I will fully admit, I had all but written off the 2019 severe weather season. My mind was more on Husker football than it was on severe weather on Thursday, Aug. 29. Yet weather never ceases to surprise me…or humble me.
I should have kept in mind tornado producing conditions can occur at any time of the year, but I was surprised to see an Enhanced risk for severe weather for north central Kansas and southwestern Nebraska for the afternoon of the Aug. 29.
Dewpoints were in the low 70s, this would provide ample fuel for atmospheric instability. A descending cold front though the state was expected to initiate storms across the southern portion of the state. Yet numerical weather models were all showing something different and this inconsistency weakened my confidence in any forecast. I just assumed the worst storms would be miles away in central Kansas.
Despite this, around 3 p.m. a small thunderstorm began to build west of North Platte. I watched this cell mature for nearly an hour, remain discrete and continue to strengthen. This storm started to show the signs it might become a supercell. By 4 p.m. I couldn’t stand it anymore, I left work and hit I-80 driving west as fast as I dared.
I knew leaving so late to catch up with a storm heading south at 30 mph was a risk. It might outpace me, it could weaken before I get even close. Yet I thought this might be my last severe weather chase of 2019, so I threw caution to the wind and went for it. I targeted Wellfleet, south of North Platte as my intercept position.
This storm had definitely mature into a rotating supercell and was pounding the Wallace area with heavy rain and hail, and continued moving southward, away from me. The Wellfleet target didn’t pan out, the storm had moved further south, quicker than I anticipated.
I checked the radar for an update and my heart skipped a beat. The storm had picked up a severe weather warning earlier in its life and the yellow box was warning people to take shelter. Now there was a red box in on the western edge of the storm: a tornado warning.
The cell was exhibiting mid-level rotation and spotters on the other side of the storm were reporting a funnel cloud. I had finally caught up with the storm and was on its eastern edge, the problem was I was looking through the forward flank, rain obscured the base and this monster cell had a core 25 miles wide.
I finally got eyes on the rain free base and saw scud hanging ominously around the base. I never would see anyone of the three tornadoes which the storm produced.
I punched south and was only a few miles outside of McCook when I finally got ahead of the storm, the rear flank had outpaced the rest of the storm and I finally see well defined supercell structure. I pulled off on a gravel road and ran into the middle of a soybean field for a better view.
I found myself laughing as I took pictures of the structure as thunder growled in the heart of the storm. A two hour mad charge for only a few pictures of the storm, to anyone else I might have seemed crazy, that I wasted my time.
Even now I find it hard to describe to people why I do this, but there is an elation which comes from being in the right place at the right time to witness nature at its fiercest, while staying out of harms way.
In terms of tornado spotting, the case was a bust, I was late getting to the area, in the wrong position the entire time and was playing catch up from the very start.
Yet I wasn’t disappointed, had this been May or June I might have been, but in late August, I was just happy to be spotting one more time before the cold sets in. I got a great shot of the storm structure, which is more than I could have hoped for starting so far behind.