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May 10, 2003 – Tornado intercept in Western Illinois

What a week of weather across the midwest and plains, but it wasn’t done yet. One more final burst of severe weather was in store before some calm finally rolled in. Would Illinois be in a path for this deadly destruction and wild weather? The SPC certainly thought so when they issued their unprecedented fourth high risk of the week on Saturday morning. The first morning Day 1 outlook just had part of northern and central Illinois in the high risk, with the rest of the state in a moderate risk. Further updates greatly expanded the area of high risk to stretch all the way from northeast Oklahoma to Ohio. The last high risk we’ve had here in Illinois was back in October 24th of 2001 and I remember what happened that day. Given the amount of severe weather throughout the week, I had very little doubt that this high risk would pan out.

The day started off very active with numerous storms moving throughout the state with many being severe and even tornadic. My early attempt to chase these was in vain as they were just too far out of my reach. I then noticed how quickly the skies cleared out and made way for the lovely sun to heat up the atmosphere. While this somewhat provided a cap, I figured that would actually help to get some really good storms late in the afternoon/evening. With my car not in the best of shape, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to chase. While looking at data on the computer, I received a voice mail from Matt Hartman and Joe Walters from INCHASE. They were just west of town here and well in range of the local 2m repeater. They were heading towards Springfield and then would check data from there. As they reached the range of the repeater, we said our goodbyes and I wished them well on their attempt to chase in a high risk area.

Not much was happening in the early afternoon as the cap was keeping storms from going up. I received an email from my chase partner Darin Kaiser who said that he really wanted to chase, but was stuck at work till 5:00pm. He asked me if I wanted to chase after then and if so where to target. After looking at some data, I thought we’d head out to Jacksonville, IL and then go from there. So maybe all was not lost? Numerous PDS tornado watches were issued and satellite showed that things were just about ready to explode. I continued watching data throughout the afternoon and noticed some storms rapidly develop in northern and central Missouri. (goodbye Mr. Cap!!) They went severe fairly quickly and then alot of tornado warnings were issued.

Darin arrived at my house a little before 6:00pm and I loaded up all my gear. We headed west on I-72 towards our originally target area of Jacksonville, IL. On the way over, I was able to pick up WAND on my TV and it appeared the storms were still going strong as they made their way into Illinois. As we continued westward, we could see the tops of the storms for quite a distance. Once we arrived in Jacksonville, we weren’t sure where to head from there as we hadn’t heard of any warnings close to us. Seeing a storm to our northwest, we decided to hop off I-72 and head north on US 67. As we were heading north, we received a tornado warning (both radar indicated and spotter confirmed) for Brown County which was just to our north. Judging from the speed of the storm and the towns that were in the path, we decided to stay on 67 and attempt to intercept it.

As we entered Beardstown, IL, lightning was definitely increasing to our north. We made a quick pit stop for gas and then continued on US 67. Around 8:15pm we entered Rushville, IL where tornado sirens were blaring. (here we go!) As we proceeded north on US 67, we noticed a lowering to our west. The weather radio went off and alerted us of a tornado warning for northern Brown county. (the county just to our southwest) We pulled off the road about half a mile north of US 24 and watched the lowering. There were some trees in the way, but once it got closer we could see a little more structure. Rather than using the LCD screen on the camcorder, I was looking through the viewfinder to video the storm. I took a quick glance up from the viewfinder and then spotted the tornado. It didn’t stay visible very long as it quickly became rain wrapped. I wanted to get out and tripod the camcorder, but we had lightning strikes way too close to be standing outside the vehicle holding on to a metal object. 🙂

We attempted to follow the storm on US 67, but just up the road there were 2 police officers that were blocking the road. We headed back into town and hopped on US 24 that took us on a more northeast course. About a mile north of Rushville, we noticed a wall cloud to our west. We watched it for a few minutes and it eventually dissipated. We continued north on US 24 and briefly spotted another wall cloud amongst the lightning flashes. At 8:56pm, we entered the town of Astoria, IL which was completely without power. We spotted a fire truck pulling out with its lights on, so we followed it up the road and came across some damage from the storm. Numerous trees were knocked down and some sort of metal shed had been destroyed. We drove up to a couple houses and asked if they needed any help, but they said they were ok. As we continued out of town, there was a big piece of metal in the middle of the road but luckily we swerved around it. We also noticed many power poles and stop signs bent over, so this tornado must have had some punch to it. We noticed a convoy of cars that were pulled off the road with one car having all kinds of lights going. We assumed it was some sort of chaser convergence, but at the time we didn’t know who it was. (more on this later)

We continued on US 24 and then jogged over to Rt. 136 and went east. Around 9:40pm, we entered the town of Havana, IL where yet again tornado sirens were sounding. We pulled up next to a gas station and noticed a couple ladies standing outside. We asked them if this was the first or second siren blast with which they replied it was the second. We assumed that it was the all clear as there wasn’t anything to the west of town. We continued east on Rt. 136 and heard several tornado warnings to our north. Unfortunately the storms were moving way too fast to intercept them, so we just kept on going east. At this point we were both getting hungry, so we headed south to Lincoln, IL to find some food.

Having bagged another tornado, I was in the mood for steak. Since neither one of us is rich, we decided to have the next best thing: Steak and Shake! 🙂 As we pulled in, we noticed a gathering of folks out in front of the restaurant. As we approached them, we asked if they were storm chasers. It turns out that they were the chase team from Valparaiso University in Indiana, better known as VUSIT. Ironically, they were the ones that we saw pulled over north of Astoria with all the flashing lights. 🙂 After talking with them for a few minutes, we headed inside for a much needed meal. After dinner, we decided to head back towards home as all the chasable storms were well out of our reach. We made a quick pit stop at Darin’s house in Clinton to check radar, but everything in the area was dying down. I arrived home in Champaign around 1:15am, very tired yet excited about another great chase.

Final thoughts:
Finally a high risk success! This was the first time I’d run through a damage path after a tornado, so it was somewhat disturbing to see that sort of thing. Luckily no one was killed during this event, so that is very good to hear. One thing I was rather surprised about is that Darin and I did not encounter any hail. I think that’s a first for us, we always get hail! 🙂 We heard numerous chasers on the 2m rig during our chase, so it sounds like alot of other folks were out and about.

Special Thanks:
As always, thanks to Darin for the transportation and enjoyable chasing. I’d also like to thank WAND-TV in Decatur, IL for showing our video on several newscasts.

Total Chase Time: 7 hours
Total Chase Miles: 315 miles

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