Storm Chase Log: "October Fest" Nebraska-10/4/13-1770 Miles

Around 10/1 I began to monitor what looked to be a strong fall storm system that would impact the central plains some time around October 4th. The system looked really promising (especially for a fall system) with ample moisture, instability and lift on most models. Differences were in place regarding location depending on the model that was used but the likely hood of my first storm chase since late June was shaping up. The system continued to look better and better as it progressed and the location looked to be narrowed down to the Western half of Iowa and maybe Eastern Nebraska. The SPC declared a moderate risk and the tornado potential looked impressive, the threat would include the possibility for a few strong tornadoes. The chase was on. I love a good fall chase as the winter season can be very long if not broken up by a few storms to look at before the snow starts falling. I departed Pueblo West the afternoon of 10/3 for the long trip. [custom_frame_center]

SPC outlook for 10/4

Surface map

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I arrived in Eastern Nebraska the night of 10/3 to severe weather already in place in the SE corner of the state. The main energy had not arrived from the West so the storms were not very widespread, but a tornado was on the ground for some time just after dark. I attempted to grab some lightning shots before making my way to Sioux City for some sleep. I was unsuccessful as storms NW of Lincoln just could not hold together long enough for me to grab some shots. Never the less I was excited for the next day. I never by-pass storms on the way to a chase as you never can be certain if that will be all you see for the trip.

I arrived at the Wal-Mart in Sioux City around 3am and set my rental car for my customary camp out. I have had several people ask me why in the world  I sleep in my car when I chase. This is a great question as most people would rather not sleep in the back of a car..sometimes for multiple nights. I will admit it is not the most comfortable spot but the experience makes it well worth it. I love the feeling of waking up in a target area for tornadoes with the moisture collecting on the windows and the feeling of the energy in the air. I  suppose it may be similar to the enjoyment someone gets from traditional camping. In some ways it feels like I am roughing it. Getting away from my traditional comfortable surroundings and staying outside in places I have never been. Plus its free. As I get older this tradition may go by the wayside as my bones wont be able to handle the back seat. Until then....you can find me at Wal-Mart.

Another tradition of mine is to head out early to find some local scenic areas for photography. Being that this was October I knew I could find some fall colors and an abandoned barn or two to photography. I happened upon the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway in Western Iowa and what a treat that was. Rolling hills with miles and miles of fall leaves with intense color. I found this one particular abandoned home at the end of old dirt road along with some other great landscapes. I couldn't stay too long as it was about show time.

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Abandoned home in Western Iowa

Cornfield off the Loess Hills Scenic Byway

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I made my way West as it became apparent that the triple point (The intersection of three boundaries and a good bet for tornadogenesis) was the target for today. It also became apparent that storm initiation would occur further West than anticipated as the system was not progressing as fast as initially  thought.  I took a few moments to analyze data in Blair Nebraska as the first storms initiated near Columbus. Time to GO!

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The NWS issued a tornado watch as I was making my way West and storms continued to intensify near Columbus.

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Thunderstorm initiation near Columbus Nebraska.

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Thankfully..the storms held off long enough for me to get into position to intercept. The initial storms actually took a little bit to get cranking as they were struggling to feed off the instability in NE Nebraska. I targeted my choice storm NE of Columbus and began to move North into position. This storm made several attempts at intensifying before finally getting a firm hold. I saw that the storm was taking on supercell characteristics and I moved West a ways. As I approached over a hill..I came upon the first tornado spinning across the landscape SW of Stanton Nebraska. This was not a strong tornado and it only skimmed the ground a few times but it was picturesque.

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A tornado near Stanton Nebraska.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dojTYAqBCrw

After watching this first tornado spin briefly it was time to turn around and follow the storm NE. I turned around and headed North towards Wayne Nebraska. I could see that the storm was getting very organized at this point and was recycling and could potentially drop a large tornado soon. As I was making my way North I could see a line of cars ahead. Uh oh! Construction limited the road to one lane and we had to wait for the pilot car to come back, turn around and lead us North. I waited..and waited and waited. All the while watched to my NE as the storm intensified with several large wall clouds developing. One of the joys of storm chasing. Construction can ruin a chase or even end it all together as your storm races away while you wait. Thankfully I made it through just in time to head back North and catch the storm. Unfortunately, I did get behind the main circulation and this did cost me staying with the storm all the way to the Iowa border. It also got me quite flustered. More on that in a moment.

