Prologue: May 22nd, 2011 is a day that will be etched in my mind for the rest of my life. At the time, I split my chasing between some “solo chases” with a couple of friends and a tour company, Silver Lining Tours. Joplin fundamentally changed my perspective on storm chasing. At the time, I was fairly new to the game, having mostly only chased as a passenger on a tour company for five years. I was a rising sophomore meteorology student at The University of Miami and certainly felt a level of invincibility when it came to chasing. From May 22, 2011 on however, that invincibility was gone. Today I am far more cautious than I probably would be not having had this experience. While years of solo chasing and my formal education since then have aided in my abilities as a storm chaser, this event was incredibly formative. I’m far more attentive now not only to the sky itself, but to escape routes four, five and six moves down the line. I used to joke that when I died, I wanted it to be in a tornado. I can’t possibly express how differently I feel about that now, having come not 30 seconds from just that occurring.
The following is a note that I posted on facebook on June 2, 2011, recounting the experience I had in Joplin with the tour group just a few days earlier. On a much lighter note than the rest of this post, my writing eight years ago really stunk. That said, I tried to stay fairly true to what I wrote that day, but did minimal editing for grammar and flow.
The reason that I’m writing this note is two fold. I wanna record for myself exactly what I remember having happened on May 22, 2011 in Joplin, MO, as well as give everyone who is interested an insight into what it was like to have been so close to such a powerful and deadly force of nature, much unlike anything most people have or care to ever experience. First, I need to thank Andrew Gardiner and Roger Hill for having saved my life as well as the lives of those who I shared the van with, as well as a big thanks to all the rest of the drivers and guides: Rich Hamel, Matt Jones and Tom Howley.
In the days leading up to May 22, we became excited by the possibility of what appeared to be a decent severe weather set up. Although wind shear was marginal, we were confident that the extreme instability present in the forecast models would be enough to give us some memorable sights. We certainly didn’t expect anything near the order of magnitude that we would soon bare witness to.
The day began with two possible targets: one further south into Oklahoma, and one further north and east near the Oklahoma/Kansas/Missouri border. Late in the morning it was decided that we were going to shoot up towards Tulsa and play the second target area. By the middle of the afternoon, we found ourselves up near Parsons, KS chasing some supercells that would spin quite hard but were very HP (high precipitation). The biggest issue on this day, and probably the one that would really help doom 160 people in Joplin, a town of just 50,500, was the fact that at 250 mb (roughly 35,000 feet above the ground), there was very weak flow; only about 40 knots. This lack of upper level flow prevented the storms from ventilating themselves of precipitation and causing all the rain and hail within the storm to fall into the updraft region. Once back in the updraft, the rain and hail would then wrap around the mesocyclone and obscure any tornadoes that the storm would produce.
As the afternoon went on, storms would go up and rain themselves out, spewing cold outflow in the process. In doing so, a helicity-rich outflow boundary developed near where the storms were initially developing. One after the other, storms would explode along an area of convergence not far from the boundary. Although an environment such as what was present coupled with an outflow boundary is often a harbinger of tornadoes to come, storm motions may act to mitigate that threat; just as each of these storms would begin to mature and substantially rotate, they’d cross the boundary into cold air and die.
As a tornado chaser, there is little more frustrating than a primed environment that remains untapped due to something like storm motions. After all, we wanted to see a tornado! We would soon get far more than we bargained for. A few minutes before the tornado would hit Joplin, we entered the town, driving down BR 71, also known as South Range line road. At this point, we weren’t even chasing. We just needed to get gas and snacks and use the bathroom. We pulled into a gas station on that main road to find the woman working there pressed up against the glass doors of the little market inside. She wouldn’t allow us in. Apparently, there was a rule in place at her station that said if there was a tornado warning for the town, she was to lock the doors and not let anyone in. Previous to our entering the town, the storms that we had been chasing had been tornado warned. Nothing serious we thought, as they were simply warned due to doppler indicated rotation in some now undercut storms. Some of us, myself included, just kind of laughed at the fact that she thought that a tornado was going to hit the town. All the storms had been hitting that cold air and dying. What was there to worry about…?
Well one storm did what the others didn’t. It went up right along that same convergence point and spun really hard. It spun really, really hard. If you ever spin a top counter-clockwise, the motion of the top will be in a direction that takes it towards the right. Storms do the same thing. This storm spun so hard that it started to move right. Rather than crossing that outflow boundary and dying like all the others, it actually “pulled” that outflow boundary into the mesocyclone, which is a fairly common occurrence when it comes to violent supercell thunderstorms. When that occurred, the storm went absolutely crazy. The thing about outflow boundaries is that when they occur, they are very conducive to aiding rotation within storms, and can often cause storms to become violently tornadic quickly.
So there we are in that gas station in Joplin. I can’t stress enough here that we were NOT in Joplin chasing at this point. We were merely there to get gas and other assorted things. I can also not stress enough that this storm was NOT something that we saw coming for a long time in advance. To put this in perspective, our leader, Roger Hill told us that his good friend Dr. Greg Forbes, the severe weather expert at the Weather Channel and former student of the tornado expert Dr. Ted Fujita, said that in all the time he has been studying severe weather he has NEVER seen a storm do what this one did. It went from shower to violently tornadic in an extraordinarily short amount of time. But again, we are at the gas station and Roger yells at all of us that we had to go NOW. As it turns out, the storm had just popped up on the new radar scan (and thank God we got a new radar image at that exact moment, as had we not, who knows if we’d have stayed there longer) and it had an incredibly violent velocity couplet, as well as what’s known as a debris ball. At that moment, the tornado was either about to or had already hit the hospital in Joplin, and large debris was being lofted so high into the sky that radar was picking it up. We knew this was a VIOLENT tornado, and we knew it was now heading straight for the town of Joplin…and us.
