Hi. My name is Tori. I’m a writer for Only In Your State, where I bring you all kinds of cool places and things mostly about the lovely states of
Indiana and North Dakota. But I have another passion outside of writing, a major one, and that’s what this article is about, as opposed to the usual stately delights. Wanna come along?
I have been chasing storms in the Great Plains since 2016 and chasing monsoon storms in Arizona for much longer. Forecasting, pursuing, and photographing the meanest weather Mother Nature has to offer is my passion and my lifestyle, and boy, can it ever get interesting sometimes. This story is about exactly that: one of those times it got
I woke on the morning of May 23rd, 2022, much like I did every morning: by immediately rolling over, disabling my alarm, and checking the Storm Prediction Center’s Convective Outlook for the day. The Storm Prediction Center is an agency that, with its team of top-notch meteorologists and forecasters, predicts the probabilities of severe weather over the next one to eight days; it assigns five risk levels to the day’s potential, and today – known as Day 1 on the outlooks – wasn’t looking like much. The SPC had issued a “slight” risk across most of Texas, which is the second-lowest level of risk they offer. It also called for a 2% tornado risk for the day, meaning any given location within the 2% risk area had a 2% chance of a tornado occurring there.
It was my job today, then, to find that needle in the enormous (sometimes literal) haystack that is the state of Texas.
With 268,597 square miles of land, it’s the second-largest state in the country, and this 2% certainly gave no specific hints as to where I ought to post up for the day. Where, then, was I going to go? I did a quick forecast to determine the place I felt would be most likely for severe weather. Having woken in San Angelo, I would have to meander westward toward the area south of Abilene, or maybe even further. I liked the ingredients over there best; tornado probability was low, but maybe I’d end up with some beautiful storm structure, large hail, or both.
...we would see.
I made my way west, stopping only for gas or to re-evaluate my forecast area and revise it as needed. I needed to push further west. Eventually, I made it to Causey, New Mexico, where I set my eye on a developing storm and caught up with multiple storm-chasing friends of mine.
None of us had very high hopes for the day; like me, everyone mostly just hoped for some hail or structure.
At one point while we were watching, waiting, and commiserating about the improbability of today being a decent one, one of my friends pointed out a small, delicate funnel cloud protruding from the rear of the developing storm, like a tiny atmospheric tail.
I felt my stomach leap in excitement. A funnel cloud like this one on a developing storm was a strong sign that I needed to stay here and keep watching, despite another storm to the north looking better on the radar.
This meant there was enough shear - “spin,” or wind changing its direction with height - up there to produce a funnel cloud already. What else could it do when it matured? Or maybe I ought to consider going for that northern storm instead?
No, my gut whispered, stay. Stay, and see what happens.
If I’ve learned anything in my years of chasing storms, it’s to listen to that gut feeling. It exists for a reason. It’s your experience talking over your conscious thoughts; your in-depth understanding of the way the atmosphere works taking the wheel momentarily to advise you about what you ought to do.
As the storm began rumbling its first mumbles of thunder, every storm chaser in my immediate vicinity wandered away, one by one, each in search of the best places to position ourselves for the ultimate show should nature decide to oblige. Some decided to break away and head north, unimpressed with the way this one was looking. I couldn’t leave it, though; that small funnel cloud spotted by just a few of us had reassured me that I was on the right storm and that I needed to be patient. Little did I know at this time, the patience would pay off, and enormously so.
As the storm strengthened, it began inhaling; the dryness of the parched plains gave easily to the rapidly intensifying winds, and before long, a cloud of thick, red dust obscured everything in sight. Visibility dropped to about a quarter-mile, or even less in some cases. I knew I needed to punch through this dust if I had any hope of seeing what this storm would do, and at this point, it was rapidly strengthening, looking more mature and well-put-together visually with every moment.
Carefully, I navigated my way through the dust, eventually punching through in a small town called Morton, Texas, which is just east of the Texas/New Mexico state line. The storm was rapidly inhaling dirt now, and many areas of red dust rising into the base of the storm told me that this game was just beginning. It was only just getting it together; soon it would show me – and every other storm chaser on the road I wound up on – what it was capable of. But for now, I needed to escape this blinding dust.
I popped out of the worst of it in a neighborhood, where the Morton water tower was in sight and, behind it, the incredibly sculpted base of this now-dangerous, rotating storm could be fully appreciated.
There it was, I thought. I got my structure. Today’s just starting and it’s already a good day.
You know you’re a hopelessly obsessed storm chaser when you drive five hours to see some cool-looking clouds and call it a success. But I digress; I pulled over and opened the driver’s side door, standing on the doorframe of my truck and balancing an elbow on the roof to shoot rapid-fire images of the storm, which was looking more and more enticing with every passing minute. It was furiously organizing now, and for a moment, I thought I might just see a tornado today. And then, it happened. Mama Nature chimed in and agreed with me: a tornado warning suddenly blared on my phone. This was it. Here. We. Go.
