April 30, 2003 – Tornado intercept in Northwest IL

Today’s setup looked very interesting and promising, but would I be able to chase today? The models seemed to be all over the place with the system, so I wasn’t sure where this thing was going to strike. The wonderful CAPE values were forecasted to make a welcomed return to the area with values around 1500-3000 depending on the location. Dewpoints were also looking good and were on their way to 60+ without even looking at the models. Lifted indices were also forecasted to be anywhere between -4 and -8, so there was definitely some very nice instability. Finally, the helicity values weren’t too good in central IL, but in northern and northwestern IL they were looking much better with values projected to be between 200-350.

My chase partner Darin Kaiser usually has Wednesday’s off from work, but he had several folks set up appointments with him so chasing was put on hold for awhile. I continued to monitor the situation throughout the morning and pondered several target areas in case I could chase. Obviously, I knew we couldn’t chase in northwest Missouri or southwest Iowa as it was just too far away. I kept looking at northeast Missouri and southeast Iowa though as the models were showing some promising signs for that area. The SPC Day 1 outlook painted a swath of moderate risk from eastern Kansas to northeast Illinois. I wasn’t too confident in that forecast, but decided to see how it all panned out. As I was eating lunch, an MCD was issued for the area regarding possible thunderstorm development.

Shortly after the MCD was issued, I received an email from Darin saying that he was now available to chase, woo hoo! Now the problem was picking a target area. While I was debating that, a severe thunderstorm watch was issued for northern Illinois/Indiana. I initially wanted to head west towards Lincoln, IL, but then thought we’d have a better chance further north. I packed up the gear and awaited Darin’s arrival here in Champaign.

Darin showed up a little after 2:00pm and we decided to head west on I-74 towards Bloomington, IL. On the way up there we saw many towers try to go up, but all of them fizzled just as quickly. Was this a bust in the making?? With it still early in the afternoon, we weren’t about to give up just yet. As we entered the Bloomington area, we got on Route 9 and headed west. It was still mostly sunny and the air still felt very moist, so we were on the right track. We continued west on Route 9 and reached the town of Pekin, IL, but there still wasn’t much going on. As we continued west of town, Darin called Mark Sefried for some weather updates. He said nothing much was going on in the watch area, but told us he was heading to Burlington, Iowa to await further storm development. With nothing else to do, we decided to head in that direction to possibly join up with them.

About five miles east of Blandinsville, IL on Route 9 we received word that a tornado watch had been issued for parts of Iowa/Illinois/Missouri/Kansas, so something was brewing. About ten minutes later, the weather radio went off for a tornado warning in Henry and Louisa counties in southeast Iowa. While I had a county outline map of Illinois and Missouri with me, I didn’t have squat for Iowa. Seeing how things were starting to fire up, we made a quick pit stop in La Harpe, IL for gas and an Iowa map. We headed north on Highway 94 and continued getting warnings on storms just across the border in Iowa. We switched over to US 34 and headed west towards Burlington, IA, but quickly scratched that plan when it was clear that all the action was north of us. We turned around and headed east until we found Highway 164 that took us north towards the storms. Judging from the incredible areal coverage of this cell, we knew this one was really cooking.

We continued on Highway 164 until it jogged east, at which point we headed north on Highway 94. Once out of the way of trees we could finally see some of the storm features. I noticed a very sharp looking shelf cloud that was more upright than I’d ever seen. We pulled off on 30th street or about 6 miles due south of Aledo, IL. (6:35pm) The storm was to our NNE and we had a very pronounced wall cloud with a funnel hanging from it. The contrast wasn’t too good so we couldn’t tell if the funnel was on the ground or not at that time. The motion of it was pretty impressive though, so we knew this baby had some fire in it. To the left of the wall cloud we spotted a very thin funnel that appeared to extend all the way to the ground. Darin and I believe that it was actually a landspout. This is when the storm got really interesting as it moved to our east. We had some strong warm and humid winds blasting us and then all of a sudden it became cold and dry, it was unreal. I think it was the RFD wrapping around the wall cloud, just remarkable! Soon after that happened, another funnel dropped down from the center of the wall cloud. Not sure if it touched down or not, but it got real calm and we could hear a definite roar coming from the storm.

