Buffy, Puffy and the Tornado

17 June 2015

We woke in our old classic haunt of Sidney, Nebraska Walmart this morning. Soon after waking we both embarked on our own separate missions. Timbo sorted us out with another round of data and I went clothes shopping. Now kitted out with 2 new pairs of shorts, a new top, sunglasses and 10GB of data we headed back into Wyoming for today’s slight risk. From Cheyenne, which was only on the edge of the risk zone, we were anticipating having to probably drive a bit north. On our way, SPC decided to shift the entire risk area northeast which probably made where we woke a better staring point, but oh well, we stopped at a gassy, grabbed a coffee, looked at the models to try to work out why this was the case, decided we could still suitably head north from here, grabbed another drink and headed up the I25.

The afternoon passed with very little activity on the storm front but we continued catching up on blog writing and spotting cool coloured horses and bad-hair-day-deer. Storms were still expected for our area but the growing cirrus cloud covering was not inspiring much hope. Anticipating the inflated motel prices due to high season in The Rockies, we booked a motel online that was a little further north in Spearfish, South Dakota.

But all was not lost. There was a storm near Rapid City which wasn’t much deviation off route and would take us through the Custer National Park which is so beautiful and looks just like Bedrock where the Flintstones live.

There are so many amazing campgrounds here and hikes and forests and horses and rivers and cool picnic spots and we vowed to return later in the trip if there was no weather to chase. However, for the moment we did have a storm and he was looming above us in all his puffy white glory with our paths due to cross in 10 minutes time.

However, on turning the corner expecting more puffy, I was somewhat surprised that there was a buffy! A fully grown big solemn but endearing faced Buffalo, just standing there eating mud! We didn’t have long but I stopped to say hello and get a photo.

Buf Side

Buf Tongue

We got to the storm and managed to find a few places in amongst the undulating hills to get a few pics but unfortunately he had fired off the higher terrain of the Black Hills and couldn’t hold it together for long after leaving this area.

Entire Storm

Storm On Right

Storm Shadow

We tracked with him for 20 minutes but then decided to head up to the motel we booked which was by now about 1 hour 22 minutes away. I know this because I guessed the time estimated by the annoying streets and trips sat nav bitch right on the nose. (We only refer to her as a bitch because she just can’t ever get anything right when we really need her to.)

Now, this is where it all started to get a little interesting. Some storms further north had congealed into a line and were heading straight for our motel. Great we thought, if we time it right we could get there by 9pm, just before the storms and have some pretty epic stormy weather pass over us whilst relaxing in the motel with a beer. It was tight but we got there about 10 minutes before the line of storms. The lightning was epic as we approached the town of Spearfish. We checked in, grabbed a beer and were just about to head out of the building to watch the storm approach when suddenly the leading part of the line became tornado warned. A minute or so later the sirens started going in the town. We didn’t know what to do initially. First of all we hadn’t expected this at all as it is usually the case that when the storms line out in this way they lose their tornadic potential but on closer inspection of the radar there was clearly some epic rotation in the leading cell of this line and we were near enough in the direct line of its forecast path. We decided to head downstairs with the laptop so we could keep the radar going together the car keys should we need to make a quick exit out of town. (Image below shows us as the little green dot in Spearfish, the storm with red being the most intense part, and the purple polygon marking the tornado warned area.)

Tornado Polygon

We stood outside on the motel decking. At this point there was little in the way of rain or wind. But what we did experience was the most frequent and closest lightning I’ve ever experienced. It was even closer than that time in the Canyon Walmart carpark which had totally freaked me. This lightning was in another league and it reminded me of being a kid hiding under the kitchen table whenever we had a bad storm at home – times when the flash and crack hit you simultaneously and you know the storm is right above and you feel so helpless.

At one point, you could even hear the hiss of the contact made between the strike and it’s termination point before the crack of the thunder tore and shook all around whilst lightning up the entire area with a massive flash, just long enough to see the foreboding updraft enveloping the area like a tidal wave of darkness looming up above and stretching out to way in front of you. I ran inside to check if this motel had a basement which it did, so we decided to stick it out here rather than feel the need to escape in the car which may have been preferable had there been no basement, given the amount of rotation that was showing up on radar and that was visible in the sky.

Some guy walked passed us asking where ‘it’ was. I guess he had heard the warnings and therefore I assumed by ‘it’ he meant the tornado. ‘There!’ I shouted pointing in the direction of the looming storm hysterical with excitement and utter bewilderment. He kind of laughed and just continued to walk in with his box of fried chicken!

Then there was another crack and the lights went out. This is when the hysteria really kicked in and I was hit with what was really happening. The storm and tornado warning had most people out of their rooms and quite a few people had congregated in the lobby area of the motel, muddling around nervously in the vicinity of the stairs down to the basement. Now though, in the pitch black it had started to turn into a desperate kind of blind panic to try to find a flight of stairs in the dark in an area that nobody was particularly familiar with. It was an uneasy situation where everyone was just a little bit too quiet, trying not to lose it with just the noise of the storm outside.

Then the lights came back on and there was a chorus of relief from people, people whose faces were bearing the looks of such vulnerability, including my own I’m sure. Anyway, the assurance of the lights coming on had people who were initially venturing down towards the basement turn around in a kind of dangerous curiosity to watch out the windows in an attempt to get a glimpse of what might be happening, including, embarrassingly enough to say, myself too, until the words of some women next to me chimed in with ‘don’t stand near the windows’. I totally knew that, but in the chaos that was ensuing, I failed to realise any of the safety measures I should know all too well.

We all milled around for a while until the hail passed and slowly turned to rain before heading back to our room after the remnants of any circulation was well to our south. So, wow, out first proper scary kind of unwanted tornado experience and I have to say it had left me with a lot to think about. Looking back over the radar it looks fairly probable that a tornado did pass about 1 mile to our south but the reports of the potential path it took probably won’t be assessed until later by local officials. So it turns out we were quite lucky but even so, it seems really strange to have the whole experience surmised  in a little red blob on a map having marked where a tornado was spotted. Somehow that doesn’t seem representative enough of all the heightened feelings of fear and adrenaline felt by me and all the other people that I was with earlier. A crazy spectacle of human nature and one where you really see the characters of different people who suddenly have no social barriers and it becomes humans versus nature, with the ball very much in Mother Nature’s court.

I’ve always tried hard to empathise with people who suffer this weather on their doorstep and we really do meet quite a lot of local people who find this type of weather as awe-inspiring as we do, but I know that from today onwards those little red blobs and purple tornado warning polygons will perhaps conjure up a slightly deeper, darker image to that of previous.

You can then imagine the conversation that later ensued over a plate of beans and a few beers. And perhaps one more beer than normal, because, hey, we’re alive!   

SPC Day 1 Weather Outlook as at 06:00UTC (01:00 Central Time the night before)

SPC 01:00UTC day 1 forecast for Wed June 2015

SPC Day 1 Weather Reports for the day.

SPC storm reports for Wed June 2015

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