Chase Log 1: March 2, 2012 – Henryville tornadoes
After studying meteorology for years, I decided to storm chase in 2011. I had 8 chases in Illinois, Indiana & Ohio, in which I saw every kind of severe situation except a tornado. 2011 was a successful year despite no tornadoes because I learned to be a more disciplined forecaster. This newfound discipline came into play on February 23rd, when I decided not to chase in Kentucky. Initially, the setup looked encouraging for tornadoes (SPC had the Tri-State in a 10% risk area), but I decided I didn’t like what I saw. No tornadoes and hardly any severe weather came of it.
In advance of March 2nd, major hype was flying around about the potential. I was skeptical at first, but the closer we got, the more realistic the threat was. The NAM model was going gangbusters while the GFS was more reserved in its predictions. However, with the NAM nailing the Leap Year outbreak and the GFS’s nesting not able to resolve those minute details, I had to side with the NAM. It showed a big mix of instability, shear and even a Theta-E boundary in southern Indiana just south of a warm front. It was very bullish on backing winds from the southeast at the surface as well. In case you are not familiar with these terms, all combined, they are a combination you look for in severe weather modes.
Ironically, I was already off of work that day as I was going to attend the Ohio State severe weather symposium. With this type of setup being rare in the Ohio Valley, I decided to skip the symposium and chase. I told myself I had to see something big so I wouldn’t regret missing the symposium. I had no idea how real that sentiment would become in just a few hours.
I left Dayton around 9:15am with an initial target of Seymour, Indiana. I figured I could easily adjust north or south on I-65 depending on how the atmosphere evolved. I passed through quite a bit of rain in the Cincinnati area and the clouds never went away. This made me nervous, but I figured the dynamics in play would override this. I arrived in Seymour around 12:30pm and went to McDonald’s to use the free wifi. I stayed there for about an hour and a half. My car then wouldn’t start….I left my lights on! Luckily, it slowly started the second time. My day was that close to being over. I decided to top off my gas tank nearby.
It was around this time that a few storm cells merged ahead of a supercell just north of Evansville, IN. Many times, when you have multiple cell mergers, rotation and updraft strength can be enhanced. This same situation occurred prior to the formation of supercells that produced the legendary Joplin & Greensburg tornadoes. The week before, I had read a paper by Howard Bluestein about the cell mergers leading to the Greensburg tornado. Realizing this was a very similar situation, I began to move south towards Louisville. Within 15-20 minutes, the storm began quickly taking on supercell characteristics.
With the storm moving very fast, I realized I couldn’t actively chase it. I began to look for a nice ridge/overlook facing the storm, but couldn’t find one. The radar indicted that violent rotation was taking place and I decided I didn’t want to get close to this one. I told myself I would get no closer than 3 miles to the storm. At this point, I was in Sellersburg, Indiana. Sirens began to blare and the hair on my neck stood up. I can’t really explain how I felt, but there was a surge of adrenaline and nerves that rivaled my high school football days. I began to head north on I-65 and stopped just south of the Memphis Road exit. It was at this point that the tornado appeared. All of my hard work had finally paid off and I had achieved my goal of seeing a tornado. It was mysterious and beautiful, but I had an incredible sinking feeling as radar showed it heading straight for Henryville, just north of Memphis.
Snapping out of my trance, I called 911 to report the tornado on the ground moving towards the interstate. It took about 30 seconds to get through, so I wasn’t the only one calling it in. I began waving cars and semis down frantically pointing at the tornado. It was a frightening thought to think they might get too close to the tornado in their cars. After about a minute, everyone was pulled over as the tornado was very visible and approaching the interstate. I realized I hadn’t taken any pictures and managed to snap two. I was happy to get a great structure picture of the tornado, wall cloud and rear-flank gust front. I was in awe as the whole storm violently rotated and winds began picking up as the moved into the storm.
I decided to get off of I-65, realizing that cars and trucks were probably flipped and blocked the interstate (which did happen). Heading slightly north, I found a great hilltop to view the next cell moving through Henryville. I talked with a few people at the business (S&M Manufacturing – don’t Google it without a filter on) and told them another storm was moving in with a possible tornado and large hail. They began moving equipment inside the building to protect it from hail. This storm was also rotating violently and was lower to the ground than the first cell. A caravan of ambulances headed north to Henryville, which left an awful feeling on my countenance. I had hoped the tornado had lifted or missed to the north, but ambulances were a confirmation that it didn’t.
