The Chase

April 11, 2009


My 46 year long study of tornadoes began at four years old when I pointed up at the sky and asked my dad “What’s that?’ His response was “Arthur, that’s a funnel cloud, it may become a tornado.”  I knew what tornado was as I had seen one in the Wizard of Oz if only through slits between my fingers as my hand covered my eyes.  Even then it was a combination of fear and fascination, fear being the senior partner.  But, as I stood there with my dad watching the boiling sky spout the inky black funnel, my fascination become a rising partner that would someday trump fear into a subordinate position, but admittedly never into retirement.

Growing up in Ohio, a state ripe with tornadoes in the spring, there were a lot of close calls, once even finding myself under a funnel cloud as it dropped to the ground.  On a summer college vacation I also found myself a witness to an incredible sunset tornado outside Fargo, ND. A sunset tornado is the gold standard, and it was truly magnificent. As an adult I attempted numerous chases but was lacking some of the basic knowledge necessary to be successful, knowledge that would soon come with improvements in Doppler radar.

Then, I moved to Georgia.  There are some who say that Tornado Alley extends a finger across into Georgia from the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains south.  There is truth in that and two of the most destructive tornadoes, in fact the most destructive until recent times, occurred just north of here in Gainesville (Georgia) in 1903 and again in 1936 when two tornadoes converged outside of town and proceeded on a path for a direct hit on the city.  My first summer and fall here in North Georgia was defined by many hours spent in the basement as tornado sirens wailed, often in the wee hours of the morning, as tornadoes on the ground passed just a hair (less than a mile) to our north and to the south.  Fall would bring tropical storm and swarms of tornadoes. As time went on I decided that it was time to chase again.  I read where a noted tornado chaser had moved to our area so that he could stay close to the storms, so that was good enough for me.

Then, last year, while driving back north from dinner in Midtown Atlanta, on a strange foggy nigh, I caught a glimpse of a storm to the west backlit by the last light of dusk, and saw the inky black clouds of a supercell.  I looked to my wife and said “That is trouble with a capital “T”. It didn’t seem the type of weather for that type of storm so I let it pass.  By the time that I got home the first reports of the tornado that struck downtown Atlanta were coming in.  It wasn’t until the next day, March 15, 2008, that my opportunity came to begin to chase.  That Saturday morning on Doppler radar I saw swarms of supercells, the rotating thunderstorms that often spawn tornadoes, heading directly my way out of Alabama.  That afternoon, driving into perfect position, circling, waiting, I successfully intercepted a tornado, one that turned out to be a killer.  Then, earlier this year, without the benefit of radar and only by instinct and a GPS, I intercepted yet another tornado.

Fortunately, my wife puts up with this rather odd pastime, and when I say that I’m going to “chase” she lets it be.  It’s part of who I am and she knows that I have studied these storms my entire life.  I know these storms.  I know what they look like and I know what they feel like. I chase in part with radar (but never on the road), but mostly by instinct.   I suppose it’s sort of geeky, but in the end intercepting a tornado is about like getting into a cage with a tiger, an activity not recommended for beginners, and one that leaves me with a tingle, feeling very much alive. 

So, yesterday the weather bureau issued, for the first time in Georgia’s history, a general weather statement of imminent deadly weather, that amounted to a statement that “you are officially screwed.”  It was unprecedented.  Needless to say I kept an eye to the sky.  As the day wore on things began to happen, but being a Friday I knew that a chase would be out as my wife and I would probably be going out to dinner.  As we planned the outing as 6 o’clock approached a supercell thunderstorm sprang into being in a matter of twenty minutes right over our heads.  I told my wife that I wouldn’t be chasing this one but that if we went to dinner then (about 5:45) by the time that we were done with dinner a swarm of supercells coming in out of Alabama would be upon us.  So, as we drove to the restaurant I explained to my wife that if I was chasing the storm, the one that was then to our immediate north and in plain view, I would be exactly where I would want to be, right on the edge of the southwestern quadrant, outside the storm looking in.  I pointed out the supercell structure (above is a photo of a classic supercell thunderstorm) and where I would expect funnel clouds to drop.  Fortunately this storm, while having a very strong supercell structure, hadn’t reached the level of maturity or the rotation (the entire storm rotates) to be dropping tornadoes.  We arrived at the restaurant and were seated with a view outside, but not of the sky.

