The strange thing about chasing storms is that you always feel like a tourist. When you run into hoards of people bunched up in the same spot gawking and photographing the same storm, while locals, fearing for their lives are forced to do all they can to protect all they have, you realize it’s just not fair. Sometimes using pure knowledge and intuition to find predict the worst storm in the area seems almost like a game, like extreme geocaching or something, and it hurts to know you’re just playing. Yes, it’s easier if you know you have an actual passion for extreme weather, if you are actively studying it, or if you are reporting damages and making sure people are alive, but that doesn’t make this pastime any less complicated in my eyes.
One day prior, it was clear that Wisconsin into northern Illinois was under the gun for a strong severe weather outbreak, with unseasonably strong winds above contributing to a really dynamic setup. The day of, however, it was quickly clear that an overnight MCS had pushed a cool surface boundary far down into north central illinois, and any chance at severe weather above I-88, let alone the Wisconsin state line, was gone. My 3-man team and I targeted Geneseo, IL, a small town near Davenport, IA, as it was positioned just south of this boundary, which would provide the highest helicity and spin for future storms when the cold front intersected it. Driving there, it was obvious how nuts the atmosphere was:
Topsy-turvy shear throughout the layers of the atmosphere helped to create “drunken” clouds in the wake of the MCS like this wave cloud sloshing out of a roll cloud. Other strange little outflows were appearing everywhere as well, this one a “cigar in the sky”:
As soon as we arrived in Geneseo, storms began to explode in an environment with so much spin that cells instantly took on a curved shape on radar, but within a half hour the show was over as quick as it had began.
We stopped to rest downtown and mulled over what was going on. A massive, long-lived storm had erupted in southern Iowa. There were two potential targets for us, one near Iowa City, IA and another near Clinton, IA. Though they both were trying, neither had really gotten going yet. As they both approached, it was clear we had to make a decision, and we basically rolled the dice on the northernmost storm near Clinton. As soon as we got onto the road, we knew we picked the right one as just then it exploded in size.
We raced up to Morrison, IL to get a better glimpse, and from then on the day was a high-speed chaos of attempting to catch up to a safe viewing angle while bailing away when we got too close. Due to the incredibly high-precipitation mode this storm took up, the circulation was intense but nowhere in sight, and playing with an invisible tornado was not on my to-do list.
Normally this distance would be considered safe, but for the storm’s rapid speed and sudden southward shifts in direction.
This was the closest we got without getting slammed by straight-line winds, the main circulation somewhere in the dark green core.
Finally near Sublette we were able to catch a quick glimpse of the inner workings of a long-lived tornadic beast. Damaging outflow from the bright core was screaming toward us while off to the right a massive train of inflow was chugging into the heart of the storm. The Sublette tornado, one of its 13 or more, formed right about now, just to the left of where the car on the road ahead is pursuing and behind the rain. As the storm took another sudden turn South, we bolted toward Sublette to escape ahead of the circulation, which would eventually cross our path.
The eeriest part of this trip was when we realized that this tornado destroyed the Woodhaven community, which we saw minutes earlier right out our window.
This was likely around the time it was doing its greatest damage to Sublette, the tornado again somewhere deep inside the storm behind where the ground-hugging inflow clouds meet the brighter core to the left. We ended our chase by getting rear-flanked by strong straight-line winds. As the chaos lightened up we came across a barn that had been destroyed by what we feared was a powerful tornado.
It was an surreal scene walking up to the farmhouse, the sky deep blue-green but vivid orange on the other side. We trampled over downed trees as metal roofs flapped undone, up to the house to make sure everyone was safe. We shouted and rapped on the door but there was no answer. The house appeared to be abandoned, and a neighbor that had come up to talk to us confirmed this; the owner thankfully had not been in his house when the tornado blew over.