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.