Friday, October 6, 2017

Category 4 Hurricane Harvey

Still on my vacation to the Pacific Northwest following the great 2017 Solar Eclipse all eyes were on a Tropical Depression in the Gulf of Mexico. This looked to be a mostly flooding event as soon to be Harvey would become a Tropical Storm, maybe a category 1 hurricane (or so we thought.)

I had pretty much laughed at the Tropical Depression as it was barely three thunderstorm clusters the day prior and that night plots barely made soon to be a border line category 1 hurricane. There was no way I was blowing off my vacation for that. While some models (such as the NAM) were bullish (or so it appeared at the time) about a Major hurricane landfall I called its bluff. Arriving at my Rest Area for the night I was in a pretty salty mood as 00z model runs of the GFS and Euro both rapidly developed Harvey into at least a category 2 hurricane. But, I still wasn't convinced. So, I fell asleep only to randomly wake up around 5am Pacific Time and not be able to fall back asleep (thanks time change.) So, I grabbed my phone out of curiosity and checked the morning model runs and satellite and what I saw made me about crap myself. Those three thunderhead clusters were now one solid mass in the Gulf and plots sky rocketed to a category 3 even a border line category 4 landfall such as the NAM was suggesting. I quickly called my friend Brett Adair, scrambling to find a ride from the airport. After several failed attempts at reaching out to others my great friend Brennan Jontz who I had discussed the system with a couple days prior offered to pick me up in Dallas since it was on his way down there and he was flying solo. Super excited, I finally found a flight but it left in two hours and I was an hour from Seattle so I had to hustle. I didn't care about the price of flights or parking. The first potential major hurricane landfall in over a decade there was no way I was missing it. Day or night.

After setting probably a speed record for consuming my morning drive thru breakfast and gas fillup I arrived at the airport with 45 minutes to spare. Quickly throwing my cameras and an extra set of clothes in my bag I jogged to the checkin desk. Only to realize the stupid ass I booked through booked it out of Washington D.C. and not Washington state and in my hurry up mode I didn't even see it. I felt so defeated. I made this effort and it could slip out of my hands. But, I refused to accept this outcome so I hurried and logged onto the American Airlines website and found one flight leaving soon around the sametime as my other flight. I ran (nearly tripping over myself) to the front desk and urgently asked if I could please get a ticket for this flight and I'd figure out the other ticket later. Sucked having to pay a 35 dollar additional fee for the last minute booking but I didn't care.

I sent this photo to a couple group chats I was in and the reactions were priceless. Ranging from "I told you so"...."I knew you couldn't resist" "you crazy bastard". Butterflies in my stomach I finally got through security which seemed to take an eternity. Running to my gate with about 5 minutes before boarding time I get there just in time to hear that the flight doesn't look good and had been delayed. 15 minute delay turned into 30 minutes, then 45 minutes with the talks of it being cancelled. Are you kidding me?!?! I felt like the Falcons who thought that won the super bowl only to lose in overtime.

I snuck over to the desk before they officially cancelled it and hoards of people came over and border line begged to get on another flight to Dallas. The gentlemen found me a flight that left at 130pm. It was later than I wanted but it was a flight and was even kept on hold in case my original flight took off. 15 minutes later it was cancelled due to the fuel problem not being figured out. I called Brennan to let him know the situation and am forever grateful for how patient he was with it and still agreed to pick me up.

One hour prior to my boarding on the next flight I noticed I didn't get a boarding pass. So, I walked up to the lady who had been getting everyone taken care of and asked if I could get one. Only to have her tell me she saw my reservation but I didn't have a seat. Despite me expressing to her three times that the gentlemen earlier said that I was 100% sure on the flight I tried to remain nice and friendly. But I was quickly getting frustrated. She printed me off a pass and told me they'd get me taken care of at my next gate. I was so anxious I kept tapping my foot, pacing back and forth, and checking the clock about every 2 minutes still not knowing if I had a seat. Finally, just prior to boarding time I went up to the desk and a few intense minutes went by before my boarding pass with seat number printed.

Finally landing in Dallas I filled my belly with In N Out burger, visiting our friend Austin, and supplying up with food, water, and gas and we were on our way to intercept Harvey. Ominous signs came across our path on the way down however. As lines of charter buses made their way South to evacuate folks along the coast. Followed by lines of polices cars and power trucks. It was like an arm fleet driving down the interstate as thousands of cars even at 2am were driving in the Northbound lanes.

We arrived at the hotel our fellow chasers were staying at in Corpus Christi around 430am to sleep and assess the now category 2 hurricane in the morning. At the moment it appeared the hurricane was heading right for the city. However, there was concern the night before about it going South of our location into unchaseable terrain. After a couple hours of cruddy sleep we all woke up and it was becoming clear the hurricane was actually going to pass North of Corpus Christi near the town of Rockport. However, there was much less shelter for not only us but our vehicles and was only 15 feet above sea level. If big time storm surge came in our vehicles would be in trouble as there weren't any parking garages in that area. Many ideas were tossed around including parking at a church and riding out in the vehicle which I was dead set against. We finally came across a Marriott hotel that was just recently built, about a half mile from the ocean, built on a small hill and a few places to hide our vehicles in the parking lot that was going to remain open during the hurricane. The decision was made. Rockport, Texas bound we were as we packed up our gear out of the hotel.

