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Tornado Outbreak

Attica, Kansas - May 12, 2004

Today would end up being an incredible chase day, one of my most memorable. We were targeting south central Kansas today and made a stop in Dodge City to find an internet connection so that we could check data. The sky was blue with no sign of what was to come later that afternoon. Eventually, towering cumulus clouds started to form and the first thunderstorms formed. The one storm that we were interested in kept splitting with the left split dying off and the right split continuing to grow. It took on incredible structure and even had a nice rainbow at one point.

The first tornado formed near the town of Medicine lodge. It had a nice, slender cone shape with a debris cloud at the ground. This tornado held on long enough for me to get out and shoot tripoded video as well as still pictures before it finally roped out and dissipated. As we continued east, another tornado formed. This one lasted less than a minute and consisted of only a small nub of a funnel but it was clearly in contact with the ground due to the presence of a large amount of debris being kicked up.

May 12 2004 Updraft

May 12 2004 Tornado #1

May 12 2004 Tornado #2

Hail quickly started to become a great concern for us as the vehicle started to get pounded by golfball size stones which then became baseballs with the occasional softball thrown into the mix. Finding shelter in the town of Attica became an immediate priority, otherwise the van would've been pulverized. A carport in someone's driveway did the trick except that it was only high enough to protect the van, not the extra antennas that we had on the roof. Oh well, sometimes sacrifices need to be made and my large cellular phone antenna took the brunt of the impact as we squeezed under the shelter. By now, the tornado sirens in town were blaring so loud that I could barely hear myself think and I had to scream in order for anyone to hear me at all. We collected up a few of the largest hailstones which were about 4 1/2 inches in diameter.

As we were examining the hail, we spotted a large cone shaped tornado forming on the east side of town. At first I thought we were in a safe position because it was east of us and the storm itself was moving east. After a few moments of viewing, it became clear that this tornado was not moving away from us...It was headed towards us!! Sometimes a tornado will circle around the backside of the main area of rotation in a supercell thunderstorm and head back against the main motion of the storm. We had to get out of there NOW.

We piled into the van and pulled out of the carport, ripping the last remains of my antenna to shreds in the process, and blasted back to the main road where we got an incredible up close view of this beast. The tornado had a beautiful white cone shape and it had picked up an incredible amount of red dirt. It was moving north-northwest and it had already struck a house on the other side of town doing F-2 damage. Small pieces of insulation were falling out of the sky at our location as the tornado started to weaken less than a half mile ahead of us. After it lifted, we continued east and had to take backwards due to roadblock near the damage path. The storm was still very strong but it was getting dark and the visibility was poor. I've had a few close encounters with tornadoes after dark and I wasn't interested in repeating one of those experiences.

A second supercell storm had formed and was tracking along a path right behind the first one. This storm had some incredible lightning in it and we stopped to take some pictures. While we were concentrating on the lightning, we noticed yet another tornado in the distance off to our north. This one was only visible when it was backlit by lightning flashes but it was big and appeared to be doing a lot of damage near the town of Harper. We watched it for close to 20 minutes as it churned away. We found out later that this tornado was doing F4 damage at the time. A tornado that strong, especially at night is incredibly dangerous.

May 12 2004 Tornado #3A

May 12 2004 Tornado #3B

May 12 2004 Tornado #3C

May 12 2004 F4 Tornado #4

Here's a panoramic photo of the night time Harper Tornado

Harper F-4 Tornado