As I made my way out of the construction I could see this storm was going to drop something fierce.  Just as I was heading East to turn back North I could see that it was on a direct path towards Wayne. I knew I could not get ahead of it so I made my move to see what I could find on the back side. Roughly 5 miles South of Wayne I encountered the monster. A massive wedge tornado had formed and was crossing the road no more than a half a mile in front of me. Later I would find out that this was a beastly tornado over a mile wide and rated an EF-4. The strongest October tornado since 1950 was passing directly in front of me. I don't know if it was the intensity or the construction that made me lose focus but I opened the camcorder and forgot to hit record. Ah...such is storm chasing..and if you are chasing alone as I do 90% of time, errors are unavoidable. I also was unable to pull my camera out as golf ball size hail, debris and 70 mph RFD winds were rocking my car. The intensity of the situation was like nothing I had ever felt.  It sounded like I was laying in the middle of raging rapids and my ears were popping like I was descending from 30k feet. I had never been that close to a tornado that size. The rotation of the main vortex looked like a time-lapse. There is no real way to describe this experience in words. It was UNREAL!

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Wayne Tornado Path

Wayne Nebraska Wedge Tornado as I try to race ahead of it.

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Police cars and ambulances were flying by my car and I gathered my thoughts and moved North to survey the damage in Wayne. The damage was not horrible on the South side of town but as I began to towards the NE side I could see homes and business leveled. Nothing can prepare you for images like this. People crying and cars in ditches. Telephone poles littering the streets and the smell of fresh-cut pine.  I had never had to perform search and rescue but I could see that no one was around to help some of these people. I found a house that was flattened and that no EMT's were at. I got out of my car and walked over a fence and around some down power lines and I hear a faint Help! I moved over to the house and the voice led me to a small window that led to the basement. I looked down and three little girls under the age of ten were crying, dirty and one had clearly broken her leg. I helped them all out of the basement lifting the injured little girl with her moms help. I helped them all sit down and told the injured little girl that it was going to be alright and calmed them the best I could. I ran back to my car and grabbed an afghan that I brought for sleeping to cover the injured girl in. Now this may seem like common sense at the time..and it was. The odd thing was the story of this afghan. I always brought a blanket, but I had never grabbed this one. This was a family heirloom from my grandmother who passed away some time ago. I couldn't help but think as I wrapped this little girl up that this was meant to be. My grandmother had to have seen the fate of her afghan and the smile on this girls face as it kept her warm.  EMT's arrived and I got out of the way. The girls mom gave me a hug and thanked me and I headed North again.

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Damage in Wayne Nebraska

Wayne Nebraska Tornado Damage

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[http://youtu.be/xxbadxoKkn8]

After seeing that the local paramedics and police officers were in control of the situation I made my way North to try to catch the storm again. On a side note, Thank you to the Wayne area law enforcement for doing such a stand up job and the EMT's for being in place immediately to help these people. You would think that this was enough action for the day but tornadoes were still churning NE towards Iowa and I had plenty of daylight. I never could catch the Wayne cell again but a new cell formed directly behind it. I was right in position to watch as this cell rapidly intensified and formed a wall cloud. The rotation passed 1/4 of mile to my South and I knew another tornado was imminent. The colors at this time were incredible. I had never seen anything like it. Pink's, purples and blues lined the sky as the sun was setting to my West. At the same time this new cell dropped an incredible stove-pipe tornado about a half a mile to my North. This thing was stout...and thankfully it missed farms in the area and only passed over open land. The colors were astounding and I was taken a back but this time I was able to use my camera.

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NW of Waterbury

Nebraska Stove Pipe Tornado near Waterbury

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The stove-pipe weakened and roped out over a field. I made my way to Sioux City to catch my breath and review my photos. I also was able to snap a few more shots of the amazing colors that were painted over the Nebraska fall landscape.

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Sunset with a tornado warned storm in NE Nebraska.

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This was a day I will not soon forget. 18 tornado reports were sent in to the NWS. The final numbers are still being researched but at least two EF4 mile wide tornadoes touched down and thankfully there have been no fatalities reported. My heart goes out to anyone who suffered damage and injury. This storm system will go down as one of the strongest to impact the central plains during the fall season.

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SPC storm reports for 10/4

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I gathered my thoughts in Sioux City and began the long journey home. The tornado warned storms were lighting up the sky as they continued to march to the NE into Iowa but I had had enough for the day. Odds are my next storm chase wont be until spring of 2014. This has been a heart breaking year for the storm chasing community as we lost three of the best in the business. I dedicate this blog and chase  to Tim, Paul and Carl. RIP my friends