Thursday, February 2, 2017

Deadly Hattiesburg, Mississippi EF3 Tornado 1/21/2017

Big, negatively tilted trough diving in from Canada, unseasonably high amounts of cape and steep mid and low level lapse rates were setting the stage for the first big severe weather event of the year down in Dixie Alley. Couple of concerns with this setup however included timing of the trough, lack of low level shear, and weakening 850mlb shear throughout the day. But, the thermodynamic environment that storms had to work with were something we usually see in April. That alone would get me down for my first chase of the year. Because if something were able to sustain itself in a supercellular mode it would likely not only produce a tornado but a strong tornado or two could not be ruled out as well.

(Photo of trough progression for the next day. But only photo I have of said trough)

I arrived in Meridian, Mississippi early Friday morning as the potential was there for a "day before the day" event in a similar area as Saturday. However, convection just North of the Gulf of Mexico had other plans as it blocked moisture return and the air remained stable virtually throughout the whole day. Chasing this event solo I became extremely bored come 1pm and headed back up to Birmingham to meet up with friend and fellow chaser Brett Adair for lunch. Models also were trying to crap on the whole weeks setup and this would put me in a centered location in case I just wanted to cut my losses and head back home. Around 6pm after spending a few hours at Brett's house pouring over model data I made the decision to stay down there and at least try. It was my first chase of the year and my first really good chance at seeing a January tornado. It just sucked all of that potential was after dark as this was a very unique, and dynamic system. The timing of the forecast was flip flopped. Instead of looking at thermos for 3pm we were looking at them for 3am as a Warm Front lifted North out of Louisiana into Mississippi where a 10% hatch tornado threat was in place. At 10pm I departed Birmingham and convoyed with Brett and Stephen Johnson down towards Mobile, Alabama. But once arriving in Birmingham several hours later it was becoming pretty clear that Mississippi was the place to be. A check of radar and a storm peaked my interest as it was still in Louisiana (only severe warned). Over the years of chasing you pick up on a certain "look" a storm gets and this storm had it. Big, bulky, and out ahead of the line of convection with plenty of room to breathe. Letting a couple scans go by I switched over to velocities to see if it was rotating and to my surprise a very obvious couplet was on this storm. Honestly surprised it wasn't tornado warned at this point.

A loop of the radar also made it apparent that this storm was turning right. Becoming a deviant mover and was an indication it was latched onto the Warm Front. If any storm was going to produce a tornado, it was this one. But I am still way out of position coming into Mobile, Alabama. Not knowing if Stephen and Brett had noticed this storm I sent a text saying "We need to get to Hattiesburg right now" a haunting text as the city was devastated by an EF4 tornado in 2013. This was also the only town upstream enough for us to get into position in time and hope the storm would sustain itself long enough to get there. I posted an ominous status on Facebook stating that Hattiesburg needed to start taking its tornado precautions. Now. Because if this storm did sustain itself it would produce tornadoes and was on a collision course with Hattiesburg. Then, just like that. As the storm crossed into Mississippi a tornado warning was issued and the race was on to get ahead of it.

The closer we closed in on this storm the better organized it became. The couplet getting tighter and tighter as we near the city my stomach began to turn into a knot as we enter the city limits of Hattiesburg and finally the tornado warning was expanded into the city. Then, shortly after the warning came out it was updated to a "confirmed tornado" on the ground. I didn't have an excited rush from this. It was more fearful for people's safety. A worst case scenario was setting up. A tornado coming into a very populated area while everyone is asleep. A city in which already had one destructive tornado come through in previous years. Now, another one was taking aim at a different part of the city. Brett and Stephen right beside me as we turn onto highway 49 out goes the power. I say in a very concerned voice as I see a massive inflow band feeding into the storm "Oh God, no! Tornado coming into Hattiesburg!" We just couldn't see it yet. I had actually assumed we missed it and it was already entering town further increasing my fear. This was also the most insane lightning I had ever seen down in Dixie Alley associated with a storm. It was a constant strobe illuminating the sky. Which worked well in my favor since this was a night time chase and a tornado would be harder to see.

Lights out as we position for the tornado I stare down the most insane inflow band I have ever seen down South (pictured above).

This storm wasn't quite like most storms in Dixie Alley. This was a classic supercell with a very, very strong couplet on radar and each scan it continued to get stronger. Worst case scenario is about to unfold before my eyes. Coming into the city I keep looking off to my left to see if I could see power flashes or lightning to illuminate the tornado to indicate where it was and as I come up to the intersection of Tatum Blvd and Highway 49 I roll down my window to see if I could see something better and right after my window rolled down it was as if I was parked next to Niagara Falls. "Oh shit! Tornado right beside me!" as powerflashes explode illuminating a huge wedge tornado. I post a status to Facebook as some of my followers are from Hattiesburg and some friends I have, have family in this area saying "tornado coming into Hattiesburg!!" and the way they line up is creepy. An hour before I had posted about taking tornado precautions and an hour later right above it is my status about the tornado coming into the city.