Satellite throughout the day continued to impress as now category 3 Harvey rapidly intensified and a pin hole type eye was becoming more visible (blue circle is location of our hotel.) Unlike Matthew and Hermine intense winds were already being felt just in the outerbands of the hurricane.

Pictured is Stephen Jones and David Hegner watching the intense waves and surge begin to come out of its banks. Looking at radar and satellite I almost thought this thing was going to make landfall right around sunset as it appeared to be moving faster than predicted and by around dinner time winds were already gusting well up to 80mph. After shooting this photo and some B-Roll of the intense winds I looked at satellite again and my jaw about hit he floor.

Harvey officially reached the "pissed off" status and was now upgraded to a category 4 hurricane and still rapidly gaining strength. Around this time as well an extreme wind warning came out noting 145mph winds essentially coming right to our location. After shooting some more B-Roll Brennan and I headed back to the hotel to seek shelter and brace for impact.

Many other chasers were now converging on our hotel including the legendary Josh Morgerman from iCyclone. A chaser who'm I've looked up to for many years and the most humble chaser I have come across since Tim Samaras in 2013. At least with him here we know we are in the right spot. Sitting in our room having one last meal before landfall we receive a phone call on the hotel phone from the manager in a slight panic voice saying "everyone needs to report to the lobby for a meeting right now." The following meeting would send a shiver down my spine. The mayor of Rockport told folks staying behind to write their social security number on their arm. For obvious reasons I do not need to explain and further went on about the game plan for the worst case scenario. After the meeting I signed my life away on the waiver and the grasp of what was going on was finally starting to set in. We are actually here. We are doing this with a variety of emotions going through my head. I made a couple final phone calls to the parents just in case as Harvey continued to intensify.

Like in a haunted house on Halloween the lights in the hotel flicker on and off as if strobe lights were installed and after about 30 minutes "lights out" and it was time to brace for impact as Harvey's eye wall inched closer and closer.

As dusk fell, winds began to really ramp up. While outside the hotel filming we heard what sounded like a whistling noise and I turned to the right to see a large sign flying through the sky like a bullet. Crashing along the road, sparking and barely missing several vehicles. No idea where it came from, or where it went but it definitely had our guard up. Piece by piece, debris flew passed us. Like someone shooting objects out of an air cannon. One second you'd see it, the next its gone. Josh at one point even described a particular noise and if we heard it duck for cover because debris was inbound.

Darkness now took over and we began to get battered with winds around 100mph with gusts up to 110mph. Cars shaking back and forth in the parking lot like toys, power flashes going off looking like strobes of lightning, Harvey was making his presence known and we still weren't even in the eye wall yet. Flood waters beginning to be driven into the side doors disaster struck. While filming the water creep up to the hotel and the fence being demolished by the pool I smelled smoke and my heart dropped. I quickly alerted the hotel manager after making sure Brennan smelled it as well. The smell was coming from behind the door beside us and no way of knowing if we opened that door if flames would be burning. I had a brief moment of panic because the eye wall hadn't even arrived and we had no where else to go except our vehicles if this place went up in flames. Carefully, the manager opened up the door and the problem was obvious. Water had creeped into this room from outside and was getting into the electrical boxed located in this area. The manager sat by the door for a solid 30 minutes to make sure flames didn't ignite and as a precaution braved the winds and cut the power to this grid. This had me far from at ease though as smoke still smelled throughout the hotel, especially near the elevator shaft. But, at this point there was no time to worry. We were stuck here and whatever happens, happens.

Disaster struck as I received a snapchat from a fellow chaser back home in Oklahoma of a tweet from veteran storm chaser Mike Theis that he had wrecked his vehicle and was desperately trying to get ahold of Reed Timmer who was also at our same hotel. I quickly bolted down the hallway and tracked down Reed and told him what was going on. The timing was absolutely horrible as winds were now sustained well over 100mph and the eyewall was less an hour away from our location. Finding a logistically way for this rescue mission was a task in itself so none of us killed trying to save Mike. Tensions were high as a panic mode set in to get this mission underway but we all came together and fellow chasers Brett Adair, Stephen Johnson, and Bart Comstock braved the elements and came to Mike's rescue with not a moment to spare. When they arrived the eye wall was hammering us with winds now over 130mph gusting up to 144mph! I cringed as they parked. Their vehicle nearly flipping over I scream "get in here now!!!" as they scrambled up the handicap ramp.

Finally inside and us still out filming we all heard a loud "CRASH!" followed by pieces of glass flying all over the place and our ears all suddenly popped. Josh goes "I've never heard that sound before." As we were all unaware as to what just happened. Because that was loud.

