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My Chase Adventure

Since I was a kid, I've always been interested in Storm Chasing. I even tried to chase them on my bicycle! Unlike other Storm Chasers I'm more interested in "experiencing" the weather rather than just take pictures or video of it. The following is one of the best Storm Chase experiences I ever had during a Road Trip across the state of Minnesota. All individuals in this story are referred to by their C.B. Handles, as I was not a Ham Radio Operator at the time.

Every year when I was in my 20s, and early 30's, my buddy "California Fox" and I would go on a road trip. We'd usually go during the third week in July because that seems to be the highest chance of encountering a severe thunderstorm here in Minnesota. We also liked to check out the teen/hot rod cruising life in other towns and cities around the five state area. The summer of 1991 was the most exciting experience though.

The National Weather Service was predicting Severe T-storms after midnight that day and we had scheduled a road trip up to Detroit Lakes, MN, after a friend of ours told us they cruised and drag raced big time in that town. We took my big 4x4 pick-up truck and headed up I-94, then cut over on some smaller State Highway into Detroit Lakes. The cruising wasn't all that great, we only met two people and there was no one on the CB Radio. A friend of ours and his girl-friend followed us up in his monster 4x4, so we did talk back and forth amongst ourselves with our CB radios as we drove along in our two vehicle convoy. We hung around town until just after midnight and that's when the lightning and rain was just starting.

At this point I had a great idea, I had looked over the weather charts earlier that day and noticed that the storm front was stretched North/South across Western Minnesota and it was a slow moving one. I concluded that if we took Highway 10 all the way back, we would get the maximum effect of the storm front. Highway 10, for those of you who don't know, runs diagonally across our state from Northwest to Southeast. By taking this road back to the Twin Cities, we would be able to stay with the storm longer, we would "surf the frontal boundary" so to speak. My idea turned out to be one of the most exciting weather adventures I have ever had!

As we were just leaving the town of Detroit Lakes, the rain began to get harder and harder. I told my buddy "Slick," and "Red," his girlfriend who was riding with him, to lag back about four miles so we could give each other weather reports and road conditions as we ventured the five-and-a-half hour drive home. About five miles out of town the torrential rain hit. It was the hardest rain I have ever been in. I had to turn on all my illegal off-road lights and have California Fox hold the 1.5 Million Candlepower Spotlight out the window just to see the white line in the center of the road! (Just a note here: we discovered years before on older vehicles, that if you are traveling down the freeway with your window open, the rain won't come in unless there is a cross wind, due to the aerodynamics of the vehicle). Now I pride myself on being able to drive 50 miles per hour, no matter how bad the weather conditions, and this was no different. We managed to maintain 50 mph using the Spot Light to see the white line. All the other traffic had pulled off the road to wait it out with their 4-ways blinking, or were stalled. I started giving Slick location reports of where all the cars were stalled.

As we continued on our journey the wind started to pick up and then my Weather Alert Radio sounded its alarm. There was a Severe Thunderstorm WARNING for the area we were in! It was GREAT!!!!! We continued on our way thru rain so hard that even with my windshield wipers going full blast, all my off-road lights on, defrosters at maximum, and California Fox shining the Spot Light directly at the center of the road, all I could barely see was the one closest white line. Now the wind had begun to shake the truck sideways and small hail was pelting the windshield.

I decided to start telling Fox some facts about Lightning, since the Lightning was almost continuous with this storm. I explained to him that Lightning likes the highest object around to strike, and we were on a flat open road. I then explained that lightning also is attracted to warm objects so if you are in a crowd of people, it is best to separate yourself from them. Fox then said, "Aren't you protected in a car from Lightning?" I told him you were as long as all the windows were rolled up, but since ours was down and his warm hand was hanging out holding the Spot Light, we had little protection. I continued to tell him that if Lightning did strike his hand it would probably arch from his head to mine and kill us both! He said he wasn't worried about it and we continued on our way. I could tell we were traveling perfectly along the frontal boundary because we would go from storm cell to storm cell. The rain and wind would let up a bit then return with a vengeance! The Weather Alert Radio kept going off, and each time we looked at the map and found we were in the middle of it.