The storm continued to move off to our east, so we decided to follow it. We headed north about a mile and then went east on 40th road. Finally, we turned north on 230th road and pulled off to observe the storm again. (Time: 6:55pm – Location: 7 miles SE of Aledo, IL / 6 miles SW of Viola, IL / 1/4th mile west of Burgess, IL.) The storm was now due north of us about 4-5 miles, continuing to move off to the ENE. As we were shooting video, I yelled to Darin: “FUNNEL! FUNNEL!” At this point, I just happened to glance at the camcorder and notice it was still in standby mode therefore not recording any of this nice funnel cloud. (great Stan.. The one time you get close to a funnel and you screw up the video!) I quickly hit the record button and just after I did so, Darin yelled out: “TORNADO TORNADO!” (6:57pm) Sure enough, there was the coveted debris cloud I’d waited my whole life to see! Unfortunately it didn’t stay visible very long as it became rain-wrapped.

At this point we kept heading east to try to stay up with the storm. While we were moving to intercept it again, I tuned around on my scanner and found the local spotters/law enforcement talking about the storms. They were reporting lots of power poles down just north of us along with some other damage reports. We saw an Illinois State Police car with its lights going, so we knew he was in hot pursuit of the tornado! While in pursuit, we continued to video a funnel to our north but from our viewpoint it was hard to tell if it was on the ground or not. We followed the cop for awhile and then ended up zig zagging through ‘the woods’ where we were losing visibility and daylight. We eventually made it to a major paved road (Highway 17) and headed east. As we entered the town of New Windsor, IL, we got pelted with some very isolated 1″ hail.

We continued east on Highway 17 and eventually made it into the little town of Alpha, IL. We pulled in to the gas station there and made a quick pitstop. While we were sitting there, we experienced some small hail but nothing too impressive. I was nearing the end of my tape on the camcorder, so I decided this would be a good time to put a new one in. (good boy Stan!) We headed north a few miles on Route 150 and all of a sudden we encountered the beloved core of the storm. Pardon the pun, but we were now experiencing some hellacious hail. This stuff wasn’t isolated like the earlier event, it was raining hail. As Darin and I have done in the past with hail, we quickly found a house out in the country to take refuge at. This place happened to be some rural small church with a sign that said “Experience Jesus Today”. (lets just say I think we found him) 😉

The hail was now golfball size and was really smacking against the windows. We dove under a tree which was the only thing we could find to somewhat protect the vehicle. The event seemed to last forever, so we must have found the motherload updraft of the storm. While we were sitting there waiting out the storm, we had a huge power flash right behind us that lit up the sky bright green. For a moment there, I thought it might have been a tornado but believe it was most likely the lightning or hail causing the power to go out. (maybe that church sign was trying to tell us something) 😉 After about 7 minutes, the hail finally subsided. The truck had leaves from the tree plastered all over it, but luckily no broken/cracked windows. We decided to head back into Alpha, IL and return to the gas station we’d been at before. We had another short burst of hail while we were sitting there, but definitely wasn’t as intense or big as the stuff down the road.

Mark Sefried called Darin on the cell phone and asked if we wanted to meet up for some food. We decided that since we had a long drive back, we might as well stop chasing and have a bite to eat before we head home. As we were heading south on Route 150, we spotted yet another wall cloud to our SSE. No funnel or anything, but it was nifty to see even with it being as dark as it was. We finally met up with Mark and his brother Doug at a Hardee’s in Knoxville, IL for supper. We exchanged chase stories from the day and watched a little video from each other, so that was pretty nifty. We finally headed for home and eventually made it back to Champaign around 11:15pm.

Final thoughts:
Wow, what a chase day. It didn’t start out very promising, but turned out to be one of my personal best chase days ever! We had a little of everything today: shelf cloud, wall clouds, funnel clouds, tornado, large hail, lightning. It was just an amazing experience and I’ll remember this one for quite awhile. I think the only thing I didn’t get was a victory steak, maybe next time! 🙂

Special Thanks:
Once again, many thanks goes to Darin Kaiser for the transportation, good company, and exciting storms we always seem to find. Also want to thank Mark and Doug Sefried for an enjoyable chaser convergence after the chase. Next time we’re going for steak!


Total Chase Time: 9 hours
Total Chase Miles: 413 miles

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