The May-June 1999 STORMTRACK features the October 4, 1998 Oklahoma Outbreak

WOW! INCREDIBLE! HOLY COW!

I. COMMENTARY by Tim Marshall

WOW! INCREDIBLE! HOLY COW! What a chase year for me! I saw 12 tornadoes on five tornado days, my third best season since I began chasing in 1978. On April 21st, Carson Eads and I saw our first tornado of the year from a picturesque HP supercell which struck Carrier, Oklahoma. As noted in the commentary of the last issue of ST, it took a lot of luck to get that one. Then on May 1st, Carson Eads, Bruce Haynie and myself made a long trip west and filmed another tornado from an HP supercell northwest of Goldsmith. We just were at the right place at the right time for that one. Of course, May 3rd was the big outbreak -but I almost missed the show.

Fortunately, Carson called me at work and informed me that SPC had upgraded Oklahoma from a slight risk to a moderate risk at 1630Z. I canceled my afternoon inspections and proceeded to do mesoanalysis. It soon became apparent that it was a chase day, but, I didn’t see it as an outbreak. Carson had afternoon appointments, so he couldn’t chase until later -so I asked my wife if she’d like to have dinner in Wichita Falls. I knew she would say yes as we both like to dine out. Little did we realize we’d have one heck of a main course. By the time we got to Wichita Falls, I could see a thunderstorm to my north near Lawton and two more storms further west. I wasn’t too concerned about the Lawton storm since it was not on any boundary and didn’t look very good -no backshear -mushy anvil. I figured we’d head north to Lawton anyway to catch the storms coming in from the west. Suddenly, a tornado warning was issued for the Lawton storm. The storm crossed the turnpike and then we heard of a confirmed tornado near Fletcher -just east of Lawton. As we passed Lawton, I caught site of the tornado to the northeast. We continued northeast on the turnpike and followed the tornadoes all the way to Moore. The Moore tornado was massive and we were able to get ahead of it and park on a bridge at Newcastle. The large tornado came right at us and passed about a mile to our north. After traversing the damage path at Moore, we saw the western storm and headed west on I-40 witnessing two more tornadoes from Yukon to Piedmont after dark. I spent the next week doing a damage survey from Newcastle through Moore, Dell City, and Midwest City. This tornado outbreak will be featured in the next issue of STORMTRACK.

On May 31st, Carson and I made a long drive from Dallas, Texas to Sitka, Kansas and arrived in time to film the tornado there at close range. We were north of the tornado and got some high contrast footage of the tornado as it moved to the southeast. Then the next day we drove east to Wagoner and filmed a large cone waterspout on Fort Gibson Lake. The tornado crossed the lake within a half mile from our location and sounded like a huge waterfall. Unfortunately, the tornado struck a row of resort homes on the east shore killing one person and injuring six.

My chase season was not without disappointments. On May 15th, the weather situation looked marginal, but I forecasted Russell, Kansas as the potential target. The more I analyzed the data, the less confident I became in my forecast. So, I stayed home. When I saw the small, piddley storm going up around 7:30pm, I was patting myself on the back for an excellent call. Then, I heard that the storm produced a large, high contrast, long lasting tornado. Ouch! On June 2nd, we were in central Kansas but were lured southwest to Amarillo by storms there. The next day, we had to decide whether to play the eastern Texas panhandle or go back to Kansas. Unfortunately, we opted to stay in Texas to watch an orphan anvil and missed the large tornado at Almeda, Kansas. Double ouch.

II. CHASER NEWS

KFOR-TV, Channel 4 in Oklahoma City has assembled a great tape featuring storm chaser highlights from the May 3rd tornadoes. The 45 minute tape is only $14.95. To order, send a check to: May’s Fury, 2506 North Jefferson, Enid, Oklahoma 73701 or order by credit card by calling 1-800-411-2483. Proceeds go to help the tornado victims. For more information, check out their web page at http://www.kfor.com/weather/may_fury.asp

CHASE STRATEGY: OCTOBER 4, 1998 by Tim Marshall

I flew back from my job assignment in Minneapolis last night so I could chase. Today, looked like a classic textbook tornado day even 24 hours in advance. A strong, dynamic, negatively tilted, long-wave trough was going to head out onto the plains. Timing of the upper wave appeared in-phase with the surface thermodynamics. Extremely high dewpoints were in place across Kansas , Oklahoma, and North Texas. The stage was set for a major severe weather outbreak. Still, I did not foresee a tornado outbreak even after looking at the morning data. SPC had issued a MODERATE RISK area for parts of northern Oklahoma and Kansas.