All of a sudden LIGHTNING STRUCK THE SIDE OF THE ROAD about 50 feet from us! We could see the bluish-white streak come down from the sky, as it struck the ground, the ground glowed a bright yellow, and then exploded upwards into the air in a great yellow-orange eruption! The sound of the Thunder was deafening and instantaneous as it rattled my whole truck, and a blast of warm air came through the open window! We both did a "cat call" and Calf. Fox began rolling up the window as fast as he could. I asked him what was the matter, and he said, "My hand is getting cold." I called him a liar and said he was really afraid of the Lightning. He just smiled. From that day on, I have called him "Lightning Chicken" or "LC." I happened to be talking to Slick on the CB when the Lightning struck and he said he heard the "snap" over the radio!

As we continued along our way, I had to slow down because without the Spotlight I couldn't see the road as well. We got another Storm Warning and they said the winds were gusting up to 65 mph! We could see small tree limbs and debris sliding across the road in front of us as we went along. The truck was shaking back and forth and the extreme torrential rain kept gushing down. The roadway was so saturated with water it was like driving through a river and it sucked gasoline. I asked Slick how he was doing for fuel over the CB and he needed gas too. We decided to stop in Little Falls for gas.

By the time I had gotten to Little Falls, Slick had caught up to me and was right behind. We were both wondering if there would even be a gas station open since we hadn't seen another vehicle for about two hours now, and we figured the power would be out all over town. The rain had stopped and a new storm warning went out for Little Falls. This time a possible Funnel Cloud was heading for town! We weren't going to stick around long since you cannot see Tornadoes very well at night and that makes it harder to get away from them.

While we were waiting at a stoplight, Slick pulled up behind my truck and told me that my whole truck bed had filled up with water, and when I pulled away through the intersection it would come gushing over my tailgate and bumper like Niagara Falls! Now that's intense rain fall to fill up the back end of a full sized pickup truck! We all pulled into Holiday gas station with water gushing from our boxes, filled our tanks, and got some munchies. There was continuous Lightning to the West and we knew we didn't have much time before the next wave hit. About two minutes after we left the gas station, the storm hit again! We went through more of the same; storm after storm all the way until we got down to St. Cloud.

About five miles before St. Cloud, I pulled ahead of the frontal boundary; the road was dry and the temperature rose about 20 degrees. Our four-hour storm experience was over. It was like driving through a Hurricane, and we would be talking about it for a long time to come. I have never driven in anything like it before or since.

We arrived home in Minneapolis around 5:30 am. It was just starting to get light out, although it was cloudy so it wasn't that light. I said goodbye to my friends, and Calf. Fox got into his car to drive home since he lived in Little Canada. I offered he spend the night, but he wanted to get home. I went inside and began getting ready for bed. About 20 minutes after I got home the Weather Alert Radio went off and a HUGE storm slammed into Minneapolis! Wind gusts were in the 80 mph range and it was by far the most violent storm we had seen that night! The power to our house was knocked out immediately and within in few minutes Calf. Fox called me on the phone and said, "So if we drove through a Hurricane; what do you call this?!" His power was out too. He told me he had just walked in the door when the wind blew up, and there were trees and power lines down everywhere!

We had unbelievably intense rain and wind with marble hail. The storm lasted about 30 minutes and brought down trees and power lines all over the Twin Cities area. Several roofs were torn off houses and buildings too. It was a spectacular finale to our big storm chase experience. After it was over, I got dressed and hopped into my car and went "puddle jumping," because I wanted to see how deep of a puddle the car would go through before stalling out. It had a new fuel injected engine (the first I ever owned) and my friend had told me that you cannot stall them out. I had to test his theory, and just figured I'd walk back home and get my 4x4 if I did stall. The rain had been so intense that there were flash floods all over the place. It wasn't hard to find some good puddles to slam through. My friend was right, I didn't stall my car. I also didn't get to bed until almost 9 am. either. Boy, was I tired and drained.

