April 28, 2014


Initial Target
Storm Intercepts
Tupelo, MS
Heber Springs, AR 10:54 AM 4/28/2014
Fayette, AL 9:44 PM 4/28/2014
Tupelo, MS Hamilton, AL Millport, AL
60-80 mph
Tornado, Striations


Extreme shear warm sector play over MS/AL. Targeted Tupelo, MS for afternoon tornadic supercells. Intercepted significant tornado in Tupelo before escaping east to clear path and RFD. Watched tornado warned storm pass to west from Hamilton, AL and striated supercell north of Millport, AL. Encountered tree damage near Columbus, MS so back tracked to Fayette, AL for the evening.

Crew and Equipment

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



Photography Courtesy Jennifer Brindley Ubl



Our previous chase on April 27 was a debilitating bust, not only because we missed tornadoes, but because of the heartache knowing that lives were ruined in the event, which we got a bitter taste of coming into the edge of the damage path. Brindley and I were looking for redemption on April 28, but knew it was probably futile as the system pushed further east into bad terrain and populated areas where another disaster was possible. We had spent the night in northern Arkansas, and we had a couple of targets to pick from for April 28’s setup. The main play, where the jet was ejecting, was over the southern states of Mississippi and Alabama, referred to by chasers as “Dixie Alley”. A 90 knot midlevel jet was forecast to eject over a moderately unstable warm sector and storms were forecast to initiate in an uncapped airmass over Mississippi by early afternoon. Combined with an impressive low level jet providing ample speed and directional shear, numerous supercells and a tornado outbreak seemed possible, prompting the Storm Prediction Center to issue a high risk for tornadoes. The problem with this area from a chasing standpoint is the terrain, however. The region is filled with trees, making views of the horizon far and few between. I’ve generally avoided the region as a result, having never even visited the “Dixie Alley” states.

The secondary play looked to be underneath the upper level low pressure and surface low where modest instability but strong vertical velocities and vorticity would make for a decent tornado play, despite the modest thermodynamics. These storms can often be more photogenic, the cold air aloft free of haze and making for crisp, high contrast convection. The target was over the very favorable terrain of central Illinois and we’d be home in time for dinner if we played this target. It seemed like a no brainer initially: chasing more photogenic cells through easy terrain and much closer to home.

And yet we couldn’t bite on this target and opted for the much more difficult, dangerous even, play in the south. We needed at least six hours to make a target on the IA/IL border and the cap looked to be open fairly early. We were exhausted from our previous chase’s late end, and didn’t want to get up at the crack of the dawn. The southern play was forecast to be a little later and was much closer since we were already in Arkansas. The explosive mix of ingredients so close was alluring too.
We got off to a fairly late start, giving us little cushion to get to our target and headed east for Memphis across the Arkansas floodplain. Roads were wet from the training overnight cells, but luckily free of flooding. A turtle was in the road, a common sight in the south. He was in our lane as I came around a bend in the road. I only had enough time to acknowledge that it was a turtle, his head sticking up high, before the left tires rolled over him. The same exact thing happened the day before while en route to our target: a turtle, head up, facing the right side of the road got squashed by the van’s left tires. It breaks my heart to kill an animal, even if we can’t avoid it. I don’t believe in superstitions, but I couldn’t help but think it was a bad omen that we were in for another frustrating and heart wrenching day of disaster and mishap.

Traffic was heavy through Memphis going into northern Mississippi and I was worried that we were going to fall behind and miss the show. A “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch was issued for the southern states. Violent tornadoes were expected. Storms started to pop across west central Mississippi tracking northeast at a fast clip. We raced down highway 78 trying to head off a tornado warned cell tracking toward Tupelo.
A strong couplet was present on the radar’s velocity scans. A tornado was in progress or imminent as we approached Tupelo. We cut across the top of the forward flank of the supercell clipping some moderate rain. Fortunately for us and the safety of other motorists driving into the storm, the traffic seemed to clear. Hopefully people recognized the dangers of the situation and were getting off the roads and away from the storm.

First View
7 miles WNW of Tupelo, MS
2:38 PM
On the west side of Tupelo the storm’s base started to come into view. We took an exit and had a decent view to the south from the elevated position. A jagged gust front was moving northeast over the trees, portions appearing to extend toward the ground.

Wide Angle Tornado Warning
7 miles WNW of Tupelo, MS
2:39 PM
A wide angle shot showing a suspicious lowering in the center of the gust front, and the base of a thick tail cloud feeding into it from the right:

Developing Tornado
7 miles WNW of Tupelo, MS
2:39 PM
The lowering had rapid motion and, despite the trees blocking our view of the horizon, it appeared to be condensing down to the ground. We had a likely developing tornado. Several vortices spun up rapidly underneath the base, often the prelude to a much larger and significant tornado.