12Z POSITIVE FEATURES: At 850mb, there was a closed low over northeast Colorado with a fairly strong (40 knot plus) low-level jet moving northward through central Oklahoma and Kansas. There was a weak capping inversion over Kansas, moderate over Oklahoma, and strong over southwest Texas. At 700 mb, there was a band of 30 knot winds were moving through an axis from Amarillo to Albuquerque. Lapse rates would steepen during the day cooler air would eventually work into the area from New Mexico. I especially liked what I saw at 500mb. There was a sharp, east-west oriented speed maximum approaching Oklahoma; Amarillo had 50 knots and Albuquerque had 70 knots. At 250mb, the upper low was in northwest Montana with a negative tilt axis to the long wave. A sharp gradient of isoheights exited the inter-mountain region with a difluence axis extending across eastern Colorado and western Kansas. The 15Z surface map showed 70 plus dewpoints heading northward into Kansas. The dewpoint axis was close to the I-35 corridor. A dryline was positioned in west Texas and had west-southwest winds behind it.

12Z NEGATIVE FEATURES: There was unidirectional flow over Oklahoma and north Texas with west-southwest winds at 850 and 700mb at Oklahoma City and Fort Worth. Such unidirectional flow tends to produce squall lines. Also, with such high winds at 500mb, storms are going to race east-northeastward. There was a lack of surface drying behind the dryline. Although Amarillo’s winds were southwest, they still had a 59 dewpoint and Lubbock had a 61 dewpoint at 15Z. However, I anticipated the dryline would sharpen up during the day as mixing occurred and move east.

At 11am, I made the following notes in my chase log: "We have a classic set up for a severe weather episode. I prefer tail-end charlie further south and will likely chase the SLIGHT RISK area along and west of I-35. Initial convection should begin along a Clinton to Lawton line with storms crossing I-35 near dusk. Storms in Kansas will be racing east and northeast, so I won’t be heading that far north. I am not concerned about the cap breaking in the slight risk area due to all the dynamics heading this way."

Carson Eads and I departed around 1pm and headed north on I-35. We headed north rather than northwest since we wanted to keep ahead of any storms that developed in western Oklahoma. Also, we wanted to keep our options open where we could head northwest, west, or southwest from Oklahoma City. At 2:20pm, we stopped briefly atop the Arbuckle Mountains to view the satellite loop from THE WEATHER CHANNEL. The satellite showed a nice pinwheel rotating from Montana southeastward into Kansas. A tornado watch had been issued for Kansas and a tornado warning already had been issued for Dawson County, Kansas. Reportedly, the storm there was racing to the northeast at 50 mph! An isolated storm had developed near Woodward. This storm looked like a supercell on radar. I anticipated other storms would develop further south in western Oklahoma later.

We arrived in Oklahoma City just before 4pm and could see clearing skies to the west. We immediately headed west on I-40 and stopped in El Reno to gas up the van and plot some weather data. We found out a second tornado watch was issued for central Oklahoma -and we were right in the middle of it. I could see the Woodward storm to the northwest. There was a vertical tower on the back end of the storm with a backsheared anvil; the anvil extended a long ways out to the east. We had to make a decision whether to race northward to the Woodward storm or stay put closer to our forecast area and hope something good happens to the line of mushy convection to our west. A look at the radar showed the Woodward storm was racing off to the east and would outrun us. Also, the storm looked like an HP (high precipitation) supercell. We decided to stay put.

We saw a storm form closer to us to the northwest and decided to go after it. At 4:42pm, NOAA Weather Radio broadcasted a TORNADO WARNING for Blaine County. The storm was 14 miles southwest of Watonga moving northeast at 35mph. We turned west on Highway 33 at Kingfisher and intercepted the storm near Omega.

