Editor's Note: All photographs on this page are the property of Clinton Norwood unless otherwise marked. He can be reached at 214-826-9680. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited.
DAY 1: MAY 29, 1998
I waited outside my bosses office looking at my watch and pacing in the lobby.
"Do you want me to call you when hes ready?" asked the executive secretary, who wasnt accustomed to seeing people loiter in the suite of the corporations executive management. Down the hall, my office was closed. The computer was off. The door was shut and I was ready to leave the building, anxious to drive to the American Midwest and the natural phenomena that had fascinated me endlessly for two years.
"No, Ill wait for him here, Lisa," I said and sat in the small sofa across from the receptionists area. Soon, the meeting began and I sat trying to remember details to record later. I hadnt even brought my planner with me and I deceived myself into thinking that this discussion would still somehow be on my mind in a few hours. It wasnt even on my mind now.
What concerned me more was a ridge of high pressure in the upper levels of the atmosphere parked above the southern plains: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas. This area is known to many as Tornado Alley: a large section of middle America where the most violent weather in the world is a matter of course for the farmers and merchants of the small towns and growing cities that dotted the plain. Many times these storms produced a sight their grandfathers called "cyclones." Tornadoes were a source of fear for many, of hatred for some and for others, fascination. Whatever ones opinion of the most violent of all weather events, tornadoes were a fact of life.
But this week, the atmosphere conspired to keep tornadoes under wraps. According to the supercomputers that meteorologists rely upon to forecast the conditions into the future, the situation was not likely to change soon. The area of high pressure inhibited thunderstorm development, keeping the thin layer of air at the surface, our section of the atmosphere, quite fair and stable. And in the first week of June in Texas, very, very hot. I was concerned about this pattern persisting, and turning my first true storm chase vacation into a hot, sunblock-smothered disappointment. Finally the meeting ended. I asked one of the participants who owed me a favor to email me the details of what had just taken place. With that, I raced down the stairs and out the front door.
The truck was packed since the night before. The first stop was West Palm Beach, where my chase partner Jeff Gammons was waiting to come aboard. I pressed the reset switch on the trip odometer and wondered how many times the three digit display would turn over before I saw Ft Lauderdale again. Would I ever? Texas is my homestate, and while I wasnt certain that I would even see it in the next week, I knew that if I did, it would be very difficult to leave. All that had kept me in the bizarre, bullet-riddled amusement park of South Florida was the devil and his money, and the small comfort of knowing that I would not miss the entire chase season. I had this small vacation, and heady plans for wherever Mother Nature saw fit to launch deep, moist convection.
Severe thunderstorms are as fascinating to me as anything in the natural world. Developing literally out of thin air, they rapidly rise to as high as ten miles. In a matter of minutes, a peaceful field of calm sunshine can become the stage for violent, shocking lightning strikes and angry thunder. Together, these forces put on a display that Hitler and his most fearful scientists never conceived when imagining new methods of terror. And then of course there was the prize.
Jeff stood at the curb as I pulled into the apartment complex. "Where you going?" I joked.
"Lets go man," he said and began lifting his duffel bags into the back of the Jeep Cherokee I had outfitted specifically for the task of hunting and pursuing severe storms. Jeff loaded a video camera, a regular still camera and a bag of clothes.
"Here we go," I said, and turned the truck north, onto the Florida Turnpike. We had talked about this trip for months, and now that we were on our way it was hard to believe. We had a long drive ahead of us, and much uncertainty. We talked about the state of the atmosphere at the moment, and decided that a northerly course towards the upper Midwest was the best idea. Nothing was happening in the traditional chase areas of Tornado Alley, and we would not be in position for anything until Sunday. Predicting the onset of storms 48 hours in the future was a difficult exercise, but we had little choice. Southern Indiana was a good bet right now, and we knew wed know more tonight and tomorrow morning.
