The National Weather Service was predicting severe thunderstorms, large hail, damaging winds and the potential for violent tornadoes on Thursday, May 18, 2017, primarily west of the Flint Hills.
Eagle reporter Oliver Morrison, Eagle photographer Travis Heying and freelance photographer Brett Schauf were in the area, looking for stormchasers and storms.
9:15 p.m., South Haven, Kan.
The nervous part of the trip seemed to be over as we turned home. But as we drove, the rain started getting heavier.
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“Have you looked at a satellite image recently?” asked Brett, who had taken over driving duties while Travis started editing and uploading images.
“Oh, yeah, we picked a bad time to head north,” Travis said as he looked at the satellite information.
“It just looks like it’s intensifying,” Brett said, understating how hard it was to see out the windshield.
“The heaviest part of this storm is right on top of us right now,” said Travis, raising his voice so he could be heard over the rain from the back. “The worst of it is about over. I would just take it slow. Go, this kind of rain, any low-lying area you might come upon, water across the road. In the next 10 miles, it will lighten up.”
Five minutes pass. The rain gets worse.
“I would tell you to pull over, but I don’t know where you could,” Travis said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever driven through rain this heavy. We’re going east. I thought we were going north. We’re just riding along with (the storm).”
We get to South Haven and pull over in front of the one-room post office to let the storm pass over us.
After trying to get some lightning photographs in a graveyard, Travis sees something that could be a twister but thinks it’s too small, too dark to get a good look.
So we turn toward home, but as we’re getting back in the car the wind picks up, probably 70 mph or more. Steady, not gusts.
And as we drive through a small thicket of trees we have to swerve to avoid a branch in the road, then another branch tears off 30 feet in front of the car and flies across the road.
Then 200 yards ahead we drive past a few more trees. Just as we pass through, a tree falls, crashing inches from the back of the car and totally blocking the road we were just driving on.
“Good lord I’ve seen some stuff but (dang),” said Brett, as he got out, once the winds had died down and it was safe to inspect the tree that nearly crashed through the car.
7:56 p.m., Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge
We stopped to take photos of the beautiful, dark storm clouds we saw before, once we were in a safer spot. We could see beautiful white birds flying away against the dark clouds and car headlights.
“That was unusually deep (trouble). That was not my best play, but it worked out in the end,” Travis said as we got back on the road. “We got where we needed to be to see a tornado if a tornado was going to happen. What else are you going to do?”
7:28 p.m., outside Alva, Okla.
For the last 20 minutes we have driven through heavy hail, making a loud cracking sound, and rain so heavy that it made it look like nighttime.
And then a tornado warning hit, right where we were at, five or 10 miles from Alva. So we drove tensely for five minutes, as the hail cracked on our car, until we got through a clearing and eventually to Alva, where tornado sirens were going off.
We had to haul east so we wouldn’t get caught by the potential tornado, and kept moving that direction for 15 minutes at least, stopping once to take photos of what I was told was the tornado but what just looked like a big, thick, dark column.
“I don’t like my position,” Travis said. “I feel like we need to get east.”
“I don’t think we’re in immediate danger,” Brett said.
We looked for a moment at the possibility of heading south once we got far enough in front of it, so we could get behind it, but instead decided to stay east.
We’re not sure if there is or was a tornado in there, but the storm is moving so fast we’re not sure we can head south.
“We’re ahead of it but not by much,” said Travis.
“It’s keeping up with us,” Brett said.
“I got ahead of it, so I know I’m winning the race,” Travis said.
7:01 p.m., south of Alva, Okla.
We stop and change our minds again. “Have you ever felt like a pingpong ball?” Brett asks.
“We’re bouncing between storms in northern Oklahoma,” Travis said.
The reason people were turning off the road 10 miles back was that the Woodward County storm we turned away from was strengthening.
“We still have an hour of daylight, we’re not in bad shape,” Travis said. “How far did we drive in that direction? Ten, 12 miles? So won’t take us long to get back.”
We see a line of clouds, striation, as we head back toward the Woodward County storm.
“Look at this wind velocity, look at that right there,” Brett said as we drove. “There is going to be a tornado warning issued. There has got to be. There has got to be.”
“Oh wow, look. Look at all that green. That is the hail core,” Travis said.
A few minutes later we stopped on the side of the road to take photos of a big, wide cloud formation, which they say is one of the most amazing and beautiful cloud formations they’ve seen. After they get some shots in the middle of a wheat field, we literally run back to the car, as we see other cars heading in the other direction and realize that they’re heading toward the north where they think the tornado will be.
6:34 p.m., Fairview, Okla.
We spent about 20 minutes driving to a storm out of Woodward County, Okla., but then when a new satellite image came through we switched course toward Carmen and then Fairview, Okla., “with the hopes that this storm doesn’t go the way of all the others,” Travis said.
We are still following storm chasers, and about 10 cars in front of us made the same turn we did. But as we drive, we see a couple of cars pulling over. Because there is so much uncertainty about where the best place to go is, when the drivers of other cars start changing their minds, it leads to second guessing.
“Where are all these (cars) going?” Travis asks. “He could just be a local, I guess.”