A wall cloud had formed and there was weak rotation at cloud base, however, precipitation kept interfering with the updraft. I was not impressed with the storm structure. Other storms were now developing further north and south of our position and it appeared this storm was destined to go downhill. Suddenly, we noticed another storm exploding to our southwest back towards Watonga. The storm appeared to develop quickly along the rear flank outflow boundary in the wake of the first storm. The second storm was out in the clear air and had a crisp, cumuliform anvil. Immediately, we headed further west on Rt. 33 and could see a large rain free base with a tight lowering at the southwest end of the base -many miles away from the precipitation area. A large funnel had formed extending about half way to the ground around 5:37pm. {Later, we found out this was Tornado #1}. The funnel dissipated in a minute or two but the storm seemed destined to produce a tornado. As we closed in to the storm, we could see strong rotation in the southwest portion of the rain free base and then I knew we would soon see a tornado. The storm had a classic supercell structure.

As the circulation at cloud base tightened, a funnel dropped and within a few seconds, condensed to the ground around 5:50pm. We stopped eight miles east of Watonga and set up our cameras. The tornado quickly widened out to a cone-shaped vortex and formed a debris cloud. It was perfectly backlit and well away from the precipitation area. The contrast was enhanced when crepuscular rays streamed around the south side of the updraft. Here we had blue sky to the south and a black rain free base with tornado to our west. Wow. The tornado continued northeastward and crossed Highway 33 about five miles west of our film site. Each time a house or barn was destroyed, a clump of debris would explode from the base of the vortex. Meanwhile, trees were being plucked out of the ground and sent parasailing in slow motion around the tornado like an amusement park ride. The tornado became cylindrical shape and became nearly stationary before the rear flank downdraft took over and pushed the storm rapidly eastward. The tornado became V-shaped with the top of the tornado outrunning the base. It passed through several hills and valleys passing about two miles to our north. As the tornado began to rope out, the sun illuminated the bottom of the tornado bright gold. The rope stage was a slow process for this tornado where the entire vortex steadily got thinner and more elongated to the extent where it was only a few feet wide and several thousand feet long. The tornado dissipated around 6:12pm.

We could see another wall cloud forming to the east, so we headed to Kingfisher. As we approached the west end of town, a truncated cone-shaped tornado developed to our northwest around 6:28pm. The condensation did not reach the ground, but there was a constant dust whirl. We headed north on Hwy. 81 and eventually caught up with the tornado just south of the town of Dover. The tornado was much closer to the precipitation area than the previous tornado so we knew it wouldn’t last much longer. However, as the tornado crossed the highway in front of us, the condensation funnel reached the ground and anchored briefly throwing up a lot of dirt and debris. After it crossed Hwy. 81, the tornado began to weaken and dissipated around 6:42pm. We continued to follow the circulation eastward, however, another storm to our south began seeding the updraft leading to its demise.

Thus, we dropped south then east to Gutherie. Sirens wailed in town -a theme song to this chaser. This new storm had a large wall cloud, but we could not see any rotation. With daylight fading and the storm heading off into worse terrain, we decided to head to Norman for our steak dinner. But, mother nature was not done with us yet. As we entered Oklahoma City at 8:12pm, we heard reports of a hook echo west of Moore and another one near El Reno. Carson turned on the television set and hook echoes they were. We opted to go south on I-35 to try to beat the storm to Moore. We encountered heavy rain south of Rt. 240 at 8:32pm -then saw the radar scan update on television place the axis of the elongated hook just west of I-35. I began to get concerned. Suddenly, we broke out of the rain and could see a low hanging cloud base to the west. Cloud-to-ground lightning was striking all around us. We encountered precipitation again on the south side of the hook echo near Indian Hills Road and had a strong wind shift out of the west. Suddenly, blue flashes occurred to our north on the I-35. I thought it was the strong rear flank downdraft winds or possibly a tornado. It wasn’t long before we found out it was a tornado we just beat across the road. What a day. A good forecast and good decisions made it one of our best chase days -and was the first time we had seen tornadoes in October.

