April 9th, 2015 was the day I saw my first tornado; in fact, I saw two, and was even thrown into the scene of the damage one caused. The Valparaiso University Storm Team decided today would be an interesting day for spotting; dynamically, the atmosphere was primed with substantial wind shear and forcing for storms along and ahead of a sharp spring cold front. Any storms that formed this day would have the potential to start spinning. However, early on it seemed cloud cover was too thick to allow for much warming and instability over the area of highest risk. As the team set on their way, we were distracted by a building storm with a nice hail core near Peoria IL. As we finally overcame traffic to reach it, however, it had shriveled up to a skeleton of a small rotating base and rain.
As clouds began to clear later on, we knew the potential for something significant loomed. The team took aim for near Rochelle, IL as heating began to ramp up here and agitated cumulus were building. Wind shear was so high this day, however, that upper-level winds were simply tearing apart any updraft that tried to grow. When nothing happened by 5:00 CDT, we headed for the cold front near the IL/IA border, where storms were becoming more numerous. We set our sights for a high-precipitation supercell that developed a nasty velocity couplet and probable tornado while we were en route. As we got closer, we were treated to this:
My very first tornado, in all its rain-wrapped glory near Clinton, IA and seen from across the border near Morrison, IL. Once we pulled over to watch it, the tornado had lifted but the structure was incredible, with thick rain shafts being whipped horizontally by intense winds in the core:
As this beast neared, we figured it was best to scoot East and away from any threat of more rain-wrapped circulations. As we did this, a tiny cell popped to our East and quickly gained a curved appearance on radar.
There was no doubt this storm would become powerful as it was isolated and intensifying very rapidly. We attempted to get ahead of it, but were caught up in bad road networks near Oregon, IL. However, once we did gain ground, the event began to rapidly unfold:
After the whole team instinctively ran up a muddy hill to view the spectacle, the tornado near Rochelle, IL was rapidly expanding in size.
We could not stay long, as a mix of rain and hail quickly began to obscure the view, and after reporting the tornado to the local NWS we headed East to play catch-up as we became caught under a shelf cloud pushed out by the Clinton, IA monster:
Lightning was flickering away in the Rochelle storm and it was obvious this was doing major damage on the ground:
As we drove into the outskirts of town, major damage had been done, a scene that neither I nor anyone else on the team would forget. After seeing this and realizing what we were pursuing, we decided to call it quits and retire at a truck stop in Rochelle. The following photos show the scene on the way. Thick haze and dark skies obscured the view of the massive tornado in the distance, but flickering lightning betrayed it: