Storm Chase Details

Chase Date: May 22, 2011
Chase Partners:
Cory Watkins

Chasers Encountered:
Steve Polley

Miles Logged: 575
States Chased: OK, KS, MO, AR
Severe Risks: SPC Outlooks

Chase Recap:

Morning Forecast

After success Saturday night near Ada, I woke up ready to chase on Sunday morning. Severe thunderstorm development looked probable in Eastern Oklahoma, with curving hodographs showing in the NAM forecast soundings.

I had a late night the previous night, so I didn’t get out of bed until around 10am. I took my time getting my gear rounded back up and getting out the door. I started towards Tulsa on I-44 to start, and would do a better forecast on the road. I texted Cory to see if he wanted to go along. After a positive response from Cory, I made a quick pitstop in Edmond to pick him up.

Heading East on I-44

The only storm to chase was up near Coffeyville, KS, north of Tulsa. The storm had a beautiful presentation on visible satellite. There was also some reports of large hail of golfballs and bigger. As we continued up I-44, the storm became tornado warned.

Visible satellite still showed no other areas of agitated cumulus, so we continued through Tulsa. Onto the Will Rogers Turnpike, we continued up to Miami where we stopped for gas and a bathroom break.

Arrival on the storm

Cory and I headed up US-69 through Picher and into Kansas. We ended up under the storm west of Baxter Springs, but the main updraft area was not apparent. We had multiple multiple updraft areas competing, and I ended up dropping back south into Oklahoma after the multiple updrafts going up to the southwest of the storm

Joplin Tornado

The updraft we dropped to started to show a wall cloud feature. I figured that we were in a good spot until I looked at the velocities on radar. Joplin was being hit by a monster tornado.

We headed back into Baxter Springs, and then east on 400 towards Joplin. I got onto I-44 and headed into Joplin. The southern side of the city at Range Line Road was out of power, but the major damage was not readily apparent.

Joplin Tornado damage

As we approached exit 10, we saw half a dozen semi trucks in the ditches. Trees were reduced to stumps and debris was all over the place. It was obvious a tornado had just come through. We dropped south on US71 in an attempt to continue east on 32nd street. Street lights were laying in the freeway, and multiple cars were laying all over the place. Almost all of them were missing windows, and seemingly had no passengers as well. I’m not sure where the occupants had gone.

Steve Polley was on the radio talking about damage at the Flying J. We were nearby, so we drove by the Flying J. A propane tank was spewing propane gas, so we continued on. As we continued down 32nd street and crossed I-44, the damage seemed to thin a bit. We were apparently just south of the main damage path. We tried going north on Duquesne Rd but were stopped by debris. Emergency vehicles were arriving and on scene, so we decided to head back the way we came. I decided to head back the way we came and drop south and get out of Joplin. We were ill equipped to help.

Dropping South

Cory and I looked at the radar and saw supercells now to our south. The decision, in retrospect, was probably a poor one. I did not realize the extent of damage in Joplin, nor how bad the terrain would be to the south. We headed back to US-71 and south. According to objective analysis, the storm dynamics were still very good. As we approached Noel, I stopped to top the tank and then drifted west of town. The hope was to find a clearing or other vantage point. I would learn that the correct answer is that there is no clearings in this part of Missouri.

Despite all odds, we eventually did find a clearing. I observed some rotation, but still had a blocked view. The wall cloud seemed to be pretty beefy, but it was impossible to tell for sure in this terrain.

Finding out about Joplin

We were both hungry, and had to stop in Gentry due to hail. I found shelter under an old gas station canopy.

After the hail passed, we went to McDonald’s across the street to get something to eat. It was inside that we found out that there was 30 fatalities in Joplin. I didn’t realize the extent yet, but it was obvious to me that it was a large tornado.

Joplin Tornado damage video