SKYWARN, Amateur Radio and the Tuscaloosa Tornado

Dee Chandler, WX4DC, a spotter for Alabama SKYWARN, saw the F4 tornado that ravaged parts of Tuscaloosa on December 16, 2000. He has graciously agreed to share the story of his experiences that day. Metro SKYWARN believes this is a great example of how dedicated and well-trained volunteers can make a difference during a severe weather emergency. This is his story: 

By Dee Chandler, WX4DC 

That Saturday in mid-December started like any other, except on this particular day it was unusually warm. Actually, it was almost eerie outside. Something was definitely "in the air." As a result, all spotters had been contacted by email and were put on alert by local emergency management officials. 

Before leaving home, I checked my vehicle to make sure I had everything needed for spotting. I had my 2-meter mobile, 2-meter HT (charged) and 10-meter mobile, all in working order along with my poncho. Actually, an 80-meter mobile would be excellent here in Alabama because the state-wide disaster net is on 3.965 MHz, but you use what you have. As my assistant and I arrived for work that morning, we looked at each other and confirmed what we both were feeling and said, "something is definitely up." 

We are fortunate here in Tuscaloosa. We have hams in strategic positions of authority in the city. We have two licensed hams at Emergency Management (they got the city to upgrade our repeater), a police department captain and dispatch, and also about 75 percent of the meteorologists in the area. We have a small low-power television station locally, but we get coverage from the larger TV stations in Birmingham as well. Because watches and warnings are now issued from radar images, we had a two-county early warning and continuous television coverage of the storm on four channels. All were warning of a tornado signature on radar. 

Prior to the warning being issued for our area, our net manager was already positioning ham spotters to the north and south of the projected path. Our local television stations have that great future which projects a path and arrival time using the names of the smallest communities. EOC monitors both the National Weather Service and key TV coverage. This information was fed to spotters in the field. 

It's easy to get too much information on a weather net. The net operator has to be specific about the kind of information he/she wants. Everyone wants to help, but the report of rain does not constitute a need to call net control unless you are looking for rain. You have to key in on important issues: hail, wind, wall clouds and funnel clouds. At this point your SKYWARN training becomes the most valuable. A trained spotter knows in which section of the storm to look for a funnel and the proper terminology to use for hail. He/she is focused on the facts. 

We had several teams on both sides of the storm so that if a twister did touch down, we could assist from both directions. We did not want to be in the projected path. We wanted to be off to the side to observe. 

A spotter can be helpful from wherever they are when they are needed. Not everyone has to be in their vehicle to be useful. I was at work and had an excellent view to the southwest. That is the direction from which the F4 approached. My immediate supervisor, Hal McClamma, NN4US, is also a ham and a spotter. We both relayed information to the net. 

I have seen three tornadoes in my life. Once I was 100 feet from an F1 that demolished my parents' home. I also saw a funnel for just a second that came out of a wall cloud, but caused no damage. Then on December 16, I saw the F4 and still find it difficult to find the words to describe it, but it was large, massive and extremely powerful. I was approximately 7 miles from the F4 at the closest point and I could identify debris. I later learned it was the mobile home park I was seeing in the funnel. 

When I could first discern rotation--that is very important--I informed net control that I had a visual. You cannot guess! You must see rotation before calling net control with a visual. I was already hearing damage reports and knew a tornado was on the ground before I saw it. However, this is no time to say, "I guess that's it." Confirm rotation! This is covered in basic SKYWARN training and it's important. 

I kept a visual on the funnel for 3 to 4 minutes until my location was enveloped in the rain curtain. At that time I went mobile. But let me clarify ... I went mobile, informing net control that I was headed out to locate damaged areas. I WAS NOT CHASING THE TORNADO. I find this to be a very dangerous practice. 