We keep hearing warnings of possible tornadoes developing in Salina or near Minneola.
“These days really are the worst,” Travis said. “It’s just too much.”
6:07 p.m., Hardtner
We see dozens of cars coming from the south – storm chasers, some with big rigs. We decide to follow them up north. But as we do, most of the radar detection seems to show that the storms are dying down all around us.
Travis sees a formation off to the west, but Brett said the radar isn’t showing anything. So we keep driving past the five or six cars that are stopped. We pass several intersections where storm chasers have stopped.
There are still some storms much farther north in Kansas, but they look like they are dying down too.
“Yeah. it’s over, man; it’s just going to be flood city now,” Travis said.
We’re debating heading east to see if some weather might develop into a storm later.
The meteorologists who we followed earlier text and say they are getting gas in Alva, Okla. “Show is not over.” The meteorologists say the storm prediction center says there is still a lot of energy.
So we head back south again.
5:45 p.m., Capron, Okla.
We drive into Capron, Okla., which has a few large grain elevators on the edge of town. We want to go south to get behind the storm to get a good look at it, but we don’t think there is a road south from Capron.
“It looks like there is some lowering there,” Brett says, as look toward the west.
“That might be it,” Travis says, as we drive into Capron.
We find a crossroad to drive south through Capron, and as we’re driving over railroad tracks we see a funnel.
“Oh my God, it’s going to rope. Look at that,” Travis said.
So we pulled over back by the train tracks and got out. It looked like a funnel on the ground for a couple of minutes, but then it turned white and lifted. A few minutes later and the funnel had sucked itself back up into the cloud.
5:14 p.m., just south of Oklahoma border
“There are eight tornado warnings around us, and we can’t get to any of them,” Brett said.
“I feel like this Kiowa storm is starting to reenergize. What do you think?” Travis said. “I just don’t know what the right call is. There are just so many. At this point trying to bust west to this thing south of Protection looks better than anything.”
We turn the car around.
For the first time we have broken off from the meteorologists we were following, who are now heading deeper into Oklahoma.
We are on our own.
5:06 p.m., Highway 8 and just south of the Kansas line
We stop to turn but find a mud road that we can’t drive down. But as we are there, the photographer in the car in front of us thinks he sees a tornado so everyone pulls out their cameras for some shots. The tornado might be in the middle of the rain in the Alva, Okla., storm but we can’t see it, so they stop to take some shots of the weather around us, walking into the grass field to get some grass in the shot.
“We’re in between five different systems here,” said Shane Martin, the KU meteorology student, as we climbed back into our cars.
But a few minutes later, as they debated what to do next, the photographers jumped back out in a hurry because they thought they saw something again. If there is something there, it’s too hard to see.
“If we go north, we’re going to drive right back into the rain,” Travis said. “If we wait a little bit until the whole system moves north, we’ll have an opening. … Maybe you’re right, maybe that time (to go north) is now.”
4:49 p.m., Kiowa
We now see some tornado warnings north of us near Larned with some space south of them where we might be able to get some clear pictures – one near Larned and one near Coldwater. We had thought about going near Coldwater but can’t second-guess ourselves now, the photographers say.
“There are storms everywhere right now,” Brett said.
“It’s those storms by Oklahoma City that are the ones; there’s nothing behind it,” Travis said. “The window for seeing this tornado is not going to be for the faint of heart.”
“There are tornado warnings all down this system,” I hear Brett say as we drive back into the heavy rain out of Kiowa.
Tornado warnings have been issued for central Barton County until 5:45 p.m.
At 4:53 p.m. a tornado was near Great Bend, moving north, according to the National Weather Service.
4:30 p.m., Hardtner
We just drove through the southern edge of a storm that had heavy downpours, some hail hitting the car and lightning. But after about only 10 minutes the storm passed us by. There is another storm heading in our direction. We’re heading to Kiowa, to see if the storm that passed by us will split off and develop some energy.
The best place for storm chasing is in the middle of Oklahoma right now, where there is a big storm and nothing behind it.
We stopped for about 10 minutes to reassess. The meteorologists who we are following said there is a confirmed tornado about 45 minutes southwest of us. So we head south a little ways.
Another driver pulls over who I thought was a storm chaser but no: he wanted some advice about which direction to drive to avoid the storms.
3:10 p.m., Medicine Lodge
The Casey’s convenience store in Medicine Lodge has become a convergence point for storm chasers.
Alden German just graduated from the atmospheric science program at the University of Kansas, which his storm-chasing partner for the day, Shane Martin, is still in. They’ve both been on a few chases before but this is their first together. They hope chasing storms will help them get TV jobs later on as weathermen.
German said they plan on staying around Pratt and Medicine Lodge because the areas in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle that show the highest risk will be overrun with chasers. “If you have a whole bunch of chasers in the same area, that makes things riskier, you have heavier traffic on rural roads,” German said.
They have floodlights on the top of their SUV, caution lights on the back, a computer hooked up to Wi-Fi to watch the radar and a full video camera mounted to the windshield.
