Warm Front to the North with messy storm mode concerns, and Warm Sector to the South with a volatile but slightly veered and capped environment to the South. Which to choose? This would be our biggest headache on February 28th, 2017.
The Storm Prediction Center started the day with a large enhanced risk area from Missouri to Indiana and would later upgrade to a Moderate Risk, 15% hatch tornado later in the day across portions of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. I left the night before and decided to sleep near St. Louis Missouri and split the difference between target areas and allow myself enough time to monitor the situation that morning and see which area appeared to be most favorable for supercell development.
I met up with my chaser partner Alec Scholten later that day in Litchfield, Illinois where fellow chasers and good friends Adam Lucio and Stephen Jones would join us for a pre-chase lunch at Jimmy John's. It was now 2pm and our decision was not made any more clear as to which target to choose. Winds were still veered to the South with a pretty stout cap in place as a Warm Front continued to drift north of Peoria with cape values reaching nearly 2,000 despite widespread cloud cover. Also along this front would be backed winds and enhanced helicity values to aid in tornadic development. But, as we entered Jimmy John's a blimp on radar appeared. About 3-4 hours ahead of schedule. There was a brief moment of excitement at the thought of potentially daytime tornadoes. But, then quickly realized that the better parameters were not to arrive until right around sunset. All eyes were on radar as we ate and this storm coming out of Missouri near the St. Louis metro was still so isolated. Wasn't showing much signs of rapidly strengthening, let alone producing tornadoes so it allowed us time to monitor both target areas.
Pictured above is a cool horseshoe vortex that we documented while making a decision on what target to choose. An indication on just how much vorticity was up there right now.
Initiation also began to the North along the Warm Front but appeared to have many updrafts going up at once as feared with the messy storm mode. It was time to make a decision or risk missing both targets all together.
Based on current storm mode to the North we opted South as our storm of interest still remained very isolated despite veered wind profiles. As we blasted South near Belleville, Illinois pictures were coming in from fellow chasers of a very photogenic mesocyclone that looked very mature and not far off from producing a tornado. We were still on the wrong side of the storm to see anything but this made us that much more anxious, especially having the potentially for a daytime tornado.
That would be short lived....As we closed in on the storm (which wasn't even severe warned on the Illinois side of the river yet) we noticed the core of the storm begin to shrink. RIGHT as we get the updraft into view. Then, in three radar scans the storm had nearly completely evaporated and all we were looking at as we got into position was a dying updraft.
To add insult to injury a supercell to the North had become dominant and latched onto the Warm Front and was now producing confirmed tornadoes one of which would be rated EF3 that struck the town of Ottawa, Illinois. These weren't just tornadoes either, these were photogenic tornadoes. One of which reminded me a lot of the Bradshaw, Nebraska tornado in 2010. As if that wasn't bad enough there wasn't a single play in town around us. Nothing but linear garbage to our Northwest producing some small hail. How could this day get any worse you might ask? As we try and salvage something out of the day by taking a look at the linear hailers a tornado warning comes out for Litchfield, Illinois. THE TOWN WE ATE AT THAT MORNING!!! AHHHHH!!!!! At this point the car is silent. Both ready to rage and just quit on the day as tornadoes continue to rage across the North. We pulled over on the outskirts of St. Louis as we were being plagued with GPS issues not only with my puck but on my phone as well. I mentioned to Alec about attempting to haul it North and see if we could catch the storm that was tornado warned in Litchfield and try and salvage something out of this day.
But, just like our hopes of seeing a tornado today the Litchfield storm appeared to be dying. This was on the verge of being one of my biggest bust days ever. Not only missing tornadoes on a previously discussed target, but a freaking tornado warning in the town I sat in all morning and afternoon while we continue to play in mushy storms near the metro. But, if its one thing I have learned while storm chasing is never give up until that last storm is dead. While extremely discouraged we briefly talked about just calling it a day and grabbing beers some where. But, instead I hopped back onto I-70 and blasted East in hopes that our current storm could give it one last breathe and reorganize to produce tornadoes.