I immediately used my knowledge of the town (I am a warehouse delivery manager and know most of the small roads in the area) to try and figure out where the tornado may have crossed populated areas. My first discovery was the Bear Creek Mobile Home Park. It was basically gone. Sheet metal, insulation and what looked like a dump was strewn before me. It was actually millions of small pieces of people's lives literally thrown to the wind. 

I was the third car in line from the mess where it covered the road. I immediately identified the name of the street and the mobile home park and relayed it to emergency management. I was then told that they were trying to get information from that area but phone lines were down, cell towers were jammed and no communication was available. I was the only contact for those people to the outside world. How important is that ham ticket at that point? 

A police car pulled up behind me. I did not enter the debris field under orders of the police officer. As emergency vehicles were guided in I set out to find the next populated area of damage. At that point, I verified a third area of damage and began to draw the imaginary line in my mind as to other possible locations of damage in populated areas. I did, however, have reports of other damage via 2 meter. I had a good idea as to where to go. 

My next encounter was 3 to 4 miles away where the tornado crossed a county road. After about 20 minutes after the storm had hit, no help had yet arrived in this area. I exited my truck with the usual question, "Is anyone hurt?" I was directed to what was left of a mobile home. What I saw in front of me was amazing. A woman was lying on the ground and was having difficulty breathing. No less than 4 people were trying to call on cell phones and all were getting busy signals or jammed line recordings. I got the address, keyed my HT and within 5 minutes had an ambulance on the scene. Then it got spooky for me. As the stretcher was leaving the scene I began to draw that imaginary line in my head again. I lined up previous, present and points reported down the road and realized that my neighborhood was not directly in the path of the tornado, but close. 

I called net control to clear my location and asked about my neighborhood. I was told, "No report." I lit out of there for home, but stopped one more time to investigate what I thought was a car under a tree. It turned out to be only an interstate sign. 

As I entered my neighborhood, I was relieved to see it undamaged and ran eagerly inside my house to check on my wife and children. All were well, but shaken. I stepped out of my home, looked through the barren woods and could see emergency vehicles working at the TA truck stop about 1/4 mile away. The tornado took a 20 degree turn about 1/2 mile from my house and spared it. 

I then returned to work and sat and reflected on what had happened with my boss and fellow employees. It was time to begin to rebuild. That story is still being written. As for me, every morning I have to drive through the area at Interstate 59 where the tornado turned that 20 degrees. I always give a sigh of thanks. 

We had over 300 homes demolished and only 11 deaths. People were informed. It makes the difference. 

The Untold Story of The 1984 Minneapolis Tornado.

Before I can tell this story, I need to supply a little bit of technical background or you won't understand it. During my teenage years and before, the Twin Cities Metro area had a telephone "dating service" similar to Internet Chat Lines of today. We called it the Jam Line, and I have since discovered that some cities in other parts of the country had them too, but called them by a different term: "Beep Line." Anyway, the cause of the Jam Line was the telephone company's building of the new Electronic Switching (ESS) that we use today. In order for ESS to work correctly, it had to be built in parallel to the old mechanical switching used in the 1950's - 1970's. This created a Loop in the telephone lines allowing people to talk to each other when getting a Busy Signal. Us teens would dial the local radio station's request line, which was always busy, and get the Jam Line; where one would shout out their telephone number between the beeps of the busy signal and the guys/girls would call each other back. Now that you've got the background here's the story:

It was about 8:30 pm on April 26, 1984. A teenage girl was standing in a phone booth in the parking lot of the SuperAmerica gas station on 37th Ave. NE, in Minneapolis, MN talking on the Jam Line, when suddenly the telephone line went dead, then was followed by some clicking sounds, went dead again, and just as suddenly the Jam Line was back on. Moments later the power went out all around her, then an F-3 tornado hit the Apache Plaza Shopping Mall about a 1/2 mile away. The resulting damage would trigger the eventual bankruptcy and demolition of the mid-sized indoor mall built in 1961.

