On the evening of May 19, 2019, I sat on Marcus’s doorstep in Amarillo, Texas, staring at my iPad and trying to wrap my brain around what I was seeing. It was incredible; there were already whispers of a “doomsday scenario” outbreak of strong to violent tornadoes across Texas and Oklahoma; I was waiting on the next SPC discussion to come out to see the updated version of what they thought about the situation. Things were already looking threatening; when we dropped Lauren off at her hotel room, there was a DOW parked in the parking lot. Not a great sign.
I couldn’t sleep. I was incredibly anxious; I called my husband to tell him about what we were looking at for the next day, and he was a bit less than thrilled. Finally, at 12:56 am on the morning of May 20, the SPC upgraded their strongly worded moderate risk to a rare high risk- super rare, really- it was among the highest of high risks ever issued. They were NOT fucking around this morning; using language they very, very seldomly use, they expressed tremendous concern about the well-being of every single living thing in the paths of these storms.
I finally was able to slip into a very uneasy sleep. I dreamt of violent tornadoes, of shattering glass, of splintering homes. It was not a restful night.
All of us woke quite early in the morning, despite our lack of sleep. We took another look at the SPC’s discussions, and just shook our heads. 45% hatched. Unbelievable. We went to breakfast at a local Amarillo joint called “Ye Olde Pancake Station”, where we sullenly ate and quietly made plans for our initial target area. There was no joy today; there was only apprehension.
At 11:24 am, the SPC announced that it was highly likely (95%) that they would be issuing a PDS (Particularly Dangerous Situation) tornado watch within the next two hours.
We stopped at a gas station outside of Clarendon, Texas, and joined a small gathering of other chasers. Nobody was stoked about this; every one of us clearly recognized the severity of this situation, and small talk was sparse. At 12:35, the PDS tornado watch was finally issued by the SPC.
One by one, chasers began filing out, off to their starting points for the day. At 2:25pm, the NWS issued its first tornado warning of the day for both Roaring Springs and Paducah; two young cells had barely fired up, and they were spinning furiously.
It was gonna be a long day.
It was decided that the Paducah storm looked slightly better than the Roaring Springs one, so we headed in that direction. Our timing was impeccable; as we arrived, the storms were both re-warned, and a narrow, snakelike funnel cloud began creeping down from the storm in front of us.
Tiny but fierce, the little funnel twisted upon the landscape. We watched it for a while, and when it finally roped out and died, we went on our way to the next good-looking storm over Estelline, Texas. By this time, most chasers had dismissed Texas as a lost cause and left for Oklahoma, where the day’s most powerful tornado would occur. That beast, despite its wind speeds of around 212 miles per hour, was eventually rated an EF2. The town of Mangum narrowly escaped chaos that day, and that tornado was a small taste of what would have been.
As we approached Estelline, the sky changed from deep blue-gray to greenish, and sirens began to scream. Round two, here we come.
….except there was no round two.
Close to six pm, I began to feel an odd sense of relief. It didn’t happen. The highest high-risk day to end all high-risk days did not pan out how it was expected to, and I was perfectly okay with this. We got a tornado. That’s all we needed. Plus, it was a small tornado that did no damage and stayed out over an open field, beautiful and transparent. We were relieved. It was enough for us. The situation could have unfolded significantly worse than it did, but the residents of the central great plains were spared for now.
My relief was short-lived, however, when at 6:32 PM, the NWS issued a PDS tornado warning for a large and extremely dangerous tornado on the ground in the nearby town of Spur.
My gut froze solid and my blood ran cold; just that name was enough to evoke significant anxiety. On March 28, 2017, as many of you know, my close friend, confidante and chase companion Corbin Jaeger had died needlessly in Spur at the hands of a reckless driver. Of the hundreds and hundreds of towns all over Texas, this storm had to pick that one. I had no desire to go there, and no desire to even risk passing through the rural intersection in which the wreck happened. Marcus promised me he knew where that intersection was, and that he would make absolutely sure that we didn’t get anywhere near it. Even still, we were very nearby, and the road signs all looked just like the ones from the livestream feed in the vehicle of the men who killed Corbin that day. They were the same, just with different numbers.