We finally got ahead of the "storm" near Carlyle and it was pretty obvious this storm was not going to reorganize as it gusted out producing damaging winds. But we were here so we might as well take a look. Night had fallen and it was around this time we also noticed a new tornado warning box pop up on a storm coming out of Southeast Missouri. This being around the time the LLJ would be ramping up and the insane off the charts parameters would be coming into play. But, seeing what kind of mood we were in neither Alec and I were optimistic at all.
There was something different about this storm though compared to the cell earlier that tracked in this nearly same area. The core was beefy, and the updraft didn't appear to be shrinking as the core continued to expand in size and quickly started taking on the kidney bean shape we look for as we continued to stair step down the not so favorable road network of Southern, Illinois. I reached a quarter tank of gas and mentioned to Alec that we were fine, but we needed to start considering gas options. Our plan of attack was get gas in Ava, and blast East before the storm approached. My urgency to get to this storm grew a bit as we closed in. I have seen this look before. I knew if this storm was going to produce it was going to be very soon and if it did produce it would have the potential to become a strong tornado with the insane environment in place. We went through the town of Elkville (remember that name) when a new tornado warning came out and a SN report from fellow chaser and friend Connor McCrorey came in of a tornado on the ground illuminated by power flashes. This was it. The chase was finally on, our moods were changing, and that butterfly affect was settling in.
We turn West onto St. Rt. 4 towards Ava which we unfortunately did not get to in time to fuel up. So we had to wing it. Our plan of attack was position Northeast of the tornado, get a view, and get the hell out of its way with our perfect escape route to the East/Southeast.
As we continued West on St. Rt. 4 we encountered multiple hills and trees obscuring any possible view of the still reported tornado on the ground. After what seemed like driving on a roller coaster we topped the third hill and finally came to an opening just outside of Ava, Illinois. Winds were calm, no rain, nothing but the insane lightning barrage. Now, I knew we didn't have a ton of time to spare, but I also knew if there was a tornado it hadn't passed this location yet. I haven't really experienced a feeling like this before, but as I pulled off the road and sat there for a couple minutes something wasn't sitting right with me. That little alarm in my head was going off, and I didn't feel safe here. No particular reason either. Just a feeling I couldn't shake, and if its one thing I have learned in life is to never go against your gut. I told Alec "Dude, I don't feel safe here. I think we need to move. Something isn't right" and to my surprise he agreed and I hauled it back East on the same road back across all the hills and trees.
Again, I knew we didn't arrive with a ton of time to spare so i'm on high alert driving back East through these trees and no cell service area. About 3 or 4 miles East I pull back over and wait. Winds still unsettling calm. No sounds except the thunder. Then, things began to rapidly unfold....
Alec says four bone chilling words in my video "Do you hear that?" and I respond thinking it was thunder as CG lightning strikes really ramp up in the vault area we were in providing an almost constant roll of thunder. But then....it doesn't stop and several seconds had past since our last rumble of thunder. Louder.....and louder.....and louder....and louder this noise got and I say "Oh, my good God. That is a roar". I didn't think it was possible to get a louder roar than my Hattiesburg tornado back in January, but this one made that sound like a house fan. All of this happening when we still can't even see the tornado. Then a gentle, warm breeze begins to blow against my back....Uh oh.
Several more seconds go by and that light breeze becomes a steady flow of wind and at this point the roar is absolutely deafening. "LISTEN TO IT!!!!" are the only words I could seem to say and as if the tornado heard me say that lightning illuminated a debris filled sky with a right side of an obvious tornado on the ground.
To make things even more scary this tornado is riding right down the road we had just driven twice and crossed nearly our exact location that we parked the first time before I got the unsettling feeling and turned around.
A few seconds go by and lightning illuminates both sides of the very violent tornado. Its at this point we realize we are in danger. The tornado is in the same spot as the last lightning bolt. Meaning it wasn't moving left to right and was coming directly at us (as power goes out in the house up ahead in the frame) my chase partner shouts "GET IN THE F.CKING CAR!! WE GOTTA GO!! WE GOTTA F.CKING GO!!!" this is where being situational aware is so crucial. The storm had taken a hard right turn and was now barreling towards us riding up the road we are parked on. Neither Alec or I are one to freak out in videos whether its from excitement or dramatic affect. Both of us are usually very calm. Hearing the urgency in Alec's voice I knew he was serious and with the tornado STILL in the same place with another lightning flash I also knew we needed to move.