A total of 23 tornadoes were confirmed by the National Weather Service in Oklahoma. There were 18 tornadoes in central Oklahoma and five in northeast Oklahoma. We experienced four of the tornadoes. The first tornado occurred at 5:37pm nine miles southwest of Watonga and was rated F-0. The Watonga tornado traveled 12 miles in 22 minutes and was rated F-2. The Dover tornado traveled 7 miles in 14 minutes and was rated F1. The Moore tornado lasted seven minutes from 8:34pm to 8:41pm, traveled three miles, and was rated F-2.

OCTOBER 4, 1998 CHASE by Eric Nguyen

I looked at Northern Oklahoma as the potential target area but, Steve Miller pointed out that the jet would dig a bit further south. So, I added that into my forecast and we targeted Clinton, Oklahoma off of Hwy 40.  So, I picked up my chase partner, Dan Horenstein from Norman Oklahoma and we headed west on Hwy 40. We stopped at Clinton and noticed some towers to our NE around Enid.  We were not to impressed by them as they began to look weak. We continued to check out data at my favorite "Loves" in Clinton.  After getting data we went south a bit and I got a phone call from my buddy Glen Dixon. Him and Steve Miller were about 15 miles SE of me seeing a huge tower going up. We didn't see it since it was right on top of us. We began to head east to get a glimpse of it. It began to organize into a supercell and developed a precipitation core and a lowering. A tornado warning was issued and after about a half hour this storm appeared to weak and was not impressing me at all.  Another storm was very far away to the SW. We were a few miles south of Watonga and decided to wait since this storm looked somewhat impressive and was in the better inflow. We waited 30-45 minutes watching it go from meso, to wall cloud, to a very large funnel.  At some times, it appeared as though the rotation was strong enough to touch down but the RFD wasn't quite there.  A tornado touched down to the SW of Watonga and lasted briefly. As the wall cloud loomed closer, another funnel formed which touched down immediately.  We notice a strong RFD this time as the tornado began to intensify.  The tornado crossed right in front of us on 81 doing damage just south of the city of Watonga, OK.  We got some excellent tripoded video of the tornado touching down and uprooting trees as it went east. We continued chasing eastward and it appeared to change in shape and size rapidly. We followed it east staying at a relatively safe distance until it roped out. We now jetted east to get in position for the next tornado. Another very large meso formed after that and dropped yet another tornado near Dover, Oklahoma. This one wasn't quite as strong due to the storm weakening a bit. We got some excellent video and stills of this tornado as it raced NE. Towards dark we finally gave up and went SE to another storm producing a wall cloud but it got dark and visibility was poor from tons of outflow. The lightning was spectacular! We ended our chase and went south to Norman so I could drop off my chase partner. Many tornado warnings were issued all over central Oklahoma but we ignored them since we were calling it a night. We were some where between Moore and Norman heading south on Hwy 35 when a wall of winds hit us. The two cars in front of me STOPPED!!!. Power flashes were everywhere and debris was flying over the road. TORNADO!!!! I yelled to Dan as I performed evasive maneuvers! I thought my car would be picked up at any moment and thrown. The car was shacking very hard and as fast as it came, it was gone.

After that encounter we were in extreme shock from what had just happened. While still shaking, I kept driving south on Hwy 35 to drop off my chase partner at Oklahoma University. I couldn't believe we put ourselves at risk like that, maybe we should have pulled over to a sturdy shelter and waited for the storms to pass. just another lesson learned from an awful experience. To make matters worse, I began to drive south on 35 toward my home in Fort Worth. I tiredly stopped at Pauls Valley to gas up. I then accidentally drove back north and realized my mistake when I saw sky scrapers! So I again turned around and drove back south, this time not stopping. I had just enough energy to make it home by 5am. The next morning I was up in a flash, for yet another outbreak was possible around North Texas! A complete chase account with pictures can be viewed here www.meso9.com/99~documents/981004.htm or visit my homepage at www.meso9.com

OCTOBER 4, 1998 WATONGA, OK TORNADO by Alan Switzer

When I read the outlook, I knew this was going to be the day when I photographed and video my first tornado. I waited until about 3:15 after storms had fired up in far northwest Oklahoma to call my friend, Gene Childers. I said I am going storm chasing, if you want to go, you have 10 seconds to decide if your coming.

