The Panhandle / White Deer, Texas Tornado

May 29, 2001


This day began in Liberal, Kansas.   The day before, Tim Marshall, Carson Eads and I had chased the same storms in southeastern Colorado, just east of Trinidad.   A tire on my van had refused to stay inflated and also refused to be repaired.   All of the tires on my van had a moderate amount of wear, so I decided to buy a new set at the local Walmart before heading to the Amarillo area.   You know it wouldn't be good to have a flat tire while chasing.

Earlier, Tim had connected his laptop to the Internet.  We reviewed current weather conditions and computer forecast models to decide where to chase during the afternoon.  The models pointed strongly to the area along and  north of I-40 from Amarillo to the Oklahoma / Texas border.   The models also suggested that storms would fire near Amarillo and move east or east-northeastward during the afternoon and early evening.

After getting the tires replaced, I headed southwest toward Amarillo.   Morning storms, remnants of yesterday's activity, were visible east of Miami (pronounced Miama by the locals) moving into western Oklahoma.   These storms had left an outflow boundary from the Oklahoma border west-southwestward through Pampa to near Amarillo.   The sky was clear north of the boundary, with strong east-northeast winds.  The sky south of the boundary was littered by puffy cumulus clouds with warm moist southeasterly winds.  A line of turbulent and highly sheared towering cumulus marked the boundary.    As the towers repeatedly developed along the boundary, and then dissipated, it was evident that the winds aloft were ripping them apart.  Several horse-shoe shaped vortices were noted in the dissipating towers.   See: http://www.k5kj.net/hshoe.htm   An upper level jetstream speed maximum was forecast to flow over the area during the afternoon and evening.  The stage was set!

While passing through Pampa, other towering cumulus could be seen forming along a north-south oriented dryline located west of Amarillo.   Carson and Tim were near the Borger area watching these.   One or two developed into short lived high based storms which raced off to the northeast and dissipated.  A new anvil could be seen approaching from the southwestern horizon. 

Al Moller started his day in Amarillo and had been in contact with the VORTEX chase group.  They had forecast optimum storm conditions southwest of Amarillo and were intercepting the newly formed storm that was producing the anvil I could see in the distance.   Al's observations of the storm suggested that it might become tornadic. 

However, it appeared to me that there was a triple point just west of Amarillo where the outflow boundary that I mentioned earlier intersected the dryline.  These intersections are called triple points because three different air masses intersect there.   In this case, the warm moist air south of the outflow boundary, the cooler moist air north of the outflow boundary and the warm dry air west of the dryline.  When other conditions are right, such as upper level support (i.e., jet stream shear),  supercell thunderstorms often form near or just northeast of these triple points.  Surface low pressure systems also tend to form at or nearby the intersection.  Since the skies were sunny north of the boundary, the rain cooled air located there was being modified and warmed quickly by the bright Panhandle sun, which was another factor that could lead to a powerful storm.

The storm that Al and VORTEX had intercepted exhibited explosive development.  As a result, I was almost drawn away from my original target.  Luckily, before I made a decision to head southwest, new hard towers began to develop along the dryline just west of Amarillo.  The chase was on!  Now all I had to do was select the right storm.

A series of storms developed just north of Amarillo over the Canadian River Valley.  Several mesocyclones and accompanying wall clouds developed at a "hot spot" located a few miles west of highway 287, near the TV station towers.   One powerful supercell broke away from the initiation area and moved eastward.   The wall cloud associated with this supercell exhibited an occlusion during its first cycle.  This storm produced multiple mesocyclones, occlusions and tornadoes.

During this chase, I was in almost constant contact with the Amarillo National Weather Service via ham radio on 146.940 and later 146.900 MHz repeaters.   Other SKYWARN spotters reported via the primary net frequency of 444.1 MHz. 

Fortunately, no people were injured by this tornado.  However, an unknown number of livestock were killed.   Several homes and automobiles were damaged or destroyed.

The warning provided by the NWS resulted in people who were in the path of this tornado taking action, possibly saving their lives or at least preventing serious injury.  One family heard the warning, saw the large tornado approaching and elected to drive out of the path of the tornado.  Their home was removed from its foundation and the remains deposited on nearby railroad tracks, reportedly leaving only the bathroom toilet behind. 

See the NWS Storm Damage Report at: http://weather.ou.edu/~mjames/chase/20010529survey.html

Other chaser's perspective:

http://australiasevereweather.com/storm_news/2001/docs/200105-04.htm

http://home.netcom.com/~bjalas/storm_chase/2001/may_29.htm

http://www.weatherpictures.nl/290501.html

You can click on any image below for a larger version.