Back inside, I noticed one of the panels on the roof had fallen down and Josh told us "okay, that means windows are gone some where. Because wind is getting in here now." All of this coming as our hotel sounded like it was growning in pain as the wind whipped through. I walked back to our room on the second floor to grab a piece of gear only to see multiple locals who were taking shelter rushing downstairs telling me we need to get out of here and the upstairs had been compromised. Confused, I walked back downstairs and the manager ordered everyone to stay on the first floor and said the stairwell was now cracking and was going to go any minute. Now, I wasn't aware of the other stairway and I had just walked down and didn't notice anything abnormal so I was a bit confused. That is, until I saw water begin flowing through the ceiling of the first floor like a waterfall. Turns out the loud crashing noise we heard earlier was the entire 4th, 3rd, and 2nd floor wall caving in and now all three floors were exposed. The wall was no longer there and piece of the roof were coming apart and the 3rd and 4th floor were being gutted from the inside. I can't lie, at this time I was becoming very unsettled. Harvey's eye wall did not want to leave as we continued to get battered. I wasn't sure how much more this hotel could take. I snuck back upstairs quickly and grabbed our electronics and moved them down stairs in case the top floors collapsed in on itself.

Walking back outside one last time before we were ordered to stay in the lobby winds were so strong they picked up and scooted Brett's SUV about 3 inches to the left. How, it did not flip is beyond me as it was basically being bent, and pinned down on the left shocks.

Coordinating with a local station I work with back in Ohio WSYX 6 I was brought live on air as Harvey's eye wall was lashing out. A first for me as most of my interviews have been pre or post chase. This was a first from me reporting from ground zero. I told them to quickly get me on because I wasn't sure how much longer cell service was going to last. Winds were absolutely vicious right now. Around this time water was creeping into the hotel lobby with nearly a foot of water at the first front door and water bubbling into the lobby further and further towards the front desk. While on the phone I kept having to back up and move my gear as water continued to flow in. This was also scary because it being at night, we had no idea if this was just flooding or storm surge. If it were storm surge we were in big trouble. Especially our vehicles. As the eye wall was slamming our location a very rare occurrence was unfolding. Lightning was flashing throughout the eye wall. Something that only happens with the strongest of hurricanes and is rarely documented. It was so frequent at one point you'd swear a severe thunderstorm was coming onshore. Then, as if someone had just flipped a light switch the whistling suddenly stopped and the rain calmed while I was live on the phone. We had successfully gotten into the eye of Hurricane Harvey. Just a minute or so after I had said I was hoping the eye passed soon so we could asses the hotel as it was taking a brutal hit.

Scrambling up to my room to grab a flashlight and get video multiple being came out of their rooms holding a bunch of their personal items and told me we were all being evacuated to the nearby High School and this structure was ready to cave any minute. I had a brief surge of panic because we had so much gear, so much food, and so little time to throw all of this stuff into our cars with the other eye wall approaching. I came here to document a hurricane however and I wasn't going out without some video. The following photo is a video grab from a video that would go viral after being posted is from a quick video update when I darted upstairs to asses the damage from the collapsed wall. No power, I used the flashlight we brought to navigate my way down the heavily damaged hallway. No air conditioning was also making things brutally hot and humid inside. Drenched in sweat and out of breathe I give a video tour of the third floor, fire alarm sounding and pieces of the roof clanking together like the barn scene from twister I make my way down the hallway and show all the insulation and debris thrown throughout the hallways. I could now understand why Niagara Falls was coming through the roof so that explained that.

Making my wI've never been in a structure while it was hit by a tornado. But, what I saw I imagine what it would be like getting hit by a tornado and walking out from the storm shelter after it had passed. Trees laying all over the parking lot, the hotel across the street roof caved in, power poles down as far as we could see, debris littering every inch of the hotel yard, and after dodging all of this debris we came around to the other side of the hotel and the damage was even worse than it appeared from the inside. The stairwell was now....well completely open, several rooms were gutted, and the wall on the 3rd an 4th floor was gone while the 2nd floor was being peeled away and part of the roof being torn apart. However, while outside Stephen and I both looked up and we could see stars!!! Not only could we see stars we were seeing a full on stadium affect where you could see what hurricane hunters typically see while flying and that was all the corners of the eye wall!!! To top it off the eyes wall was being illuminated by lightning flashes all while there were stars shining above! Our small group jumped for joy in awe of the site! This was such an incredibly rare site and I have yelled at Josh who was charging his phone in his car to look up and this was a site even the legend hadn't seen! This alone made all of that traveling and fear worth going through. Just incredible.

My good friend Simon Brewer captured this incredible site better than I could on my camera. Just let that scene settle in for a second. Just unreal.

Our good vibes were short lived though as tensions escalated between everyone and a heated argument even broke out between several people in the parking lot trying to decide whether to stay or go to the school. The decision wasn't exactly easy as tweets were coming out that the Elementary School had been heavily damaged and nearly leveled. Fellow chasers/friends Mike Scantlin and Connor McCrorey told us they were headed that way to scope it out but were likely coming back and would let us know what it was like. One thing we all had to figure is if we did go to the school our chase was over. There was no way going there they'd let us out to film let alone let us out the following day. Since power was out I used this meeting time to plug in my phone to the car and let it charge for a bit before the second eye wall hit.

I think we changed our mind about 10 times before finally making a decision. Josh (iCyclone) was staying and assured us that he felt safe here and with his experience we trusted him so our decision was finally made to finish off Harvey in this hotel. But first, we moved our vehicles to a different location as this time winds were going to be coming from a different direction. Several chasers including Brett's SUV lost windows in their vehicles and used trash bags and tape in attempts to prevent water damage to the inside of their vehicles. To our surprise neither Stephen's or Brennan's vehicle sustained damage (yet anyway.)

