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.

To all my Word Press friends…

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All we need is $2,500 more dollars and this film gets funded! We are already up to $4,500 which is the good news, the bad news is if we cant get the rest of the amount raised in 14 days the film won’t happen. The full amount has to be raised for the director, Chris Jenkins, to get the film funded. You will not be charged unless the full amount is raised. This is going to be a very special film about me, my lovely wife and our good friend Dave and our storm chasing adventures this coming spring. It will be a journey like no other and all we need is your help to make this dream a reality! There are some epic incentives for all the people who donate 🙂 here is the link to the video trailer and the link to donate below.
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/937420421/beneath-the-anvil

“Beneath the Anvil” Feature Film

dsc_0288.jpgCheck out link below! 🙂

I am very excited to announce that a talented film maker, Chris Jenkins, will begin the incredible journey of creating a full length documentary about supercell thunderstorms and our storm chasing journeys. He will begin filming this April and will be on every chase with us until the middle of June. He plans on creating a film on storm chasing in a style and way that will make it quite different compared to other storm chasing documentaries. The film will be titled “Beneath the Anvil”.
We need all the help we can get to fund this project. Listed above is a link for the video trailer for the Kick Starter project. Please feel free to watch the video and share with all your friends! Go to the Kick Starter sight to donate. Any amount would be greatly appreciated. Even if it’s only $1.There are many exciting incentives for people who choose to donate. The film will only get produced if the budget is met. You will only be charged if the budget is reached. If you don’t feel like donating, we understand. But even if you can’t donate, you can at least help us get the word out by sharing the link above.
We have also started a website which is beneaththeanvil.com
Feel free to check it out!
Thanks for all your support!

-Blaize Justice

Unexpected Twins: North Amarillo Storm Chase- April 10th 2012

The best chases are often the ones that surprise you. Our chase north of Amarillo, Texas was no exception.

It was a spring day like any other in Amarillo. A chance of storms but little to any chance of supercells. Normally, I don’t even check radar on those days but out of curiosity I did. I saw a very nice and somewhat organized storm north of Amarillo at approximately 4:00 pm. I called my wife and told her as soon as she got off of work it was go time.

I pick her up a little after 5 and at that point I was going crazy having have waited over an hour and watching this monster mature. We headed north and right away upon leaving city limits we see a textbook wall cloud with rapid rotation. It was at that point we saw the perfect structured supercell we had been searching for. I can’t explain the exhilaration you get when you spot a wall cloud on a chase! It’s so amazing and the best natural high there is. You see this potential, this chance of a tornado happening right in front of you and the anticipation charges your soul and alerts all senses. Let me clarify that a wall cloud (rotating updraft) is generally at the right rear of a supercell and that is the part is the area where tornadoes form. To see it in person as a chaser means that you are in the right spot to see the excitement.

Little did we know this beauty would end up producing a couple of funnels… at once

The storm’s beautiful structure left us watching in awe. I can’t help but think to my self, “How in the world this is happening?”. The conditions in the atmosphere where not very supportive of supercell development yet here it lies before us.

Nothing quite like a Texas Panhandle thunderstorm. They always seem to reflect such beautiful colors…

After a few moments the wall cloud dissipates but I notice instead of its normal, north-west movement, the storm decided to head south-west meaning a potential new wall cloud might have formed on the other side. So we press on and try to navigate to the other side of the storm. Successfully we do, without punching the hail core typically located in the middle of the storm. We travel a few miles north and there it is, a new wall cloud. Rotating and looking as though it will produce a tornado at any second. It doesn’t, rather, it dissipates. The wall cloud moves to another location and so do we. We are still trolling the right side of this storm and trying to keep up and we then find a new wall cloud and this time a funnel is dropping from it. We are so excited! It’s a perfect tube of smooth condensation. My wife and I watch and just get lost in its graceful beauty. We encourage its lowering and beg it to drop further, screaming frantically for it to do so. I was hoping, deep down in the pit of my stomach for it to touch the ground so my wife could see the pure beauty. In years past I have gone on many solo chases and have seen them all alone or in some cases with one of my chasing buddies.

