I had been waiting for this weekend all year as it was the only time during prime chase season that I’d have 3 days off work. After last weekend’s outbreak in the plains, I didn’t think this weekend could be as good. After sifting through all the models, forecast discussions, and the good ole gut feeling, I picked a target area of Salina, KS. (which I found out later that quite a number of other folks did as well!) Due to the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend, the SPC, NWS and the media were really stressing the severe weather possibilities. It appeared the plains were in the bulls-eye on Saturday and then the midwest on Sunday. My goal was to chase in Kansas on Saturday, then race back home early Sunday morning and chase in Illinois. I’ll save you the time of asking the question and just tell you that I am indeed insane. 😉
After loading up all the gear, I departed Champaign around 7:30am on Saturday morning. We had blue skies here with a very comfortable, almost chilly conditions. I knew that where I was going, it would be a lot more warm and humid. I took I-57 south to I-70 and made my journey to the west. During the drive, I periodically checked weather data to see what was going on. There appeared to be a decent cloud cover over Kansas which had me worried at first, but with later satellite updates I noticed those quickly dissipated throughout the morning. I also noticed the SPC had issued a high risk for a big portion of NE/KS/OK. I made a stop in Columbia, MO for some gas and lunch at McD’s and wondered why both were cheaper out there than it is here in IL. 😉 Anyway, I got back on I-70 and continued west to my target area. I passed through Kansas City around 2:30pm and was alerted of a PDS tornado watch for Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. (whew!)
I tried to gather as much data as I could as I went through Topeka as there is no Verizon coverage past there. Shortly after leaving Topeka, my chase pal Mike Cox text messaged me letting me know storms were starting to fire up NW of my target area. (wait for me!) Around 5:00pm I stopped in Salina, KS to fill up with gas. As I got out of the car, the insane 40-50mph winds grabbed my beloved Cubs hat and took it for a ride. I ran after it and recovered it, must have been anti-Cubs winds or something. I pulled off the side of the parking lot to call Mike and see what was going on with the weather. (he was chasing in Iowa/Missouri) There weren’t any tornado warnings out yet for my cells, but he said they were increasing in size.
While we were talking, I noticed my Wi-Fi card had connected to a wireless network. I thought it was someone’s personal network or something, but when I loaded up a browser it took me to a signup page for TruckStop.net. They were charging like $29.95 / month or something like that, but all I needed was an hour or day’s worth. I went through the signup procedure and discovered a day’s worth was only $5.95, cheap enough even for me! Once I put my info in there, I was on the internet. (yay, data!) I started looking at radar/satellite loops to see what was going on. We had several storms to my north and then had some firing up further south of me. Both areas were prime for big stuff, so I wasn’t sure which way to go. I finally decided to go north, that way I could follow the storms back home. I headed north on US 81 and heard a tornado warning for Cloud county, which was 2 counties north of Salina. As I got closer, I was hearing lots of reports on the scanner of large hail and tornadoes. (here we go!)
I entered Concordia, KS around 6:00pm and the weather radio went off for a tornado warning in Republic county which was due north of me. I headed a bit west on CR 350 and as I came down a hill, I could see a nice cell/wall cloud to my west. As I continue west, I start seeing a mothership-shaped cell that looked amazing. (I definitely knew I wasn’t in Illinois!) I attempted to get closer to it, but unfortunately the road network went to hell and started curving back to the north. I quickly turned around and headed back east. As I went around a curve heading south, I noticed the striations in the clouds to the west of me. At the same time, I heard law enforcement on the scanner reporting a tornado on the ground just north of Jamestown. Sure enough, I took a gander and saw a brief glimpse of the tornado (more of a funnel cloud from my viewpoint). I made my way back to US 81 and headed south towards Concordia again. I headed west on CR 360 and located another wall cloud to my WNW.
I turned north on CR 775 and went about 1/4 mile up the road and pulled off to watch the storm. At 6:27pm, a tornado was reported on the ground 3 miles west of Courtland, KS which was about 17 miles from my location. I observed a wall cloud for about 10 minutes, but it never did drop anything. I headed north on CR 775 and then west on SR 28 towards Jamestown. I zigzagged north and west a few miles and eventually ended up on CR 769 about 3 miles northeast of Jamestown. I was now witnessing damage that this tornado had caused including a nice lovely tree blocking my path to the north. I headed back south, then west, then north again and encountered more trees scattered across the road. I turned around again and attempted to find a better path around the damage. It was now 7:00pm and it was slowly starting to get darker, but still plenty of daylight.
I called Mike back and was giving him a few updates from my end. I said “between the damage scattered around and these darn muddy roads, it’s hard to get around.” He jokingly told me to not get stuck out in the middle of nowhere, which at the time I didn’t really think about too much. (if only I knew then what I know now!) 😉 Anyway, I headed back east on CR 352 and then south and the east again to SR 28. I made my way back into Concordia (I seem to be attracted to that town alot on this chase!) and then head back north on US 81. As I headed north, I encountered a horde of chaser convergence. Tour groups, caravans, antenna farms, you name it and I saw it. (most of them were all well off the road as to not cause any traffic problems) I got just south of Belleville and decided to head west on CR Q. I heard the scanner mentioning strong rotation west of Scandia which was just about 7 miles to my west. I could see a nice wall cloud but from my viewpoint I couldn’t see underneath it.