Settled back into the hotel, the last update I had posted was that video and was just about to post our plans when my 4G went completely out and all my signal vanished. Harvey had now taken out the cell towers and we were flying dark now. Hoping not everyone was thinking I was dead now I closed my phone as winds begin to pickup rapidly again. Everyone in their cars moved inside and we would leave the front doors open as long as we could before having to close them. It didn't take long for winds to ramp back up to over 100mph and our cars to start shaking back and forth. I was secretly hoping that this second eye wall wasn't as strong as the first. Because if the other wall of the hotel did the same as the first we were at risk of the entire structure caving in. It was also at this time there was only media and storm chasers left in the building besides the manager. Everyone else had evacuated.

Didn't take long either for things to get dicey again. Pieces of the canopy now were beginning to tear away and you could see the canopy trying to be lifted up. If this fell not only would all of our vehicles be taken out, but one of the main items supporting the building would be gone. We would be absolutely screwed this this gave way. But, if it was going to happen we were getting it on video. I think we all had the same looks on our faces but just didn't want to say anything as we were all getting very nervous.

Winds began to really ramp back up well over 100mph again. Loud crashing sounds could be heard as a bone chilling whistle echoed throughout the severely damaged hotel and water began to rain down from the second floor again. This whole time we are blind as cell service is cut off so we couldn't really monitor what was going on with Harvey or anywhere around us. The manager was nice enough however to open up the food area to us and we chowed down on ice cream, chips, soda, and canned food. However, after about an hour it became apparent that the second eye wall was not nearly as intense as the first. Which was a breathe of fresh air. Because now that the winds shifted and were beating down on the only sturdy part of the hotel I'm not so sure we would have been safe if the other wall did the same as the last. Around 2am I became so exhausted I passed out on the couch and woke up about an hour later in a panic because I hadn't realized I fell asleep and wasn't sure what was going on or had happened since I slept. A quick look around showed that multiple other people had called it a night as well so I walked up to my hotel room, and despite water coming in from the roof fell asleep.

The following morning we all awoke, checked ourselves and realized we had made it. But, we were far from out of danger as Harvey stalls over Texas bringing with it catastrophic flooding. Walking to the window I confusingly say to Brennan "I don't remember being able to see out this far before" and realized all the trees outside the hotel had been stripped of their green. Pictured above I snapped this image of Brennan observing the heavy damage taken from the 4th floor of the hotel and outside looked like a war zone or like a 10 mile wide EF2 tornado had just went through.

Yep. That was our stairwell. Just behind us was a similar scene except it was a room. Downstairs and outside had similar scenes as we observed the extent of the damage to Rockport. We still didn't have cell service to let people know we were okay or where the flooding was setting up.

More damage to the hotel (this used to be the pool area)

We got really lucky here as our one escape route out of Rockport was almost blocked by a downed radio tower leaving only one lane open to get out. We quickly took this opportunity as we weren't sure if they'd shut down that last lane and with the risk of 40 inches of rain coming we didn't want to get trapped. Not having cell service we still weren't sure where Harvey actually stalled out.

No caption needed for the image above as Rockport was devastated by Harvey.

Some of these views were tear jerkers as a lot of folks live out of their campers down here and every campground we came across looked like this. Not only flipped over, but flooded from storm surge and flooding. Around this time we found one bar of 4G and our phones absolutely exploded. I hadn't known my video of the hotel had gone viral yet and was flooded with friend requests and messages asking if we were safe. Seeing strangers and friends checking up on you really warms your heart. Even if its friends you aren't super close with. It shows people actually care about your safety in the middle of disasters. Not having much service to post a big long status I simply said "Hi" to let everyone know we made it out okay and checked radar to see that Harvey had set up its heaviest rain bands right over Houston Texas. While good for us to not be stranded for days this was an absolute worst case scenario due to how populated Houston is. But, our battle wasn't over. Corpus Christi was a total ghost town with some overall minor damage observed but the entire city was shut down. Which was okay for us because we had more than enough fuel, food, and water to get us through the week. Coming down the interstate though out of Corpus there was a large police presence blocking the entire highway in both directions. Our stomachs sank because we thought our escape route was closed and we would be stuck just when we thought we'd be okay. An overpass sign had caved onto the highway due to extreme winds but thankfully next to an exit ramp where we could take and get around it and back onto the interstate. After all that madness, for now, we were home free. Arriving at a gas station to get some real food finally we ran into fellow chasers and good friends Simon Brewer and Juston Drake who got absolutely insane video from inside a car wash as a section of it collapsed around them causing some fairly significant damage to Simon's car. Simon even lost his back window due to the extreme winds throwing pieces of rocks. I'm never one to really like McDonalds but man, that McDonald's tasted as good as when I hiked 26 miles and chowed down on 10 dollars worth of food off the dollar menu to myself on the PCT.

Brennan and I were both physically and mentally exhausted and needed some sleep bad. We arrived in Austin, Texas and after getting some food headed back to the hotel where we would finish off some interviews for the day. We may or may not have shamelessly watch the Mayweather/McGregor fight as well. Along the way we were still seeing the affects as far inland as Austin where trees were uprooted due to high winds and excessive rainfall.

