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:

After success the night before, Sunday the 23rd was looking very primed for Severe Thunderstorm development along the dryline in Eastern Oklahoma. I had a pretty late night the previous night, and didn’t get out of bed until around 10 am or later. I took my time getting my gear together and getting out the door.

My target was up I-44 in the Tulsa to the OK/AR state line area.

As I was heading out of Norman and into Moore, I texted Cory Watkins to see if he wanted to go along. He did, so after a quick pitstop in Edmond, we were on the turnpike up I-44.

The only real storm worth intercepting at the time was north of Tulsa and Bartlesville near Coffeyville, KS. It looked beautiful on visible satellite, and was producing pretty large hail (golfball and bigger). It was severe warned, and somewhere before we even got to Tulsa became tornado warned.

We continued on I-44 all the way up to Miami where we stopped to use the rest room and top off our tank up with gas before intercepting. Up US 69 and a few minutes later we were going through Picher, OK and then were under a pretty high based storm west of Baxter Springs, KS.

The storm was creating a nice wall cloud, and a few times we got caught up looking at wall clouds which were forming and rotating. We drifted east to Baxter Springs. The storm seemed to be lacking an ingredient and just didn’t seem like it was going to get it done. Other storms had blown up to it’s south and southwest, and we were going to drop south out of Baxter Springs to catch the storm blowing up to it’s south.

It started to lightning a lot more, and actually created another decent scud or wall cloud looking feature to the east a few miles.

A few minutes passed, then someone mentioned a debris ball in nwschat Springfield, MO room. At first I thought they had to be talking about the storm up north as the storm I was sitting under sucked. Then I flipped over to velocities and saw a HUGE couplet. Joplin was being hit by a monster tornado!

We flipped around and headed back into Baxter Springs then east on 400/166 to I-44 and went east on I-44.

The southern side of Joplin at Range Line Rd. was out of power, but nothing had been visible yet. Brandon Sullivan was ahead of me and was radioing back about all sorts of damage at exit 10.

As we approached, we saw half a dozen or more semis in the ditches and thrown about at the interchange with US71. Trees had been reduced to stumps. Debris was all over the place. It was obvious that Joplin had just been hit by a significant tornado.

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. Where the passengers were, I don’t actually know.

I got off US71 onto 32nd street and started east. There was a ton of debris on the overpass. I dodged through it all and got to the other side, where power lines were down across the road, as high up as my truck. We weren’t going east, and it was about there that the chase was definitely over.

We heard Steve Polley on the radio saying not to go to the Flying J back on the other side of the freeway. We flipped around and drove by. A propane tank was spewing propane all over the place. The Flying J was completely toast – The building heavily damaged to almost being destroyed.

We continued down 32nd street and crossed I-44. The damage seemed to thin a bit, but we were just getting south of the damage path. We tried going north on Duquesne Rd but were stopped by debris.

All sorts of emergency vehicles were all over the place at this point, so I decided to head back the way we came and drop south and get out of Joplin. There was nothing we could do, and no place we could even go to get out of the damage.

We dropped south back on US71 in an attempt to go intercept the storms coming out of Northeast Oklahoma. The dynamics were very good down there, and I figured there might be the same boundary that the Joplin storm had to hit to produce significant tornadoes.

We dropped south on MO-59 to Noel and topped our tank off again, then drifted west in an attempt to find a clearing. This was almost impossible to do as it was some of the worst chase terrain that wasn’t in a national forest or park that I had ever experienced.

We eventually found a clearing, and observed a very rapidly rotating mesocyclone and wall cloud associated with the storm. It had been reported to have tornadoes, however, we never observed a tornado. The National Weather Service in Springfield has confirmed an EF-3 tornado near Southwest City. It appears that we saw the associated wall cloud/mesocyclone to that tornado after the tornado had dissipated.

We dropped south to Sulphur Springs, AR and found a very nice clearing on top of a hill to observe. Couplet after Couplet kept showing up on radar, and a lot of scud associated with the couplets were appearing, but we never saw anything we think to be a tornado.

Eventually we headed down further into Arkansas getting to Gentry before having to stop due to hail. We found shelter under an old gas station canopy across from the McDonalds.

As we were waiting under the canopy, winds picked up big time. The National Weather Service in Tulsa has confirmed an EF-1 tornado just west of Gentry around that time. It looks like it was approximately 1 mile to our west at the end of the damage path.

We headed back north momentarily as we thought we had seen power flashes, and wanted to get a look at the storm. We gave up and headed back to Gentry where we got some food and met up with Cory’s friend.

It was a long drive back to Norman, arriving a little after 130 in the morning.