Friday, January 25, 2008

January 7th and 8th, 2008 - The Hard Learned Safety Lesson

In all the time I have been spotting/chasing, I have never put myself into a situation like I did in the early morning hours of January 8, 2008. I woke up at 2:28 am to the weather alert radio and acted on a tornado warning that included: "At 227 am CST...National Weather Service Doppler radar indicated a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado. This very dangerous storm was located near Republic...moving northeast at 65 mph."

While the guys and gals that run net control for SkyWarn do a fantastic job at communicating to those of us out in the field, it is my responsibility to be aware of my surroundings and what is going on with the weather. A storm moving 65 mph in the middle of the night is a very dangerous scenario. Especially considering my Internet was down, and I couldn't get a good look at radar before heading out the door. This mistake put me in a very dangerous situation.

By 2:48 am I was at Campbell Road (160) and James River (60) trying to get a view on the storm moving out of the Republic area (which eventually dropped a tornado in Springfield at 2:54 am). At 2:49 am, the updated warning stated "At 246 am CST...local law enforcement continued to track a tornado near Battlefield...moving northeast at 50 mph. A tornado was reported in the city of Battlefield along FF Highway southwest of fire station one." By this time, every indication was that the storm I was looking for was already into SW Springfield. I was very surprised by a report that there was a tornado on the ground to my southwest. I felt I had seconds to act to make sure I wasn't in harm's way.

I proceeded south on Campbell (160) and almost immediately ran into the most violent winds I've ever been in the middle of. I estimated the winds at 75-100 mph. Of course at the time it was happening, and based on the tornado report from Battlefield, at this time I thought that this storm had turned more east and was now hitting me. KC0VGC and I witnessed this on March 12, 2006 when a storm that was originally headed towards Battlefield turned more east and hit north Nixa.

To be quite honest, I'm not exactly sure what I communicated to SkyWarn net control. I just remember two things going through my mind. The first was, I needed to let them know that tornadic like winds were hitting the Plainview and 160 area, and two I wanted them to know my location because, quite frankly, I wasn't sure if I was going to get out of that unscathed.

I distinctly remember three things happening at that point.
  1. I couldn't hardly keep the car on the road from the roaring winds that were blasting me.
  2. I remember someone (I believe it was Don, WA0GVH) telling me to pull off the road and get to safety.
  3. I remember hearing Bob Hessee (N0XJJ) getting blasted up in north Springfield.
It was hard to tell exactly where I was at the time, but I knew I had crossed Plainview Road. I was trying to think of a good spot to seek shelter. I ended up making the decision to pull off the road and up next to a small hill, hoping to shield myself from the winds. I knew there was a risk of getting stuck, but the old Tracker's 4WD hasn't failed me yet. I pulled off across the highway from Sonic, seen in the picture below. I was parked just southeast of the Ski Shack.

As soon as I did, I knew the appropriate thing for me to do was find a spot to lay in the ditch. I don't condone what I did next, but I just really didn't want to lay in a ditch next to the highway, especially right by a boat lot. I decided that there was no way this tornado could be THAT large, and I had to be just about out of it. I dropped into 4WD and out of the mud I went and continued south on 160.

I finally came out of the winds just as I was heading down the hill into Christian County. I really don't think I've ever felt relief quite like that. All I could think was that I was going to make it home to my family.

It was quite an eerie feeling driving the rest of the way home. I was shaken up, and felt more humiliated than anything. I felt I really let myself and my family down getting into that situation. While thinking this, I was driving into a dark Nixa. Everything was dark. I had no idea what had come through, but it was very surreal.

The next day I went back to the area and discovered some pretty heavy damage. I documented the area damage in our event log from that night. One slightly disturbing thing that I found that I didn't originally document was the damage to the Ski Shack near where I had parked my car. I'm glad I didn't see this thing come down. I would have added a bit more stress to the situation.

That night, my anemometer had a high gust measured at 96.9 miles per hour. I contacted the manufacturer and they gave me a mathematical formula to figure in my speed of travel, etc. With that taken into account, the winds I encountered were approximately 88 MPH. I didn't take the time to stop, reset the anemometer and grab a more scientific reading while I was in survival mode...sorry about that. The National Weather Service has ruled the storm I encountered straight line winds.

About the time I was getting hit by these winds, or shortly after, a warning went out that stated:
"At 251 am CST...National Weather Service Doppler radar continued to indicate a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado near Springfield...moving northeast at 50 mph. A strong line of storms is passing through the Springfield area capable of producing 80 to 100
mph. Embedded tornadoes are also possible with in this line of storms."
The "strong line of storms" part of this warning is an important piece. I think had this been in the original warning, I would have missed it and focused on the "tornado near Springfield". It is IMPERATIVE that folks who go out and do this pay attention to these warnings. I will certainly pay close attention to them in the future.

What spotters/chasers do in the field is important. And while it is inherently dangerous, through precautions, that danger can be minimized. The reason I posted this article is to point out the mistakes I made and learned from. I hope other spotters/chasers that haven't been in a situation like this can learn from it without experiencing it. I'm quite sure those who have been in a similar situation don't need to be reminded. I know I won't soon forget it.


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