Around 7:40pm, I made my way to the intersection of CR 15 and CR R (4 mi SW of Belleville) to stop and shoot some video. There was a wall cloud visible to my NW which I focused on most of the time. Being smart this time, I got out the tripod and shot some video of the wall cloud. The rotation was pretty darn impressive and I kept seeing funnels trying to drop down during the event. As the wall cloud became rain-wrapped, I focused my attention on the usually boring scud junk that was in front of me. It was getting sucked up into the clouds and literally going in all directions. I continued watching the storm as it moved to the east towards Belleville. I could hear the tornado sirens from Belleville going off, so I was hoping everyone there was taking shelter. At 8:00pm I decided to get back in the car and attempt to follow it. These country roads were getting really mushy at this point, but seeing how I was just one lousy mile away from the highway I figured I’d have no problems.
I headed east on CR R and was doing fine till about half a mile down the road. I was going very slow and not turning much, but the road had a mind of its own. I started sliding to the right side of the road and almost hit a wire fence. Luckily where I was there was some grass, so I amazingly turned the wheels just right to get me out of that scary situation. At this point I attempted to back my way up the road. That was going pretty good until I got to the hill, then I lost traction again. This time I slid to the left side of the road and there was no chance of recovering this time. My luck had run out as no matter what I did, I wasn’t going anywhere. I got out of the car and instantly sunk several inches into the mud. (great, there goes that pair of shoes!) I walked around to the front of the car and the wheels were not even making contact with the ground. (this is the one time I really wish I’d gotten a gas guzzling vehicle with 4 wheel drive!)
I now faded back to the conversation I’d had with Mike just over an hour ago about not getting stuck. I decided to call him and confirm the news that I indeed had gotten myself in quite the predicament. 🙂 He gave me a couple numbers to try on my cell phone for assistance, but none of them worked. Given the amount of severe weather still in the area, I made the decision to call 911. It’s amazing I even got through to them given the amount of stuff that was going on. I told the dispatcher my location and requested a tow truck. She said they were very busy but would send someone out as soon as possible. (this was at 8:30pm) I waited an hour just listening to the scanner and weather radio, but never heard anyone dispatched. I called again at 9:30pm and 10:30pm, but no one ever showed up. Another line of severe storms had formed and was moving through at this point, so I was getting rather concerned about my safety. I had no access to weather data at this point, so I couldn’t tell how severe the storms were.
I decided to call 911 one more time at 11:30pm and they finally decided to send an officer out to my location. Due to the now soupy road conditions, the officer could not make it to my location. Had I not been listening on the scanner, I would have never made contact with him. I heard him call the dispatcher and tell her that he was not going to drive his vehicle down the road. Despite calling 4 times, the dispatcher did not have my cell phone number. I could see the guy’s lights flashing way up on the hill, so I decided to make the muddy rainy slip-n-slide walk up the road to meet with the officer. He was smoking a cigar and asked me what in the world I was doing out here. I shuttered to say ‘chasing storms’, but he didn’t really respond negatively to that. I asked him if he could get a tow truck out here, but he told me they were swamped and wouldn’t be able to get their big rig down this muddy road.
He considered using his 4×4 to pull me out, but said he’d never make it down there. He ran my license and then offered to take me into town (yes, the one just hit by a tornado which I’m assuming had no power) to spend the night. I declined and said I’d just sleep in my car as there was no way I was going to leave all my gear in my car. He wished me well and told me to avoid the mosquitos if I could. I thanked the officer and made my way back to the car.
I called Mike on the trek back and told him I’d be out here awhile. While I was on the phone, I noticed I couldn’t see my car lights on anymore. That’s all I needed now was the battery to be dead. A big sigh of relief came upon me when I noticed it was just a small hill (this road was full of them) blocking my view. After scraping as much mud off as possible, I climbed back in the car and let it run for awhile to charge the battery. The storms seemed to die down and move out of the area, so I felt rather relieved yet still very frustrated at the situation. I decided just to try and get some sleep then worry about a tow truck in the morning. I think I dozed off for a few hours, but woke up around 4:30am. I started the car again and tried backing out of the ditch, but still no go. At this point all I kept thinking about was missing out on the high risk back in Illinois.
I had to come up with something, so I decided to call the roadside assistance number that had been included with my new car purchase last year. I didn’t think anyone would even answer the phone, but sure enough they did. I gave the representative my location and all the details and she told me they’d have a tow truck to me in 60 minutes. I laughed on the inside as I knew there was no way in hell they’d get someone out there that quickly. 15 minutes later, the tow truck operator calls me to verify my location. Soon after that, I saw headlights coming down the road. I was hoping he wouldn’t get stuck as the road was still pretty muddy. He hooked me up to the truck and pulled me out of the ditch. I really didn’t realize how deep I was stuck in there, I must have sunk in quite a bit.
Anyway, he got me back on the road and asked me if I thought I could make it back to the highway. I was very skeptical that I could, but told him I’d try. I put the car in drive and proceeded towards the highway. I could feel the car wanting to dive back into the ditch, but I managed to keep it out and make it back to the pavement. I waited for him to meet me up there and I thanked him several times for getting me out of there. I was so happy to be mobile again and still having a chance to chase back in Illinois.
I headed south on US 81 around 6:00am and made my way back to Concordia. On the way, the car felt very loose in the steering. I was very concerned I’d damaged something under the car, so I decided to take a closer look. I pulled off at a car wash and gave the poor car a much needed bath. I’m not sure how many quarters I used, but it was quite a few! As I was washing, I noticed there was so much mud caked around the wheels and struts that it was causing the car to be loose. I diligently cleaned out as much mud as I could and then continued heading south on US 81.
Total Mileage: 1,575 miles