As the meal went on (a wonderful veal parmesan, try Zola if you are in North Fulton/South Forsyth County) it darkened outside, and the rain began.  And then the “positive” lightning began.  Positive lightning accounts for about 2% of all cloud to ground lightning.  It’s ten to 100 times more powerful than a typical bolt.  It’s the kind that shakes the house no matter how far away.  It’s also the kind of lightning that you start to see when the stuff is about to hit the fan, the kind that you often see stabbing the ground over and over again right next to a tornado.  So, with the check paid and walking out of the restaurant I was not surprised to see the sky as black as pitch and a snow white wedge shaped funnel dropping to the ground about a mile off. I looked over to my wife and asked her “Want to chase?”.  Here response was what I knew it would be.  “Sure”.

 My wife is just a bit of a daredevil.  Many moons ago when we were dating I took her out on my boat, a 24 foot SeaRay, on Lake Erie.  While we were out, without any warning whatsoever, the weather changed drastically with waves kicking up to seven to eight feet.  Erie is a deadly body of water, an unforgiving bitch, and I was using every ounce of seamanship to make headway towards port without capsizing.  I was probably as white as a ghost, but as I looked over at my wife there she was grinning from ear to ear as if she was on a roller coaster at Six Flags.  Mercifully she was completely unaware of the extreme danger. By the time that we got to port she was invigorated and jazzed while I was completely drained, shaking, and more than ready to collapse with tumbler full of rum.  I recount that as it was a horse of an entirely different color.  Ignorance had been bliss, but last night my wife’s acquiescence to the chase was given with full knowledge of the risks involved.  But, quite frankly, I don’t think that either of us even had the slightest grasp of what we were about to drive into.

 We hopped into the H3 and drove out onto Route 9, Old Atlanta Road, heading north/northeast towards Cumming.  I could still see the snow white funnel against the black sky through the trees to our right and was satisfied that I was running parallel to it, not on an intercept course.  The goal was to get to some high ground (this is fairly hilly terrain) where I could observe all the way to the distant tree line so that the whole sky could be observed.  As I headed towards a shopping center parking lot just up the road it went green. 

 “Going green” is the term used to describe the sickly green color that occurs very, very often before and during a torando.  If you’ve seen it you will never forget it.  Even if you didn’t know of it’s partnership with tornadoes it will give you a very sick feeling as if something is terribly wrong.  In the darkness of a storm that pea soup green light is one of the most eerie occurrences in nature.  As we approached our observation site at the shopping center it had gone green in spades.

 As I breached the top of a hill just short of the shopping center, the sight that came into view was the holy grail of a chase.  The white funnel, that had been better than two-thirds way to touching down has dissipated, but before me was the most ominous and well defined supercell thunderstorm that I had ever seen, rivaling anything that I have seen in hundreds of hours of tornado footage.  The cell was maybe five or ten miles across and whirling like a carousel.  It was a black devil bathed in sickly green light and now seeing the structure of the entire storm I realized that the white funnel had been right where it should have been, in the southwest quadrant, on the edge.  Having pulled in the parking lot of the shopping center, spotting our second and third funnel clouds (which thankfully dissipated quickly), the layout of the whole storm suddenly made sense to me.  Unfortunately my understanding of its general direction of movement did not, an error that would soon put me exactly where I never wanted to be.

 Tornadoes like the edges.  There are rain-wrapped tornadoes that can be found in the inner core of a storm, or generally weaker ones that can be found right at the front edge, but the supercell tornadoes, the true beasts of the breed, love the edges.  If you watch tornado footage you will frequently see tornadoes and blue skies in the same frame.  That’s the edge of the storm.  And not only do they like the edges of the storm, they like that southwest quadrant, the telltale hook echo trailing behind.  If you imagine that the storm is the face of a clock, the tornado will invariably be located, defined on Doppler, by a hook shaped echo hanging off the cell, at anywhere between the 9 o’clock and 7 o’clock position, the southwest quadrant.  You see it over, and over, and over again. Other than the exceptions to the rule, which can be deadly if not kept in mind, chasing becomes a much simpler proposition, and with such a well defined supercell before me I knew exactly where I need to be. 

 As I started back out to the road we were treated with another funnel cloud, this one a developing multi-vortex with three rope funnels swirling around each other on their way down towards the ground.  As this one finally dissipated I sighed relief as a multi-vortex tornado can often be the most destructive, sometimes within a mile wide wedge with multiple tornadoes whipping randomly inside. 

