Inside one of the wildest tornado-chasing days ever recorded

Posted at 8:47 PM, May 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-23 20:47:39-04

In the world of storm chasers, May 24, 2016, inspires a near-universal fascination. On that day, the panoramic skies stretching over the Great Plains just outside of Dodge City, Kansas, became the backdrop for a dazzling tornado outbreak, when a series of supercell thunderstorms produced at least 12 twisters immediately around the city.

“It was like a Dr. Seuss book of tornadoes,” said Jason Persoff, referencing “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” — one tornado, two tornado, each different in shape and size. The twisters dropped out of the sky nonstop for more than two hours, the 46-year-old storm chaser from Aurora, Colorado, recalled.

For many chasers, there’s a “Wizard of Oz” mystique to hunting tornadoes on the Kansas plains. The Dodge City outbreak had all the ingredients for a cinematic experience: the high cloud base made the tornadoes appear taller, and there was little rain wrapping around them, to obscure the twisters from view.

The storm system moved slowly from south to north, traveling between the grid-patterned roads that crisscross the wide open spaces outside of Dodge City. The slow movement of the twisters allowed the boldest storm chasers to get close and snap some of the most stunning photographs they had ever captured.

“That day will be burned in my memory forever,” said Quincy Vagell, a storm chaser from Oklahoma City.

Matt Hunt snapped this photo just south of Dodge City, Kansas on May 24, 2016. As a child growing up in Indiana, tornadoes terrified Hunt but that fear turned into curiosity and fascination. “I’m in awe,” said Hunt. “Seeing and feeling mother nature is addicting to me.”

A storm like a ‘loaded gun’

Early on the morning of May 24, 270 miles away from Dodge City, Rich Thompson was just wrapping up an overnight shift at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma.

Thompson, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service, organized the 8 a.m. severe weather forecast.

Many chasers eagerly await the Storm Prediction Center’s early-morning reports, which help them anticipate where to best position themselves to see a tornado.

Thompson could see the dramatic atmospheric conditions developing on the radars and weather models. There was a dry line moving east out of the Rocky Mountains that would collide with what’s known as an “outflow boundary.” When those two atmospheric conditions collide, it’s a rich environment to produce tornadoes.

In a public presentation a few months earlier, National Weather Service researcher Gabe Garfield described the developing storm system as a “loaded gun.”

Thompson pinpointed a small area around southwest Kansas and northern Oklahoma as being ripe for an “enhanced risk of severe storms,” where “very large hail and few tornadoes will be possible.” With the typical subtlety of most National Weather Service forecasts, Thompson included a bull’s-eye over Dodge City.

What drives chasers

Instead of going home to sleep, Thompson and a fellow forecaster decided to jump in their car and join the chase. He says seeing the impact severe storms can have on people’s lives is vital for a meteorologist.

“It helps me know what I’m up against,” Thompson said. “There’s value in seeing how a storm develops.”

In Carrollton, Texas, Matt Hunt, 35, jumped in his car before sunrise and started making the seven-hour drive toward Dodge City. Spring tornado season is Hunt’s favorite time of the year. He works as a physician’s assistant in a Dallas suburb and often takes vacation days to chase storms.

As a child growing up in Indiana, tornadoes terrified Hunt — but that fear turned into curiosity and fascination.

“I’m in awe,” said Hunt. “Seeing and feeling mother nature is addicting to me.”

He’s learned basic forecasting skills, took a storm spotter training class with the National Weather Service and last year put almost 100,000 miles on his Toyota Camry chasing twisters.

In eight years of storm chasing, Hunt says that before May 24, he’d only seen nine tornadoes. That was about to change in a breathtaking way.

The outbreak begins

Just before 6 p.m., there was no hint of tornadoes in the sky. Dozens of storm chasers stood along US 283 near Minneola, south of Dodge City. Then it started.

In less than 30 minutes, cumulus clouds developed over the wide-open farmland. A spectacular wall cloud formed and, within minutes, the first tornado spun its way toward the ground.

Dan Robinson, a storm chaser from St. Louis, found himself about 600 feet away from the twister. He jumped out of his Toyota Yaris and started snapping pictures as the storm moved north, away from him.

Tornadoes often are described as sounding like freight trains, but Robinson says that when large storms touch down in open fields, the sound is more like a powerful waterfall.

“If you’re standing next to Niagara Falls, that’s about how they sound,” said Robinson, 42.

This first tornado was spectacular and fierce. The National Weather Service determined it stayed on the ground for nearly 12 miles, stretched about 300 yards wide and packed winds of 136 mph.

Driving into the tornado’s path

As the first tornado faded away, a second tornado dropped out of the sky just a few miles to the east and closer to Dodge City. Tim Marshall and a team of researchers from the Center for Severe Weather Research were driving straight into its path.

They’re not thrill-seeking lunatics, but Marshall’s job that day was to drop a 70-pound, 3-foot tall observation pod right in the path of the tornado. For the pod to work, it must be placed directly in the twister’s path.

Since 2009, Marshall had been jumping in front of tornadoes hoping to place a pod in the perfect spot, but had never succeeded.

“It’s so hard to get hit by a tornado,” Marshall said. “You put pods down, and it’s like they see it.”

But this outbreak seemed promising. “This was a tornado generator, tornado after tornado,” he said.

