May 17th, 2019, McCook, NE Tornadic Supercell

A great chase day rewarded by 2 tornadoes (some saw 3) and some adrenaline pumping close encounters! We started the day in North Platte with a general target northeast of the triple point near McCook, NE, with the intent to also keep an eye on storms forming further west along the Nebraska / Colorado border, or potentially needing to drop even further south into Kansas. We initially headed south on Rt. 83 down to McCook, but as storms were already firing west of us, we almost immediately turned around and headed back up to Wellfleet, west on Rt. 20 to Wallace, and then south on Rt. 25. We then stopped about 10 miles south of Wallace to consider our options: there were robust storms to the west coming off the Cheyenne Ridge, but we were concerned they would be high based. Meanwhile to our south there was a storm coming up from Goodland, KS struggling in bad air, but quickly moving into a far better environment. We ultimately decided to target that storm and headed south.

We proceeded down through Hayes Center, then east on Rt. 6 and south at Culbertson onto Rt. 17. As we closed on the Kansas border, the rock-hard eastern wall of the updraft of our rapidly intensifying storm became visible and we knew we’d made the correct choice of storms. We ended up stopping about 2.5 miles from the Kansas border just north of Rt. 704 and could see scud rising into the base of our storm, but as yet it was still fairly disorganized. We stayed with the storm moving back up Rt. 17 and turning off on Rt. 710 to stop and observe again. At this point the storm had a much more defined wall cloud and produced two decent funnels and showed intensifying rotation as the storm got close to us. The storm began to get the look that it could tornado at any time, but soon we were forced to move or risk being cut off by the hail core packing 2-3” hail, so we scooted north to stay ahead. We headed back up 17 and then east on Rt. 713 which unfortunately was dirt, watching behind us as the wall cloud showed more and more rotation. With the storm moving quickly northeast, we blasted east on the dirt road and then north on road 384 and thankfully back onto the pavement into McCook.

As we got to McCook, the tornado sirens were blaring and we decided to head north for a mile or two on Rt. 83 out of town to get a look before heading east. As soon as we turned north, we spotted a large dirt plume, RFD, and then north of that another… with a large funnel extending downward. Tornado! We quickly turned into a nice, empty parking lot near Heritage Hills Golf Course with a clear view to the west and observed the large tilted “Wizard of Oz” tornado churning up dirt about 3 miles west of town. The big white tornado moved northward with a large, dirty debris fan for several minutes, then roped out with a large kink and elongated funnel that stayed in one spot churning as the funnel stretched more and more northward before finally dissipating. We knew the storm was not done yet but now had some catching up to do so we beat feet east!

We now had considerable maneuvering to do in the very poor road network of southwest Nebraska and it would be nearly an hour before we were back in position. We blasted east on Rt. 6 almost all the way to Cambridge, temporarily losing our view of the wall cloud, then turned north on the paved Rt. 73A. We eventually intersected with Rt. 18 to head east…. Only to find that it was not paved!! This slowed our progress dramatically. We slugged our way east about 3.5 miles before turning north onto another dirt road heading towards Eustis. Around this time as we were about 5.5 miles SW of town, we were seeing more tornado reports and heard word of a dusty cone tornado in progress. Our view to the west, when we could see going up and down through little ravines, was of the old meso deteriorating and the new one with a large amount of dirt flying but no clear view of the tornado if it was still there (some guests said they could see it, and later I did see a picture one had taken that made it pretty clear. I did not). Continuing onwards, we descended into a gully, only to hear of another tornado in progress! We quickly turned up a side road and saw an elephant trunk tornado in the distance in the process of roping out for tornado #2 of the day! It only persisted for a minute or two then we were back to our trek in the dirt.

We finally made it to Eustis and back on pavement and quickly blasted west right towards the meso and met it just as it crossed Rt. 23 near Farnam. The wall cloud was spinning like crazy and it appeared that the storm might drop a tornado right in front of it but it never quite focused. We waited until the meso started to fade from view and then blasted east again to keep up. Later, there were several tornado reports from Farnam as the storm must have tornadoed right after it got out of our sight.