He said OK. I took one last look at the satellite picture and I was out the door He said OK and we left OKC about 4:00 pm headed northwest on State Hwy 3 to Okarche. We decided to go northwest a ways and then wait and see what happened before we went further. We figured that would put us in the best position to go further north or south. Skies were hazy when we left the city, but before we got to Okarche, clouds had quickly built up in the west. Reports said storms were forming in Blaine, Custer and Dewey counties. From Okarche , we headed north on Hwy 81 to Kingfisher. About five miles out of Okarche , we saw a Channel 9 news crew waiting. We took a farm road west one mile to get a better vantage point of a storm southeast of Watonga coming out of Caddo county. We could see a rain free base with a little lowering but not much else. Another cell was about to overtake us from the southwest so we headed north into Kingfisher and took Hwy 33 west out of Kingfisher about 7 or 8 miles. This was about 5:15 pm. We pulled over to take some pictures of the clouds and lightning. We watched one cell west of us that had some slow rotation move northeast and become a little better organized with a wall cloud and what appeared to be a small funnel. It soon became rain wrapped and no longer visible to the north of us. We headed back toward Kingfisher and ran into a very heavy cell. We pulled down a county road to wait it out, but as we looked back to the west could see another cell with a wall cloud and a lowering. We headed back west, watching this cell south of Watonga lower and then go back up a couple of times before we spotted a debris cloud on the ground. At this point we were about 12 miles away and headed west. It was about 5:43 pm. We drove another 34 miles before pulling over to get some pictures and video as the tornado intensified.

We drove another 34 miles down Hwy 33 and pulled over again where there were some other storm chasers parked. The tornado crossed the Hwy 33 about two miles east of Watonga and about 4 miles west of our location. It continued on a east northeast track for about 20 minutes before finally roping out about 1 north of our location about 6:15 pm. We didn’t notice it until we watched the video but as we were shooting video when it crossed the road, the video showed the very thin rope tornado ripping a piece of asphalt pavement off the road. The area the tornado went across was sparsely populated. Damage was to a vacant house, utility poles, a couple of barns and an irrigation system. No injuries reported. The tornado was described as an F2 by the NWS and traveled 12 miles on the ground. It started three miles southwest of Watonga and dissipated about 9 miles east-northeast of Watonga.

OCTOBER 4, 1998 CHASE SUMMARY by Robert Satkus

For several days, the computer models had a storm system moving into the central plains, but it never looked as impressive as it turned out to be. The night before, it looked like a severe weather event was going to happen, but I still didn’t think there would be an outbreak of tornadoes. After looking at the morning data, I got really excited and called in to work telling them I wouldn’t be in. My boss asked me if I was going out to see a tornado today, to which I responded, "probably". "I think this may be one of the biggest severe weather outbreaks Oklahoma has seen in a long time", I said confidently.

I teamed up with Jim Wiggenroth, who is a fellow chaser for Channel 9, KWTV in Oklahoma City. We drove to the television station to pick up video equipment which didn’t work even after fiddling with it for an hour. We finally left -the last chase crew out. Our initial target town was Fairview. However, we were sent west on I-40 -which I wasn’t too happy about. As we got to El Reno, we were able to see a supercell storm well to the north which made my mouth water. It was hard not to head that way, especially after hearing of a confirmed tornado, but I didn’t think we really had a chance to catch it. (I learned that fellow chaser Val Castor got good video of the large tornado near Aline. It started out as a multi-vortex evolving into a large cone.)

West of El Reno, we could see new towers going up south along the dryline. Near Weatherford, small, razor sharp anvils were streaming overhead. We stopped at Custer City along I-40 and watched a storm try to go up to our north as well as another storm to the southwest, near Cordell. Both looked decent so we positioned ourselves between the two. The storm to our north had a nice base, but couldn’t seem to get it’s act together. The Cordell storm looked better, so we headed for it. As we approached the storm, it split, so we had to drop south to catch the right mover that was moving more easterly. We encountered hail to 1.5 inches in diameter at the leading edge of the precipitation core.

