Sunday, March 20, 2016

Crocketts Bluff, Arkansas EF0 Tornadoes

Negatively tilted shortwave trough with cape values forecast into the 2,000 region and dew points in the mid 60s? This would setup to be the second chase of the year for me, even though I swore the February 23rd bustfest in Louisiana would be my last before I depart for California.

Its pretty funny how this chase all started off. Up until the day before, I had no idea there was even a setup worth a damn. I probably looked at the SPC and saw an outlined area for Arkansas and said "Hey, screw that". But, the day before Facebook started to come alive with chatter about the next day potentially going big. Which I wouldn't see until I went on break while working at REI. Alec sent me a sounding for the Pine Bluff, Arkansas area with impressive upper level dynamics, shear vectors, and lapse rates. Knowing I had to work the next day, and with my hike so close, this was not an easy decision to make. But given how low gas prices are right now, split between three people, the temptation was to strong to say no. So, I called my boss at the movie theater about a shift change and departed for Arkansas after my shift at REI was over.

I was pretty stoked for this chase, a lot more excited than the previous one in Louisiana. This setup didn't appear to have morning convection issues littering the sky with cloud debris that would screw over instability (remember what I say here about instability not being an issue) lol. Really, the most notable thing that was wrong were straight lined hodographs and slightly veered 850mlb winds. After arriving in Indianapolis, Indiana a 5% tornado risk was outlined for central Arkansas including our target of Pine Bluff. This would later be upgraded to a 10% hatched area with the mention of several tornadoes (possibly strong). I was also very excited for this chase because joining Alec and I was fellow chaser, and good friend Adam Lucio. A first for me. We had AAA all together for one last chase before I left and I was worried I wouldn't get to see them again before my departure.

Another concern arose that morning, as the high resolution models were showing the trough slowing down and having initiation in a nearly if not completely impossible chase area. The Ozarks. Where rock canyons hug both sides of the road, and where there aren't canyons tall trees line each side of the highway, with bare minimal views. But, looking at Satellite imagery you could tell, if anything the trough was a little bit ahead of schedule. Which was a good thing for us, because this would lead to an earlier initiation before dark, and potential produce tornadoes in the flat terrain of the delta during the day.

We arrived in Memphis around 10am and while we were under clear skies, we did notice a problem. Dew points on the mesonets in central and southern Arkansas were only in the mid 50s. When they were forecast to be much higher by then. However, given the unique dynamic of this setup, we thought things would all come together very quickly and right on time. So, at the time, we weren't too concerned. Another problem was there was absolutely no cape. Even under clear skies, the lack of dew points was not allowing the atmosphere to destabilize as forecasted. Regardless, we were down here, and in position a couple hours before storms would erupt. We would wait at a taco bell in Pine Bluff for the remainder of the day. But, I was super stoked because I got to see a ton of people I definitely did not expect to see before my hike. We were joined along side with Brett Wright, Brandon Sullivan, Mike Scantlin, Connor McCrorery, Courtney Eleys, Max Olson, Jessica Moore, Tony Measis, Stephen Jones, and Brandi Detrich. It was like I was home in Norman again. A place I have not visited since the Elmer, Oklahoma EF3 tornado. However, we were sitting in the number 3 most dangerous city in the USA with lots of expensive camera gear. Which was a bit unsettling. Especially since there was nearly a full on brawl outside this taco bell between two ladies and a man. So, of course we all filmed it. Once the people realized they were being recorded they stopped talking, flipped us some kind of a gang sign and drove off. This being right before a guy in a low rider screeched out of the parking lot blasting loud music. Needless to say, I was a believer with these statistics after experiencing that.

(Above image taken by Adam Lucio)

It was now 3pm and while it was sunny, it wasn't very humid. Dew points were STILL only 59-60 degrees and CAPE was still nearly non existent. I think it was about 500 at this point. Which told us one thing. The models were way off with the overall dynamics of this system. Way off. That being said, a 70/50 tornado watch was out mentioning strong tornadoes until 8pm. I was baffled there was no mention of the moisture and instability issue. Storms erupted a short time later into an arc of supercells. But, all the storms down South where we were, were taking on a more linear look. While storms to the Northwest near Little Rock and Mayflower were isolated, full blown supercells. We lost our patience and bit on the Northern stuff. Nothing to the South looked even remotely appealing, while supercells were underway to the North.