We bolted from the gas station and headed down South Range line. As we were traveling down the road, we began to see power flashes off in the distance. A few seconds later, a massive black monster began to emerge from the rain. Unfortunately for us, we were stuck at a red light. People in Joplin had no idea that the storm was about to hit the city, and were not only stuck at the light, but seemed totally oblivious to the 3/4 mile wide tornado that was less than a mile away at this point. We actually saw two people walking down the sidewalk, with power flashes occurring behind the buildings next to them. At this point, two teenagers in a Camaro pulled up next to us, and “jokingly” asked us if a storm was coming. We screamed for them to take shelter, but they ended up turning right…directly towards the tornado. We won’t ever know what happened to them. They may have actually paralleled the tornado and driven right past it and been alright. Let’s hope so.
So there we are stuck at the light, five cars back. We’re honking the horn trying to get everyone to go, but no one is budging. At that moment the tornado hit the power line that fed the light we were at…rendering it powerless. We went right through the light. Now the tornado was getting very close and for a brief moment the idea was tossed around about taking shelter at the home depot which was off to our left. Thankfully, we were with the greatest weather mind in the world, Roger Hill, who was cool-headed enough to look up and see how violently the mesocyclone above us was rotating. He gave us the fateful instruction: get out of town. Don’t stop. Don’t take shelter. Get out.
So we gunned it down the road, and arrived in an area that had power and red lights. We were again stopped at a red light and it wasn’t looking good. The monster began to loom larger and larger out the rear passenger windows. As if by some miracle, there just so happened to be a turning lane next to us where median flared out to allow for left turns. This turning lane gave us in van three the ability to move forward out of town. My memory is a bit hazy here, but I believe that vans one and two were already past the light at this point, but we went into that lane and began to go forward. However, in an incredible display of selfish obliviousness, the man in front of us was texting at the wheel and not paying any kind of attention to the road. He began to drift into our lane. Our driver Andrew laid on the horn, and the driver in front of us reapplied his attention to the road, falling back into line at the light. By this point, the light had once again turned green (even though we would’ve had to go through it anyway), and we gunned it towards the interstate. The rain and hail now was quite heavy, and we may have in fact been in the outer circulation of the tornado. We continued on and in order to get onto the interstate, we had to turn directly towards the massive, rain-wrapped beast and go around a big jug-handle. We got onto the interstate and made it out of town just in time.
We stopped a few miles out of town and everyone came back to their senses. We watched the parent storm move off to the east. Not knowing exactly the magnitude of the damage, we continued to chase that day and actually saw two more tornadoes. Now for those of you who may ask why we didn’t go back and help, there are a few reasons: a) we had NO idea how devastating the tornado had been b) given the destruction, had we gone back we would’ve very quickly realized that getting back into town would’ve been nearly impossible c) perhaps most importantly, the only thing we probably would’ve been was a hindrance to the true first responders into town. It is absolutely the policy of Roger and everyone else to help in every way we can in the aftermath of such a disaster, but given what had occurred, it was not wise to go back into town and try to help.
So that’s what happened. If you’re keeping score, there were a few little coincidences that as a chain, kept us from being hit by what is probably the strongest tornado in 12 years.
- We stopped at that gas station and the girl didn’t let us in. Had we gassed up and gone, we probably would’ve driven directly into the tornado.
- The new radar scan. NEXRAD radar scans become available every 5 or 6 minutes, and it just so happens that at close to the exact moment that we were about to leave the gas station, a new volume scan became available, giving us a look at the monster that was about to impact the town. Edit: This is outdated. Radar is now available at a higher temporal frequency than it was in 2011.
- The tornado hit the power lines, killing the red lights at that intersection. EF-5 damage occurred between 20th-32nd streets and South Range line Road. If memory serves me, we were at 22nd and Range line when power went out. The epicenter.
- We didn’t take shelter at the Home Depot. This one is the most chilling I think. The Home Depot was completely demolished. The level-headedness that Roger displayed on that day in the most trying situation that he has probably ever dealt with was incredible and undoubtedly preserved the lives of the 25 of us who were chasing with SLT.
- The turning lane. Had there not been a turning lane exactly where we’d been, we would’ve had to jump the median and go in the wrong direction. Who knows how that turns out.
This all being said, I think its important to once again state that this was NOT something that we were trying to do. We were in Joplin before the tornado hit, and probably even before it was even on the ground. In no way would Roger EVER put us in any danger intentionally just to see a tornado. Safety is ALWAYS the number one concern when it comes to chasing, and very rarely if ever do we chase into bigger cities or get as close as we did. That needs to be set straight so there is no confusion. I totally trust Roger and SLT, and so should anyone else who wants to chase with them. I’ve done this six years now with them, and I’m going to continue to do so.
Finally, I wanna express my deepest condolences to the people of Joplin who lost everything. We never want to see this kind of destruction, and it’s quite heartbreaking when this kind of disaster occurs. I can honestly say that I will never look at weather the same way. I have a new found respect for Mother Nature. She can do whatever she wants, and we all need to recognize that.