We passed through Eustis again and north on Rt. 21 with the wall cloud just to our west churning away. About 15 minutes past as we blasted up towards Cozad, racing the hook echo to town to prevent getting cut off. As we closed on the Interstate and a safe path east, the mesocyclone was quickly closing on our position and soon was almost right over us. In fact, from van 2 I was yelling over the radio that a satellite area of rotation appeared to literally be right over the lead van. The storm just beat us to the highway and soon we were punching the hook from the south with a big block wall cloud just to our northwest and crazy rising motion all around out. As we got to I-80 and started heading east, we were blasted by strong RFD winds that threatened to blow the van right off the left side of the highway with the wall cloud churning seemingly right outside the driver’s side window!

After that adrenaline moment, we headed east down I-80 (and later, there were more tornado reports in Cozad where we’d just had the close encounter) and got off again at road 428, blasting north right back at the mesocyclone we’d just left. We caught up again about 5 miles north of the highway and were once again in the bear’s cage right under the meso, with a huge plume of RFD dirt rising almost surreally to our east, and the wall cloud immediately to our northwest. Suddenly a huge gustnado blew up right to the left of the vans, immediately causing several guests to scream “Tornado!!” I could see the rotating plume of dirt, but not the cloud base, so I could not confirm myself but others could see that there was no connection to cloud base nor was there a funnel, so it was confirmed as a gustnado, not tornado. Still, some anxious, exciting moments! Ultimately, after heading east on road 761 to continue stair-stepping, we stopped the chase about 10 miles from the highway as the mesocyclone was getting away from us and there was no way to keep up with the road network north of the highway. Passing through Lexington back onto the highway, we were less than an hour from our hotel in Kearney and got there early enough to celebrate with a good meal and a beer at Old Chicago.

A really fun chase day! Two tornadoes, maybe 3, and a couple of very up-close moments under the mesocyclone. A pretty solid chase considering the road network. With better roads, I’m certain we could have gotten 4 or 5 tornadoes from the storm. click on the link below for more on the damage path and analysis of the McCook tornado.

Miles for the day were 389.2


SPC Convective Outlook                   SPC Tornado Prob.                         NOAA Storm Report                     McCook Tornado Damage Path and Analysis


Finally the day we'd been waiting for! Enhanced risk along the southwestern Nebraska border. Here, we're stopped south of Culbertson waiting for the dominant storm to develop. The anvil of our target storm streaming in from south of the Kansas border. Maneuvering to the south and east to meet the storm and get around the front flank core. Now around the precipitation with a clear view of the updraft and low-hanging wall cloud.
As the wall cloud closed to our position, it showed clear signs of rotation but was still a bit disorganized. More solid wall cloud showing distinct rotation. Funnel cloud! The funnel dissipated but the wall cloud was wrapping up significantly as it closed on our position.
We raced the storm to McCook. Here RFD is wrapping about the mesocyclone to our west. Turning north to parallel the storm. Tornado to our northwest! The funnel becomes more visible as we close in. 
Tornado with debris field about 3 miles west of town.  We ended up finding a parking lot with a great view of the tornado to our west. Several more views in the next few shots.    Wider view. 
      Tornado roping out. 
Last gasp as debris flies everywhere.  Now blasting north near Cambridge, NE, wall cloud under a new mesocyclone. There may have been a tornado in progress on the occluding meso to the northwest (right of the picture) at this time.  Ground dragging wall cloud off to our west as we struggle along the unpaved roads.  We heard reports of a tornado to our west as we struggled through a valley. As we emerged we were able to see a tornado roping out to our west. 
Contrast enhanced view. This was likely the Farnam tornado that a lot of people captured on video.  West of Eustis we close in on a rapidly spinning wall cloud crossing the road right in front of us.  Funnel crosses the road in front of us but never touched down.  After a bend in the road we pull right up along side the wall cloud. 
Cut off by the wall cloud, we raced back to Eustis and north, trying to beat the wall cloud to Cozad. Lots of debris falling here, we may have missed another tornado.  Wall cloud as we race north on Rt. 21 to catch it.  It was going to be close!  After crossing right under the meso as we reached I-80, we blasted north in the Bear's Cage with wild motion to our west and RFD blasting to the east. 
Crazy rising motion to our east as the RFD plows the dirt upwards.       

All pictures (C) Richard Hamel 2020.

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