LAUDERDALE, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
It was a long journey through the Florida peninsula, as we elected to avoid the high tolls of the Florida Turnpike by sticking to state roads and other shortcuts. We regretted this as the small towns and red lights slowed our progress. A few hundred miles into the trip, we looked for a way back to the interstate, and get our speed up to the 80 mph range. We were impatient. As we passed Ocala, Florida and approached Gainesville, the night grew darker and we were tired. We looked for our first hotel of the night. At a gas station off Interstate 75, we talked about using the laptop computer to examine the forecast for the next several days. I looked into the back of the truck as we talked about finding a town with a local dialup number for my Internet provider. A shudder went through me as I noticed the laptop computer bag was not where I expected it to be. We both got out and searched frantically. It was not with us.
The computer was a laptop on loan from my company. A few weeks before the trip, the machine slipped off my desk at work and the hard drive died. The corporate IT department sent the machine to be repaired, and there was no guarantee it would be back in time. When it came back just 2 days before our departure, I spent hours configuring it, installing the cellular modem that would give us access to the Internet from the road. The PC was our most important piece of equipment, and now it was gone. I tried to imagine how someone had stolen it out of the truck. I tried to not think of the most likely scenario: I had simply left it.
After several examinations of the truck, I began to plan. We could drive back, an eight hour trip in the wrong direction, get the laptop and then turn around again. It was already near midnight, and so this meant that our first night of the trip would be a long drive. We planned to grab it, turn around and head back north again. We would be thoroughly exhausted, and I didnt know if we would ever recover.
I had thought for some time that the key to this entire journey would be sufficient rest, considering what lay ahead: days and days of driving and tense pursuit of storms, punctuated by McDonalds food and soda drinks. We were asking a lot of our bodiesa sleepless night was precisely the wrong way to get started. I maneuvered the truck back to the highway and accelerated to 85. Here we go. Along the way, we noticed trains paralleling the highway, and it struck me that this was still a viable means of transportation after over 100 years. Jeff and I began to discuss high speed trains and airplanes.
I pulled onto the next exit ramp and raced for a phone.
SATURDAY MAY 30
The Atlanta airport was crowded and confusing. We looked in every direction for the small building designated "Delta Dash." Jeff spotted it and we pulled into the parking lot. Twenty minutes later, we had the laptop on the roof of a parking garage, and downloaded the Storm Predictions Centers severe weather outlook for tomorrow. A moderate risk of severe storms predicted for Kentucky and we were on our way. That night we stayed in Nashville and the next morning, we designated Elizabethtown, KY as our first target area of the trip.
From the mini-recorder: "OK, 11:17 AM, the first chase day of the trip, on Sunday. Just entering Bowling Green, Kentucky of all places. And we just passed the Corvette Hall of Fame (have to remember to tell Bobby about that). Southwest winds, sunny and clear, humid. Big surface low, somewhere around the UP of Michigan right now...right? And we are expecting a cold front to come through, a vigorous cold front stretching from Lake Huron across the Ohio River by late this afternoon and were hoping for storms along and ahead of the cold front to give us some excitement in central Kentucky. Our first target is Elizabethtown, which is on the Intersection of I-24 and I-65 in a relatively flat area. Were under a moderate risk and well see what happens."
I worried. I worried about the cold front and the speed of its movement. I worried about the terrain and our inability to see approaching danger. I worried that I would not see Texas this week. Most of all, I wondered if we should be in Southern Indiana as we sat on a bridge outside of Elizabethtown, at the intersection of I-64 and State Road 222. At 1:00PM, there was a mild breeze from the south southwest, and we waited.
"5:22 Eastern time were still sitting at the intersection of 64 and 222 weve been here a while. At least were not using any gas. There are warnings all over the place around Louisville, including a tornado--multiple tornado warnings north of Louisville with storms that are moving 50 mph. We elected not to go to Southern Indiana because of the hills, which turns out we heard did impede one spotters ability to follow a storm that they reported a funnel having been associated with. We still feel good about where we are [a lie] although we are getting more anxious. We are waiting patiently at 5:23 Eastern Timeand, uh, right--- law enforcement now confirming one tornado on the ground along highway 256 in Southeastern Indiana."