After blasting not even a half mile to the East out of the tornadoes way Alec and I jump out of the car after parking and an absolutely massive tornado is right on our tail with the most stomach turning roar I have ever heard! If there was ever a sound that death made it was this. It sounded like I was standing next to Niagara Falls while a jump jet was taking off at the same time. This was also a rare case where you could see the tornado better with your eyes rather than the camera. Sadly, up ahead circled are several unsuspecting motorists parked exactly where we had just parked before we moved. The headlights in front of us vanish from video and never appear again, while the taillights with its hazards on is barely spared, but i'm sure it sent them on a wild ride.
Also at this time is the most VIOLENT motion I have ever seen in my life. As it crossed the road and overtook that car the edge of the tornado had this crazy barrel motion as it engulfs the road and the tornado was spinning so fast it looked like someone had sped up a video and made a timelapse.
Pictured above is a more enhanced video grab of the tornado.
At this time Alec and I jump back into the car as the tornado continues track East/Northeast towards our location. Debris raining down on my car, pieces of wood landing on the road, and 100mph RFD winds blasting my car we finally start to curve Southeast out of harms way.
Finally we can pull off and video as the tornado tracks across the field beside us and continues Northeast. Next in line is the town of Vergennes, Illinois.
Blasting North on St. Rt. 13 the tornado impacts more structures. Leveling a house, and snapping power poles like tooth picks.
I pull off into a turn around and film the tornado as it starts to push away from us quickly at 50-60mph. More power flashes would reveal crazy tentacle vorticies on the backside and still very violent motion.
We stumble across one more East road in hopes of keeping up with the tornado for just a bit longer but as we turned North onto US 51 and came across to the other side of Elkville, a town in which we were just in not even an hour prior to the tornado had taken a pretty substantial hit on the North side, blocking our road and ending our chase. We tried to get in to help aid in search and rescue but were turned away by police blocking the road.
Alec and I looked at each other after the chase was over and were both in disbelief at what had just happened. The day had taken a 180 degree turn and we scored not just a February tornado but a big, violent, rare February tornado. However, that high was pretty short lived as photos came out of Perryville, MO where the tornado was originally reported of homes completely wiped off their foundations, cars thrown, and a fatality. What a brutal start to the year. Both tornadoes I have documented turned deadly and destroyed many homes. Not exactly what you want to see as a chaser.
The storm would encounter an intense cell merge before cycling, producing another EF3 tornado in Southeast Illinois that would track 40 miles into Southern, Indiana and had this tornado not encountered that strong cell merge causing the first tornado to dissipate this would have been a near exact repeat of the Tri-State tornado of 1925 minus the 300+ deaths being on the ground for over 90 miles! still crazy similarities none the less.
To add insult to injury, another tornadic supercell was barreling towards similar locations and the chase was back on.
As if the situation couldn't get any worse this tornado warned storm was headed towards a much more populated city of Carbondale, Illinois. We blasted South through town and found a perfect spot to watch the storm approach but we had overshot it a bit to the South, so we begin to creep back up towards Carbondale and a warning comes out of a confirmed tornado on the ground. This particular area is very difficult to chase in as there is a national forest nearby so our only view was on a bridge South of town. There was some pretty strong motion and what we thought was a power flash but we couldn't confirm a visual on the tornado as the circulation passed to our North and East. Later, there would be a confirmed EF0 and EF1 tornado from this storm and even after would go on to produce 3in hail. But, we were all exhausted, our adrenaline was high and the appetite was large. So, we called the chase and chowed down at Buffalo Wild Wings while we got social media up to date on the situation.
No matter how down you are on a chase day, never EVER give up until that last storm is dead. This would be the fifth time I would have been burned if I gave up on a day and went back home or out to eat. Persistence is always key in storm chasing. This tornado would be rated EF4 and unfortunately took the life on an unsuspecting motorist on I-55 in Missouri. This tornado would also be on the ground for 50 miles with max winds of 180mph wind a width of 0.6 miles wide! This was the longest track tornado in the area in the last 25 years and had an scary similar track to the famous Tri-State tornado of 1925. My hat is off to the SPC who absolutely nailed the forecast which is pictured below with the tornado reports.
Circled is our location before moving compared to the tornado track