The following morning I woke up and saw what was occurring in Houston. Didn't even need to log into social media to know what was going on. Radarscope told the story. Sadly, I didn't get much in the way of sleep thanks to my anxiety randomly flaring up. But, it was time to get the day underway. Communicating with a station back home WSYX 6 I gave them our game plan and while we originally weren't going to cover the flooding in Houston we decided we are here and might as well do what we came here for. Except we set our course from some of the other smaller towns that would likely be just as damaged but covered less. However, the severe flooding appeared to be congested into one area and that was Houston. Because observing several towns about 30 minutes outside Houston, while flooding they were well above the river level and were in no danger of massive flooding. We sat in a small town after being shown around by a local older gentleman who was nice enough to take us on his property and shoot some B-Roll we tossed around the idea of going to Houston. But, with my flight being the next afternoon I was a bit worried we'd get stuck and I'd have no way back or fork over another chunk of change for another ticket. But, I've always been a person to worry less and just go with the flow so we set course for Houston.

Just outside of Houston in the town of Richmond, Texas not only was there damage being done by the flood waters like this caved in road pictured above there was also multiple tornado warnings on going. One of which had a confirmed tornado on it as we approached town. We chased it for a few minutes and saw some very strong rotation but could never confirm a tornado. Based on velocities it looked like the tornado had lifted just prior to our location (of course) but throughout the entire day this little town was in more than 5 tornado warnings. Just to add insult to injury.

We spent several hours on the outskirts of Houston covering the floods as much as we could gain access to and opted out of going into downtown Houston based on the traffic map. So, we booked a hotel in Waco, Texas and set course for home. However, Harvey would not at all make that easy on us. On our way to the main interstate that runs from Austin to Waco we had to take some flatlands in rural Texas near multiple rivers and our interstate had several areas that were in jeopardy of being overrun but we made it through. But, man we might be in trouble if we have to turn around and come back. Then, about 10 miles up the road our hearts sank. The interstate was shutdown as a foot of water was roaring over both the West and Eastbound lands. I zoomed way in on maps and saw several ways around this that would link back up to the interstate. First detour flooded by swift moving water at an unknown depth. Second detour. flooded. Third detour, flooded.  We were running out of options before we were stuck on the highway until the waters lowered. We reached our fourth and final detour and on maps, if we could just make it passed this one road near the river we were home free and into the higher elevation again. About five areas along this route had water either over the road (that was still passable) or had deep water in one of the lanes. If we had to turn around we were done for. But, finally. After 4 hours of driving and detouring with many butt puckering moments we finally made it to the main interstate of I-35. I have never been so happy to be on I-35 in my life and onward to Waco we went.

Despite the destruction left behind in Southeast, Texas when nature showed her teeth she also reminded us that she can be quite beautiful. Treating us to one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. It was a breathe of fresh air being park along side that road watching the sun fade into the horizon after three days of adrenaline pumping madness.

But, just when we thought this chapter of our chase was over......think again.

Now, normally I'd rather sleep in my car than stay in a Motel 6. But, with both of us with wet clothing, smelly, and needing to charge gear we wanted a room and a bed. Arriving in our room the first thing we noticed was the smoke detector beeping indicating low batteries. Called the front desk and the old cranky lady told us they didn't have anymore and to just take out those batteries. Because that's not a massive fire hazard at all. But, okay. We can look passed this since we are super tired. Peaking out the window we noticed a truck parked in front of Brennan's vehicle. We were already willing to accept that the gas cans wouldn't be there the next morning as it didn't take a genius to know we weren't in a very good area of Waco (if there even is a good area in that city.) Even with our valuables inside we were still left unsettled because we simply didn't want someone breaking into the car and sifting through everything. We observed the truck that was obviously scoping out Brennan's vehicle for several more minutes before it backed up into the space next to his. Here we freaking go. But we waited a few more minutes before going outside. Then, out of one of the rooms comes out a girl in skimpy shorts and tank top walked out of one of the rooms, got into the passenger seat of the truck after taking money from the driver and can put together those pieces and they left.

After that, Brennan went to go to the bathroom and noticed that door was nearly broken off of the hinge. But that wasn't even the best part. We also noticed the wires to the lamp were bare open and only being covered by electrical type and the wires were wires off of an old radio. What in the actual crap is going on?! 30 more minutes go by and we see another vehicle (this time a white truck) pull in and do the same as the last. Sit in front of Brennan's vehicle, back into the spot, and out of one of the rooms comes another girl in similar clothing, take money, get in the truck, and leave. Okay, its time to leave. We packed all of our stuff quickly, and went inside to get a refund only to have the old lady rudely tell us we had been there too long and couldn't get a refund. We asked what is the cut off limit? She told us she didn't know we exchanged back and forth with her for a bit saying if you didn't know then how can you sit there and say we are passed the limit when its been barely over an hour? Not to mention the smoke detector being a massive fire hazard. As if this couldn't get crazier she looked at us and said that she would keep watching in case there was a fire and asked if we planned to set one or something? I looked with my mouth open shocked at what I had just heard. A bit more of arguing went on before we walked out and just cut our losses. But not before emailing the Motel 6 headquarters about this lady and our experience. Finally, we found a nicer hotel and didn't care about the price in what seemed like a nicer, and at least well lit area and finally passed out almost as soon as we laid down.

