Tornadoes, Huge Hail, and Lightning, Oh My!
Posted on Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 5:00 PM MST
WOODWARD, OK -- What will go down as one of the most memorable chases of the year netted me my first tornado of the new season and pounded me with hail well over 4 inches (softball size). My target for a few days had been the area surrounding Woodward. The plan that morning was to roll into Woodward around 3 pm. I set out from Norman with anticipations running high.
I pulled into Woodward a few minutes after 3:00 and stopped at a truck stop to have one last look at the models. I headed to the east side of town to be in the best position to go east and south to stay ahead of the southeast-moving storms. I waited for less than 10 minutes before the first storm initated just north of Woodward, up near Buffalo. I blasted north on Highway 34 to get into position.
I found a perfect spot to pull over just southeast of the base of a beautiful developing supercell that was slowly moving northeast and had a front row seat to watch the storm mature. I was also watching another rapidly-strengthening storm further to the southwest as well. The cell I was on started to show weak rotation on radar, but couldn't get its act together much beyond that. I could see a wall cloud trying to form, but it became clear pretty quickly that this storm wasn't going to produce a tornado right then. The storm then turned southeast and headed straight for me so I turned around and high-tailed it back to Woodward to stay ahead of the rain and hail core of both storms.
I tracked back and forth a couple times between Woodward and Mooreland trying to figure out where the best position would be. Finally it became clear that I needed to get back to the south side of Woodward. Coming back west on US-412 I could see a rotating wall cloud start to put down a tornado right in front of me. It was not very well organized, but did get very close to the ground and was actually scraping the ground on several occasions, but could never fully touch down. It dissipated less than two minutes after forming.
As I came into Woodward, the rotating wall cloud was reorganizing quickly. As I watched the surface air being entrained into the rotating updraft I knew a funnel was imminent. Being the first possible tornado of the year, I quickly became mesmerized by this developing twister and fell into a deep state of tunnel vision, putting myself into perfect position to document the tornado for a northeast-moving storm. Unfortunately, the storm was moving southeast, with the primary hail core headed straight for me.
A light drizzle was falling as I headed through downtown Woodward. As I was waiting at the light to turn south on Highway 34 a hailstone that was easily the size of a baseball fell on the road right in front of me. Then that gut-wrenching felling of "Oh this is gonna be really bad" hit me. In an instant it went from a light drizzle to softballs falling out of the sky. I knew right then and there I would not be coming out of that unscathed. It was like a bad dream watching these softball sized hailstones continue to get bigger. Then the first one hit the bottom of the windshield, putting a large crack across the bottom and snapping me right back into reality.
So I was faced with an interesting dilemma: Huge hail was falling which could easily knock you out cold if you took one off the head and my windshield was beginning to go. Do I try to look for cover, or do I make a run for it? I desperately searched around for a tree, a sign, anything to hide under, but came up empty. That's right when the hailstone that was easily softball sized hit the bottom corner of the windshield, spiderwebbing the entire driver's side instantly (the main impact on the windshield was 4.5 inches in diameter and I had dents on the roof bigger than 5 inches in diameter). I didn't have a choice then. I had to make a run for it, and headed south on Highway 34 as fast as I could.
Driving through baseball and softball sized hail knowing that probably one more direct hit would most likely take out the windshield has to be one of the most unnerving feelings in the world. I was quite amazed at how quickly I punched out of the main hail core and drove out of it as quickly as I had driven into it. The storm quickly went Tornado Warned right after I punched out of the core. I could look over my shoulder and see the tornado on the ground, but it was quite painful knowing that I couldn't stop to shoot it since the hail core was chasing me down Highway 34. The tornado quickly became rain-wrapped and was on the ground less than a minute, so it would have been gone by the time I stopped anyway.
As I ran south on Highway 34 with the hail core in hot pursuit, lightning started striking all around. My first thought was "Great, I outran the hail, now I'm gonna get struck by lightning." Keep in mind that this is the wide open Oklahoma prairie and there are no trees or tall objects around anywhere whatsoever. I'm not sure if it was luck or what, but when the lightning did strike right next to me, there was one single tree on the other side of the highway that it struck instead of me. Living in Florida for 6 years did desensitize me from very close lightning strikes, but it was still a pretty good adrenaline rush. It seemed like an eternity, but eventually the lightning stopped coming down and the skies started to get a bit brighter.
I drove all the way to Watonga before I finally stopped to assess the damage. Thankfully, the windshield took the brunt of the damage. The hail knocked my fuel door open, knocked my rear view mirror off the window, knocked my satellite radio antenna off the roof, and left some nice looking dents on the car. It also left a fairly large tree limb in the bed of the truck too. It was a very memorable way to net the first tornado of the year, and the adrenaline rush didn't wear off until the next day. My windshield is all fixed now and everthing's all set to resume chasing at the end of the week.
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