(Photo by Adam Lucio)

Into the jungle we go. Navigating through the curvy roads of the Ozarks, trying to position ourselves North of the hook echo as the storm was HP (high precipitation). But, that proved to be a big challenge due to slow, local drivers on two lane roads, and having to drive for what seemed like an eternity in golf ball, to ping pong ball sized hail. Which at one point was covering the roads, making driving very tough as I slid all over the road, and locals were traveling at a meer 5mph. The NWS at one point called my phone and asked if we were seeing any hail, as we were the only ones in the core of the storm. I relayed what I was seeing, and hung up the phone before passing the truck in front of me. What I didn't realize because I was talking on the phone, was a hail stone had taken out my GoPro and knocked it off some where. But, seeming how it was 4 years old, giving me fits, and I had just cleared the SD card and it wasn't filming at the time, I decided not to go back and look for it and cut my losses.

Finally....we broke out of the core of the storm and were now in my favorite spot, but also the most dangerous. It was time to dance with the bear in his cage. The fact we were even able to navigate ourselves into the cage in the jungle was an accomplishment all its own. Winds were screaming into the area of interest. But, even North of the hook where the tornado would be was severely rain wrapped.

We received a phone call again from the NWS in Little Rock and this phone call was priceless. He states to Adam "I see you guys are the only ones brave enough to get into the hook. Are you seeing anything?" and while we were very confident there was probably a tornado ongoing, or about to occur we couldn't confirm it visually. Then, the gut wrenching feeling set in, when we realized there was a river with no crossings. Nothing like going through all of that to only get a 5 second peak in the cage, before having to drive back North on a major interstate into the core of a tornadic supercells, praying it didn't produce for other chasers that chose to remain upstream.

Thankfully, the storm did not produce anything note worthy for other chasers as we got back into position near Carlisle right as the storm ramped up, with text book supercell structure. RFD cut, wall cloud, and alligator mouth. We were all repeating "This thing is about to produce, this is about to produce!" Only to get out of the car and feel cold air blowing into the area where a tornado would occur and shortly after the storm was undercut by cold, outflow.


We all yelled once we realized a confirmed, and VERY photogenic tornado was on the ground just 15 minutes East of where we sat for several hours earlier that day. The tornado was on the ground and it wasn't even tornado warned yet. "Are you kidding me?!?" Knowing our storm was dead, we hauled it South, but not before our storm spit out a couple of small funnel clouds from her belly.

Daylight was fading fast, and we knew our shot at a daytime tornado was done. But, persistence almost always pays off. While we were all tired, angry, and sad at the same time, we got South onto the storm while it was still showing supercell characteristics and still signs of rotation. We hauled it up Highway 1 near Dewitt, Arkansas when we noticed a classic wall cloud with RFD cut in front of us. Through the flashes of lightning we all noticed a funnel cloud, but couldn't tell if it was touching the ground. several more flashes of lightning revealed what appeared to be a debris cloud. Adam, Alec and myself were all seeing this but didn't wanna jump the gun and call it a tornado, when maybe it could have been lightning illuminating a rain shaft. But then fellow chaser friend Max Olson made a status saying there was a tornado on the ground, they were just in front of us and he posted a video grab of what we were seeing, but from a closer distance. Finally! A tornado! It wasn't a great one, but this would be all of ours first Arkansas tornado, and the first of 2016.

Aaron's Photo

Max's Photo

Radar at the time

White circle is our location compared to the rotation area on radar.

We continued up highway 1 paralleling the ongoing supercell. We pulled ahead of it near the town of Marvell where we waited on it to approach us again. However, we overshot it and Alec noted a funnel (or what looked like a funnel) and then RFD winds blasted our vehicle following several power flashes just ahead of us. This would later be confirmed as an EF0 tornado (the second tornado of the night). Not sure how the folks of this home didn't realize their front yard was on fire, but they didn't. Thankfully, it was already called in and shortly after we left this location police offers and firefighters were on their way.