Morning came, and Brennan, myself, and Austin grabbed a bite to eat before taking me to the DFW airport to catch my flight to Seattle. Not going to lie, being 3 hours from home and getting on a flight to be 30 hours from home and still having to drive back sucked. Not to mention my 12 hour layover in Denver. But, after that experience I'd do it all over again in a heart beat.

Harvey will go down as one of the most devastating Natural Disasters in U.S history and would drop a new world record of 62 inches of rain over Houston causing billions of dollars in damage overall. Winds topped out at 145mph (at least measured) and the damage sustained to Rockport and surrounding areas was absolutely devastating. But, I have no doubts seeing everyone come together like they did these areas will rebuild.


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Carpenter, Wyoming Violent Tornado-Historic Wyoming Tornado Outbreak

With 2017 being one of the most frustrating years of chasing since 2014 it seemed chasers (including myself) were losing hope of anything incredible happening this year. Countless setups with high end potential flopping, stronger or weaker than forecast EML plaguing many setups, including most of the High and Moderate risk days issued this year. Or lack of surface flow on what would be cyclic tornado producing beastly storms. Lets not forget all the cold pooling issues this year as well. With only one photogenic tornado since March (that being the McLean, Texas tornado) that every chaser and their mother had the same shot of 2017 was taking quite a toll on my motivation to chase. That is....until June 12th. About 4 days out Stephen and myself were out chasing in the Texas Panhandle where we lost our windshield thanks to baseball size hail a system the GFS was picking up on caught our eye. A powerful shortwave streaming up into the Dakotas bringing with it a very moist airmass. We ran into Emily Pike, Brett Wright, and Chris Sanner at a truck stop in Western, Oklahoma and Brett had asked if we were heading up to the Dakotas. I personally had my doubts due to the fact every decent looking setup this year 4 days out seemed to always find a way to crap out on itself. I was more locked on working. But it definitely had all of our attention. I remember Emily jokingly say "You're going to chase and you know it."

By day 3 the SPC had introduced a slight risk area for the Dakotas and into Eastern, Wyoming with a less than promising outlook. However, when the NAM startled trickling in things started to become much, much more interesting. NAM was coming in much slower bringing unheard of parameters into Wyoming, Colorado, and the Nebraska Panhandle. On a good chase day you can get tornadoes in that part of the country with about 1200 cape and mid 50 dew points due to elevation and mountain enhanced features. NAM was trying to flirt with mid 60 dew points and 3,000 cape streaming up into the high plains of Wyoming and Colorado thanks to strong Southeasterly/Easterly flow. While eye grabbing I thought for sure this was long range bs.

By the time our system was 2 days out it was becoming clear that the best setup of the year was becoming a real possibility (in Wyoming of all places). GFS run by run started to slow down and all models were hoaming in on Wyoming/Colorado madness. I remember pulling soundings and my jaw hitting the floor. Because these soundings were conductive for strong tornadoes in Kansas and the Central Plains. Put these in the High Plains and something historic would unfold. But being how this year has gone I still refused to get excited. So many setups this year have looked almost perfect and then 24 hours prior take a dump. Then the evening before we leave came and the NWS in Cheyenne released one the sexiest AFD's I have ever read. 

For the first time all year I actually had the prechase jitters and were texting fellow chasers that were out that we are going to see something incredible tomorrow. The big question marks were still out as to if models were over doing moisture and if there would be enough cap to hold off storms until later initiation and remain discrete. Sure enough as we entered Colorado there was thick, dense fog. Something I have never seen there the night before a chase meaning dew points like models had forecast were verifying. A glance at surface obs and lower 60 dew points were already in place across Eastern, Colorado that would be pulled North later in the day. We awoke in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a thick fog deck. Again, something you don't see in the high plains on a chase day. I walked out of the car to go to the bathroom and it was so humid you would think you were in Kansas. Morning CAM models were orgasmic at best. Showing a string of behemoth supercells marching across the Colorado/Wyoming border. But I wasn't totally sold that it would be that far South. 

Stephen and I both agreed to split the difference between target areas and headed towards the town of LeGrange, Wyoming. But were greeted to absolutely no cell service to monitor how the day was unfolding and was such a small town there was no where to get wifi. So, we continued up to Torrington, Wyoming for better cell service and to grab some breakfast before the big chase day. On our way up the new outlook came out and words of 2017 were beginning to tease us with "Observed sounding out of Cheyenne revealed a very weak capping inversion). Greeeeeeeeeaaaattttt! Just what I want to hear. But, after bumping into fellow chasers Rob Forry, Emily Pike, Brennan Jontz and many others it was around 1pm Mountain Time and there were no signs of initiation. It was at this point I knew something historic was coming and the game was on. Now, the hard part was choosing North or South. Storm chasers are some of the most superstitious group of people you will ever meet. While chilling in a McDonalds parking lot I found a random quarter in my pocket. I told someone to call it and if we call it right we are going to see amazing tornadoes today. Sure enough, we called it right.....Remember that later...

