Got incredibly close to large, violent wedge tornado just south of Wayne, NE. Back window blown out by strong inflow winds during escape.
Hail: .88″ (Nickel)
Wind: est 100-120mph inflow/outer circulation of wedge tornado.
New Milestone: First window lost in chase career.
Impressive, deep, compact and powerfull early fall low pressure ejecting out of the rockies and moving into the midwest. Speed and directional shear were very strong. Sufficient, deep moisture was already in place, instability was forecast to be strong for fall (2000-3000 j/kg.) Storms were expected to clear out in the morning allowing for ample clearing before a new round of storms formed starting at the triple point and arcing down a bowing cold front. Given the very impressive speed and directional shear, early isolated storms stood a good chance at producing strong torndoes along the triple point. A stationary front draped across southwest Iowa was forecast to lift north as a warm front as the low deepened providing a second target choice. SPC went with my personal favorite 10-hatched tornado probabilities under a MDT risk for hail which covered both targets.
A random chase setup or two in the fall is not uncommon. So around this time of year I start to once again scan the models for any potential bait. This system caught my eye several days out and showed good potential from the first time it appeared. As usual, models struggled early on with the timing and placement, but in the closing days things really began to zero in on a target area of western IA/eastern NE. Looking at the setup I could not find anything wrong with it other than the fact fall setups can easily be ruined by morning stroms and clouds sticking around too long and ruining the forecast instability. One more potential concern was with such a tight, compact low, a narrow warm sector could potentially not give storms enough to time to utilize the parameters, but other than that, it was an obvious chase on setup. Everything else was there. I teamed up with Joe Pudlik and we set sail from Chicago at 3am with Deb Saunders along for the ride. I wanted to leave early in case things set up further west which is not at all uncommon.
We made good time through Iowa and as the day dawned some severe warned hailers popped up ahead of us along I-80. One such storm started to show rotation on radar and displayed a threatening apperance ahead of us so we decided to make a detour to see what it had to offer. A decent lowering was present as we exited the highway but the storm soon became cold and outflow dominant as it crossed the boundary.
We arrived in Council Bluffs just shy of noon and found a McDonalds to eat and monitor things. Storms were continually firing off the stationary boundary located to our south and those typical thoughts of “Oh my god, if these dont clear out this day is ruined” thoughts set in for a few moments, but visible satellite and data showed ample clearing out west into Nebraska. Surface obs also showed the cold front still hanging way back west as well. West and north towards the triple point became our plan and we moved north to Missouri Valley, IA before crossing into Nebraska and continuing our trek. We stopped in the small town of Hooper which is located north of Fremont and continued to wait there.
The first blips started to appear on radar around 4pm to our northwest and it was go time. Heading up 9/275 we began to encounter annoying 1 lane contruction with red lights and pilot cars causing agonizing minute delays. If you’ve never been chasing you have no idea how frustrating this is. With the storms rapidly growing and now going tornado warned I attempted to get off the highway and go around on it some county roads. This worked will until the road turned to slippery mud. Not wanting to be slowed down I darted back to the highway, luckily past all the construction with a good visual on the storms wall cloud. Tornado reports came in, but we could never see anything and had another brief moment of angst thinking we missed it by mere seconds.
A cell merger was about to take place as we got into our first position on the southern end of the merging stroms thinking thats where our new area of rotation would develop, but instead the northern area of rotation held on and continued off to the north so we raced after it. Not wanting to deal with 275 again I got onto the slippery backraods again where I ran into chaser Skip Talbot. He warned me of the trecherous roads and that we wasn’t risking it but my vehicle would probably make it. We parted ways and pressed on down the slippery, muddy, hill road but eventually made it to the paved highway 15.
Turning north onto the highway I looked up and saw inflow bands screaming into a rear flanking gust front obsucred by a massive core. I’ve seen this before and I knew this storm was producing a tornado. The pedal was slammed to floor and we blasted north to attempt a clearer view. We got our view and sure enough, the beast slowly emerged. Hard to detect at first, but soon plain as day. A large wedge tornado was on the ground.
