April 27, 2014


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Joplin, MO
Oklahoma City, OK 9:04 AM 4/27/2014
Heber Springs, AR 10:06 PM 4/27/2014
Spiro, OK
0 mph
Wall Cloud


High risk, extreme shear setup across extreme eastern OK and Arkansas. Targeted dryline in sw MO where terrain is manageable, but retargeted e OK after seeing robust cumulus development by early afternoon. Intercepted small cell west of Spiro, OK noting developing wall cloud, but storm was choked under shadow of supercell anvil to the south. Moved into western AR to catch storms crossing I-40. Initially targeted tornado warned storm bowed out, so retargeted tornadic supercell tracking from Mayflower to Vilonia, AR. Couldn’t catch storm before it crossed highways, and wound up behind debris field and large amounts of traffic trying to get into disaster areas after dark. Called off chase and stayed in Heber Springs for the night after encountering flash flooding.

Crew and Equipment

Chase partners: Jennifer Brindley Ubl. Equipment: Canon 60D, Canon t2i, Canon EFS 10-22, Canon EF 50mm, Sony HDR-xr500v..




Our second day out on this trip, Sunday was looking like it would be the big day of our trip. A 90+ knot midlevel jet was ejecting over the southern plains with moderate instability. A dryline arced from central NE, down through eastern KS and OK, back into TX. Conditions looked favorable for tornadoes down the length of the dryline. Instability and shear combos were much better on the southern end. However, the terrain is significantly worse on the southern end in eastern OK, NE TX, and AR. Our targeting looked like it would rely on a compromise between picking the better parameters for storms and a spot where the terrain was still manageable for finding views. Our initial target was Joplin, MO, where there are still some decent views, and convective models had supercells tracking through the area by afternoon.

Morning Briefing
5 miles SSE of Oklahoma City, OK
9:00 AM
We packed up our stuff in Oklahoma City and tried to get on the road early. The cap was forecast to be wide open by noon, so we were anticipating an early storm initiation time, and we didn’t want to be west of the dryline when it happened. In the parking lot we bumped into James Seitz and Nick Scherber, a couple chasers from Minnesota we know. It’s a small world bumping into friends in random places and at random times across the huge expanses of the Great Plains. We chatted briefly about the day’s setup and yesterday’s chase before we all took off to get into position.

Morning Mammatus
5 miles SSE of Oklahoma City, OK
9:01 AM
The dryline lit up early, even earlier than I thought. Hail had awoken us in our hotel room and we carried our gear outside, rows of mammatus stretched overhead: a promising start to the day, and one that made us anxious to get on the road as I was worried these storms might evolve into the main show in a few hours.

Updraft Under Anvil Shadow
5 miles NE of Bokoshe, OK
5:44 PM
We headed up 44 through Tulsa, stopping for data and to get cameras ready. Missouri was socked in with junky rain showers and clouds. That part of the outlook area looked less and less favorable as the rain would keep bigger storms from forming later. There was a healthy looking cumulus field budding over southern OK and north Texas, however, with plenty of sunshine to create a strongly unstable airmass. We decided to divert south from our initial target and get downstream from the cumulus field, and catch a storm tracking into eastern Oklahoma. We stopped just shy of Siloam Springs, AR, the eastern most edge of anything chaseable terrain wise. A local stopped by to tells us about how he and his family had been in a trailer that got rolled by a tornado in January of 2008. Brindley snapped one of her local’s portrait as he told us the dramatic story.
The Storm Prediction Center upgraded to a high risk on the 3pm outlook, which got our attention. Over central Arkansas, the terrain is almost impossible to work with, and we decided to stick to our dryline play further west. As central Arkansas failed to clear out its junk cloud cover, and mediocre storms tracked through the area, I was sure that the high risk was going to bust.
Storms were firing on the Red River, and the area just to our west looked pretty quiet for the time being. It was late afternoon by now so we decided we better make a play on a storm before it got dark. We headed south toward Fort smith, AR to catch the northeast moving storms as they cross I-40, knowing we wouldn’t have much of a view, if any, off of the highway. Just west of Fort Smith, near Spiro, OK we caught a small cell that had a severe thunderstorm warning. We found a nice view and a small updraft base came into view with a developing wall cloud. The storm was shadowed underneath the anvil of a much larger storm to the south, however, so we knew it was probably get choked off. The structure was good while it lasted, and we didn’t want to give up our perch so we stayed with it.