As if this day couldn't get wilder not only did we have the furthest West a hatched area had ever been (let alone for tornadoes) the first ever in Wyoming history PDS Tornado Watch had been issued. My jaw nearly hit the floor. I still couldn't believe we were dealing with a 15% hatch tornado threat and PDS Watch in Wyoming of all places!

We found a hill in LeGrange where we got weak cell service but enough to load radar as we saw towers bubbling off to our North and South. Several foot tapping moments went by as we let the storms mature. The northern storm was now severe warned and isolated as all that can be. While the storms coming out of the Fort Collins, Colorado area appeared to be somewhat cluttered not making our decision easier. I've been burned so many times not listening to my gut and the whole time we sat on that hill my gut was telling me South. With a nose of 4500 cape streaming up to the Colorado/Wyoming border and mid 60 dew points pooling right where these storms were heading it sealed our fate to go South. That, and the Northern storm was moving in a Northwest direction. Not deviant for tornadoes. I even jokingly said "That'd have to make a massive right turn to go from moving NW to NE." Well, as if almost the weather troll God's were listening. As we approached the Colorado border the Northern storm was now tornado warned in an equally as impressive environment and was guess what?! NOW MOVING NORTHEAST! NEAT! Can't wait to screw up another 2017 setup. Photos streaming in from group chats of friends on the Northern storm and looked absolutely classic with a near ground scrubbing wall cloud. The car grew silent and had that sickening feeling in my stomach because I knew what today was capable of.  Disaster struck as Emily's car started leaking radiator fluid as we pulled off into a gas station and we offered her to jump in our vehicle as our storm was now (finally) tornado warned and the chase was back on. 

Radar presentation showed two absolutely classic supercells and both were now tornado warned as we came in to attack. 

Watching both storms approach it put on quite a dazzling display of two bases dancing with each other as one tried to become dominant while also spitting out an insane amount of CG lightning bolts way out ahead of the storm every second or two. 

While this was very cool to watch, I was quickly becoming frustrated. One storm would never take over. One base would look very good while the other seemed to be dying, only to have the dying base start to look good again and the other mature base start getting cut off. This would repeat for nearly 30 minutes and I was growing less and less optimistic by the minute. I figured the storms would just keep choking each other off and never amount to much while hoping to God the Northern storm didn't do anything as it was still looking very good. 

FINALLY it appeared that the southern storm was taking over and the Northern cell was being choked off. You could also notice this visually as now one base was quickly becoming sculpted and a big RFD cut was working in. I thought for sure this thing was about to plant a significant tornado anytime. I even messaged another group chat I am in that this thing was about to put down something big. 40mph warm inflow screaming in, taking loads of dust and dirt with it I was ready. 

Another length of time went by and I had no idea how we didn't already have a tornado at this point. Everything was there. 

Here you will see what built up my frustration to wanting to be done with the day. Our storm began to undergo a core dump and its base was quickly getting higher and higher and appeared to be on a weakening trend. Yelling at the wind I did not understand how this was not producing tornadoes. Stephen checked mesoanalysis and our problem was solved. 0-1km helicity was severely lacking. Meanwhile, the storm we had been eyeing near Cheyenne was now tornado warned and looking more and more mature with a reported funnel cloud. The idea was briefly tossed around to attempt and get up there but I couldn't shake my gut feeling about this storm despite it not looking so hot at the moment. The Northern storm to me wasn't behaving like a typical boundary riding storm where it seems to explode on one radar scan and turn hard right. It was this storm or bust in my eyes. Stephen and Emily agreed and again, it was almost like the weather Gods could hear our frustration and sadness as we thought we were going to experience yet another 2017 bust as inflow ramped up and blasted us with dust. Getting back in the jeep and continuing North to pace the storm I could barely keep the jeep on the road the inflow was so strong and you could see the base lowering in real time. I was having flashbacks to the Chapman, Kansas storm where it lowered substantially just before tornado geniuses occurred. Then a small funnel began to dip down out of the sky. 

I pulled over on our East option as the little funnel roped out and inflow was so strong it bent the power poles behind us and the base had lowered substantially. It was time. Now or never. Blasting East towards the town of Grover, Colorado on a dirt road to get to our North road our storm continued to get better organized and we still hadn't heard of any tornado reports up North (except for the Cheyenne storm that had produced a beautiful tornado that hardly anybody was on). Turning onto Highway 390 our wall cloud was really ripping and two funnels began to dip down, rotating around each other as our wall cloud continued to spin faster and faster. "Its carouseling!! its carouseling!" I yelled as the motion became stronger and stronger. 

There's no way this is not going to produce at least a brief tornado. We now ran into a road problem on how to keep up with the storm. We could blast North/Northwest and get right up close and hoped it produced, flipped around and get to our East road. Or take our East road now and keep pace with the storm. I said "North, North, North! I'll turn around and go back East this is gonna do it" Turns out there was an East road we didn't see on the map that lead right to the storm and curved North which was absolutely perfect! We found this right as the tornado touched down. Finally!!! A great 2017 tornado!!

Our road banked North. This was it! Finally our get up close shot we had waited all year for as the tornado continues to strengthen. 

The tornado began to condense again taking power poles with it as it dips down in the field beside us as we continue our approach. 

