep, rich moisture, but in typical high risk setup fashion, often makes for grungy, ground scraping, low contrast storms.

Stopping for gas on the way to our target, Brindley caught some robins nesting on top of a gas pump:


Right by some busy gas pumps, it didn't seem like a very good place to build a nest, but it made for some easy wildlife shots.

A line of cells started to initiate well west of our original target with dozens of little blips appearing on radar.  I didn't want to head into the jungles of south central Missouri, but it would be hours before the lines pushed east into the better terrain, and I figured we could just drop off the line and head east into the better terrain later, so why not make a play now?  Storms organized fairly rapidly and tornado warnings started to pop up across south central MO.  We exited 55 at Fruitland, making for Jackson, heading northeast on highway 72 toward the line.  The cumulus around us was also towering and we drove through a few showers.  Our highway twisted and winded and it took much longer to make up the straight line distance to the storms than if we were on a straight interstate.

As we headed into Fredrickstown, a cell well to the south went tornado warned and the warning polygon extended all the way up to our position.  The sirens started to wail even though the storm was not yet visible except for a darkening southern horizon.  We tried to get through town as quickly as possible with sporadic traffic driving erratically as the sirens sounded.


We were a good 30 miles from an intercept still and coming up on a quarter tank of gas.  I decided we better get gas now instead of hitting E later on just as we were in the middle of our chase.  We pulled into a Meijer with a gas station.  The locals were going about their regular business despite the sirens sounding and the approaching storm, which was becoming more and more obvious as the horizon darkened.
I hadn't setup the camera dome yet, and while i was securing the video camera to the servo motors, one of the locals recognized us as chasers and asked us if it was going to be bad.  It perturbs me to see this kind of complacency.  A life threatening situation may be just minutes away and these people just shrug it off and continue filling their five gallon gas containers for their lawn mowers.  It was mere days from one of the deadliest tornadoes in decades, which had occurred in the same state as well.  If that's not going to put the fear back into people, what will?
I bluntly told him there was a tornado a few miles to the south, and it was moving this way.  It wasn't a lie.  Brindley snapped this priceless reaction as one of her "local's portraits":

Spotter Network reports started to come in from the south so I knew we were missing something.  Given that this was forecast to be a large scale tornado outbreak, however, I hoped there would be more tubes to catch later.  We finished up our race car style pit stop and were back on the highway, heading south out of Fredricktown for the intercept.  We had a nice four lane highway to make good time getting down there, however there were very tall hills lined with trees on either side of the highway: not a welcome sight.  It took us an agonizingly long time to clear the 20 mile gap between Fredricktown and the storm after hitting a construction zone.  Our tornado warned storm was already crossing the highway to our south. 

In order to get a view of a potential tornado, we’d have to core punch.  Brindley and I had a few too many close calls this year with tornadoes emerging through the rain or coming over the tops of hills and trees, so we stopped on the northern flank of the storm’s precipitation core.  I turned the van around and we pulled into a driveway to let the core of the storm pass by to our south.  Once the most dangerous parts of the storm had moved east past the highway, we headed south again, hoping to catch a view on the back side of the storm or pick up an east road to follow from the south. 


Along the way we could make out the back end of the storm. There was a massive, white bowl, churning rapidly on the back end. The motion was tornadic, and I suspected there might be something on the ground underneath it, however, due to the trees and hills I had no view under the base.
A couple miles south of where we stopped we came upon a debris path.  Road construction signs and decent sized tree limbs were strewn about the highway along with smaller debris in a narrow path.  A tornado had crossed here. 
Had we attempted the core punch, would we have seen the tornado and gotten a decent shot of it, or would we come out of the core and realize it was too late for us to get out of the way as the tornado emerged from the rain and came over the top of a hill right on top of us?  I was glad we had waited. 
Highway 34 looked like a decent way to keep up with the storm.  The exits were closed due to the road construction, however.  We lost our one east road, and the next one was all the way up in Fredericktown.  We turned around and headed back the way we came. 
Approaching a bowing out RFD clear slot after our east road option was closed and we were forced to go north past the back end of the storm:
The storm bows out overhead:

Our storm lined out before we could ever get out ahead of it.  I made a vain attempt at some cells to our north but those too quickly lined out.  There were discrete cells coming out of northwest Arkansas so I decided it was finally time to make a play on our original target.  We winded our way through the Missouri roads back to I-55 south making for the boot heel where we could get storms in the flat, treeless river floodplain.