Behind them in the parking lot, Michael Koch, who comes out from New York for two months every year, has a metal screen that overhangs his windshield several feet so that he can keep driving even in heavy hail without risk to his windshield.
Hadrian Predock flew out from Santa Monica, Calif., to Colorado College to pick up his son, Nico, 20, on his last day of college for the year. Since 2008 they’ve gone out on more than a dozen chases, including last year in Dodge City. They play it pretty safe, Hadrian said, but he was afraid the tornado was going to hit Dodge City last year. Nico is the one who studies weather in school, but Hadrian says he has loved weather since he was a kid. But they’ve gotten a lot better over the years at understanding the models, he said, and using the cameras and video cameras needed to capture storms.
“For us it’s completely an aesthetic pursuit, we’re here for the beauty of nature and weather,” Hadrian said. “It’s exotic and rare and beautiful and it comes out of nothing and develops into an intense event in a short period of time.”
Some of the storm chasers have started talking about another possible tornado in Texas, which makes them nervous that they’ll miss the action. I’ve heard several of them talk about “patience.”
2:30 p.m., Medicine Lodge, Casey’s gas station
Mark Buck, the superintendent of the Medicine Lodge School District, sent students home early today. It was the first time they had done it for a reason other than snow, he said.
The county’s emergency manager, Jerry McNamar, asked him to sit in on his call with the National Weather Service, after which, Buck thought, “Ooh, that’s not sounding good.”
So he called his transportation director and they got started on sending kids home. It’s one of the largest districts in the state, covering about 750 miles, Buck said, so he said after seeing tornadoes like the one in Greensburg, it’s better safe than sorry.
2:10 p.m., east of Medicine Lodge
A tornado has been spotted in southeastern Oklahoma near Elk City. But Travis said it’s early and it doesn’t make sense to go chasing something so far away.
We had been driving through gray clouds for more than an hour, but in the last 15 minutes we started driving through sunshine, which Travis said makes it more likely we’ll see a tornado later.
1:30 p.m., driving past fields northwest of Harper
Oliver: So what’s the plan?
Travis: Right now the plan is to head to Medicine Lodge. I think that’s a centrally located place where we’re going to see a lot of chasers. I’ve talked to one chaser who I know is headed there right now. These storms this time of year tend to move north and east, and this allows us to get on the south, bottom side of storms, which is where you want to be to chase.
Oliver: How long have you been doing this?
Travis: Oh God, it’s been 20 years, about. With way more failings than successes, which goes with the territory when you do this.
Oliver: How often do you see a tornado?
Travis: Once every couple of years, and I go out maybe five times per year. Most of that is because maybe a tornado doesn’t occur or maybe you choose the wrong storm to chase or maybe you get stuck in the mud. All of those scenarios have happened to me.
Oliver: What happened during your chase on Tuesday?
So I was chasing Tuesday night and picked the storm up on the Oklahoma Panhandle, and I was on that thing all the way to Kinsley. There was 80 percent tornado warning but I saw no tornado. Then (after stopping for gas) I made a bad, bad decision. I’d been on this storm for 150 miles and I went home probably 15 miles away from Pawnee Rock. But I don’t even think you can see the Pawnee Rock tornado, I think it was rain-wrapped. I got a call from my editor when I got to Wichita, “Are you still out there?” so I really blew that. So I’m hoping I get a do-over today. But every time I go out on these super high-risk days I flame out. It will all go linear, like a bunch of storms will fire up, one long blob, hail and rain and that’s all you get.
Oliver: Brett, how long have you been chasing storms?
Brett: I started six or seven years ago riding with a steam of storm chasers. They would get me into the storms and I would share images with them. … I’ve been out probably 50 times. Seen maybe 10 tornadoes. Or maybe just half a dozen.
Travis: But there are other things to shoot, sometimes the cloud structure or the lighting.
Brett: A lot of times what I like shooting are the dramatic landscapes, the psycho storms.
Travis: I’ve always told people we don’t have mountains or aspen trees (in Kansas), this is it. If you want to take pretty pictures in Kansas, you have to look up. The sky is the scenic landscape of Kansas.
Oliver: So what did you bring on this trip?
Brett: I have three primary camera bodies with a smaller video camera body, a series of long telephotos and wide-zoom lenses. Several backup batteries; most of the time they’ll run for a couple of days. I have a couple of bricks to charge phones or GoPros if we need to. I have a couple iPhones, a work and a personal; one of them I’ll use to monitor maps, the other social media. I’ll take a photo with the phone just to do a social media post with.
Oliver: What else?
Brett: I brought a couple Nature Valley granola bars. Flashlight, headlamp, utility tool. I dressed in Under Armor weather pants and a microfiber shirt — it dries fast if I have to get muddy — and boots.
Oliver: So why is today such a big day for chase in Kansas?
Travis: The (tornado risk map shows the) color pink, the highest threat level, it’s basically DEFCON 5. You only see it one or two times per year. I think I saw that Wichita itself hadn’t been in a high risk since 2012. So if you have an enhanced risk, two levels down, that will bring storm chasers out. If you have moderate risk, that will bring storm chasers. And high risk (like today), people call in sick and it just gets ridiculous.