The map showed many hills in Southern Indiana and they were still there, mesocyclones or not. Still, tornadoes were happening and I was not there and I was supposed to be there, dammit. This was my chase trip, my time to do nothing but forecast and track severe storms and their features, particularly their most famous feature. I was fidgety and ready to move at the least excuse. Stick to your forecast, I told myself. Patience.
A severe thunderstorm warning was issued for a cell to our northMeade county and the storm was moving due east. Despite the speed of the storm, we could still intercept, and it was getting late. We took off and spent the next five hours darting in and around severe storms and hills, watching spectacular lightning displays and losing track of storms due to haze and geography. As the convection organized into a squall line, it became difficult to discern one cell from another.
Somewhere on State Road 210, a farm house with a white picket fence burned, flames leaping from the rear windows as neighbors and firemen from around the area converged on the scene. Jeff aimed the video camera and I wondered if lightning had done this. We made several passes, shameless voyeurs, manuevering for a better angle. It was clear that no one was injured, and the blaze was under control. We stopped for a break and gasoline and noticed an intense storm to the southwest. We watched for a while and headed south, trying to get south of the storm for reasons that escape me now.
Two miles down the road, a tornado warning was issued for Hardin county. It was our storm and here we were. While the storm was still southwest of us, it was moving at 40 miles per hour. We had to make a decision quickly: continue south and get past it, or turn back and avoid it. As the winds picked up and blew rain hard across the dark sky, we turned away. There would be no spotting danger in the dark and hills. The storm passed with much fanfare: streaking lightning on the underside of the anvil, several microbursts filled with rain and strong wind. We watched it go by.
Hardin County Storm
© 1998 Jeff Gammons All Rights Reserved
"Bowling Green, KY9:00AM Central Standard Time, on our way to Iowa."
"1:12 Central Standard Time, were 60 miles outside of St. Louis and heading towards northern Missouri, southern Iowa in hopes of some scattered afternoon or evening thunderstorms forming in the vicinity of a warm front which is pushing northward in response to a piece of energy that is swinging down through the upper mid-west on the base of a trough in Canada. Oh Canada... (singing)"
I understood what meteorologists mean when they say they have a low confidence in their forecast. The airmass in our target area contained dew points in the mid-50s at this point, and I was crossing my fingers that additional moisture would be moving north along with us. Storms need moisture, it is a key ingredient, and I was not impressed that there was sufficient amounts of it here today. I smelled a bust coming on and began to relax and imagine what we could see and do in the St. Louis area after wed had our fill of the clear skies.
"June 1, 3:18 in the afternoon, heading west on Interstate 70, leaving St. Louis Missouri, and our target today is Columbia, MO, in the center of the state. Hopefully, a disturbance moving in aloft will fire storms in a recovering airmasswe hope recovers enough, and it looks like storms in the center of the state marching east towards St. Louis. So we are hoping to drive into the sunset and see them as they fire up or be sitting in Columbia when they do fire up. It looks like the air in Iowa was not going to recover quickly enough and we wouldnt have made it there anyway, so were happy to be driving to central MO. Well be at our target area in an hour and a half."
We never made it. About 100 miles west of St. Louis, we realized there was not enough heat or moisture here, and the scattered fair weather cumulus held out no hope. There was little vertical development to them, and a beautiful sunset was all the atmosphere planned for us today.
We decided upon a peaceful drive through the Southeastern Missouri and settled on a southerly course on State Road 19. Eventually, this road would wind us back onto the Interstate, and all the speed and stress that monstrous ribbon of asphalt symbolized. State Road 19, however, was in no hurry. We took our time.