South of Sikeston we found ourselves in a similar position as before, coming in from the north as a supercell crossed the road ahead of us.  As the storm hadn’t produced any tornadoes, and this would probably be our last intercept of the day before the cell crossed the Mississippi, we tried to play a little more aggressively.  We exited near Matthews, planning to head east toward East Prairie as the storm moved northeast, putting us out ahead of the updraft base. 

We had just made it into the storm’s core, however, and the traffic was backed up.    Semis were stopped on the side of the interstate, underneath the overpass (one of the more deadly choices for shelter from a tornado) and well ahead of it as there wasn’t room for everyone.  We exited but the off ramp was completely clogged with trucks that had stopped to ride out the storm, right in the middle of the core, while selfishly blocking traffic and trapping everyone on the ramp.  Driving rain and small hail hammered us, but I could see clear skies off to the west and north.  If the drivers simply turned west or turned around they would be fine. 
I layed on the horn but the trucks wouldn’t budge, parked on the right shoulder and on the ramp.  I had enough grass on the left to get around them though so I pulled out and started to creep past the semis.  I made it past the first one in the line, however, midway past the second, the driver abruptly pulled forward and moved left.  The trailer clipped the side of the van and with a loud ping the passenger side mirror broke, spiraling up and off the van.  I would have been furious and confronted the driver if the “Mudpuppy” weren’t on its lasts legs.  I had been calling it the “dead van driving” as we had put a few thousand miles on it since the wheel came off in Kearney, NE on May 11.  This was literally the last chase for the van, however, and instead of letting the incident ruin the rest of our day we pulled away from the cluster of idiot truckers and made for our original intercept point. 

The floodplains of the Missouri boot heel were indeed flooded from wave after wave of storms that had passed through the area this spring.  Barricades blocked our road, as portions of it were under water up ahead.  With our east road closed, our chase was over.  We had no way to catch the storm before it crossed the Mississippi, and it was the only storm within reach.

We turned around and got back on I-55 heading north and decided to take 57 for a more direct route home.  We stopped for gas before crossing the river, but our storm had passed through the area and the power was out, signs were knocked over, and small debris was scattered on the ground.

Back in Illinois, we clipped a neat looking gust front from some junky linear storms and got a couple of peeks at the sun through some rain curtains before stopping for dinner in Marion. 

The women working the KFC were thoroughly distracted when they found out we were chasers and by the storms that had passed through earlier, so it took forever to get our food.  I should have gotten gas while we were stopped, but it slipped my mind and then I didn’t notice the fuel gauge while chatting with Brindley on the way home. 
Zipping down I-57 at 75 mph, I finally glanced down at the gauge and saw that the needle was resting on the stop below the “E”  I expected the engine to just die immediately.  Brindley looked up the closest gas station which was only three miles to our south, but it was three miles to the next exit.  Could we make it another 9 miles with what I assumed was just fumes left in the tank?  I drove slow and rolled the stops once we were off the highway, trying to save the last bit of gas.  We made it to the station only to find that it was closed.  The lights were out and there was one car sitting in the lot.  It was the owner and he was just getting done closing up, after the power had knocked out his registers earlier.  We pleaded to have him turn the pumps back on, but he said couldn’t until the system reset.  Desperate we asked if he had any spare tanks at the station or if there were any locals nearby he knew who did.  He didn’t so Brindley and I started making plans to limp toward Effingham while calling AAA, knowing we’d run out of gas somewhere along the way.  The gas station owner sympathized with us though, and offered to have us follow him to the next gas station, ten miles away, where his wife was working.  If we ran out of gas along the way he’d drive us ahead to pick up a gas container. 
Miraculously we made it all the way to the next gas station without the engine dying.  There must be quite a bit more gas in the tank than what’s indicated as empty.  We thanked the guy who went out of his way for us and we were back on the road.  The rest of the drive was uneventful and we made it back to my place by a quarter to two.

We were close to scoring a tornado on this chase, but the timing and terrain was off and we couldn’t pull it off.  This was a missed tornado bust.  It’s disheartening being so close and not having a view of anything, but that’s how chasing goes sometimes, especially when you try to tangle with the jungles of Missouri.  Several other chasers including Nick Nolte and Mike Brady were positioned south of us and were able to get decent views of the tornadoes through the hills.  The storms over the boot heel at our original target were largely quiet in the way of tornadoes, however.


Lessons Learned: 

  • Be careful passing storm spooked drivers

  • Don’t neglect the fuel gauge