I should preface this account with a disclaimer: NEVER should ANYONE go out chasing a storm unless they have a strong meteorological background and/or are experienced in this area. It's not just a matter of hopping in your car and driving around until something happens. The guys put a LOT of time and study into the data well ahead of the chase itself, and knew exactly what characteristics to look for in the storm itself to have an idea of where things would happen AND to remain safe at all times. If you want to go storm chasing, GO WITH A PROFESSIONAL! Okay, now that that's out of the way, here is my story! :o)
I was invited on Wednesday's chase on Tuesday night by my friend Andy, who was planning to go with a handful of other chasers down to Iowa to follow some potential severe storms. Yeah, unusual for March 30th, I know, but they were there! Or at least were forecasted to be there. The guys had been discussing the potential for this outbreak for a couple of days, and I was skeptical that my participation in the chase would be worth my time and money (anyone who goes is expected to pitch in for gas, and pay for food, so I was worried about the potentially high cost since the conditions didn't scream "tornado" to me). But in the end I decided to go. Early Wednesday morning, Andy and his roommate Beau picked me up, and we met up with two other guys, Shawn and Joel, and we headed south.
After arriving in Clear Lake, Iowa, we made a pitstop to join forces with another chaser, Tadd, and his brother, who were also hoping for some severe weather action. The guys stood around for a long time, drooling over Shawn's awesome WxWorx satellite subscription weather data service and debating where to head to wait out the storms. The setup for these storms was very uncharacteristic of usual severe weather storms, so there was some heated discussion going on, and lots of differing opinions. We ended up driving in circles for a while and getting greatly discouraged and grumpy, before heading back east again down a road we had already traveled. But this time, as we all watched the skies out the windows of the minivan, we noticed rotation directly above and in front of us. We started to get excited and pulled onto an exit ramp, and right in front of us we saw TOUCHDOWN! Immediately someone called the Weather Service to report a tornado on the ground, but as we were wildly videotaping and photographing the amazing whirling funnel, we saw ANOTHER tornado, albeit a weak one, just to our left on the roadway! It was remarkable! We felt so fortunate! What seemed like only 30 seconds ended up being about 5-6 minutes worth of video footage of the tornadoes. It went by so fast.
You're probably all wondering, Weren't you scared out of your mind? And actually, I wasn't. I was too pumped up on adrenaline to be consciously realizing what was even happening. I went into automatic mode and snapped pictures furiously. I completely put my trust in the hands of the people I was with. They're all very experienced and very intelligent when it comes to severe weather, so I felt safe. But the one thing that did worry me was the close and violent lightning. As the tornadoes dissapated, we quickly climbed back into the van, all screaming and excited beyond belief. We continued on, looking for more potential rotation and storm activity, but the system was moving away from us too quickly to get back ahead of it, so after a few more hours, we called it a day. We headed back to Albert Lea, and stopped for dinner and to upload the video footage to another chaser guy, Doug, who has connections with news outlets, including the Weather Channel. The footage ended up going to Channel 5 news, and Tadd got his footage to Channel 11, but the Weather Channel wouldn't make a deal, which is too bad because it would have been neat for that video to be shown nationwide. It was really good video. The guys deserve a lot of credit, not only for that, but for their excellent forecasting skills! (and for letting an inexperienced young lady ride along with them) :o)
It ended up being an unbelievable experience. Driving through these dinky little towns afterwards, and hearing the tornado sirens going off was such a rush. I haven't heard one of those things in ages. There was minimal damage from what we saw... just small/medium branches down and some yard items tipped over. The hail we encountered was small, too, probably only about pea-sized. But even though we didn't run into a massive F5 tornado (they were probably only F0-F1 strength) or a beautiful shelf cloud with amazing striations, it was such a gorgeous sight to be in the presence of this elusive natural phenomenon. I'm pretty sure the sight of it will be seared into my memory for a long time to come. And when you experience something like that with a group of people, you sort of become endeared to them. At least I did. Andy, Beau, Shawn and Joel are great guys, and I feel very fortunate to know them and have been invited on such a great adventure! Some people will pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to go on a chase with professional storm chasers and have the chance to see a tornado, often walking away and not even getting to see one. But I spent about $30, and got to see two. :o)
In case you're curious about my experience, here are some links to the webpages of the guys who were with on the chase:
Andy Revering - http://www.revering.net/masoncity.htm
* you can watch the composite video of the tornadoes at Andy's site
Tadd Parris - http://www.xtremewx.com/march30th2005.htm
Beau Gjerdingen - http://www.mnstormchasers.org/
You can also watch the video at WeatherVine - http://www.weathervine.com/