About this time, the windshield wipers in Jim’s truck began to malfunction. We stopped to work on them with the rain free storm base just to our northwest. We saw hail to tennis ball size laying in the field next to us. Jim finally rigged the wipers by tying a cord on them from which he could pull from inside the truck. Jim would drive while pulling on the cord to work the wipers. By now, the storm was moving quickly away from us and we could see new storms developing to the south. We almost decided to go south, but decided to remain with the Custer City storm. We dropped back to I-40 and headed east. Although visibility was poor, we could see a large wall cloud forming to our north several miles away. As we got to Weatherford, there appeared to be a brief funnel. We headed north through the towns of Fay and Thomas. This put us west and northwest of the storm, but we took this chance because we needed better options to the east. I figured the storm would reach Watonga about the same time we did.

We went through the back side of the storm encountering torrential rain -but surprisingly no hail. At Watonga, we saw a rain free base south of town associated with rapid growth along the flank. A small, weakly rotating wall cloud formed, but quickly got rained out as a new core developed. We followed this storm east to near Omega and it was looking less impressive with each mile. We stopped near Omega to decide whether to stick with this storm or head south towards other potentially tornadic storms in Canadian and Comanche counties. We looked back to the west and saw a new storm exploding back in the Watonga area. It already looked like a supercell and we could already see the rain free base from 15 miles away. This was a no-brainer and we immediately headed back west. A wall cloud quickly developed and at times it looked like there was a funnel, but the terrain east of Watonga is somewhat hilly with lots of trees so we weren’t completely sure what we were looking at. By now, I was doing live updates and the Channel 9 helicopter was sending back live pictures. We continued to about two miles east of Watonga on Highway 33 and found the perfect spot to view the rain free base and wall cloud. Rotation in the cloud base was strong and I turned to Jim and said, "I wish something would drop for use now since the contrast was perfect." No sooner had I got those words out of my mouth, when a dust plume spun up underneath the wall cloud. A condensation funnel slowly worked its way down and about the time the condensation reached the ground, large chunks of debris flew into the air. The tornado hit several farms about two miles south of town and continued northeast toward us. As the tornado closed within a mile of us, we continued to send in live reports. The tornado moved through some farm fields and sunshine made the tornado appear as a ghostly whitish-grey color. The base of the tornado was about 75 to 100 yards wide. Although the tornado was mostly a single vortex, it would occasionally take on multiple vortex characteristics. The tornado passed within 1/8 of a mile from us with large pieces of debris rotating around it. The sound was like a large waterfall. It hit power lines with a flash, bringing the poles down. As we turned around to head east, the tornado hit a farm destroying a barn and unroofing a house along Rt. 33, about 1/3 of a mile to our east. Fortunately, the house was vacant.

The tornado became larger after crossing Rt. 33 and took on more of a stovepipe look. We crossed the damage path with numerous power line down. The tornado continued through farm country uprooting many trees and we followed it to near the county line where it slowly roped out. Outflow helped stretch the tornado into a thin rope.

We could see a new wall cloud was forming to the northeast of the dissipating tornado, so we headed east on Rt. 33 towards Kingfisher. Road options weren’t great so we just kept going east. Just west of Kingfisher, we could see a new funnel dropping down but our view was lousy. Occasionally, we would see a debris cloud beneath the funnel. By now chasers, both legitimate and no so legitimate were all over the place slowing our progress. Also, our gas tank was on "E", so we had to stop and gas up while the tornado was in progress to our north. I snapped a few stills as Jim gassed up the vehicle. We finally made it out of town heading north on Highway 81, with what seemed like a thousand other chasers. The tornado was small and V-shaped, only with occasional condensation to the ground -although there was a continuous debris cloud associated with the funnel. The tornado passed just south of the town of Dover crossing Highway 81. Right about the time we crossed the damage path, we were hit with 70 mph rear flank downdraft winds. We continued north to Hennessey but the wipers finally died for good effectively ending our chase.

We headed back to the television station to watch and listen to the tornadic storms moving through the Moore area.

A day like today will certainly make the wait till spring easier to take.

A few random notes: 1) Near Watonga, as the tornado was 1/8 of a mile to our south, our inflow remained very light the entire time. 2) The Channel 9 helicopter video was spectacular -rivaling the 1986 Minnesota tornado video. 3) There were at least 20 tornadoes in Oklahoma that day, making it the largest one day total for the month of October in the U.S.