An absolutely breathtaking tornado was now underway! White stovepipe with very strong motion. Unreal!! 2017 finally paid off!! Our gut was right! We did it! 

awe and beauty quickly turned to panic as the tornado accelerated right towards a home sending huge pieces of debris into the air. This tornado was now very violent. Taking chunks of the field up into the air and throwing debris like toys. We inched closer and realized the house had some how been spared and the debris that got shredded was from their farm and silos. No cars were in the driveway and nobody appeared to be home and with natural gas spewing out and power lines downed right next to it we were forced to leave and continue the pursuit as the tornado grows back in size again. 

Not much to caption at this point except "wow!" Multiple close range intercepts as the tornado continued to dance across this road. 

Just ahead of us we watched in horror as a real life Twister scene unfolds. A tanker truck begins to get pulled sideways towards the tornado before the truck moved the truck into the wind preventing disaster. Its a good thing the tornado was not impacting structures here because it was very violent as chunks of dirt were being carried up near the cloud base. 

With a dump streak of luck our road curved back towards the tornado for now a third close range intercept! 

"Its Alpena!!!" I yelled which was a beautiful tornado back in 2014 in South Dakota as we race North for one last close range intercept. 

The tornado turns dark, and it begins taking chunks out of the ground with very, very violent upward motion. Thankfully we did not see more damage as the tornado passes just behind this house. 

50 yards beside us, debris raining down and still violent the tornado transitions into a drill bit tornado was it begins to rope out after 20 intense minutes. 

This was the most stunning thing I have ever seen chasing. A mile long rope out, parked underneath of it looking up as a violent drill bit spins off in the field beside us. Our confidence was so low after busting the most recent High Risk setup and countless failed attempts for tornadoes (that was out of our hands) we had finally did it! 

Before the tornado completely died, it wasn't done showing off. With an orange lit background you could actually see through the tornado as it spins off in the field before finally dissipating.

Emily, Stephen and I jumped out of the vehicle with a group hug jumping up and down for joy! We couldn't believe it! The most visually stunning tornado I had ever seen and looked just like the famous Manchester, South Dakota tornado of 2004 which I had always wanted to see one like it. Fellow chasers Adam Lucio and Jonathan Williamson rolled by and I gave Jon a high five before Adam turned around. I nearly jumped in "The Tank" from giving Adam a celebratory hug. But, the storm wasn't done yet and the chase was back on. 

Crossing into Nebraska there was so much vorticity in the atmosphere that there were 4 shear funnels coming out of various locations of the storm. Something I had never seen before. We eventually caught back up to the base of the storm and trailed from the South on dirt roads where tornado number 2 would touch down!

Nothing to write home about, my still awesome none the less as this was all icing on the cake now and our third state to see a tornado in from one storm! 

Our storm would cycle again as we turned East continuing on mud roads behind Team Twirl. But as we tried to get East and then North our third tornado of the day descended to the earth.

Another brief one but another cycle was right on its tail and would produce tornado number 4 of the day! This one being much longer lived North of the town of Busnell, Nebraska. This tornado also had beautiful contrast as the tornado was illuminated white and had helical vorticies dancing around before kinking back and fourth eventually doing damage to a barn where other chasers got closer video of. 

Another beauty. Absolutely unbelievable chase day. A frustrating season turned around with just one day with now four photogenic tornadoes. This storm now had three mesos on it at one time and two out of the three had produced tornadoes. 

After this tornado roped out however, the third meso really started ripping and as we turn North tornado number 5 was born. Another absolutely gorgeous tornado! 

The lighting and shape of this tornado reminded me a lot of the Salina, Kansas and Cherokee, Oklahoma tornadoes of the April 14th, 2012 outbreak. We attempted to blast West to get a closer view but by the time we got close it was beginning to rope out. 

Finally, 5 tornadoes later and several hours of chasing later and darkness approaching our storm began to weaken and take on more of an HP mode. But, not before spitting out one last funnel and possibly tornado number 6 since we couldn't confirm ground circulation. So, 5 overall for sure. But, at that point I didn't care as we had seen total epicness in an amazing part of the country and bagged my first Wyoming tornado. 

We ended our chase shortly after filming this funnel cloud and headed back to Wyoming to get Emily back to her car and get repaired. It was also time for all of us to celebrate with steak in Sydney, Nebraska. A hard, well earned steak after this crappy year. The magic quarter worked! 

Conclusion: If its one thing this chase taught me, is to never go against your gut feeling. All day something was just leading us South and couldn't shake that feeling. With our confidence so low after busting so many times this year it was the boost that we had needed. I also got the video I have waited 7 years since I started chasing to get. Good, steady, close range video of a violent tornado. 

Sure enough the sons owner of the home found me on Facebook and informed me that his mom (the owner) was not home at the time nor was anyone else and she was down in Texas helping him on his farm when this all occurred. He was also in good spirits and told me how they've joked around for years that knowing their luck aliens would land there, it'd get hit by lightning, or struck by a tornado (oops). They believe they will be able to rebuild their home as it sustained roof damage and broken windows. The barn not so much. But were grateful it hit the barn and not their home that had been in their family for four generations and looks to be able to survive to a fifth generation! This would also go down as one of the most prolific and widespread tornado outbreaks in Wyoming history. 

Storm reports 

Video from the event: