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Jan 2002 / games :: email this story to a friend

By Chris Krummenacher

I stood at the doorway and listened for that sound. Hail pinging off the window woke me from sleep and I went to the back door, opened it and listened for that sound. That growing rumble and crackle, pitched from the ground up through the trees and crashing through the rising wind. It heralds the arrival of potential annihilation and those who have heard its crescendo live both sides of the coin of fortune. I listen and wait. As the wind builds up to maximum fury, I can tell by its cold content that the exquisite combination of physics to sustain this storm's life has come undone. It is likely that the known and hypothesized chain of events to turn this storm from flashy rainmaker into the womb of a potential killer were derailed early in the process. However, given the ephemeral nature of weather, it never hurts to be prepared, and that's why I am at the back door listening and waiting — despite that day's meteorological evidence to the contrary.

tornado It has been over 15 years since my ears heard the weather dictate coming destruction. Where, I couldn't immediately see, but I could hear the hail increasing in intensity and size based on thumping sounds and the increasingly louder crackle of tree branches. That time, being in a borrowed car, I decide that it would be best to head in the opposite direction of the sound.

From an early age, the weather intrigued me. My first memory from childhood is awakening in my crib, crying, as a thunderstorm plowed through our neighborhood. I remember the brilliant white of the strokes of lightning, and that I finally found refuge in my father's arms, looking back at the branches as they bucked in the wind. I was fascinated and frightened from that day. I studied the weather, learning as much as I could about storms, specifically tornadoes. I absorbed a lot of information about what meteorologists thought it took to create such a storm. At age 12, Dr. Ted Fujita was a personal role model. As you may have guessed, I was a major tool. (Some would make a case for the continuation of that assertion).

When I learned about the National Severe Storms Laboratory and TOTO (the TOtable Tornado Observatory) being deployed by a group of crazy students and their professors at the University of Oklahoma, my college plans were set. Unfortunately for me I found out while science may be an art, it is progeny of mathematics — my mortal enemy. The beauty of meteorology was clear to me. However, analytical geometry and engineering math, as well as an adverse reaction to being away from home — and the discovery that Australians made a fine lager in a big, big can — eventually, regrettably, diverted me off the gravel back roads of the Red River valley and Texas Panhandle to the urban St. Louis environment, which rarely emits that sound.

In the short time that I was a meteorology student, I made the most of chasing opportunities and in the process probably pissed off more than a few folks for never contributing gas money. As a freshman, I was obviously interested more in seeing the end product than necessarily learning what may lead to it. However, based on tornado chasing statistics, I was more than a little lucky to see what I saw. To be honest, I have probably learned more about severe weather dynamics in the last three years than in the previous 15. However, by just sitting quietly in the old OU meteorology computer lab, I quickly learned who to listen to and managed to get myself invited (as map reader) on chases. I also had a knack for predicting hurricane landfalls, which was apparently equated with some sort of Jim - Morrison - and - the - Doors - visit - the - Indian - Shaman - in - the - desert - while - knocking - back - peyote mysticism — basically, I was viewed as a good luck charm.

wall cloud In the fall of 1985, just southwest of Cushing, OK, I saw my first funnel cloud. Four of us had jumped into a junior's 626 and ploughed through what I thought was an extremely ferocious storm near Oklahoma City, headed west to what looked like clear sky. I kept my skeptical head buried in the map, plotting a course to Clear Sky Ville or Not A Chance of Seeing a Stormburg. However, in about an hour we stopped, and I got out and saw just how smart these guys were. Off to our northwest was a billowing, massive thunderhead, much larger than the ones I had seen here. Another feature of this storm that I had never witnessed was the explosive back building of this system. Its updraft rocketed through the HAL (hot air layer), driving warm, moist fuel toward the highest, coldest recesses of the storm. I was informed that the 'cap' had been broken. A small dome on the top of the storm showed just how high the buoyant air was rising — over 60,000 feet. I made myself extremely familiar with the local blacktops and we eventually positioned ourselves on a rise just outside Cushing. As the storm moved to the northeast, we fell into the path of the updraft. Cloud to ground (CG) lightning smacked the earth and thunder popped in our ears. A ragged, small, spinning wall cloud hung down. I was being told how lucky I was going to be to see a tornado on my first outing. And then I noticed a distinct change, somehow colder. I think the others noticed as well, as there seemed to be a note of dejection when someone noticed a funnel cloud starting to lower from the edge of the wall cloud. I looked, squeezed my eyes to relieve my contacts from the wind, and saw a condensation funnel wrap tightly for about five seconds and then melt away. We climbed back into the car, gave a half-hearted effort to stay with this now-dying storm, and then quietly drove through the clear night home.