Pictured below is the tornado illuminated by power flashes before wet RFD comes in.

I stop dead in my tracks maintaining situational awareness so I can gauge which way the tornado is moving and if i'm in an okay spot. After turning off onto a side road, off the main state highway I decide I am okay and brace to ride out some crazy winds associated with the inflow jet and while i'm doing that piece of debris begin to rain down on my car. One of which hit my windshield and cracked it. As the tornado crosses in front of me power poles are taken down, the stop signs feet from me are bent down and debris fly passed my car as the tornado misses me by about 50 yards according to the track by the damage survey teams. Had I not rolled down my window I might have overshot this and ended up in a very bad spot. (Pictured below is my location to the tornado)

Winds begin to calm and a massive wedge shows its ugly face as it moves away tearing through the city of Hattiesburg illuminated by a constant strobe of power flashes. So frequent it looked like lightning.

I felt so helpless. Adrenaline flowing I turn back onto highway 49 and go about 50 yards and come across the damage path. Debris littering the road, trees uprooted/debarked, pieces of metal wrapped around the top of trees, and powerlines down. Then I come across a building impacted but thankfully didn't appear to have anybody inside.

After checking on it, I turn onto Helveston Road where we come across a truck that had been thrown and tossed into a ditch with a guy still inside who was somehow not seriously injured. Just shaken up. Trees and powerlines blocked our way further onto that street where the daytime would reveal many houses were totally devastated and where 3 of the 4 fatalities would come from. Turning back onto highway 49 I pull over to collect my thoughts when my good friend and fellow chaser Brandon Clement pulls up. I get out of my car to talk to him and let him know I'm okay when all of a sudden tons of people start shouting "Help! Help us! We need ambulances!". But, I couldn't find where it was coming from since it was so dark. I followed the sound of their voices onto a little side street next to 49 and pulled into Chambliss Drive where a man and woman that looked absolutely scared to death came up to me saying that needed ambulances bad, over and over again. I calmed them down long enough to see if they needed a ride to the hospital and they instead pointed me in the direction of people worse off than them. This is where I have to hold back my emotions. A group of people stand at a driveway, one man laying down screaming in pain stands up and they all say they need an ambulance. With emergency services so overwhelmed and this being off of a side street I knew time was on the clock. So, I threw all of my stuff in the backseat into the back of my car and  helped the man with broken ribs into my car as I tried to calm him down and he didn't hyperventilate. Then three more people, covered in mud and blood asked if I could take them to the hospital. I piled as many as I could (four all together) in the backseat and said "I need one of you to calm down long enough to tell me where the hospital is. I'm not from here" and the woman I picked up guided me in the direction and I rushed them all to the hospital. As soon as I pulled up to the ER I jumped out of my car and told an EMT I have tornado victims, they need help bad. The other three got out of the car on their own, and I barely got the victim with broken ribs out of my car and he started to go into shock as they wheeled him into the hospital. Now, another tornado warning was bearing down on us but I had thankfully got them to the hospital before the next storm hit and thankfully the second storm did not produce a tornado in the city. The EMT asked me where I picked them up from and if anyone else was there and I stated that an ambulance needed to get there fast and gave them the street name because I had to leave two victims with possible back injuries behind. Only to find out later Brandon Clement had left after I rushed my four to the hospital and waved down an ambulance and guided it to the two others. I remember sitting in my car, back seats covered in mud thinking "what the heck just happened?". I had never been a first responder to a disaster and the sound of people shouting for help and constant howl of ambulance and police sirens made me feel as if I was in a real life disaster film. (Pictured below are some of the damage photos collected when the sun came up.)

The following two photos are where I came across the people shouting for help

I later found out where I took the following two images below there is a homeless camp here and how on earth they found shelter before the tornado hit is beyond me. The tornado went right over their camp.

After finding out about the camp I later snapped some photos of where the camp was in the tornado path (pictured below)

Some of the damage was hard to look at.

For the final set of images. This really puts into perspective just how close was to the EF3 tornado. First image is me standing in the middle of the damage path. Just behind the truck at the little median is where I filmed the tornado cross. Second image is from my exact filming spot.

After not sleeping all night, spending all morning and afternoon in Hattiesburg and realizing I hadn't eaten anything since 8pm the night before it was time to grab some food and get ready for another day of chasing. Yet at night again in a similar area.

Tornado reports to the outlook for that morning

Conclusion: In my 7 years of Storm Chasing I have been fortunate enough to have never had a front row seat to a tornado impacting a heavily populated area. That was bound to change and while i'm in a way glad it happened to me, and really humbled me and changed my views on life. I do not wish to ever see that again. Those people I rushed to the hospital will be impaled into my memory forever.

Once I returned home from this chase stretch it continued to bother me and wanted to do something more to help out Hattiesburg. So, I collected a ton of donated items like food, water, clothing, and childrens toys along with a check from Storm Assist and drove the items to Hattiesburg and donated the check to the Fire Department that took a direct hit and donated the other items to a local church that was passing out all of the donations received. Hopefully my next January tornado is less destructive.

Video of the tornado

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