The supercell continued to track northeast, and we were losing our view as the gust front moved behind trees in the foreground and also from rain in the forward flank that was enveloping us. After a brief discussion we decided to continue east down the highway to maintain and improve our view. The highway dipped southeast which could keep us in front of the tornado producing part of the storm, but then the highway ran east. Provided that we could stay ahead of the gust front, we would have no problem staying ahead of it for an eastbound escape. We didn’t want to fall behind and risk crossing its path though, or have to find a place on the interstate to pull a U-Turn to escape west.

Carved Meso
3 miles NW of Tupelo, MS
2:46 PM
We ran east down the interstate. Thick trees on the south side of the highway blocked our view of the base and what was happening underneath. Above it, however, we could see the blue green core of the rear flanking downdraft carving out the mesocyclone. Any tornado would likely be located at the center of this, but we had no visual. We could use the structure to visually verify our proximity though.

A school bus was parked under an overpass on the highway, an extremely dangerous location and a potentially deadly mistake. I don’t know if there were kids on board and the bus was clear of the tornado’s path, but the driver almost certainly did not know this, and the tornado could have easily turned.

The Wedge
3 miles NNW of Tupelo, MS
2:47 PM
There’s an interchange connecting the two main highways running through Tupelo, and that’s where we finally got our view. The wide expanse of connecting highways was clear of trees and elevated. We stopped on the wide shoulder of the bridge overlooking the interchange. I got out and immediately found myself staring at a massive, violent looking tornado. The tornado cyclone was so low to the ground and the region partially wrapped in rain, so that the fat, squat cone appeared initially as a wedge tornado. Brindley and I were simultaneously stunned at the sight. I called for the tornado’s motion while fixing the cameras on it. The inflow winds were howling into the tornado and we had to yell to be heard over them. Brindley shouted that she thought it was heading to the right, which would mean we were clear of the path.

In The Path
3 miles NNW of Tupelo, MS
2:47 PM
The tornado wasn’t moving to the right though. We were oblivious to it at the time, but in the foreground of this photo a black SUV can be seen exiting 78 east toward southbound 45. The driver, a storm chaser, had no direct view of the tornado itself, just an indication of its location from the spiraling structure above it. Despite having ample time to escape, the chaser incorrectly decided that he was about to be unavoidably overtaken by the tornado and attempted to shelter within his vehicle. He drove off the road into a low spot between the ramps and waited out the tornado. The core of the circulation passed to his east, but his windows were blown out by the tornadic wind field. He’s very fortunate to have escaped the incident without injury or worse.

The view above the tornado was awe inspiring. The RFD wrapped around the tornado cyclone, exposing the blue green colors above the white parent cloud mass of the tornado. Tendrils of cloud whipped around the edge of the cyclone marking the perimeter of the “bear’s cage.” Watching its motion, it quickly became very obvious that we were indeed not clear of the path. The huge spinning tornado cyclone, the parent structure of the funnel cloud, was beginning to move overhead, and we appeared to be immediately downstream of the center of rotation.

3 miles NNW of Tupelo, MS
2:47 PM
Immediately upon this realization, we jumped into the van and executed our eastbound escape route. It was 50 seconds between our departure and when the chaser sheltering in his vehicle had his windows blown out. Brindley snapped photos out the side window looking behind us as we started to roll. There was a frightening amount of traffic on 45 in the immediate path of the tornado. Some of the northbound drivers may have cleared the path without incident, but several in this photo were likely impacted by the tornado. In the distance, an inflow jet with damaging, deadly winds can be seen crossing the road, feeding into the funnel.

Severe Winds
3 miles NNW of Tupelo, MS
2:47 PM
We were impacted by rear flanking downdraft and inflow winds wrapping around and into the tornado almost immediately. I’m estimating the winds were anywhere between 60 and 80 mph, and the van bucked and rocked as we plowed head first into them. Brindley became quite alarmed and I tried to reassure her that it was “only RFD.” While we very quickly cleared the path of the tornado, the winds we encountered were still extremely hazardous and could have been life threatening had there been trees or power lines next to the road. Fortunately, we had a wide clearance from these falling hazards on the interstate. Streaky bands of rain with little eddies danced and careened across the road. Gusts pushed us to the side for brief moments. Leaves and twigs whizzed through the air. There was some traffic on 78 east but we were able to make decent speed away from the tornado, and within moments the wind was dying down and we were just getting heavy rain within the rear flank of the storm. The tornado disappeared into the core behind us as it became completely rain wrapped.

The Roar
4 miles NE of Tupelo, MS
2:51 PM
Brindley sent in a report of the tornado on Spotter Network as we headed east down the highway. We stopped on an off ramp as soon as we were clear of the rear flanking core. The tornado was buried deep within the rain to our northwest, but when we stopped we could plainly hear a roar. The motion and sounds that we had witnessed are the signature of a significant or even violent tornado. Chaser Daniel Shaw caught up with us here and we chatted briefly and exchanged stories before departing.

