April 17th Lawton,Oklahoma Chase: Mighty Storms and Friendships Form

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The day started like most chase days this season. I woke up at 4:30 am checked weather data on the storm prediction center website and determined a target zone of where the chase would start that afternoon after I got off from work. After I checked data that morning I became very excited because of the issuing of a moderate risk for severe thunderstoms and supercells in central and western parts of Oklahoma by the SPC (storm prediction center). Moderate risk chase days are not common and usually produce ample conditions to see multiple supercell thunderstoms and if conditions line up , a tornado or two can not be ruled out as well.

This day was unique in the fact that my wife and talented navigator would not be able to chase with me. Normally this is a situation Im not as comfortable with but a good friend of mine, Greg Meredith had told me if there ever was an opportunity for him to come on a chase he would be more than happy to navigate. We have had many conversations up to that point and he expressed how he had wanted to chase these mighty supercell thunderstoms his whole life. I could see the passion in his eyes, the hunger was there and he was all in. So far in the season there had not been any extra space in our vehicle for extra people to tag along for chases with there being the film crew and my wife chasing with me. This day was a rare exception and I called Greg up and told him to be ready by 12:30pm and I’d swing by and picked him up.

I finished with work around noon and me and the film crew headed to Greg’s house to pick him up. He walked up to the car with a John Wyne type strut and his usual confident grin. He gets in the car, turns to me and says, “lets roll”!

He wasnt fazed by the  boom microphone hovering around his head or the camera recording. As if he had been in this situation a thousand times. He confidently explained, “Im your navigator today Blaize, Ill get us on the roads where we need to be, you just put us on the storms”.

With a full tank of gas and a target zone in the vicinity of Mangum/Hollis region of Oklahoma, we pressed on. I checked radar and noticed we had a line of cumulous clouds starting to form in a line in north western Oklahoma. I knew some chasers were already staged up there but I had a different target in mind. I had a good feeling that our storms would form in the far south eastern Texas panhandle region near Veron/Chilicothe area and quickly mature as the moved both east to near the Hollis/Mangum area.

We arrived in Shamrock, Tx around 2:00 pm and stopped to get some good ol’ gas station grub. I pulled up radar and saw that two supercells had formed near Vernon.

My heart raced, joy filled my heart and the complete confirmation of where I thought the storms would form was making this just the perfect moment most chasers  aspire to. I look over at Greg and he had that twinkle in his eye that only the true chasers get. That moment when you start to feel than anticipation of what you might see or expierience that day . Even though Geg had not been on any chases I could already tell that this would be the chase that would turn him into a fellow storm junkie.

We left the gas station, I was glancing at the radar as I drove I decided that Mangum, Oklahoma would be a good area to engage this rapid moving cells. Greg checked the map to find us an optimal route. We took a farm road south out of Wellington, Tx that would take us to Mangum in 40 miles which by that time would position us right near the south east end of the storm where the wall cloud typically forms. As we traveled down this road south for about 15 miles,  something disastrous occurs… a bridge was out and the road abruptly stopped. The only was out was exactly from where we came and with this detour our chase would delay another 30 mins from a storm that was already traveling at a very high rate of speed. I keep reassuring Greg and the crew that we will still have a chance as long as we can get to Mangum. As we work to get back in position I see the storm make a small shift to Fredrick, Oklahoma. Greg finds a quick route that would end up saving us about 20 minutes. We get to Fredrick close to 5:00. At this point there were two supercells and both had just became tornado warned. I pick a spot north of Fredrick and Greg finds a corresponding route to get us in position.

Within minutes we were out in the middle of miles of open plains and sandwiched between not one,  but two tornado warned supercells. I pull over. Me and Greg get out and stand in awe of the shear beauty and magnitude of these mighty storms. I begin to see a rotating wall cloud form, which is the area of supercells where tornados sometimes occur.

We stand in amazement and anticipation as this dark and turbulent storm churns slowly across the vast Oklahoma plains. Both with content smiles and sighs of relief we stood. Between my time of preparation starting in the wee morning hours to Greg’s sharp navigation, we had finally been in the perfect position on what would be the storm system of the day in the United States. I will tell you something rarely discussed amongst chasers but what is very much a reality is the simple fact that to be at the right place at the right time on a storm chase takes chemistry between the forecaster, driver and navigator. I always do the forecasting and driving but it takes a good navigator to compete the task. Its the ultimate example of team work in one of the most dangerous hobbies on the planet.