Winter in Oklahoma is spastic. Unlike here, where it invariably seems as if we are always on the rain/snow line (like some battle of good and evil), the weather is pretty definitive in central Oklahoma. However, when it changes to something else, it does so completely. If we had a snowstorm and cold snap, I wondered when I would be able to go out again. When, a week later, a complete climate flip-flop occurred, I thought the next chase would be any day. However, the dynamics just weren't setting up for it. The frustration was palatable in the computer lab until May 8, 1986.

Anecdotal recounts of tornadoes often start with, "It felt like tornado weather." When I walked outside that day for an exam, I was struck by that feeling. I looked at the clouds, two low layers. A thin deck at about 1500 feet zipping in a northerly direction, a second deck at about 6000 feet moving generally eastward. This type of wind shift in the low levels is an important precursor to tornado development. As the wind layers basically rub against each other, a horizontal, rolling tube of air can form.

After my exam, I headed for the lab and felt the mixed bag of excitement from finishing exams combined with a potential severe weather outbreak. There appeared to be two distinct camps — one group wanting to head to the southwest and one wanting to stay close to Norman. I'd like to say my instincts said stay, but finances probably played a larger role. A junior who had decided to stay in Norman over the summer in the same apartment complex where I was staying said he would let me tag along. Around 3:00pm, the storms to the southwest had begun to fire. The natural anxiety that you've made the wrong choice was probably never as strong as it was then for those still in the lab, looking at the radar's emptiness around Oklahoma City.

black rope Then the trigger was pulled. In a matter of minutes, small, angry, red points began to appear on the radar. We left and headed north toward Oklahoma City. Thursday afternoon traffic was relatively calm on Interstate 35, in contrast to the skies to the west of the city. Around 5:30, we had circled right of Oklahoma City and were just about in Edmond when the first tornado warnings for Oklahoma County were issued. Based on the report, we got off the highway and called the lab to get a report. Radar was tracking the storm to cross near the confluence of an upper- and middle-class neighborhood. We took Broadway south and took up a position in the darkening afternoon on E. 15th, between Broadway and Kelly.

As the lightening grew more intense and the sirens wailed, I became aware of that sound. On the rain-free side, we moved in a little closer when we noticed through the trees what appeared to be a wall cloud. Being in a residential area, the landscape did not provide good vision on the horizon. But that sound became more distinct. Soon the wind was pulling, trying to upend me into the rushing darkness. The winds roar became more of a hiss — call it trains, planes, whatever you want — and the gray helix of the tornado came into sight. Into the sound mix came the noise of cracking wood, as parts of roofs and walls and tree branches gave in to the 160mph winds at the wall of the tornado. A transformer exploded, and lightning was so close we could hear the snap of the superheated air preceding the thunder, painting an aural picture of the terror that those in the house just about 3/4 of a mile away must be suffering. Being some distance back, we were bathed in that sound for what seemed like an hour, so intense, so terrifying as to own my attention and to allow me only later to be aware of near-deafness from that sound and dirt blasted into my ears.

A black rope scourged the earth for little over 10 minutes, injuring 15 people and causing millions in property damage. I was fortunate to witness it and all who were in it were fortunate to make it out alive. This incident was testimony that chasing in the city is a bad idea and yet whenever the Storm Prediction Center puts a red, yellow or white bulls-eye around St. Louis, I check the hue of the late morning sky, look at where the clouds are going, gird myself for confrontation and listen for that sound.

Learn more
This is a comprehensive site about tornadoes. Everything you'd want to know you can find here. Included are links to chasing excursion tours as well as a fantastic dictionary, which I constantly use to refresh myself on terminology and meanings.
Click on the Severe Weather link. The first section of this page has severe weather synoptic information. There are links at the bottom of the page explaining the indices. You will also want to look at the Upper Air link and Skew T Soundings, which have many of the severe weather indices included.

Chris Krummenacher is 34, and happy to have to made it there. When smart enough to get out of the rain, Chris' favorite pastime is spending time with Aimee and Emma, his wife and daughter. Besides the weather and family, Chris enjoys bicycling, Blues hockey, and discovering all the good music he missed.

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