Waiting in Hamilton
4 miles S of Hamilton, AL
5:30 PM
We knew that Tupelo had likely taken significant damage, but that the interstate was now probably impassable heading west. We’re not trained to act as first responders and figured we wouldn’t be able to get into the disaster area, so we decided against returning to the scene and instead continued our chase. We headed east to catch the next supercell in the line crossing the interstate and wound up in Hamilton, AL more than an hour downstream of the next cell. We stopped at various exits looking for a good perch. Some locals and motorists at a gas station nervously asked us for information before going into their tornado stories. We found a decent spot at one exit and awaited the arrival of the tornado warned storm with a few other chasers.

Passing Supercell
4 miles S of Hamilton, AL
5:33 PM
Our perch turned out to be a few miles too far west to get a clear view of what was happening under the base. We could have approached the storm on the interstate, but decided to see if the view improved as it passed over a clearing to the northwest. There were some low contrast lowerings that we could make out, but nothing distinctly tornadic. The storm wound up producing a smaller tornado north of Hamilton, so I’m not sure we would have had a view of anything, anyway.

Storm Over Trees
2 miles SW of Kennedy, AL
6:35 PM
A storm about 75 miles to our south was producing tornadoes, and we decided to drop south for the intercept. We didn’t have an interstate to approach the storm on with a swath cut through the trees for us, so we decided to play it a little more cautiously, approaching on a two lane highway and then backing off before we got under the storm or too close. We wound our way down some twisting highways. There wasn’t a view through the trees the entire time. Coming into Millport, Alabama we could see the top of the supercell over the trees. Striking striations were visible in the dusk light.

Approaching Supercell
3 miles ENE of Millport, AL
6:36 PM
Approaching the supercell through Millport:

2 miles ENE of Millport, AL
6:37 PM
Dramatic striations at dusk:

Updraft Base
Millport, AL
6:40 PM
We decided to try the north highway running out of Millport and see if we had any visual as the storm crossed the road in front of us. The updraft base fanning out overhead:

Crossing The Road
Millport, AL
6:40 PM
The storm looked like it was largely done, however. Only a mediocre horseshoe shaped based passed in front of us with minimal organization or rotation. To the southwest a large bow echo with embedded circulation was moving out of the Columbus, MS area. We held our ground north of Millport and our storm passed to the east and the bow passed south of us, while we encountered some heavy rainfall in between. Afterwards, we attempted to head into Columbus, MS to get dinner and a room for the night. We heard that a large tornado had passed nearby so we made a few calls first to make sure places were still open. They were, but we soon discovered that all the highways leading into Columbus were blocked by fallen trees. I tried to route around one of them, on an unpaved mud road that wound through the forest, which was ironically named “Fallen Tree Rd.” I’m not sure what part of me decided that was a good idea, but the van nearly slid off the road midway down. I turned around at a house to find a bewildered woman staring at us from her drive. I asked her if there was a good detour around the highway we had been on, and there apparently wasn’t.

We back tracked through Millport, heading for a mom and pop’s motel in Fayette, AL for the night. Amazingly there was a Mexican restaurant open in Millport and we got a great veggie fajita dinner and were able to relax for a while before making the drive up to Fayette behind the line of storms.


Our first chase into Mississippi and Alabama turned out to be a great success, even though it was extremely challenging and quite dangerous given the limited amount of time we had and the escape routes we had to execute. We cut it too close during our escape from the tornado, encountering the severe winds adjacent to the tornado, but thankfully we escaped without incident. The tornado intercept was one of the most intense in my chase career, the adrenaline signifying the danger of the situation. Chasing the southern states is extremely challenging and dangerous due to the visibility issues. I think I would only chase the area again on extreme shear days, where you might have a chance of catching a long track tornado as it crosses an interstate. Provided you can find a perch outside of the path, you might have a chance at safely getting a decent view. Otherwise, it’s nearly impossible to get a view of shorter lived tornadoes away from the major interstates. There are just way too many trees. Unfortunately these high risk days often cause significant disasters and causalities as they impact populated areas and can leave you trapped in a region with fallen trees blocking the roads. The Tupelo tornado was rated EF-3 with forty injuries and one fatality that was associated with the storm, but occurred outside of the tornado’s path.

The northern target wound up not panning out tornado wise. There was little if any tornado activity with the storms that formed over Illinois, and we managed to pick the better target despite the tougher terrain and added distance from home. The high risk verified and there were several large, damaging, long track tornadoes that tracked across Mississippi and Albama. Storm Assist was able to make direct donations to the victims.

Lessons Learned

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