It’s rare to be  between two wall clouds of two separate supercells simultaneously and on top of that be able to visually see both wall clouds at once, but on this very rare occasion thats exactly what we were fortunate enough to see.  I should add that even though a supercell may not have a tornado present or on the ground, that doesnt mean there cannot be a tornado warning issued. As long as either a rotating cloud, lowering referred to as a wall cloud, is spotted by a trained storm spotter or if enough rotation is confirmed by national weather service radars then that is typically enough information to issue a tornado warning.

After a few minutes the tornado warning was reduced to just a severe thunderstorm but was still showing the abiltiy to maintain its structure and intensity and at any moment a tornado warning could be reissued.  I notice the storms are headed rather quickly to Lawton, Oklahoma. We pack up and quickly head north east to Lawton to keep up with the storms. We arrive in Lawton a few minutes ahead of the storms. We sit and watch radar. I see the storms have still maintained strong strong rotation on radar. To my surprise the National Weather Service  had not upgraded these storms as tornado warned. I look at Greg and point out the rapid rotation on radar as these storms move with in 5 miles of Lawton. I turn to him and tell him that within 1 minute another tornado warning will probably be issued. Just as soon as that statement left my mouth, the tornado sirens sound in Lawton and the dark, turbulent and ominous storm positions it self right over the town. Some people are speeding down roads in a state of frantic panic, while others are seen taking their time ordering dinner in drive-in restaurants. I am shocked to see that a large number of people are blatantly ignoring the loud sirens and the ominous storm approaching. I mean I love a good cheeseburger as much as the next guy but priorities and insticts for human safety have to be acknowledged in these type of scenarios. It was not an easy thing to witness and it’s a moment this particular  chase season that I will never forget.

We  positioned ourselves at a nearby  by parking lot and step out to examine the storm, a funnel is forming near the wall cloud which is almost directly in front of our car and it any moment could reach the ground being then confirmed as a tornado. I quickly explain to Greg and film crew that we need to  get to a safer vantage point. Heading just a half a mile south we stop again in a nearby Walgreens parking lot. The wall cloud is rotating violently and funnels are dancing underneath the storm, dipping up and down flirting with the idea of touching the ground below.

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Its hard to put into words the emotions I felt at that moment. Its a dark, ominous and euphoric expierence that leaves you feeling a weird combination of fear and joy. Reality begins to set  in and I am immediately in a state of great concern for the citizens of Lawton. I can only sit and hope that they take the tornado sirens seriously and are residing in safe locations. Fortunately the funnel did not reach the ground and the town was spared from any  major damage from this first supercell of the evening. There was a large and fast moving problem headed  nearby though…  the 2nd supercell is right behind the first one and was about 8 miles south of town. The rotation of the impending storm was on the same course as the last one and I knew that this storm might not be a gracious as the last one. I take us further south a couple of miles to higher ground to a different location in town at a church parking lot,  giving us a good vantage point on the impending supercell. The tornado sirens blare once agin as a second tornado warned cell arrives over Lawton. Lighting begins to light up the skies all around us and few bolts hit the found not far away.  This particular sistuation was unlike anything ive yet to see in all my years chasing, not one but two tornado warned supercells just 10 miles apart, on the same path over the same town.

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Fortunately for a second time that evening Lawton is spared as the storms quickly  pass over the town and fails to produce a tornado. Although the event to follow is one that in nearly a decade of chasing ive never seen and perhaps may never see again. A third tornado warned supercell had quickly formed and was on the exact path as the last two cells. Tornado sirens continue to sound. Me and Greg spot the wall cloud slightly rotating over the city of Lawton. Astonishingly the storm does not form a tornado and for the third time in an hour the city of Lawton dodges a bullet.

Its a chase Ill never forget and of all the chases that Greg finally got to partake in, he goes on a day that nature decides to show in perhaps one of the greatest examples i’ve ever witnessed, just how amazing, powerful and unpredictable it really can be.

This chase turned a man into a chaser, a passenger into a navigator and a friend into one of my best friends. Greg finally got to live out his dream and go on a storm chase of a lifetime. Im truly honored that I could help make that a reality.

This is why I chase, these unforgettable moments of seeing the atmosphere create the unimaginable in nature and the  great memories  with the people you choose to share these journeys with. These storms are not just forming rain, hail and fierce winds… they are also forming bonds between people that last a lifetime. I am blessed I get to share these moments with my amazing wife and although I wish she had been there that day, a man stepped in her stead with great navigation became  a chase buddy for life.

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2 thoughts on “April 17th Lawton,Oklahoma Chase: Mighty Storms and Friendships Form

  1. Pingback: April 17th Chase- Lawton,Oklahoma… Mighty storms and friendships form | Beneath The Anvil

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