I saw my first tornado at age eleven.
From that day on, I never looked at the skies the same way again, I was torn, seeing both the "Beauty and the Beast" in the churning clouds.
"Beauty," comes those that are lucky enough to see the awesome show and splendor that Mother Nature has to offer from a safe distance. "Beast" comes from those who have experienced the un-matched power of the tornadic winds while watching their homes disappear into the skies, while huddled in the basement.
Every May the Great Plains, also known as tornado alley, hosts an influx of scientists, and storm chasers hoping to get a glimpse of something that many people will never experience, or hope to ever experience in their lifetime.
I have been storm chasing for nine years with a group of friends who vary in their daily lives from a truck driver for Home Depot in Detroit, a Kentucky Emergency Management officer, an Austin, TX firefighter, an autoworker for Ford, a former car salesperson from New York, and a weather researcher with a PHD from Colorado State. The one thing we all have in common is an unexplained love for weather. Here is an accounting of one day this May.
May 12th in Kansas started out pretty much like any other chase day; we made out way down from Nebraska to head for an area which was under a "slight risk" for severe storms as forecast by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK. We drove several hours south towards Dodge City, the temperature was in the mid 80's and the dew point was rising as we headed south. Tracking a low pressure center, we noticed a distinct change in the wind direction from south to almost due east. This meant the wind was now being sucked into the low, and this is where we wanted to be. We tracked radar through out XM satellite link, and saw some storms start to blow up just to the north and east of us, the chase was on.
We could now visually see the large cumulus towers off on the horizon, they were moving about 15 mph to the NE. We had a great road to intercept the storm and were catching up at about 70 mph. The cloud tops were now nearing 55,000 feet and the radar indicated rotation and large hail, baseball sized.
To our south another cell popped up, and rapidly took all of the energy from the cell we were following. This cell went from just forming, to 60,000 ft. tops in just 20 minutes, this was our storm.
We tracked the storm through Medicine Lodge, Kansas and saw our first tornado west of Attica, KS; we watched this tornado roll silently across farmland for nearly 10 minutes. It was accompanied by a beautiful tornado and baseball sized hail plopping out of the sky.
As this tornado faded away, several other rope tornadoes whipped through the skies above us. We spot another monster off in the distance to the east. Jumping back in the trucks, we rolled through the town of Attica, KS, trees were stripped, and debris was strewn through groomed yards.
A home on the outskirts was demolished. Members of my group are trained in search and rescue, our main truck, Echo 1, is loaded with rescue and first aid supplies. Local authorities had their hands full, and had our group search through the destroyed home and surrounding area for injured. Luckily none were found, everyone from the home was safe.
Out of nowhere a tornado spins up a huge dust cloud just 100 yards down the road sending everyone heading for cover. It pulled up quickly and dissipated. Hearts beating rapidly, everyone recouped and headed to our trucks, it was getting too dark to be safe. Visibility was getting very limited.
As if to chase us out of the area for one last time, a very sharp tornado lowered from the sky, just 25 yards from us, silently lowering towards the ground. I watched mesmerized through the viewfinder of my camera, it pulled back up as quietly as it lowered.
After a 14 hour day, 430 miles, baseball sized hail, four tornadoes and five funnel clouds, we called it a day. We found a motel and got ready to head back to Nebraska for the next days show.