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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

TORNADO CHASE: Week 2;day 3


Leaving Amarillo, we went to the local general store, I believe it was called Wal Mart, where we picked up several cans of spray paint. We were going to graffiti while we waited for the storms to develop. A quick drive and we were at the Cadillac Ranch, which I mistakenly referred to as the "Mustang Ranch."

I mean, they are both Cars!

At the Cadillac Ranch, 10 Cadillacs were planted, nose down, into the earth in a straight line. A barbed wire fence with an unlocked gate led the way to the vehicles. A dumpster covered with graffiti was near the gate and a sign alerting folks that painting things outside of the gate was still illegal. We went in and began to paint on the cars embedded in the ground.

Still trying to get a feel for where we needed to be to see weather activity, we made a pit stop at a local gas station. A local man came over and asked about hail as he had millions of dollars of cottonseed that was about ready to be sold, but was currently vulnerable to hail. We informed him that unfortunately for him, hail was a distinct possibility considering the weather that was brewing. He was not thrilled at this news.

He told us about the area a bit, and explained that the Osprey airplanes we were seeing flying around were manufactured nearby, and invited us to his ranch for viewing if we were going to stay in the area.

And then, right before we parted, he told us "If it helps, I have lived out here my entire life and I woke up today and it felt like tornado weather."

Gregg directed us to a park/playground in Plainview, TX while we waited for storm development and updated weather models. A few people were hungry, so we did something that we had never done yet: we split up. 2 Vehicles went to search for food while a handful of us stayed in the park. And of course, with the group split up, the weather models updated and we had to immediately hightail it 90 miles to get to a storm with a decent chance of dropping a twister.

Gregg is very good at what he does, and Plainview was basically dead center to what would be 4 Tornado Warned storms. He just had to choose what system held the best potential, since, while we had some ingredients for a violent super cell, we were missing some parts, such as upper level support. We ended up heading about 90 miles away in a big hurry through some wet weather. This was, of course, after we piled in one vehicle at the park and chased the lunch bunch down to reunite the passengers into the correct vehicle.

A little over an hour later we were on the side of the road in the direct path of a south east moving super cell. It was not very organized, but it moved pretty fast, for as soon as I set up my tripod and started getting footage of the churning of the clouds, the rain came putting us in a place we didn't want to be in if a tornado dropped. So we kept moving, hopping out, and taping until the rain came.

Since the storm was not very organized, the decision was made to move toward another storm that was gaining strength and energy and looked to have more favorable conditions to deliver what we wanted. When the chase gets going, and the adrenaline gets going, time and space become meaningless, so I don't know where we went or how long we drove.

The sky was a masterpiece of light, dark, and assorted colors. As we straddled the second storm trying to get into position, I saw the sight I always wanted to see ever since I began to become interested in tornadoes. A brilliant, aqua green sky. The meteorologists informed me it was the hail track that caused the green color. But there it was.

Being in a vehicle that was moving fairly fast through desolate twisted Texas roads, I was unable to get a steady shot for good footage. Add to it the rapidly changing light conditions, and the fact that half of the sky was dark as night while the other half was a sunny day and my first attempts at shooting weather was a trial and error learning experience. I have not sat down and reviewed the footage yet, but hopefully I got the shot I wanted; the dark sky giving way to the green horizon that blended eerily with the red dust that was being propelled into the air by the outflow of the huge cell we were on.

At this point, many of the clients required a bathroom break. We searched the town of Nolan, but there were no businesses open. We kept driving and came upon a secluded BBQ shack. We piled in while many waited for the one bathroom. While the rest of us were searching for something with blood sugar, I overheard one of the drivers who was chatting with the proprietor ask her if she knew what 16 of us were doing here.

"Yes. You are Tornado Chasers," she said, sounding resigned to the fact that she lived in a danger zone in danger season. "Is it going to hit here?" she asked.

"Possibly, it could organize further or break apart at this point, but there is certainly a chance."

I really wanted to try some of her BBQ, but we had to move. I had just gotten into one of the chase vehicles when a powerful circular wind gust rocked the vehicles, and from reports of clients still inside, the BBQ shack as well. As we counted heads before departure, the woman went outside and called what must have been her children into the store. Her anxiety was evident behind her stoic demeanor as she stood on the porch, looked into the distance, lit a cigarette and paced while chatting on her cell phone. One of her boys, maybe 8 years old, exited the store and, in stark contrast to the very real concern of the woman, excitedly waved at us.

We waved back as we drove off and hoped for thier safety as we surveyed the property looking for a storm cellar that we couldn't find. We head down the road again, our caravan passing 2 student storm chaser vans in the process. The storm was not terribly organized, and we were hoping it would become more so soon as there is more chance of tornadic activity with increased organization, and we don't chase after dark.

When we finally settled on the side of the road to try to view the storm, the new models updated and it confirmed that our chase day was over. At around 6:30 PM, the models had shown that the very large powerful super cell had broken off into 6 smaller storms that drained each other of strength and energy. My 1st chase was over, so we headed into Sweetwater, TX to bed down for the night.

The oddest thing we found in Sweetwater, was that it had some archaic alcohol law that prohibited us from being served alcohol of any kind at restaurants. We were prepared, when we pulled into the very tasty grill, "Skeet's," thanks to the hotel staff who told us how to deal with those laws. Walking to the grill, we saw folks leaving with beer coolers. We had our beer as we entered, and we were allowed to drink them at the table, as long as we drank them out of their Styrofoam cups. I have never had a Corona (or any beer) from a foam cup, but the night after my first chase, it tasted good.

As a couple staff and I went to look for more beer, one of the drivers, Laura, was busy getting acquainted with an adorable stray dog who "lived" in the hotel parking lot. He was terrified of the men, but Laura was able to bond with him. He was colored like a Rottweiler, but his body was the size and shape of a Dachshund. Laura fell in love with him and adopted him during the overnight stay. She named him Shmuppy. Another driver went and got a can of dog food for him while we got beer and went out watching the lightning storm far far in the distance. Even though it was far away, it was powerful enough to light up the entire night sky. A few beers later and my 1st chase day was over.

The next morning, we ate breakfast at the hotel, whose buffet used the bed of a classic truck for their juice bar. After most everyone had eaten breakfast and snuck some sausage out to Shmuppy, we piled out of the hotel for a drive day. We anticipate weather on Thursday and Friday in Colorado, so Wednesday would be the 8 hours or so drive time from Texas to Colorado. Laura got quite emotional saying goodbye to Shmuppy, tearing up as we drove away.

We had a quick pit stop at a gas station where we coincidentally found a little stuffed animal that looked just like Shmuppy. We got it and I snuck it into Laura's purse. We stopped at a Texas rest stop a couple hours down the highway, where the men's and woman's rooms doubles as a tornado shelter. Laura found the Shmuppy doll and wept again. She loved him, and the Shmuppy Doll now sits in the center of chase 3's dashboard, our new mascot, as we travel up from Texas to Colorado in search of severe weather.

And this time, the conditions are the most favorable they have been the entire chasing season...

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