Small Wall Cloud
5 miles NE of Bokoshe, OK
5:44 PM

Storm Evaporates
5 miles WSW of Spiro, OK
5:53 PM
The base drifted overhead as the storm shriveled up and died right before our eyes. To our dismay, the airmass had recovered close to our original target of Joplin, MO, storms fired, and one was now tornado warned. Our initial target had panned out after all. To the east, some rather junky storms were moving through central Arkansas under overcast skies. I wrongly thought they wouldn’t do much. The big cell that choked our first catch was still coming up from the south so we decided to move east down I-40 into Arkansas and catch the storm as it crossed the highway.

Approaching MCS
2 miles ENE of Heber Springs, AR
1:31 AM
We were delayed by traffic and lane closures as we went around Fort Smith, AR. Our targeted storm was bowing out and would have minimal tornado play. The southernmost cell in the cluster well to our east near Little Rock had rapidly organized, however. We watched in dismay as an exquisite hook echo appeared on the radar, indicating that a tornado was almost certainly in progress, well out of our reach, and tracking toward populated areas adjacent to Little Rock. We abandoned our bow echo and made a vain dash toward the monster tornadic supercell. We weren’t even close to catching the storm before it crossed I-40. We heard reports that it did significant damage as it crossed and the highway was shut down so we got off at Conway and tried to catch the storm crossing 64 near Vilonia. Emergency vehicles were already darting around on 40 as we left the interstate. Night fell and I knew our attempt to catch the storm on 64 was also in vain. Perhaps we’d have a view from the south though. We couldn’t even get close to Vilonia. Seemingly hundreds of cars were pouring into the area. Some chasers, gawking locals, or other we couldn’t tell where all the traffic was coming from, but it was apparent that Vilonia had taken a direct hit by a major tornado. We got caught in a long line of vehicles lumbering along at a slow speed and I pulled the plug on our chase. There was no chance of catching the storm and we were heading into a disaster area. I turned the van around and started heading toward the next north highway to try and go around the damage path. We had the windows down as we turned around and I could smell the tornado, the smell of debris, mulched vegetation, and natural gas, a sickening smell that means only devastation.
Heading north we decided to try and make Batesville for the night, but central Arkansas is treacherous at night in stormy weather. The roads were slick and twisted through the hills. Fog blanketed the road at times, but finally we came up to a bridge that had standing water across it. One of our colleagues nearly died driving across a flooded bridge, so we abandoned our route. I put the van in reverse and we turned around on the narrow highway. Luckily we had passed a plush Holiday Inn Express a few miles back so we decided to spend the few extra bucks than we normally would and just spend the night in the resort town of Heber Springs. We got some vegan burritos from Taco Bell and unwound with some drinks after a long, frustrating, disheartening and dangerous day. Turbulent clouds from an approaching MCS over the hotel:


This would hopefully be the worst bust of the season for us. It’s not just that we missed the tornado, but that our original target verified after we had abandoned it, that we missed the biggest tornadoes of the day, and instead only wound up in the heartache of the damage path with a dangerous drive toward our stop for the evening. The Mayflower to Vilonia tornado was rated EF4 with numerous fatalities. Views were minimal even for the chasers that were on it, due to the terrain and rain wrapping. Our experience chasing through the central and western Arkansas terrain was so dismal and dangerous that I’m certain will never chase the region again. The Joplin tornado that we missed was a small rope, but would have been a great catch for us. Across the region a few other tornadoes were reported but nothing too significant and the high risk area largely busted except for the EF4 which formed on the edge of it.

Lessons Learned

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