For days afterwards the local evening News casts would focus on how there were no warning sirens sounded before this tornado struck the mall. There was a lot of public outcry for a better system to activate the civil-defense warning network. It turned out that the civil-defense sirens were triggered by telephone line, and for some reason the system had failed in the 781/788/789 telephone prefix areas. The sirens worked fine in other areas of the city. The Weather Service was baffled.

The Jam Line that existed on the 781/788/789 prefix was the last ever in the Twin Cities, MN area. It was shut down in 1984, about a month after the tornado, but not before I talked to the teenage girl who was in the phone booth that stormy night. She was one of the last girls I ever talked to off of the Jam Line, and she talked about this strange story of how the tornado had momentarily knocked out the Jam Line, and how she was so close she could see a "green-glow" in the darkness traveling along the ground towards Apache Mall. To her, the NWS, and the TV News Reporters, there was no explanation for the failures that night. To me and a select few others, we knew exactly what had happened.

One of my friend’s mom’s was a NorthWestern Bell Telephone Operator. Both my friend and I were heavily into the Jam Line. We had been told by his mom that the telephone company didn’t like the Jam Line because with so many people calling into a certain prefix, it would over-load the circuits, crash the relay switching station, and block in-coming calls. The phone company would have to try and reroute traffic, but they could only do so much. That teenage girl told me the Jam Line was very busy that night and there were about 20 people screaming on the Line. She had been a bit frustrated trying to dial in because it was hard to get through. It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out what had happened, but the phone company kept it quiet. The Jam Line had overloaded the circuits and blocked the trigger signal for the warning sirens in the area.

Many residents and shoppers lives were put at risk that night because they had no warning. No one could have ever predicted that the Jam Line would have caused such a mess. These events are a true story; but the conclusions are purely speculation on my part.

Tornado near Blaine - © 2011 David F Ventura, KE0NA

© 2011 David F Ventura, KE0NA

A weak tornado I spotted June 21, 2011, near Blaine in Anoka county. This story starts at the 2011 Skywarn Workshop at St. Thomas University where I won a copy of Gibson Ridge GRLevel3 Weather radar software. I had setup in my car all the equipment needed to monitor the radar products and had attached a GPS to my laptop so that my location would also be displayed in relation to the radar return.

I knew that there was a possibility of severe weather that day from the storm prediction center Day One convective outlook. So I had all the equipment in my car. I drove up to Lino Lakes YMCA that morning for a work out then went to my favorite coffee shop to setup and monitor the storm development using GRLevel3 as I enjoyed my coffee and a slice of banana bread. I remember the motion of the cells that day was unusual, they were moving from south to north. So planning an intercept would be challenging, because the quadrant of the cell that was normally most likely to produce a wall cloud, funnel or tornado would not be the south west, but the southeast one. I saw a promising storm cell moving north towards my location in Lino Lakes, so I left the coffee shop and setup my laptop and GPS equipment on the passenger seat of my car.

I headed south on 35 W and watched as the cell approached and increased in intensity on the radar. A quick decision was made to exit at 95th Avenue and spot from the Park 'n Ride lot. I quickly realized that it was not the best location since there was a berm on the southern end of the lot that blocked my view of the sky. So as the storm approached I decided to exit the lot and head west on 95th Avenue (which became Radisson Road. As I exited I noticed a rapidly rotating wall cloud so I pulled over on the right shoulder to observe for the required time, but almost immediately, a funnel cloud developed. I grabbed the mike on my 2-meter radio, which was tuned to the Skywarn primary repeater and was about to report when the sirens started to sound and net control announced that the police in Blaine had reported a tornado. Well I debated transmitting that it was not a tornado (yet), but decided to follow the funnel cloud as best as I could.

So I followed it on Radisson Road and noticed that it did appear to reach all the way to the ground but was moving further west. As I stopped at Radisson Road and 109th Ave to turn west, I opened my window and snapped the photo with my cellphone. This is the image that is displayed on the Metro Skywarn home page.

