Wednesday, July 16, 2008

East, Southeast...what's the difference really?

When intercepting storms, the direction of the road and direction of the storm are of the utmost importance. The May 10th tornadic event really had me evaluating this subject. There were two factors on that day that really drove it home. First, the fact that the storms were moving east, then southeast. The second was the trip down Mo-248 when trying to get out of the storm paths.

Understanding Storm Movement
First, it's very important to pay close attention to the storm warnings as they are issued. The National Weather Service has all of the cool tools, so when they give storm direction, it's important to listen to that. It's very easy to miss when out spotting/chasing because we typically have multiple radios going, and sometimes we are involved in 2-way communication. Actually it's common to be in 2-way communication with 2 or 3 people. (Is that 3-way and 4-way, or 4-way and 6-way?)

Second, it's important to understand storms can change movement. Some storms will become "right movers", and those that do often have the potential to be more severe. So it is important to not get so entranced by a storm that common sense and visual inspection get overridden. The NWS may report a storm is moving down a specific path, but we have to stay on our toes in case mother nature changes things up.

Understanding The Roads

Getting into unfamiliar territory can be problematic. This is why one of my rules that I try to stick to is to always have a passenger to help with navigation if I am in an area I'm not used to. On May 10th, we ended up in the Aurora area, which I have not traveled much. When the main storm coming from the Newton County area was reported to be headed our way, we went south. Once we were past the point of no return, another tornado warning was issued for a storm down that way. The spotters that went north ended up in a similar situation when moving north away from the Newton County storm were caught between that one and a tornado warning issued for Jasper County coming out of the Carthage area.

We had to make decisions fast, and to be quite frank, we felt they were decisions that could mean the difference between escaping a confirmed damaging tornado, or putting ourselves in it's path. We were comfortable with our knowledge of storms and the track of the current storms, but not with the roads in the area. We made the best decision we could make with the information we had, but in hindsight, we could have made better choices. If we had known how Highway 248 routed, we certainly would have. But I've already written about that.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Trtan of KOLR10 this year, and we talked about the May 4th, 2003 video shot from the back window of their vehicle by Nick Penka as they were running from that killer storm. The subject of road direction came up and Tom said they ended up closer to that storm than expected because the road they were fleeing on actually was more northeast than east, so they were staying in the path of the storm when they thought they were getting out of it's way. That was a close call!


All of this to say that if you do spot or chase, don't get too comfortable. Remember the first thing to plan is your escape, which means you must know your road options. If you don't spot or chase, this is just another one of the dangers that you should be aware of before you consider doing so. Training is so important, because when it's panic time, training is what will kick in. All four spot/chase teams I worked with on May 10th had to make the same decisions we did, and we all made it out fine.

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