The first funnel forming…

It was dropping from the sky and in perfect pencil form she continued to descend. But then, to the left another funnel begins to drop! They dance in the sky together and flirt with the idea with touching their  tornadic tails on the soft grassy plains below. I scream, “We are going to have twins!”. My wifes laughs and says humorously, “We are? I had no idea!”. The funnels are hovering over a deep canyon and as a result never quite touch but we are so invigorated by the experience.

Twin funnels forming north of Amarillo,Tx

On a day were storms were unlikely, supercells nearly unimaginable two funnels dropped. That, my friends, is what its like to chase in the Texas Panhandle. There are two things I have learned over the years when chasing here, expect the unexpected and always keep your eye out for changing conditions in the atmosphere during spring and early summer months. Lightning could strike or in this case, a couple of funnels.

Chasing Storms and Finding Roots: Mason,Tx Chase- March 19th 2012

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A beautiful sight, Texas Bluebonnets and a supercell…

I couldn’t put into words how meaningful and special this chase truly was. Not only was it the first chase of the season, but it was with someone very dear to me, my aunt Salinda.

I woke up that morning of March 19th and was still groggy and honestly sore from the previous day chasing. Its crazy, but with the tension of muscles during intense moments of chasing and driving hundreds of miles, you can sometimes really feel a chase  and it’s effects on your body the next morning.

I take a seat on the couch, flip open computer and check the SPC (Storm Prediction Center) website and there it was, slight risk of supercell thunderstorms in the area of my hometown in Abilene, Tx! I have always wanted to chase this area but have never gotten the opportunity to chase in this area. Let me add that the day before, I told my wife I was not chasing for at least a couple of days to recover mentally from our chase. Needless to say it didn’t take me long to change my mind.

As the season began, me and my Aunt Salinda were talking on the phone almost daily about different storms hitting the U.S. and I would also share with her stories about the chases so far in the season. I called her after the Knox City chase and was telling her about how cool it was and went on to tell her that one day, if the storms are going to be near Abilene, I was picking her up and taking her on her first storm chase. Little did we know that opportunity would come the very next day. So that morning after checking SPC I called her up and told her guess what… pack what you need, i’m picking you up in 4 hours and we are going chasing. There was one problem, it was already noon and so I was going to have to fly if we were going to catch the storms likely initiating around 3:00 or 4:00 pm.

Image I got to Lubbock, Texas about 1:30 and noticed a restaurant off of the highway at the Chisum Travel Center in Lubbock called Klemke’s BBQ Joint. I will say right now what followed the next few moments would change my taste buds and life for that matter…forever. Despite me being in a hurry, my stomach did not care and BBQ was just what I was craving. I walked in the door and smelled this appetizing, smoky aroma that consumed this little travel center. I was cautious considering the location of this BBQ joint, but I was also hungry enough that I really didn’t care either. So I walk up to the counter and this older woman with a sharp southern accent and southern charm to match, takes my order. I see on the menu a BBQ Jalapeno Sausage Sandwich and naturally I order two of them. After a couple a minutes my order was ready and the simple brown paper bag with its glorious contents was laid on the counter. I get in my truck and am back on the road. I open the container and realize right away that this sandwich is a two hander. So as I steer with my knees I take the first bite and am immediately blown away! There was an actually snapping sound as I bit into this amazing jalapeno sausage. The sauce was a smoky, sweet and subtle compliment to the sausage. Though this is a small chapter in this epic chase story I had to mention it considering it was the best sandwich I have ever eaten 🙂

I arrive in Merkel, Tx by 4:00 and pick up my aunt. We then head towards Clyde, Tx where some storms have already developed but it isn’t long before I realize the storms have formed a line (very bad, I only chase isolated supercells) and I quickly stop to see what we do next. I pull up radar and then see a storm that has formed south of San Angelo, Tx and another close to Junction, Tx. (very far away) So traveling faster than I’d like to admit, we head south.

