After a day of funnel clouds teasing us in southeast Colorado, we found ourselves crossing the border back into Kansas just before sunset, as the storm we had been lurking around all day weakened in intensity overall and began to join a developing line of storms in the area.
Chances of a tornado were now assumed to be over for this storm. There was a much more prominent storm moving towards the northeast slowly, well ahead of the developing line which we were just in front of at the time.
As darkness ascended upon us and the day came to a close, something ominous was brewing. A deep, violent rumbling could be heard in the open skies…coming from the car.
We unexpectedly realized we had been in the car driving, practically in circles, for fourteen hours and had not had anything to eat. You would be surprised at the wide variety of food options available when you are located in an endless, pancake flat, dry manure field.
Some of our personal favorites are Sonic, old miniature donuts from gas stations, and the water from the bottle in which we tossed all of the used cigarettes. Luckily the fresh fragrance of tons of wafting manure that has a permanent dwelling across much of western Kansas acts as superb appetite suppressant.
Despite the severe hungerstorm raging inside of us, I drove right by all one of our eatery options as we decided to pursue the developing storm coming north out of the panhandle of Oklahoma and into southwestern Kansas.
This new storm we were approaching had unexpectedly gorgeous structure and strength for what appeared to be a not-too-exciting day in terms of atmospheric setup, and it continued to look better and better.
As dusk fell, the horizon ahead became illuminated by one of the most spectacular lightning shows I’ve ever seen, mostly thanks to the incredible pancake stack of clouds in the sky. On a day that was overall not very favorable for tornadoes, we were now starting to see a storm that looked like it could become a classic tornado producer.
Normally I’m not one to continue chasing for so long after dark, at least I like to tell myself, simply because the risks greatly outweigh the potential rewards. Who the hell wants to risk driving into unseen floodwaters, getting hit by drunk or sleepy drivers, driving into random road debris or animals?
All for the potential ‘reward’ of seeing a scary looking cloud in a fraction of a second lightning flash that you can’t really tell what it is. I would much prefer to get my sleepy ass off of the road and find a way to stop the stomach acid from pouring out of my mouth due to unreasonable hunger.
Not to mention the fact that when you have already been driving for fifteen hours straight, for the ninth day in a row, the last thing that you should be thinking is “Well honey, I’m foaming at the mouth from malnutrition, why don’t we pass by these hotels right here and continue wandering around this dark manure field in case we miss an opportunity to wreck the car and kill ourselves?”
Anyways, I decided to forego all of the aforementioned common sense as this instance seemed a bit unique. For starters, the storm was only moving at around 15mph, which is extremely slow. We were already relatively nearby and located on the correct side of the storm, just to the south-southwest.
The highway happened to be heading northeast, parallel to the storm. The focal area of interest on the storm was located about 3 miles north of the highway, and moving right along as if it was on a parallel railroad.
All we had to do was drive up to the backside of this storm, pull off to the side of the road and take a gander to the north. We wouldn’t even have to worry about rain or hail, a very rare convenience.
Chasing in Darkness
As we trekked up US Highway 54, the night was as still and quiet as any late spring night in rural America, with nothing but the sound of a few whirring bugs and frogs in the air. There was some light fog appearing along the roadway, and of course, a vivid lightning show towards the northeast.
A tornado warning was now in effect for southwestern Meade county Kansas, and the radar was displaying some strong signs of rotation.
As the minutes progressed, the indicated rotation on radar seemed extremely strong for what we would normally expect on an evening such as this one, where overall tornado potential was not considerably high.
The first report of a tornado occurred just as we were pulling over onto the shoulder of US54. The tornado was about six miles to the southwest of the town of Plains, Kansas, a town with a population of only 1,154.
We climbed out of the car and stared intensely to the east northeast, into the vivid lightning show. The trick here is, as I stated above, is to look for evidence of a scary dark looking feature touching the ground during the lightning strikes, which last for only a fraction of a second.
Of course, when it’s nearly as dark as the inside of a cave, each eye-burning lightning strike can reveal a dark scary figure of any sort that anyone could mistake for a tornado. Even if it’s just a blind spot in your own vision.
Keep looking patiently and persistently, and do your best to capture each flash of lightning in your mind so you can continue to visualize and decode what you have seen.
After several bright flashes of lightning, and the fact that our geographical position relative to the indicated data on radar showed we were facing strong rotation, I had every reason to believe we were looking at a tornado.
“That’s a fucking dustwhirl!” The side of the scary dark figure that we were witnessing had a “whirl of dust”, if you will, along the right side of it.
I forced the camera into Sarah’s hand while I stumbled my way back to the laptop in order to report the large tornado to the National Weather Service.
We watched diligently for the next several minutes as the dark figure with the dust and debris clouds swirling around on the ground continued to make frequent appearances in the flashes of lightning. Concern was growing that the tornado would end up striking the small town of Plains.
After a few more minutes of close observation, the tornado was no longer visible, and we had seen enough of the road for the day. We hopped in the car and reluctantly had Sonic for the 65th night in a row.
After checking on the Dodge City National Weather Service website the following morning, storm surveys had concluded that the tornado produced EF2 damage.
Tornadoes at Night = Difficult and Dangerous
It is remarkably easy to mistake nearly anything for a tornado in the blackness of night, especially if you do not have a reasonable amount of experience or insight as to what you are seeing.
The main culprit of false tornadoes is simply other parts of the storm such as random cloud fragments hanging down from the sky, or even rainshafts. Other common fakenadoes include trees, power plants, smoke clouds from chimneys, and anything else that can manage to get in the way of your view and piss you off.
More importantly, it is also very easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time while chasing storms at night. Why? Because you can’t see shit!
On the very tragic night of May 4th, 2007, Deputy Tim Buckman lost his life while serving his community during the devastating Greensburg, Kansas tornado. The deputy had been serving as a storm spotter, helping to warn the nearby communities and farmers of the approaching violent tornado.
He tragically lost his life to another unexpected tornado that had formed to the south of his position while he was reporting on the violent Greensburg tornado. This was an extreme situation but does demonstrate the very real danger of chasing at night.
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This was yet another “right place at the right time” scenario of storm chasing. We had been on a storm all day long that gave a decent atmospheric show but did not produce a tornado.
As the sun waned, an unexpectedly strong storm fired up far in front of the rest of the storms, but just near enough to our position that we were able to get there in time for the tornado.
Finally, even though it was nighttime, this chase proved to be relatively safe, with minimal potential hazards and endangering variables compared to many other chasing events.
Nature has its ways! Have you ever decided to call it quits, only to change your mind back at the last second and be rewarded for it? Where have you found your hidden prizes of life?