A couple more weak tornadoes were confirmed later that night, but we decided to call off the chase in Marianna, Arkansas. At this point we were almost in Mississippi and we were all tired and most of all, hungry. That, and flash flooding was settling in, and many roads were becoming flooded over. We met up with our other chase partner Stephen Jones and Brandi Detrich in Memphis to celebrate with some Perkins. The power of the limeades helped once again! They weren't tornadoes to brag about, but had a sense of accomplishment with them, because we worked so hard, and covered so much ground getting to those. At least this time there wasn't a blizzard to drive home in.

Conclusion-Lack of dew points lead to less instability than progged by models, thus screwing over the strong tornado potential for the day. However, I couldn't have asked for a better way to end my chase season before I depart for my hike in California. I got to see almost all of my friends that I didn't think I'd get to see before I left, and we even got hail AND tornadoes! While the day was underwhelming I definitely don't regret going.

Footage from the day

February 23rd, 2016-Convington, Louisiana Rain Wrapped Bustfest

Well, it finally happened. After saving, and saving, and saving all Winter. Missing many good tornado days such as the Rowlette, Texas EF4, Clarksdale MS EF4, and the Alabama EF2 both the GFS and NAM were showing a powerhouse Low Pressure system for the Gulf Coast states. The low was so deep, that it was looking to set records. I had the day off, and I wasn't missing this setup. However, the setup was far from perfect. The first major issue that I noticed, was the Low was so far South there was a risk of all of the storms being out in the ocean. Yes, you read that correctly. Another major issue was morning convection. Wide open cap at 18z, saturated soundings, and minimal cape values. I personally hate chasing low cape, high shear days. Its almost like clockwork. Storm goes up in about 500 cape, then gets fluffy, and flops over to the right and dies. But, with shear vectors supporting strong tornado potential I had to give it a try. As I am so close to leaving for my hike, I'm not sure how many more opportunities I'll get.

While driving out to meet up with the first member of "Dream Team" Alec Scholten the SPC issued a 15% hatched area for strong tornadoes later in the day across Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. With several "intense tornadoes likely".

Honestly, I was pretty amazed that they had gone 15% so early. I expected to see a 10% hatch to start with the possibility of a 15% upgrade later, pending on what the morning precip was like. While driving down after meeting up with Alec, neither one of us seemed too optimistic. While the SPC wording was slobbering, there was a massive rain shield moving in from Texas. Which would be the damper on the setup and potential waste amazing parameters.

We arrived in Jackson, Mississippi around 10am and met up with the final member of "Dream Team" Stephen Jones. I won't lie, that was probably the most sketched out gas station I have ever spent time in. While we were filling up, and Stephen was setting up the live feed. We noticed there was a tornado warning in Louisiana much earlier than expected. Then, a tornado was confirmed on the ground. Which was odd, because it was associated with the morning's WAA (Warm Air Advection) We originally had plans to eat breakfast in McComb, MS as initiation didn't appear likely until late evening and into the night. But, with confirmed tornadoes (and large ones at that) we had to set our hunger aside and race South towards Louisiana.

We arrived in Amite, LA just as the reported large tornado would be approaching. Our friend Bill Oosterbaun scored a view of it, about 20 minutes before our arrival. Warm inflow was screaming into the storm as we sat on an exit ramp outside of town.

This is about a typical chase in Dixie Alley. "IS WHAT A TORNADO? WOW LOOK AT THAT THING ABOVE THE TREE LINE!" followed by contrast enhanced video stills further asking more questions than answering. While a tornado was indeed confirmed, we never got a visual. Could see the rapid rising motion, crazy inflow, and racing rainbands but no funnel. Even while being positioned North of the hook region. To make matters worse, the storm completely died shortly after this video still was grabbed.

