May 6, 2011

Running from an EF-5: Part One

Filed under: Severe — Erin @ 4:24 pm

Note: This is something a little bit different from the usual fare for this blog. Nothing particularly notable is occurring in the South except for the river flooding, and at this point that is a matter of concern for the engineers and hydrologists more than meteorologists. (I could rant about the Corps of Engineers, but that would be better suited for my other blog.) Since this is the case, and since I have felt that I needed to write about my experience on the tornado outbreak of April 27, I’m going to do that. This will be a three-part piece about my experience involving the EF-5 tornado that went through Neshoba, Winston, Kemper, and Noxubee Counties that day. The first part does not even occur on the 27th; it is from a week earlier. I’ve come to the conclusion, though, that it is part of the same story and an important factor in why I chose what I did that dark day.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011. I sit parked on the side of Highway 45, somewhat north of Crawford, in a line of other vehicles whose drivers have made the same decision.  We are all being pelted by hail that I estimate is up to an inch in diameter, mixed in with some rain.  No one dares to drive any farther.  This is, I believe, the third time that hail in this storm has forced me to pull off the road in my drive south to Macon from Starkville that afternoon.  I’ve almost lost count, and that’s not even counting the other storm that produced some hail before I even left Starkville.

I may be in the minority these days in having a cell phone that does not have Internet capability.  Ordinarily that is not a problem for me, but right at this particular moment, I find myself really wishing that I had a radar picture in front of me.  I call my sister and ask her to pull up a radar image on the Internet.  I have some urgent questions for her.

I obviously don’t want the car to be damaged by the hail, but what is currently happening to me is not my primary fear.  See, I have been at Mississippi State University as a graduate student in meteorology, I am well aware that the storm I am under is a supercell thunderstorm, and most likely, I am in what is called the “core” of the storm—the area of the heaviest precipitation.  Supercell thunderstorms are the ones that are most likely to produce tornadoes, and if there is a tornado, the core of the storm is located to the northeast of it.  And the storm is moving northeast.

In this particular situation, I could easily be in far more danger after the hail ends, and that is what I want my sister to tell me about.  I give her my approximate location.  “I think you’re in the hook,” she says uneasily.  (A hook echo on radar is an indication of strong rotation and possibly a tornado.)  My nerves tense at this, but if she can see a hook, it means that there is a slot of low to no precipitation, which I am most definitely not in.  “No, I’m not in the hook,” I say.  “I’m in the core.  I’m getting hammered.  But you are saying there is a hook with this storm?  Is there a tornado warning?”  It turns out that there is, and it is radar- rather than sighting-based.  That’s no surprise, and it certainly doesn’t mean that there isn’t a tornado.  The perils of high-precipitation supercells strike again.  I ask some more questions.  It seems that I am on the north edge of the core, and that based on the motion of the storm, I would be best off staying put until the whole thing is east of me.  The hook should pass south of me if I do that.  I just want to get out of this.  I’m not opposed at all to storm chasing, but it’s really not something I’m inclined to do without another person in the car or live radar available.

Once I am on the road again, I get a glimpse of the wall cloud off to my east with the aid of the nearly constant cloud-top positive lightning flashes that the storm would put out as it intensified.  I recall from my thesis reading that intensifying supercells often do produce a great deal of positive lightning.  This particular supercell would go on to produce larger hail and threaten Columbus.  I take several hours to come down from the adrenaline rush.  One week later, I would be very glad I had this experience.

Part Two of this will be about what happened to me personally on April 27. Part Three will be the aftermath of that event.

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