Along the way we pass through a town called Llano, Tx, one of my favorite little towns in all of Texas. I then began to explain to my aunt how for some reason I have always got this warm, happy feeling whenever I have passed through this town. She chuckled and explained to me that in fact several of my family members were actually from there and were buried there. I couldn’t believe it, all these years and I never knew that! So here I was passing through towns where my family roots began with my aunt by my side as we approach this mighty supercell. It was truly special to say the least.

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The remains of a brief tornado that touched down outside of Mason,Tx

The skies grew darker and darker as we approached Mason, Tx. I could see it was definitely a high precipitation supercell (very dangerous to chase) and visibility was low. I check my radar and see that the storm had went tornado warned. My heart races, I can’t see any structure of the storm through the rain but could tell on radar that a tornado was very close. I nervously drive though the thick rain shaft and then it happened. A break in the rain, a lull in the wind and a clearing to our west revealed an epic site, a tornado on the ground. I scream to my aunt “There it is! A tornado on the ground!”I hit the brakes and pull over, frantically trying to find a camera. My aunt says calmly “I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it… wow.” There we stand, in the area where my family roots began, beside my aunt on this lowly road outside of Mason starring a beautiful tornado as it briefly touches the ground only to go back up into the sky. It was a truly perfect moment. If I would have gone one mile an hour slower that day we would have never seen it. If I didn’t stop to eat that mouth-watering sandwich, this moment might not have ever happened. We chased a little while longer but tornado never made another appearance . Just to have that moment on the side of the road and see it for only a moment still made my year. It’s a memory I am proud to have shared with her and a memory in chasing I will cherish forever.

Chasing storms and finding roots in my favorite destination, beneath the anvil…

The Best Regret: Knox City Chase- March 18th 2012

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(above)Beneath the anvil of the Knox City, Tx supercell (below) wall cloud with rapid rotation. Image

What was so great about the month of March was the storms that were observed so early in the season, to be able to chase four storms by April was a great bonus! Normally in years past it has been until April that I have got into any stellar storms, this year was a nice exception.

On march 18th we headed to Shamrock, Tx as a staging point and we were not alone. We pulled into town and there must have been over 200 chasers! I love that moment when you pick a staging point and there are tons of chasers around (sometimes), it lets you know you weren’t alone in your judgement. Although from that point on during the actual chase I could do without some of those crazy drivers around.

We stopped at a McDonald’s (free WiFi for good radar signal) and took a look at some radar and decided what to do from there. Nothing was showing on radar but we decided to leave the crowds behind and head to Childress, Tx where I was thinking some storms might initiate. About twenty minutes into our drive near Wellington, Tx we observed a large cumulus tower forming fast and was already producing a thick anvil. its location was south of Childress, Tx. So onward we went and arrived south of Childress to meet this monster up close. It had a very large rotating wall cloud and a nice,dark, well defined rain shaft. Me and my wife pulled over on some old ranch road and watched in awe. I really felt like this beast could produce a tornado any moment, but it didn’t. My storm gut was telling me head to Hollis, Oklahoma and I Informed my wife maybe we should shoot for there, but shortly after we discussed that option I glanced at the radar and saw a huge storm developing near Knox City, Tx. Being anxious, we just drove straight to what was developing.

About thirty miles from Knox City we saw that the storm went tornado warned. Adrenaline started to pump, excitement filled the air. I told my wife “This could be it, we might see a tornado this early in the season!”. We drove through the curvy roads and hill surrounding Knox City area to try to get in position to see the rear of the storm where the potential tornado would be. As we came up on this hill and through a clearing we  finally got a good glimpse of the storms structure. We could clearly identify a wall cloud rotating very rapidly. I looked over at my wife her eyes were so big, she had the look of awe, fear and respect. I kept screaming at the storm “Do it! Do it!”. It was so majestic, so violent, so graceful but a tornado was not to be.

As we get back into the truck I receive a text from my friend, Meteorologist Chris Kimble. The text stated “I hope your in Hollis, Oklahoma!” regretfully I picked up my phone, pulled up radar and saw what was very strong velocity on radar indicating a real possibility of a tornado. I kept thinking to my self that I should have trusted my gut. I should have just headed to Hollis to begin with! Turned out a tornado had been spotted and it was a storm with beautiful and epic structure.