 Knowing where I wanted to be, at about the 7 o’clock position out side the supercell looking in, I headed further northeast up the road to a shopping center that would afford a perfect view.  What concerned me was that I was having a very hard read on the general direction of the whole storm.  Imagine looking at a carousel whirling around while the whole thing is moving.  The general motion of the storm along with the cell’s counter-clockwise rotation was confusing enough, but added to that was the fact that directions in North Georgia, with roads that are never straight like the grid patterns that you see in the Midwest, was making positioning extremely difficult.  So, I headed to the parking lot that that I knew would afford and unobstructed view and figured I’d sort it out there. 

 As I drove to the new location, within a few miles, the sky grew darker and more green, if that was possible. En route we spotted two more funnel clouds.  By then I had lost count. These weren’t possible funnels, or the scud clouds that folks frequently mistake for funnels, but honest to goodness ones that couldn’t be denied if even for the sake of comfort.

 When we got to the huge Super Walmart parking lot there were two Forsyth County Sheriff’s cars parked side-by-side with the Sheriffs standing outside observing.  Law enforcement officers are often trained weather observers, and in any event are invaluable storm spotters who probably save hundreds if not thousands of lives a year by being out on the roads when everyone else is hunkered down in the basement.  As I had been getting ready to dial 911 to report the funnels I pulled the car over in the driveway and ran over to the sheriffs who looked a whole lot more than merely concerned about what was unfolding in front of them.  As I closed the distance I identified myself as a storm chaser indicating that I had seen numerous funnels, and one near touchdown (the white funnel).  I pointed to the parts of the storm where I thought the funnels would come down (and eventually did come down).    They radioed in the information as I returned to my car.  I took up a position in the parking lot facing into the part of the storm where I knew that things would happen, and the sheriffs remained in position nearby.  The show was about to really begin.  I was also about to realize that I didn’t have a front row seat as I had hoped,  but,  was right on stage, and, in the “bear cage”.

 So, there we were, my wife and I, facing the “right” part of the storm waiting for one of the numerous funnels that were forming and breaking up to drop down to the ground.  It was an amazing position to be in, but something wasn’t making sense.  As I looked at the edge of the storm, backlit by the light of a dying sun, spinning by due to the rotation of the cell, I had a very bad feeling as I realized my mistake.  I wasn’t outside the storm looking in at the 7 o’clock position, but was well inside the storm, under the rotation looking out from under the storm at the 7’oclock position, exactly opposite where I wanted to be.  I wasn’t watching the show, I was part of the show.  I had a very quick decision to make. 

 I could stay put, or move.  If I headed back to where I wanted to be, outside the storm looking into the supercell, I would have to punch through the part of the storm in front of me that looked like it would drop a full fledged tornado at any moment.  That was out of the question.  I could also continue back up the road headed to the core of the storm which I could see was very high precipitation with abundant cloud-to-ground lightning.   The huge problem with that is that punching the core is rarely a good idea.  Tornadoes may love the edges, but they are also to be found in the core, and being rain-wrapped and pretty much invisible, they can be the most dangerous situation that a chaser can find himself.   As to any other direction of retreat, behind me was the part of the rotation that had gone by that had been spawning the funnels, so what might be on the ground there was too much of a risk to take.   Added to that was the fact that in that part of the storm it might also be rain-wrapped.  The cincher was that roads in that direct were sparse, largely unknown to me, and might put me in a position of having no retreat.  I wasn’t going to start messing with the Garmin at that point as the chase up to then had been conducted on a road well know to me.  So, I decided to stay put. Really, at that point, it was the only choice, despite the fact that a tornado could drop down on us at any second.  What I witnessed after that was not to be believed. 

 As the outer wall of the supercell over us rotated by, counter-clockwise, just as it reached what I would estimate to be the 7 to 9 o’clock position of the storm, it would spawn a funnel cloud.  As the funnel would rotate to our left along with the supercell it would dissipate only to be replaced by another funnel forming right at what looked to be the same “sweet spot”.  It was like a Powerpoint presentation right in front of us, maybe a mile or two off, with all different types of funnels forming, dissipating and forming over and over again over the same part of storm/ground.  There were stovepipes and weird little spirals often breaking off and free-floating.  There were classic wedges and ropes.  There was even horizonat rotation trying to go vertical.  They were all there.  I lost count.  It was like being at a live-action seminar with all of the varieties unfolding in front of us all in a sky that would awe Steven Speilberg.  Of course, I didn’t have a camera.  I had meant to bring one as I had a chase in the back of my mind as we walked out the door.

