To say this chase was an adventure would be quite an understatement! There were a lot of firsts for me on this chase. I saw my first Oklahoma tornado, which was my first rain-wrapped tornado, viewed from the northeast for the first time, and saw the biggest hail I’ve ever seen.
My day started at 1:45am when I woke up. I was out the door and on my way at 2:30am. My target hadn’t changed over the last couple days; SW Oklahoma. Specifically, I planned on heading to Altus, OK. I stopped in Monticello to pick up Rob. It was our first chase together since 2010!
By the time we got to OKC, storms had already initiated in the central Texas panhandle. The first storm that fired later became tornado warned, and a tornado was confirmed by chasers. At our pace, we were set to intercept this cell right on I-40 near the TX/OK border. We got to the exit just before Shamrock, TX and stopped on the overpass to see what we could see. The storm was high-precipitation (HP), so we weren’t able to tell if there was still a tornado in there or not. Still, it was a beautiful storm with a lot of lightning!
From there we tried to follow it north for a little ways, but the road we were on ended, and there were numerous trees blocking our view. So we went back south and further east to get ahead of it. By this time it had some amazing structure on it, and I shot this pano next to the interstate:
At this point the storm was clearly outflow dominant, so we had no interest in continuing to follow it north. We started south on Hwy 30. There were a couple storms down the line that looked pretty good on radar. The first one looked very disorganized, so we passed on it. The next one down the line had a large rain-free base, but no wall cloud. Viewing the radar, the storms to the south were looking much better, so we continued south. When we got to the town of Hollis, OK, there was a storm passing through at that time. It developed a decent couplet on radar, and we saw some motion that appeared to be anti-cyclonic. Once again, however, outflow took over, so we continued on to the east this time on Hwy 62.
At this time we were looking to get on the supercell currently near Quanah, TX. We took 62 to Altus where we stopped for gas and a quick bathroom break, then dropped south. At this point this storm had a class hook echo on radar. I was sure at this point we were about to see a tornado. The only issue is that we had to do somewhat of a core punch to get to this thing. Our other option was to go east even further to the next major road, but as slow as the storm was moving, I felt we could easily get through the core in a location that didn’t have too big of hail. So we dropped south on Hwy 283 toward the town of Elmer, OK.
We didn’t encounter any big hail on the way south, thankfully. We got to Elmer and found a large group of chasers parked at the General Store, including the TIV. This storm was a beast! A rapidly moving, low-hanging inflow band was feeding into a curtain of rain. Soon after we parked, we were able to see left-to-right motion on the right edge of the rain curtain, which eventually reached the ground. There was our tornado! It was low-contrast, but it was clearly there.
I had my camcorder mounted to the windshield, and focused perfectly on the tornado. There was only one problem… it wasn’t recording! I must have been recording already as we pulled up, and hit the record button unknowingly stopping it. I’ve never done this before on a chase, and I can just about guarantee you I won’t do it again!
After watching the tornado here for a couple minutes, we decided it was time to leave. We figured we were right in its path, and it was just a few miles away. We decided to head back to the north to Hwy 5, which was a nice paved road going east. My plan was to get far enough east on this road to stop and let the tornado cross the road to our west. The problem with this came shortly after we started east. Hail! BIG hail! Baseballs and bigger were dropping out of the sky. One hit the windshield-SMACK! Somehow, it didn’t leave a crack! It must have been a really soft hail stone. It did leave a condensation mark on the windshield that was at least 3 inches in diameter. I know I’ve mentioned that I want to break my windshield some time, but now was not the time! I didn’t want to have to end the chase, I wanted to stay on this tornado. So I had to get out of this hail. The next stone may not be as forgiving. I found a paved road going south, so I decided to drop south, let the tornado pass, then go back up to 5 and follow it east from behind.
We got out of the hail within about a mile. We continued south, as we wanted to get clear of the bear’s cage. At an upcoming intersection, I saw a sign that said “dip”. I slowed down a little, but I couldn’t see where this dip was. Then all of a sudden I saw it, and it was too late to slow down any further. Only it wasn’t really a dip. It was more like a trench. I hit it hard, the car ramped up into the air and slammed back down. Not good! We continued south another mile or so to be sure we were clear of the tornado path, then got out to look at the car.
It actually looked unscathed as far as the body was concerned. Looking underneath, I saw a piece of cowling that went under the front bumper that was barely hanging on and dragging on the ground. The wheels looked good, tires weren’t flat. However, I smelled oil. I looked underneath the car again and saw something dripping. Rob looked more closely at it, and sure enough it was oil. The oil pan was cracked. I wasn’t going to take a chance driving anywhere while leaking oil. The only other thing I could see with damage was a big dent in the exhaust pipe where it came down from the engine.
I ran over to a couple guys that had parked near us and told them of our predicament. These guys were Altus natives, and one of them just happened to work at the local Ford dealership. He called their tow truck driver, and we were able to get a tow to the dealership. Only issue was that they were closed, and wouldn’t be open again until Monday. Enterprise Rent-A-Car was across the street, but they’d be closed until Monday, as well. So I texted Blaize to see where him and Adam were. They were about 2 hours away at that point, but agreed to come back to get us and take us home. We covered their gas and hotel room for the way back in appreciation!
Below is a picture I drew up using the approximate tornado path in white based on the NWS survey. The spot circled in red is where we were stopped and I snapped that photo above. As it turned out, the tornado crossed about a mile south of that spot, so we could have just stayed there. The arrows show our path. The black circle is where that canyon in the middle of the road was, and the red X is where we stopped for good.
I’ve filed an insurance claim on my car, and as luck would have it again, that dealership is on State Farm’s select list of repair shops. What that means is that all repairs will come with a warranty. They should have an estimate together tomorrow or Wednesday. If it all works out well I plan on renting a car next Thursday and making the drive down to Altus to pick up my car Friday, then continue on to Dallas for the weekend as I had previously planned, and arrive in Sugar Land on Sunday. That will minimize the amount of driving I’ll have to do, because after two consecutive weekends of chasing 13-14 hours away from home, I’m a bit tired of driving!
There will definitely be some changes to my chasing in the future after this trip. For starters, I think I’m done with these long-haul chases, especially when I’m trying to fit it all in within a day and a half. It is downright grueling. But the other issue is that if something similar to this happens again, it makes it that much more difficult to deal with when I’m so far from home. It certainly doesn’t help that if I’m chasing storms, I’m bound to be in the middle of nowhere. Of course this should be resolved next season anyway, since I’ll be living in Dallas. As far as the chase itself, I’m likely to avoid any road other than major highways. That may limit my positioning and distance from the storm, but at least I won’t have to worry about a road falling apart on me! I’m also considering owning two vehicles, so that even if one has problems on a chase, I’ll have a back-up at home.
When it’s all said and done, it really was a great chase up until the point I broke my car. My initial target of Altus was almost dead on, and even when we started the day going after storms far away from Altus, there were great decisions made through the course of the day that put us on the best storm the day had to offer. I wish things would have gone better from there, but nonetheless, I saw my 8th tornado, and have now seen a tornado in 4 of the last 5 years. This tornado has received a preliminary rating of EF-2 with wind speeds of 125 mph.
UPDATE: NWS survey confirmed a tornado near Shamrock at the time the above photo, and the photo below were taken. I believe that is the right edge of just to the right of the interstate.