Weeks earlier, on May 4th, I had gravely messed up on what I thought would be my only chance at a photogenic tornado this year. I lingered north on an albeit photogenic storm for too long and when I finally made it to the southern storm that was going bonkers, I managed to make every right decision I could except for the one that would have had me pull over and look up.
Despite being right beside a beautiful tornado, all I could see through the windshield and front passenger side window was red dust, and, driving solo, I couldn’t afford to look around.
Besides, the sides of the road were lined with countless hungry storm chasers, cameras out, looking to devour whatever the storm put out for a chance at life-changing footage. I had to keep an eye on the road. You never know if someone’s car doors will be open, or a wayward storm chasing tour guest might dart out onto the road without looking. Crazier things have happened. And so, I kept driving, slowly, muttering under my breath about how even if there WAS a tornado in there, it was so dusty it wasn’t even worth looking for.
I was very wrong. I didn’t even realize I’d been RIGHT beside a (remarkably photogenic) twister until I logged into social media later that night. My heart tore into a thousand pieces; I was right there, and I had still missed it. It was painful then, and it's painful today, as I write this, weeks later. I spent a lot of hours in the days after questioning whether or not I even belonged out here. If I was going to make split-second stupid choices resulting in enormous misses (DESPITE BEING RIGHT THERE), did I really have a place out here? The self-doubt following a major swing-and-a-miss is deep, and just about any storm chaser will attest to it. We’ve all felt it; it’s a part of what we do.
But hey, someone out there on that road beside the tornado that day no doubt has dashcam footage of my truck wandering past as I made one of the dumbest mistakes of my entire career. Oops. That one's going to sting for a while.
But now? Right now, on May 23rd, in this little town called Morton? I might just have a shot at redemption, and I was going to take it.
Being a storm chaser means being a gold medalist in the emotional Olympics; mental whiplash is a common injury from rapidly thrashing between the great highs of the good days and the deep lows of the bad ones. Today, though? Today was going to be a good day. I felt it in my bones.
A pickup truck pulled up and two local men were in the cab. The driver leaned out his open window and yelled “You better get somewhere safe! There’s a tornado in that storm!” I told him that I was grateful for his concern, but I was alright; after all, if there was a tornado in there, it’s what I was here for. He drove off, leaving me alone with the furious beast howling in the sky, no doubt wondering what it was about days like this one that compels people like myself to go out and play in the bear’s cage when there’s a bear warning in effect. That's the thing: wherever the storms are, that’s where I belong.
And for now, I belonged right here, in Morton, Texas.
Another glance at the radar indicated that I needed to reposition ever so slightly, both to try and escape the dust that was now thickening more and more, and to see if I could catch a glimpse of the mesocyclone this storm was no doubt producing at this very moment (a mesocyclone is the rotating updraft of the supercell storm – the literal birthplace of the tornado).
And so, carefully, I crept forward in my truck, hazard lights on, barely able to make anything out in the blinding red dust. And then, suddenly, as I rounded up a hill and the dust rapidly thinned, I saw it: a fiercely rotating wall cloud beneath a dramatic mesocyclone, scraping incredibly close to the ground, with small vortices already teasing the earth beneath it. The size of the mesocyclone and attached wall cloud was unreal; it was utterly gigantic, and it was about to spit an enormous tornado out onto the Texas plains.
I’m certain that the sounds I made when I got to the top of that hill and saw this rapidly developing beast of a tornado were something like you’d probably imagine a caveperson would have made. I’m glad I wasn’t recording video at that point.
I couldn’t believe my luck; in my need to scoot ever closer to the point of rotation, I had managed to eliminate the dust issue out of sheer luck. Here, tucked within the storm’s womb, I was safe from having my vision obscured by dirt, but the next most pressing issue was about to unfold, right there, within about a half-mile from my position.
I watched in stupefied awe as the angry wall cloud rotated fiercely above the plains. Several delicate vortices had already touched down and withdrawn back into the sky again, but within seconds, a single solid, black funnel connected with the ground, devouring the smaller vortices and becoming a large, black mass raising hell over the earth.
I knew, from the size of that wall cloud and mesocyclone, that this would be big. I shot a few stills on my phone, recording video of the black monster whose tendrils grazed the ground with all the delicate tenderness of an atomic bomb. My hands shaking in exhilaration and horror, I retrieved my camera from the truck and fired off a few frames. I stood dumbstruck, in utter awe, watching as the tornado widened from about a quarter-mile wide to much larger.
There it was: a real Texas Wedge™, and on a day it wasn't even "supposed” to happen at all.
