As I mentioned in the last two blog posts, this event carried a high risk of tornadoes - even strong ones - with severe wind and hail probable. With this in mind, many meteorology students at Mississippi State thought of firing up their cars and smart phones and heading out to observe and document this force of nature. My girlfriend and broadcast meteorology undergraduate student Damaris Jaime and I planned on doing some storm chasing as well. Also, friend and storm chaser Jim Edds was in Starkville to position himself for chasing these storms. Damaris and I randomly ran into Jim at a McDonalds in eastern Starkville. Jim was watching the radar and chatting on the phone with friend and storm chaser Jeff Gammons, who was at his home in south Florida monitoring the weather for Jim. Jim offered us to follow him in his chase and we left Starkville. Since Jim and I are both licensed ham radio operators, we mostly communicated on the 2-meter band with our handheld radios.
Jim waiting for things to fire up.
We initially set out for west of Starkville, but Jeff then suggested we moved south for a supercell near Philadelphia, Miss. After being separated for a bit, we caught up with each other south of Macon, Miss. and attempted to position ourselves for this storm that was on its way to the area. After some position changing (see video below), we managed to find the rotating storm and got video and photos of it.
We got word of a cell to the southwest of us that was on the way to Scooba, Miss. Sound familiar? We moved south and positioned ourselves at a gas station and faced our cars west to wait for the storm. We got a little rain, pea-sized hail and some really close lightning strikes before we saw rotation and a wall cloud.
Damaris noticed the rotation first. Jim then moved his car to the overhang at the gas station while we stayed put. Damaris shot some of the video as it moved from our 12 to 3 o'clock. Then I grabbed the camera and got what appeared to be a developing tornado roughly 600 feet to my north. Below is the video of the developing tornado.
After seeing that, we then proceeded westbound on State Road 16 to try to catch up with the storm. In the process of doing so, we witnessed three storm chase vehicles - one being a tour van. When we had clearing, we saw what looked like a tornado on the ground probably a couple of miles to our north. We only had a couple of seconds of video of it until we lost it in the trees and the rain. Jim said there was a north-south road we could take to catch up with it. We finally stopped in Geiger, Ala. - a town that was already hit by a tornado on April 15. A lot of the damage from that tornado remained. It was sad to think that this town could get hit again by another one. Luckily, it turned out not to be the case as nothing developed from that supercell that continued to move towards the northeast.
As we were leaving Geiger, we witnessed The Dominator, a vehicle designed for storm chasing in part by Reed Timmer, with the Discovery Channel support crew behind them. Of course, I incorrectly called it the TIV on the video. Sorry, Reed.
We then stopped on a long bridge (State Road 39) over a river near Gainesville, Ala. We could see the tornado far in the distance that was quickly becoming wrapped in rain. I was losing contrast, so I grabbed whatever photos I could while Damaris grabbed video. Below is the tornado with the last bit of video.
We then proceeded to follow Jim so we could get to I-20 and chase this supercell as it moved towards Tuscaloosa. Along the way, Jim went really far ahead of us and we lost communication via the ham radio. We ended up taking a wrong turn, getting lost temporarily, and winding up near I-20. By time we were able to look at the radar - thanks, AT&T for your crappy cellular service - the cell was 30 miles away. Because of the slow Internet speed, I was only able to pull up storm relative velocity on RadarScope. The radar scan showed rotation that really stood out. It looked like a bad storm. Still, we knew there was no way we could catch up with it and decided to call it a day. After running into a road block (tree on the middle of State Road 14), we went back on I-20 southbound to State Road 28, then took State Road 17 northbound (which paralleled the AL/MS state line) to try to get back home. Along the way, we saw a cool sunset which was a nice way to end a crazy chase day.
At this point, we did not know about the chaos that occurred in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. We started getting phone calls regarding a massive power outage in the Golden Triangle area that most said could last days. We later found out a substation was taken out by a tornado to the north of Starkville that helped supply power to at least three counties.
Expecting basic services to be out in Starkville, Damaris and I stopped for food and gas in Macon. That's when I was able to check my Twitter feed and find out about the massive devastation that took place in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. I was blown away from the photos I saw on Twitter. It looked really bad. Jim called me and said he missed the tornado, but witnessed a lot of damage. He grabbed some aftermath footage and interviewed a UPS driver who was caught in the mess (video of damage and interview with UPS driver).
It was eerie driving through Starkville with no street lights or power at homes and businesses. The Piggly Wiggly grocery store was the only place on the way back to Damaris' apartment that had backup power, and the store was packed with people.
I kept checking my Twitter feed on the phone during the night and continued to get a glimpse of what really happened. It was depressing to see all of the destruction and the ever increasing death count.
Three days later, I am amazed at the storms Damaris and I witnessed but saddened at the devastation that took place in parts of Mississippi and Alabama. This severe weather event exceeded what I expected. So far, at least 350 are dead across the south - 249 dead just in Alabama - according to Reuters. Damage from this outbreak could be between $2 billion and $5 billion. This could be the second deadliest outbreak in US history, topping the 1974 Super Outbreak.
For my second storm chase ever in Dixie Alley, I was able to see tornadoes and the damage they could cause to life and property. As a meteorology student, I find these storm fascinating but deadly. Events like this keep me motivated to continue studying this field and one day be able to effectively issue life saving warnings to the public.
My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by this outbreak.
Below is an image of the cell we chased from Scooba, Miss. to north of Gainesville, Ala. It turns out this supercell kept firing up tornadoes all the way to North Carolina. Insane. Thanks, David Cox for sharing this with me.