I was uneasy.
We decided to inch southwest, mile by mile, and see if we could at least catch a glimpse of it. We had no such luck; it was entirely wrapped in rain; however, we were close to it and we knew it. An audible roar filled the air and power flashes were visible through the rain. Slivers of the beast’s rear inflow jet were also somewhat visible; I was content to stay in place. There was no need to go further into Spur. Relief washed over me as the tornado passed back into the depths of the rain to die.
We had no time to calm down. Another significant circulation had popped up outside the town of Roby, and we were immediately en route. This was the third tornado warning that this single cell had spat out.
We reached Roby, where tornado sirens were screaming, and the roads were as still as death. Lightning flashes constantly illuminated the sky and we kept a watchful eye out for any interesting hints as to where the circulation was in relation to our heads. We followed it to about midway to Hamlin before abandoning it. A half-hour after the circulation passed to the northeast, a second circulation began just to our west. We high-tailed it back to Roby.
We sat outside of Roby, those sirens still piercing the night, those streets still quiet in the same way a mausoleum is. Once more, nothing came of it, and that was alright. Today had been alright; no, the high risk didn’t verify in the way we expected it to (thank God), but it was still an active day and added my first high-risk notch to my belt. Passing through Roby once more after the threat had passed, the sirens were still on. We wondered why they hadn’t been shut off yet. Marcus spotted a police cruiser sitting in a bank parking lot and said, “Hey, we’re storm chasers. The danger has passed. The sirens don’t need to be on anymore,” to which the indifferent officer replied “Yeah, we’ll get to that at some point.”
I don’t know what happened from that point on, because we headed to Snyder for some well-earned rest. Some say that Roby never did figure out how to shut those sirens off, and that they’re still going to this day.
We were alive. Everyone was alive to see tomorrow. There had been no major destruction, injuries or death today. To say it was a relief is an understatement of the highest order.
The following day, we made our way back up to Oklahoma City, where we had an impromptu barbecue with Bart, Debs and a chaser by the name of Bill Oosterbaan, with whom I had a lively discussion about the band The Doors. Many jokes were made at the expense of the day before and all its hype; though the high risk and the hype was absolutely justified, that didn’t prevent us from having some fun with it.
So, what had happened? Why didn’t it pan out to be the disaster we were anticipating? There were a few things at play that day that dampened the chances of extremes. First, the cap was a bit stronger than we’d anticipated, and a layer of dry air moved in from the west just before the worst of the day had been expected. Updrafts were thin, and it was incredibly hazy over the entire region likely due to raging wildfires down in Mexico. It’s also entirely possible that aerosol particles from the smoke did the task of possibly reflecting or absorbing daytime heat that otherwise would have directly contributed to convection later in the afternoon. Early-morning rain and clouds also did their part to inhibit surface heating.
Even still, I couldn’t have been more pleased about a day in which nothing happened as expected. What was expected was bad; what happened was just an average chase day (except for those poor souls in Roby. RIP their eardrums). This does cause me concern for one major reason, though: the public is finicky and skeptical. This event was (rightfully) played up and hyped as early as a few days before; schools in the high-risk area closed in a first-ever “tornado day”, reflecting on the Moore tragedy of 2013 in which seven schoolchildren were killed when a wall collapsed on them while seeking shelter from the storm. This time, the hype didn’t work out, and all this does is make people say “See, the LAST time they said we were all in big trouble from the storms, nothing happened, so we’re fine”. This may lead to deaths in the future due to people ignoring watches and warnings; for now, though, everyone was fine, and we went to sleep the night of the 21st still completely relieved that it hadn’t quite panned out.
Overall, there were 38 tornado reports, including one in- wait for it- Arizona (DAMN IT). And yes, a small tornado had touched down in northern Arizona just before things ramped up in the plains. Oh well. All’s well that ends well, I guess.