 We sat there for a good while longer. The supercell seemed to be stalled over us.  The show continued, but we had to be constantly looking all around us making sure that nothing was coming at us from other directions.  Suddenly, the rain began.  The high precipitation core had either grown or moved toward us from the opposite side of the show, so we would soon be in a very low visibility environment. in the core, a situation that we had to avoid at all cost.  As the positive lightning hits increased, which are a huge risk in case of a hit even in an auto, and knowing that we might be at risk of being hit by a rain-wrapped tornado in the core, I decided that we had to bug out.  The storm was increasing in intensity, and rapidly.  While the supercell had been producing an epic amount of funnels, there didn’t seem to be the energy to get them to the ground.  I knew that situation wouldn’t last for long as the storm intensified.  So, with time running out,  I decided to punch through that part of the storm dealing with a known quantity rather that entering a part of the storm where I would be blind with a possible unknown that could be on us without warning.  I headed out past the sheriff’s cars and back out onto the road, back down the way that we had come.

 As I headed back down Route 9 I realized that the edge of the storm had been much closer than I had been thought.  The funnel producing area was soon now right beside me.  As we passed a main road heading perpendicular to the east of route 9 my wife called out “take that one, McGinnis Ferry.” It was a late call, and I had passed the road, but immediately realized that her call had been 100% correct.  It’s a good wide open road that would afford us good visibility.  Better yet, it would run parallel to the outer edge of our rotating supercell. On the down side we would remain inside of the storm looking out, and if the cell had been stalled it was now moving (we would later learn at nearly 50 mph) right along with us, keeping the part of the storm spawning the tornadoes moving along next to us, as we moved directly towards….home.

 On that three of four mile drive down McGinnis Ferry we had an often unobstructed view of the active part of the storm.  The smaller short-lived funnels that were quick to dissipate were replaced by big well organized funnels that would most assuredly touch down.  At one point there were three large funnels around us at once, and, as I crossed over Georgia Route 400 I had a clear view of a classic wedge funnel that I had no doubt would touch down.  I was half tempted to go onto Georgia 400 to intercept it, but reason won out over valor.  We had been extremely lucky so far, and as we were headed home, in the same direction that the funnels were headed, I had to consider my cat Iggy and dog Max who needed to get into the basement.  It was time to call it a day and get safe as the risk of getting caught was increasing exponentially by the second.

 About a mile from our development, which is like a small city, I had a choice of turning right or left as the road came to a “T”.  I turned right.  That was not a good choice.  It took me down a narrow winding two lane road closely bordered by tall Georgia pines.  I had zero visibility other than the road ahead of me and a tiny patch of sky. I quickly realized that I had also put myself right into the direct path of the huge funnel cloud that I had seen a just few moments before.  How could I have been that stupid after having been so lucky?  Fortunately we were only on the narrow road for a little less than a mile but they were very nervous moments.  It had gone green again, this time so green that the eerie light had even washed out the color of the pines.  Thankfully it wasn’t long before I turned right onto Union Hill Road, which at the top would be Windward Parkway, the main road into our development. Tis at worst put the oncoming funnel at our backs.  As we topped the one-half mile of Union Hill the tornado sirens began to wail.  As we reached the top of the hill we saw a sky in front of us was absolutely sickening.  At this point there was nothing left to do but get home, and very quickly.   As we drove up Windward Parkway towards our home I actually feared for our lives.  For the second time that night, or third or fourth, or whatever, we were in the bear cage.

 That short but endless one-and-a-half mile remaining drive home was other-worldly, to say the very least.  As we entered our home, tornado siren still wailing, we scooped up the animals and headed to the basement, and to safety.  When I turned on the TV and saw the Doppler signature of the storm that we had just chased, and was over us at the moment, I shivered.   We spent the next couple of hours in the basement as new supercells moved over and the tornado sirens wailed, over and over again, the lightning as red as blood.  We were lucky.

 The Baron Tornado Index (BTI) is a tool that measures the likelihood that there is a tornado in a storm. It really seems to work.  The rating is between one and ten with one being low and ten the highest.  A BTI of 5 is of very great concern.  A 6 is a huge concern, and a 7 to 8 is pretty much a done deal that a tornado is present.  Last night we were in a storm that measure 7.8 to 8. That is huge.  We are still getting news as to what touched down and where, but the one report that seems certain is that for our area (we live on the Fulton/Forsyth county border) there was a touchdown in Forsyth County where we started the chase, and possibly North Fulton where we ended it, right on our doorsteps.

 One thing I can tell, and without a doubt, my wife has guts.     




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