Wanting a clearer view, I kept us north to get deeper into the hook. The tornado remaining partially rain wrapped grew in size and strength.
The tornado was moving very fast and heading our direction. My plan was to get north of it and let it cross to our south and continue following it. This is a pretty risk move but one that is not uncommon. Other chaser video taken from the north showed a much clearer view of the tornado. I kept us moving north, not realizing the tornado was moving on a more NNE track as opposed to NE or ENE like I initially thought. I pulled over when I thought we were far enough north and instantly realized we were still directly in the path with the tornado rapidly closing in. The plan to get north was not going to work and it was time to abort.
I threw the vehicle in reverse and slammed on the gas just as the inflow jets arrived in the field next to us. Within seconds 90-100mph winds began slamming the vehicle from the south and instantly blew out the rear windshield. I yelled for everyone to put their heads down and continued to reverse and film. The wind was shaking the vehicle violently but luckily we were able to keep moving. I backed us far enough away to where I felt safe again to let the tornado pass VERY close by to our north. I saw a new RFD surge approaching perhaps as the tornado was getting ready to widen and backed us up again as even stronger winds probably 120mph or more slammed us from the southwest. Rain, dirt and debris was flying in the window making it hard to film and drive in reverse, but we were soon safe again. I jumped out of the vehicle to film the beast move along the highway only yards away. I could not believe how large it was. I have never seen a 1+ mile wide tornado from that close before and it looked like the entire black sky was on the ground. It didn’t even look like a tornado, just a rotating black mass that filled the entire northern horizon. It was incredible.
The following video stills are from this series of events.
In the last image you see a set of headlights. I watched in amazement as a little old man driving a clunker red car came driving south, seemingly out of the tornado. He passed me by, barely seeing over the steering wheel with a bland expression on his face. By now other chasers were catching up to me, and I moved my battered and broken vehicle over to the side of the road to try and get a grip on myself. Everything was soaked, my camera had shut off, my phone wasnt working, the laptop was waterlogged and not responding, so I just said forget it, time to get back on the persuit.
We caught up to the damage path and were turned around by emergency services with the storm slipping away to our north. Having a gaping hole in the back I decided to go to the town of Pender and find a gast station to repair it. There I found a gas station with some friendly locals who loaned me some duct tape and a couple garbage bags to patch the window. As we got cleaned up we learned the town of Wayne had suffered an almost direct hit from this tornado with major damage being reported in town. Some distraught residents arrived at our location, concerned about the weather and asking us questions but with all my equipment waterlogged and not functioning it was hard to give good answers.
After patching up the window Joe was able to get his radar on his phone and we decided to get back on the chase as the storms approached the Sioux City area.
We got on a new storm east of Sioux City on Highway 20 but night was now setting in. We could see a large clear slot with some lightning illuminated lowerings blocked by hills but could never confirm a tornado for ourselves. It turns out these storms did produce several tornadoes including another violent wedge near the town of Peirson, IA. We called the chase and continued towards home before I got a text from Alec Scholten that he, along with Jonathan Williamson and Skip were getting dinner in Fort Dodge. We converged on a steak house in town and swapped the many crazy stories, pics and video from the day before continuing the journey home, arriving back in Chicago around 7am.
The Wayne, NE wedge was rated EF-4 and caused over a dozen injuries but amazingly no fatalities. Without a doubt the close encounter with it is the craziest moment I have had in chasing. Being that close was a little frightening, but mostly incredible. My exact plan was not to get in that situation. I took a (mis)calculated risk to get north of the tornado. I am an agressive chaser, its my style.
Will I chase differently after this? Unfortunately for my critis the answer is NO. Now, some lessons were learned and I may not attempt the maneuver on such a large tornado again and will probably opt to just stick to the south/east and deal with the lower contrast view. Its easier to accomplish on tornadoes accompanied by drier RFDs than those big, wet, messy ones found on HP storms, and maybe thats what such risky intercept tactics should be reserved for…but time will tell on that one.
Here is the official survey map from the NWS, I drew a red line to represent where I originally thought the tornado would go.