Thursday, May 29, 2008 (South Central NE, 980 mi.)

Synopsis

A solo chase just shy of 1,000 miles and I miss tornadoes and structure of the year by half an hour - in other words, a day I'd like to forget.

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Unmitigated disaster. Likely my career worst chase, and that's saying something after how much of 2007 went. This setup crept up very quickly during the brief lull after the insane May 22-25 period, and I was hardly paying attention to the models at all. This was only a SLGT risk on Day 2, and all the way up into NE on a work day, so I didn't think much of it. The night before, I noticed the NAM showing some awfully impressive parameters without much of a cap, and I started getting that sinking feeling... boy, if only I'd known what was to come. I really needed to go to work the next day, so I tried to ignore it. Then the 06z SWODY1 came out: MDT risk, 15% hatched tornado all the way down into extreme N KS. Wonderful. Went to bed trying to shrug it off. Wake up at 9 the next morning to the dreaded pink on the SPC homepage. It's funny, almost as soon as I opened my eyes and started to roll out of bed, I somehow just knew that was coming, even though setups the previous week that looked even more impressive did not go HIGH until their respective 20z outlooks, if at all.

I managed to pull myself together, get dressed and get to work by 10am. When I went in to ask my boss about a project he had wanted me to start working on soon, he said it wasn't ready yet, and asked if I was planning on chasing. Even then, after finding out he wouldn't mind if I went, I hesitated for over an hour longer, probably because I had the rational capacity to realize chasing more than five hours from home when I needed to be back the next morning was simply insane. But as I continued mulling over my misfortunes on a couple good days last week, and looking at forecast soundings up around Concordia and Salina, that rational capacity was quickly eroded. I finally ran out of the NWC, grabbed gear from my apartment, and was on I-35 by 11:45 driving northward like a madman. No clear target, not much detailed forecasting or model analysis before leaving, and no chase partner to help navigate or split the likely $80-$100 fuel costs. Just pure addiction-driven lust for the big HIGH risk and fear of missing whatever might happen up there. Not quite the hallmarks of a good chase day.

Needless to say, I was determined to make good time throughout the afternoon, given how late I had departed. While en route, I scarfed down the bagged lunch I'd originally made for a day at work to avoid an unnecessary stop. I arrived in Salina sometime just before 3:30 PM for a quick re-fueling and hasty, unthoughtful look at the latest data. By this time, the reality that would help doom my chase was already dawning on me: initiation was occurring quite far to the west compared with what earlier outlooks had suggested, and this was going to present a problem given how long I'd had to spend getting north to I-70. The most impressive supercell was near I-80 in southwest NE, with a broken line extending southwestward towards Hoxie and Tribune KS. The reasonable half of me had seen this coming shortly after I'd left based on surface obs and an SPC MCD, but I'd kept going anyway, and now I'd committed far too much money and time to abandon the chase. In a near-panic, I continued north to Concordia, all the while unable to decide whether to head west and meet the NW KS cells halfway at some point a couple hours later, or go for the gold (at the time anyway) in NE. I blew threw Concordia, passing up my first westward option, and then blew through Belleville (just south of the state line) doing the same. I finally got off US-81 at Chester NE, headed west for Red Cloud, and finally north towards Hastings. By the time I arrived on the I-80 cell north of Hastings, around 6:30 PM, it had long since weakened after producing multiple tornadoes near Kearney. I stuck around to watch it for 15-20 minutes, but it was a fairly clear-cut HP, outflow dominant dud of a storm at the time. Eventually I reversed course to go after some tornado-warned storms in north-central KS, but I wasn't particularly excited, as they already looked somewhat linear on radar and seemed to be trending more so. So here I am, over 400 miles from Norman, having arrived an hour too late for a torandic-albeit-messy show in Kearney. And given how bleak my situation had looked all day, I wasn't even going to complain much, as I sort of expected something like this all along. But instead of letting me "enjoy" my five-hour return trip in peace, merely mildly disappointed, mother nature had one final, excruciating kick in the junk in store, with AT&T as her accomplice...

I made my way back down to Red Cloud from Hastings, with my data coverage already becoming shetchy along the way. Watching GRLevel3, I could see on SpotterNetwork that hordes of other folks were also abandoning NE for the KS activity, taking the same route. Once in town, I took a closer look at radar, and determined dropping due south to intercept a tornado-warned storm in Smith County KS was not an option, as it would require a core punch that my hydroplaning-happy Civic would likely not survive. But as I said before, I was only mildly annoyed, because everything south of the state line looked like a line with embedded supercells at best. I guess this is where being 5-6 hours from home on a weekday night can impede your ability to make rational chase decisions and persevere. I basically said screw the whole thing, and began heading east back towards Chester (over 40 miles away) so I could drop south on US-81 and begin the journey home without getting caught in the "mess" to my south. The radar update I'd looked at in Red Cloud would be my last for the night, essentially, as I completely lost my cell signal from there on out - not just data, but voice too. Long story short, about an hour later I was pulling into Belleville KS and finally got a couple bars on my phone. I called Bryan to see where he was at, only to find out that the southern of the two tornado-warned storms in north-central KS had gone bonkers, and was putting down multiple tornadoes that just about everyone out was seeing. If I'd had just one radar update or phone call during that hour getting from Red Cloud to Belleville, I would've known to drop south sooner, and likely could have arrived in time to see at least part of the spectacular show at dusk in Mitchell and Jewell County. But no. I guess that's why AT&T charges $60/mo. for their tethering service while Alltel is $20? Oh wait, that's backwards, nevermind. Incredible.

Perhaps even more aggravating than the data problems is the fact that I left so late for a target so far north, and then proceeded to miss the show of the day because I was north of the storm. If those initial NW KS storms had fired just one row of counties east of where they did, I probably would have gone for them instead of the I-80 beast when I left Salina. But as it was, I could not at the time justify pursuing something five counties west of me, looking linear at the time, that would likely leave me over six hours from Norman by the time I met up with them near Hill City or Hays. Instead, I wasted precious hours getting as far northwest as Hastings, just to find an HP going down the crapper that most had already abandoned for the eventual winner in KS. This is one of those chases that makes you really reconsider your hobby for a few days afterwards, and for me, I think it will also leave a lasting impression: no more solo chasing in data-sparse areas more than 250 miles from home, particularly when getting a motel at the end of the day is not an option. It's just not worth it. FWIW, I made it home by 2:45am, a bit better than I had expected for having been near the latitude of New York City at 9pm.