The chase was already off to a frustrating start, as we knew the chase day would be incredibly frustrating going into it. We also still needed to find a place for all of us to pile into one vehicle. But, once we arrived at a gas station in Roseland, LA an MD was issued with the highest risk for strongest tornadoes highlighted well to your East. An area we had discussed earlier that night on the drive down there with the talks of upgrading to a "High Risk". Something that hasn't happened since 2014.

But, this would be the only time I have chased a high impact event and not even be excited with the talks of an upgrade, and a rare PDS (Particularly Dangerous Situation) Tornado Watch in place. Why? Because we were still sitting under a rain shield, and gray skies. Honestly, I think I even mentioned to Alec at some point "I can't believe they aren't considering downgrading due to all of this rain. But are somehow talking about upgrading? Weird day". But, they are the great minds and work at the SPC for a reason. So, it was time to position for the later show. We hurried East towards Hattiesburg, Mississippi. A town famous now for the "Continue" video shot by our friend Scott Peak. Along the way we passed the damage path of the Columbia, Mississippi EF3 from 2013. Which was hopefully not an omen for what was to come later that day.

Once arriving in Hattiesburg, we realized the only play in that area was a convective line of storms pushing quickly to the Northeast. Which would not be ideal for visible tornadoes. So, we blasted on highway 59 towards an isolated supercell that was taking shape near New Orleans. But then, the convective line we were on went tornado warned with two, significant couplets (areas of rotation) were appearing on radar. Now we had a decision to make. Stay up here and hope we could get into the cage and get a view? Or haul it Southwest towards an ongoing supercell almost an hour away near New Orleans with a confirmed large, tornado on it. Eventually, we decided to go back and forth on highway 59. But, once we got a view of the storm instantly realized we were not going to see anything.

Great chase terrain right? lol. So, before we got hit with damaging, straight line winds, we floored it Southwest and committed to the Southern most storm. Which was still producing tornadoes. We quickly made it to Highway 10 where we continued hauling it Westward towards the approaching (still tornado warned supercell) which was now making its way over Lake Pontchartrain. But, not before we randomly bumped into our friends Max Olson, Marcuz Diaz, and Tony Mesias! Had no idea that they were on the highway we merged onto, let alone were coming through at the same time. Which made for some priceless video. This moment alone made the drive down worth while lol.

We finally arrived on the supercell, still tornado warned, with a confirmed tornado on it. However, the couplet was significantly weaker, and the overall shape of the storm appeared to becoming very disorganized (big surprise since that was the trend all day that day). We positioned ourselves North of the hook region but, due to trees, rain, and lack of roads we couldn't see anything except small tree debris falling out of the sky. We did however at one point cross an area of large tree branches down and lots of limbs covering the road, which would later be confirmed as an EF0 tornado. Right there, and we still couldn't see it if that tells you anything about chasing in Louisiana.

At this point, we could continue the chase, but the storm continued to just look disorganized, and we had all been up for well over 30 hours straight, and I felt like death. So, we decided to cut our losses and head for Hattiesburg, Mississippi where we'd sleep for the night as an unexpected blizzard was raging across Illinois. But, not before finding a buffet and chowing down on tons of food. Storms had initiated so early that day none of us had eaten since the night before and my stomach was hurting it was so hungry. To get another slap in the face, we tried to find a hotel with a hot tub to relax. I guess Mississippi is religious against hot tubs, because not a single hotel we checked within reason had a hot tub, or was under maintenance. So, a swimming pool hotel it was after grabbing a quick beer at Buffalo Wild Wings, where we chatted with a really cool waitress for awhile, who actually follows the TVN weather streaming app.

Conclusion-Chasing in Louisiana sucks. Don't do it.

But, in all seriousness, this was by far one of the toughest, and most frustrating chases I have ever been on, but we knew that going into it. If I could go back and change one thing, it'd probably be to look at how South the low was and realize a lot of the supercell potential would be over the ocean and would be lucky to have any of them come on shore. Also should have realized the lack of EML that day and how the low wasn't near as deep as models suggested it'd get. But, I don't regret going down for a second. I got to see my best friends before I leave for my hike and it felt great to have the chasing atmosphere back in my life.