Realizing the second cell (wall cloud iphone pictured above) and possible (later confirmed) second tornado was wrapped in rain, I decided to head south for Louisville. I told the workers at S&M Manufacturing that they needed to take cover immediately. I pulled onto 31 and drove south. At this point, my mobile radar and cell phone no longer got a signal. I pulled into a church parking lot at this point.Looking back at the second cell, I realized a hail curtain was moving south towards me. The rear flank downdraft was moving fast in my direction. I hit the gas heading south on US 31 when sirens and lights behind me appeared. I was over the speed limit and couldn’t believe I was getting pulled over. Hail began to fall and I panicked. What if the circulation was moving south? Cops pulling me over would leave me stuck in the bears cage! The cops flew past me, apparently also fleeing for safety. I followed them as the hail began to increase in size and intensity. Winds began to pick up and drive the hail. I was in a state of panic as my car was being pelted by quarter sized hail. Surely there was bigger hail coming and my car was going to be totaled. Realizing I was in danger of getting hit by debris or falling trees, I picked out a treeless area to pull over and go crawl into a ditch. As I began to exit my car, the hail stopped. I immediately looked back to make sure there was not a tornado behind the hail – there wasn’t.
My hands were shaking as I gathered myself. I looked at the radar and noticed there was a line of storms behind the second cell. This too had indications of hail right where I was. The radar wasn’t updating, but I could tell it was heading right for me. The line ended abruptly to the north, so I decided to drive north and hope I could escape north of Henryville. I had no idea if I could drive though Henryville, but I wasn’t sticking around to get pelted by hail again.
I approached Henryville and noticed the hail was much larger. I was relieved that I decided to use my safety escape route…my car would’ve been totaled otherwise. Pulling up to the intersection of US 31 and IN Route 160, I noticed wind damage….and then the high school. Here was a new brick building that was missing sizeable chunks and had giant metal supports bent over 90 degrees. I rolled down my window and an incredible aroma came in. It was a mix of leaking natural gas and fresh cut wood from all the snapped trees. Above all things, I’ll never forget that smell…it was unreal and awful. All the roads were blocked, so I pulled into the post office parking lot as hail began to fall. Not having reception or radar, I hoped that the hail wouldn’t be big enough to dent my car. It never went above the size of peas, so I was spared a second time.
I decided to go out and talk to some people as the sun came out. The calm, cool, sunny weather was absolutely surreal considering the carnage that was before my eyes. I began to talk with some incredibly friendly people who had totaled cars (many homes in the “downtown” area don’t have garages). I was astonished at how nice these people were considering they were hit twice by the worst weather in the world within 25 minutes. One man pointed out that an uprooted tree barely (maybe a foot) missed the southeast corner of his house. He pointed to the window next to the tree. “That’s out utility room, that’s where we were hiding”, he said with a look of disbelief. I then realized why they were so happy despite their hail-riddled cars and homes. He and his wife were inches from serious injury or death; They had instant perspective. “Who cares if my home is damaged? I’m still here.” That absolutely shook me to my core. It made me realize how good I have it in life. Every time I go to complain, I remind myself of this moment. In the face of all this, no one here was complaining. What gives me the right to complain, then?
I began to walk around and talk to other people and take pictures. Based on the school damage alone, I knew this was a violent tornado. I didn’t see the now iconic bus thrown through the restaurant….this area was blocked off and I was not going to get in anyone’s way. There were two types of people in Henryville. The happy, friendly people who had the “instant perspective” and the ones with so much sadness on their face that it broke my heart. Many of those ones crying were unable to locate loved ones. Cell service was down, but I was able to send out a few texts for them before texts also stopped working. Being able to talk with these people and share in their grief was an experience unlike any other. On a selfish level, it eliminated some of the helplessness I was feeling. On a selfless level, it was amazing to be able to do something small to help. I had always hoped my first tornado would be in the middle of a field. To see it bring so much destruction to such good people was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had.
The roads were still not clear, so I decided to leave and drive to Louisville and head towards Cincinnati. I put on my favorite band, Mutemath and the song “Break the Same: came on. I’ve heard the song many times, but the lyrics hit me hard.
Everything we’ve built could be our demise
It’s the sticks and stones that wear us down that often save our lives
And we all freaked out, what a shame
When only tears know how to remind us we all break the same
The different stars tonight will somehow fade the same
And all the tears we cry tell us we’re made the same
And when we fall aside, let’s hope we fall in place
We built our different lives, but they all break the same
Different worlds and different hearts
Different souls and different parts
We all, we all break the same
The lyrics hit deep, the shock wore off and the weight of all the heavy emotions that I experienced just hit like a rock. My eyes welled up as I drove home, fortunate enough to be able to sleep in my bed, next to my wife, under the protection of my roof.
Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher 2
Miles Driven: 388
Tornadoes: 1 (2nd was rain-wrapped, no direct visual)
Hail: Between Golf Ball and Tennis Ball sizes
- Buy a chainsaw and keep it handy when chasing. It can help people.
- Staying a good distance from an obviously violent tornado is always a good idea.
- A North-South safety route is a must if you want to save your neck or car.
- People are affected by these tragedies on a level that is unfathomable even to observers.