My brain kept jumping to the fearsome what-ifs. What if this was bad? Really bad? What if there was a town there? I couldn’t jump for joy just yet. There were too many potentially disastrous “what ifs.” Instead, in a state of resolute amazement with a side of grim resolve, I got back into the truck and inched closer. I watched the collar cloud, above the tornado, and knew that I needed to stay away from underneath it. Once I reached a spot about a quarter-mile from the twister, I decided that this would be close enough. Should it widen again, I would have a way out. Any closer, and I risked losing that escape route to zero visibility instead.
Once again, I got out of the truck. They say a tornado sounds like a freight train, but in my years of chasing, I’ve never understood that descriptor. It’s much more like a rushing waterfall, one that makes the ground rumble and your ribcage shake like it would at a very loud rock concert.
Another warning blared through on my phone: it was a reiteration of the previous tornado warning, but now with a very specific marker:
This was a
Particularly Dangerous Situation, a label reserved for tornadoes thought to be violent and when, as the warning states, “complete destruction is possible”. I wasn’t surprised. The thing was a beast, black, gnarly tendrils grazing the ground around the parent vortex.
looked like a nightmare, and for anyone who might have been in its path, it was about to become one, too.
After several minutes of being highly visible and utterly incredible, the bear began receding deeper into its cage, heavy rain wrapping up around the mesocyclone and concealing the monster once and for all. As the tornado disappeared as rapidly as it formed and rain began falling heavier and heavier, my heart was in my throat. Was it still in there? Had it hit anything? Had it hurt anyone?
One thing was certain: I needed to get out of that rain, and fast. Nobody needs a large, particularly dangerous tornado nipping at their heels, especially when they can’t see it. And so, I began driving again, away from the radar-indicated rotation and into clearer air.
Once I was a respectable distance from the mesocyclone, I stopped and got out again, clasping my hands behind my head and looking up. Looking back in the direction from which I came, the brilliantly sculpted beauty of the storm awed me again, and I stood motionless in utter reverence of this behemoth of the North American plains.
I sat awhile and gathered my thoughts. I couldn’t believe that what had just happened had just happened. I didn’t have an enormous amount of time to get it together, though, because it wasn’t long at all before cloud-to-ground lightning strikes began littering the area around my truck.
One came down so insanely close that I physically felt the shockwave rock the truck as the loudest, most instantaneous thunder I’ve ever heard in my life cracked the sky in half above. The rain began again, and a look at radar indicated that this storm either had another tornado on the ground nearby, or it was about to have one. Either way, I needed to move.
I would end up intercepting at least one more tornado on this storm before I ran out of daylight; it was a formidable, dark stovepipe tornado hiding in heavy rain like a lioness stalking her prey in the grass near Levelland, Texas, illuminated only by lightning and waning daylight.
I would have a close call in which I was right in between two points of strong rotation (known as “couplets”) on the radar, and the rain and wind were so blindingly heavy that I was unable to see anything. The heavy rain and rapidly disappearing twilight would ensure that driving away in this situation was unsafe.
I would sit there, visibility outside so dangerously dark and low that it was safer to allow the two radar couplets to wander past my position while praying that no power poles or powerlines came down on me in the meantime, than it was to try and keep driving - even incredibly slowly.
But all of that is a tale for another day.
It injured nobody and damaged next to no property (other than a snapped wooden power pole and two oil pump jacks that it tipped over, earning the EF2 rating - those weigh several tons each, by the way, and this tornado tipped them over like sleeping cows). It was just over three-quarters of a mile wide, and on the ground for three miles.
It had developed in an ideal place thanks to multiple atmospheric factors, where it would latch on to an outflow boundary produced by storms further south earlier in the day and “ride” it. It went bonkers while doing so, and I was there to witness it. What should have been a very routine, low-key day ended up being a career day; it’s entirely possible that this one day might have changed everything.
We’ll have to see. For now, I return home from this year’s annual spring storm chasing trip with the ultimate trophy set: an utterly incredible, photogenic monster tornado that hurt nobody, and a decently sized handful of other wonderful storms and storm photos as well, like this beautiful low-precipitation supercell in Waldron, Kansas, on May 13th:
Despite the events of May 4th having shaken my confidence to its core, I now know for sure that this is where I belong.
As insane as it seems for some, this is what I was meant to do. I was born for getting wind-whipped hair, and for every high and every low each season brings. As frustrating as chasing storms can be, when it pays off, it’s the most incredible feeling in the world. One good day absolutely cancels out at least two or three bad days – at least. It is for these days that I continue to drive tens of thousands of miles every year and do what I do.
It is days like these that remind us of what being alive is all about. The days you don’t expect – the days that surprise you in the best of ways. The days that go beautifully, where nobody is hurt, and everything works out perfectly.
In the closing words of my childhood hero, an also-from-Arizona storm chasing pioneer by the name of Warren Faidley:
I can’t wait ‘til spring.