One thing I can say is that every year I have noticed a pattern when storm chasing season begins, it’s a pattern of anticipation. Each storm chased seems a little stronger, more unique and more likely to produce a tornado until the big moment arrives. I love this build though, the hunger it brings, the climatic build to the perfect chase. It often plays like a great movie script where the best chase happens at the perfect time of the season and right when you are thinking it will not happen, it does. Even though I felt some regret, overall I felt calm and collected. I remembered that this was all part of the story of the season.

I was telling a friend just the other day that as long as I see a wall cloud on a chase, I will always be satisfied with that chase. Just seeing mother nature create such amazing storms is more than enough and I hope it always will be.

First Chase: March 16th 2012

Supercell north-east of Abernathy,Tx

The first chase is always special… and vital. It’s a new season, a new beginning and its a time to get all the chasing anxiousness out that’s been pinned up inside for months. I know for me and my wife Leslee is a time of sync. To me its crazy how our personalities work together on a chase. I have this weird sense that always tells me where we need to be and also can tell on radar what town we will need to head to meet the storm at its peak time… problem is I have terrible sense of direction. Yep, I will admit it. Most guys have this amazing sense of direction, can read any map and always know where there going. This guy does not. My wife just so happens to be the best map reader ever, so we work well together and these first chases are so vital in us getting synced up and ready for the season.

So we leave the house, cameras ready and packed, rain x on windows, full tank of gas and our chasing blood running strong. With fat smiles on our faces we hit the open road and head towards Lubbock, Texas (we live in Amarillo). So even though there is not a cloud in the sky yet… I know there will be. I checked some data the night before and again that morning and conditions were decent. Most important of all though i had that special feeling inside I get when its going to be a good chase.

Now I will add there were two sets of chasers… both somewhat famous (no names). One group was located in Childress, Tx and the other group was in Midland, Tx. I will tell you one thing I do not do is fellow chasers or look up where there going and meet up with them. I use some weather data and a lot of gut. Ninety percent of the time this combination works so I go with it, plus it always feels good to be on a storm no one else is on (very rare).

Very weird fact about me, during storm chasing season when I wake up some mornings and often know the exact towns the storms will form near… no data just this crazy, peaceful feeling that just tells my gut “go here!”. On March 16th my gut said Lubbock, Tx, despite the popular choices of others to go to Midland/Odessa or Childress.

We get to Tulia, Tx and I tell my wife maybe we should just head to Childress since that’s where everyone is hyping up the potential storm activity. I thought to my self maybe my gut was wrong… so I turn down this lone road and B line it to Childress. While we are driving about 10 miles down the road east of Tulia, my wife  says “look over there towards Lubbock!” It was the most beautiful thing I have seen since last season! A huge cumulus tower starting to form an anvil! I will tell you as a chaser, nothing is more beautiful and will get your blood running faster than when you see that first anvil of the season. Then only thing even better is the first wall cloud.

I hit the brakes, bust a U and head towards Lubbock. We are smiling ear to hear, chattering, giggling and of course breaking traffic laws enforced to warn you to maintain a certain speed. I tell her “Its finally here, our first supercell!” It was beautiful! We met it north-east of Lubbock. We got near the right/rear of the storm (generally where the wall cloud and tornadoes form) and saw its wall cloud. The smell of the rain was so sweet, so fresh. I could not believe the moment had finally arrived and we got to see our first storm. We chased it for a while down dirt roads and small towns until it weakened a bit. I will add a did form a brief funnel and some small hail but no tornado.

So with chase one down and us feeling one with each other and one with the chase, we were finally all go and ready for the season ahead. Where was the first place we went after our first big chase? Dairy Queen in Abernathy, Tx of course! It was so amazing! Just sitting there with my wife eating in this little Dairy Queen parking lot and watching the anvil of this beautiful storm fading into the horizon. A perfect beginning to what would become an epic chase season.

It wasn’t the most powerful, it wasn’t the most photogenic, but it was our first supercell and know one else was on it…