As the second tornado moved north, Marshall raced along Saddle Road south of Dodge, just ahead of the twister’s path. He could see the tornado growing and moving toward his team as they raced to get the pod onto the ground.

In the moment, Marshall said he doesn’t think about why he volunteers to do this kind of work.

“We should be scared later,” he said. “I was mostly screaming, ‘Get the pods down!'”

Science and meteorology fascinated Marshall at an early age. When he was 10 years old — “the perfect age to stimulate the mind of a young ‘un like me,” he said — a tornado swept through his hometown of Oak Lawn, Illinois.

The April 1967 tornado missed his home by a mile, but it provided a front-row seat to the fury and danger of tornadoes. When he went to school the next day, he learned the storm had killed one of his young classmates and injured another.

The chance to learn how to forecast storms more accurately and help save lives motivated Marshall to stand close to a tornado that was churning the ground right at him with winds of more than 100 mph.

Marshall remembers the wind howling and not much else. His team dropped the observation pod at the intersection of 106th and Saddle Road. The researchers jumped in their car and raced away to watch.

Less than 60 seconds later, the tornado passed right over the pod.

The chase of a lifetime

As the supercell moved north toward Dodge City, twisters kept spinning out of the storm clouds. Another six would appear over the course of the next hour.

One of the most stunning looked like a giant cone of gray cotton candy with wild, wispy strands whipping around the highly focused center.

The chasers then witnessed a rare sight: multiple tornadoes dropped out of the sky at the same time, a phenomenon known as “cyclic tornadoes.” Twice in the same afternoon, the super cell produced two different tornadoes simultaneously. At one breathtaking moment, the storm chasers spotted three twisters in the sky.

“I never thought I’d see that myself,” said Matt Hunt. “I don’t think there will ever be another day like that.”

Even though some consider May 24, 2016, the “chase of a lifetime,” other tornado outbreaks have left unforgettable and often horrifying memories for millions of people.

In 2011, a three-day tornado “super outbreak” of tornadoes erupted across Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia. The National Weather Service confirmed 362 tornadoes over those days, killing nearly 350 people. That storm system is considered the costliest and deadliest tornado outbreak ever recorded.

There have been other single tornadoes that stand out among chasers. Some point to a giant and unexpected tornado that stunned chasers in May 2010 when it stayed on the ground in Campo, Colorado, for about 20 minutes. There were also the “twin tornadoes” that wrecked through Pilger, Nebraska, and killed two people.

Dodge City stands out for the high number and variety of uniquely-shaped twisters the chasers saw that day — and, most importantly, for the fact that no one was killed.

The chance to get close

Ian Livingston and Quincy Vagell were chasing the Dodge tornadoes together, approaching the storm from the south side as it moved away from them. They could smell the dust being churned up into the air.

Then, less than half a mile ahead of them, multiple tornadoes began dropping out of the sky.

“We were having trouble even just keeping count of the tornadoes and wondering if were imagining things,” Livingston said.

It was a wild sight, even for veteran chasers. Livingston, a foreign policy researcher with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., has been chasing storms on his own time for seven years.

Vagell, 30, grew up in Connecticut and caught the storm chasing bug 4 years ago. He once drove 16 hours overnight to see tornadoes in Nebraska. He miscalculated the timing and missed the storms, but he was hooked. Since then, he has spent time working in television as a weather producer and moved to Oklahoma City to get closer to tornado alley.

Brandon Sullivan had been chasing storms for almost 10 years. In 2013, he had a close call with a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma. Sullivan and his chasing partner were caught on a country road when a tornado destroyed a barn. The winds whipped debris and a hay bale into their car, shattering a window. Sullivan wasn’t injured, but the day was a wake-up call.

“I don’t get near as close as I used to back then,” Sullivan said. “I don’t have that desire anymore.”

But on May 24, the adrenalin of witnessing multiple tornadoes touching down at the same time was just too powerful. Sullivan drove his Toyota 4Runner, equipped with custom steel bumpers, just behind the tornado within a half mile.

Sunlight was shining on the storm and very little rain was falling, providing a clear view of the twisters.

“You’re sitting there with your camera and you don’t know which way to point it,” said Sullivan.

‘A very lucky town’

As the storm chasers navigated the muddy roads drenched by the violent storms, they noticed the southern edge of Dodge City coming into focus. The tornado warnings blared across the city and, for a moment, it looked like the town of nearly 30,000 people would take a direct hit. At the last minute, the storm and tornadoes pushed slightly west and skirted the edge of the city.

“Dodge City was a very lucky town,” said researcher Tim Marshall. “It would have destroyed the city.”

The tornadoes skirted the southern and western edges of Dodge City and missed the most populated and developed areas altogether.

In all, the sequence of tornadoes carved four distinct paths around Dodge City. The National Weather Service estimates the paths measured more than 30 miles on the ground and that wind speeds often topped at 140 mph. In the end, only a few people reported minor injuries and structural damage was minimal.

After the sun set and storms cleared, Persoff and a small group of fellow chasers found a steakhouse in Dodge City to celebrate the perfect storm chase.

“You have to treat yourself after a day like that,” he said.

The biggest crowd of chasers gathered at an Applebee’s restaurant in Dodge City. For hours they shared stories, still in awe of what they had just witnessed, and scrolled on their laptops through the thousands of pictures they had just taken.

Many of them left Dodge City wondering if they’ll ever experience a day like that again.

“My first thought at the end of the day is that maybe I should retire,” Sullivan said.