I continued to track the tornado by turning north on 65 but it go further away as it appeared to be moving northwest. I gave up my attempt a few miles north of town.

The official NWS report can be found at the link below:


It does backup my observation that it was not a tornado at the point that I first observed the funnel cloud dropping from the rotating wall cloud.

All-in-all, quite an exciting experience and my first tornado spotting!

Happy and safe spotting!

73 - Dave, KE0NA

Wall cloud - © 1995-2012 DavidEarlJohnson.com

Wall cloud - © 1995-2012 DavidEarlJohnson.com

Tornado Outbreak on July 21, 1995

by Dave Johnson, N0KBD

July 21, 1995 was a most memorable day for Metro area spotters for several years. Fourteen tornadoes were confirmed across MN that day. The storms were very slow moving, most moved east at 10 MPH. Its not unusual for severe storms to move as fast as 45 MPH or more! The cells that developed were mostly classic super cells. The storm that dropped two tornadoes in Cambridge and North Branch appeared to be a high precipitation super cell. Just before the funnel developed, the "rain free base" completely wrapped in rain totally obscuring the tornado. One unofficial estimate said ten inches of rain fell in Cambridge from this one cell.

I was living just south of the storm path on that day, and since it was moving so slow, I decided I could reach the cell before it got to Cambridge. I traveled up Co Rd 15 towards Hwy 95. As I approached Hwy 95, trees obscured the view. I slowed and tried to orient myself before proceeding, quite aware I could be surprised by a tornado around the next bend. This storm had already dropped a tornado north of Princeton and done some damage.

Next thing I knew, the whole sky was rotating over my head. I'd found the wall cloud alright, but I was in harms way. I did a quick U turn in the middle of the road and headed back south at right angles to the storm direction. I headed east on Co Rd 11 and then north on Hwy 47 hoping to get a good view. By the time I reached the highway, the wall cloud was wrapping in rain and headed for Cambridge. Rather than follow it, I headed back south to try to get out in front of it again since it was moving so slow. I snapped this picture above as I caught the wall cloud east of Cambridge where it had dropped a tornado while travelling east on Hwy 5. The wall cloud was rotating actively. I checked into the 145.33 Isanti/Chisago net and reported my observation, warning Net Control that the wall cloud was headed right towards his location.

I got back onto the road to keep up and caught the next view as Hwy 5 meets Hwy 95 just west of North Branch. I again reported my observation and noted it was wrapping in rain but appeared to be headed to the north of North Branch. For the second time today, all of a sudden the whole sky overhead was rapidly rotating. I did another U-turn and as I drove west on Hwy 5, I notified Net Control that the mesocyclone had redeveloped south and now was headed right into North Branch.

A few minutes later, I heard from net control as he exclaimed that a tornado had passed just north of his house, had damaged trees in his neighborhood east of town.

A new super cell approached from the west, and I dropped south on I-35 to intercept. I got off the freeway in Stacy and observed what appeared to be a non-rotating wall cloud that never really got formed. Another supercell pass right behind it without notable features. By now it was getting dark and another supercell loomed directly to the west. Suddenly I realized that while I had three directions to escape, each was blocked by a supercell. I was surrounded. I contemplated my escape until the supercell to my west arrived and left me little choice.

I decided the quickest route of escape was through the core. I turned west and drove right at it. The lightning gave me limited view of storm structure. Passing through intense rainfall, wind buffeting the car, next it was 3/4 inch hail. Then the wind, rain and hail slowed as I entered what I assume was the inflow area. I swear I saw what appeared to be a tail cloud overhead as I quickly headed west. Momentarily, after what seemed like a long scary ride, I was out of it and within a few miles of home. I'll never forget that day. I learned the hard way the hazards of spotting, especially at night. Since then, I have advocated for spotters to spot from home at night.

When the wind screamed: Looking back at the 1998 St. Peter tornado

MinnPost’s Minnesota History (full story here) articles are produced in partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and its
MNopedia project, which is made possible by the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.Share on print

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