Saturday, May 10, 2008 (Central-Southeast AR, 990 mi.)


We position ourselves nicely for the damaging tornadic supercell that strikes Stuttgart, AR, but the tornado ends up rain-wrapped.

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I'd pretty much sworn off any more Arkansas chases for awhile after the exhausting Super Tuesday extravaganza on February 5. But with the spring semester at OU having just concluded the previous week, and forecast parameters absolutely off the charts, who was I kidding. A dryline was forecast to advance through the eastern halves of OK and KS through the afternoon, while the warm front lifted slowly northward along the I-40 corridor in AR. Models forecast maximum 0-3 km EHI values in excess of 12 over parts of SW AR, but I was willing to settle for values in the 6-10 range over the flatlands of the Mississippi River Valley to the east, as were most chasers. The downside to this was the inevitable HP nature of warm front storms, which we'd already dealt with twice unsuccessfully in April (the 9th and 23rd, both in NW TX).

Brandon, Bryan and I left around 8:30 AM - early, sure, but a vast improvement over the predawn departure on Super Tuesday. This time around, initiation was not expected until mid- to late-afternoon, thankfully. After stopping for lunch in Clarksville, we continued on to Little Rock. Now mid-afternoon, there were still no signs of imminent initiation, so the challenge was to position ourselves optimally to intercept whatever would later develop. Some other chasers had headed S out of LIT towards Pine Bluff; I really wanted to continue E on I-40, and we ended up doing that, exiting at Carlisle (in Lonoke County). For those who've never had the lovely experience of chasing Arkansas, there's a very sharp change in the terrain across the Little Rock metropolitan area: the city itself and all points west are hilly and heavily forested, while areas just to the east become remarkably flat, with only moderate tree coverage. Our hope was for storms to develop over SW AR and quickly move east into this more chaseable region. We dropped S from I-40 to Humphrey, then spent a good hour and a half meandering SW down US-63 as we became increasingly restless in the face of partly cloudy skies. One thing was certain: instability would not be a problem once storms fired, because the heat and humidity were absolutely sweltering.

Eventually, we got all the way down to Pine Bluff, where Brandon made a quick trip to the local mall to stock up on video tapes for his camcorder. Hey, why not - even with 5:00 approaching, there was still no sign whatsoever of storms firing anywhere nearby. After that, we started to head back NE on US-63. About now is when the madness began. First, we noticed a broken line of supercells had fired all along the dryline well to our W, and before long they were all tornado warned. This spanned all the way from SE KS down to SE OK, and must have included at least 5 discrete cells with hooks and very nice couplets. While obviously too far for us to catch before dark (we remained committed to the warm front target in AR), it was spectacular in that the northern storms were occurring in an area that had largely been ignored by chasers and forecasters alike. Before long, the infamous Picher storm began ravaging extreme NE OK; it then quickly moved into MO near Joplin, so Brandon had to call family back home to alert them. Meanwhile, weak convection was finally developing farther east throughout much of SW AR in the vicinity of the warm front. It looked like big blobs of garbage on radar, but we knew from past experience that as warm fronts lift north, these "blobs" can turn nasty very quickly in the face of increasing instability.

Sometime during the 6:00 hour, the real fun began. Sure enough, supercells rapidly organized from the convection to our W. While two cells which became tornado-warned were located N of I-40, out of our reach, a third was taking dead aim on the area SE of Little Rock. We headed N to England, then E on US-165 to near Humnoke, trying to get well ahead of this still-organizing storm (still located W of the Arkansas River). But as it became tornado-warned and its velocity couplet ramped up on radar, the temptation was too much to resist, and we backtracked NW to Keo. The mesocyclone was now fast approaching from the SW. After waiting just N of town for a bit, we decided the storm was taking enough of a right turn that we ought to reposition, so we dropped back S to England, then headed E on US-165. The velocity presentation on radar continued to impress in a big way, so our hopes were high. We dropped S on AR-31 from Coy and stopped near the Lonoke-Jefferson County line as the meso passed just a hair to our N. Despite very impressive cloud motions and a lot of scud associated with the RFD, no tornado.

With the 45 mph storm motions, keeping up with the meso was going to be quite a challenge now that we'd let it overtake us. Left without much choice, we raced E on backroads to Humphrey, paralleling the circulation just to its S. Upon hitting US-63, we flew NE towards Stuttgart for a few miles, but then slowed our pace as radar began to indicate extreme rotation nearing the town just ahead of us. Unfortunately, we saw nothing but blinding rain curtains looming just ahead. With hesitation, we followed just behind the precipitation core, taking US-79B into the S side of Stuttgart. As soon as we turned onto that road, it was like a flashback to April 9 in Breckenridge, TX: without warning, we encountered snapped powerlines, heavily-damaged homes, and an assortment of other destruction that could only have been the work of a significant tornado. Once again, we had been only a few minutes and a few miles away from a rain-wrapped twister. With nightfall less than half an hour away and the storm already pulling off to the E, the chase was over. We spent some time driving around Stuttgart to assess the extent and severity of the damage. It looked like the northern half of town had been spared, while the southern half experienced widespread damage. In the very SE corner of town, we came upon a small area with rather severe damage that included houses whose second stories had been almost entirely blown off. We stopped to see if anyone needed help, but without flashlights (not to mention another approaching supercell), we quickly gave up. Thankfully, we later learned that there were no casualties with the Stuttgart tornado; however, it was rated EF-3 due to the extensive damage. We arrived home around 3:30 AM, which wasn't much of a problem since the next day was Sunday. Though missing a tornado on a storm you targeted and intercepted almost perfectly is quite irritating, especially six hours from home, I'm not sure there was much we could have done differently. Very few chasers had picked the NE OK/SE KS/SW MO area, which would ultimately yield the most destructive and visible tornado of the day in the Picher-Neosho storm.