Looking north-northwest from near the Amarillo National Weather Service Office.  Note that there are two flanking lines.
01052926.jpg (19651 bytes) Looking northwest

Looking south-southwest at a lowered updraft base of a storm that developed west of Amarillo, moved across western Amarillo and then merged with the main storm complex (pictured above)  just northeast of Amarillo.
Ever wonder what a funnel looks like when it's forming directly overhead?  Wonder no more!  This is an image of a swirl in the clouds and a funnel looking straight up!  This was shot from the side of highway 136, northeast of Amarillo.
Looking northeast at another funnel which passed directly over highway 136.  This and other funnels developed along the southern edge of a mesocyclone.   Funnels would intensify on the southwestern side of the mesocyclones circulation, reach a maximum intensity on the southern side and then dissipate on the eastern side.
Looking north at a tornado which was produced by the meso pictured above.   This tornado was brief.  The parent mesocyclone completely occluded and was left behind by the storm complex.
01052927.jpg (22827 bytes) Looking west northwest
AMArad01052901.jpg (143054 bytes)  
Looking west-northwest at another mesocyclone as it spins over the prairie northeast of Amarillo.  I did not see a tornado from this one, but it was fairly distant and there could have been brief spin-ups underneath it.  The funnel shaped lowering on the left side of the meso was spinning at a fairly high rate.  This mesocyclone was also shed by the storm complex, as another mesocyclone formed at the nose of the RFD intrusion and became dominant.
01052928.jpg (25409 bytes) Looking west
01052931.jpg (18944 bytes) Looking northeast
From near the same location as the previous image, looking northeast at a new mesocyclone.   This mesocyclone would be the one to produce a long lived, large tornado.
Looking north-northeast from highway 207, two to three miles north of the town of Panhandle, TX.  A funnel develops within a concavity within the circulation of the mesocyclone.
01052929.jpg (25108 bytes) Looking north
Looking NNE from highway 207.  Visually, I could see debris underneath this funnel.  A tornado was on the ground!  A multiple vortex tornado had developed as the tornadic circulation went through a consolidation phase.  Contrast was becoming poor.  I turned south and drove through town to reach highway 60, which runs northeast from Panhandle toward White Deer.
Looking NNE at a fully developed tornado.  During the time after I had turned my back on the multiple vortex and driven through town, the tornado had consolidated into a large apparently, single vortex tornado.  The tornado appears white because it was being illuminated by indirect sunlight, but the heavy rain and hail behind it was not.
Looking NNE as I drove down highway 60.  The tornado was moving almost due east, perhaps slightly south of east.  The tornado and I were on a "collision course" at this time.
01052925.jpg (15877 bytes) Wide angle view of the tornado and storm using a 17 mm lens. (from slide)
Looking north down a farm road.
Looking north
01052930.jpg (31677 bytes) Looking north
01052932.jpg (26298 bytes) Looking north
Looking almost due north at the tornado.  I was at the western end of a highly occluded flank.
Looking NNE again.   The rain drops in this image were on the camera lens.  I held the camera out the drivers side window to get a better shot.  However, wind driven rain was blowing directly toward my position from the north.  
Looking ENE - I was forced to slow down to avoid driving into the tornado.  The tornado had grown considerably in size.  A collar cloud had lowered around the tornado, partially obscuring it from view.
Looking ENE at a wedge tornado.  The tornado was more than 1/4 mile wide at this point.  It was approaching a grain silo which is located about half way between Panhandle and White Deer.
Looking ENE - The tornado begins crossing highway 60.  When this image was shot, the tornado was lifting a house and setting it on the railroad tracks that run parallel and just to the left of this divided four lane highway.  The tornado lofted several cars from a parking lot adjacent to the grain silo and threw them over 100 yards across the highway into a field.
Looking ENE - This was my closest approach to the tornado,  I was between 1/2 and 3/4s of a mile from the tornado.  Rain and hail was being wrapped around the tornado and being driven by 60+ mph winds.
Looking ENE - The tornado was obscured by heavy precipitation.  The rainbow belied the danger hiding just beyond the precipitation. 
Peak winds of over 80 mph were measured about the time this image was made.  NWS reported that the tornado had become stationary just south of the highway and just southwest of White Deer.  Due to the limited visibility, I was very concerned that the tornado might backtrack, especially when faced with the sudden acceleration of the winds.
Still driving ENE down highway 60 and not too far from the location where the previous image was made, we found where the tornado crossed the road.   Power lines were down and laying across the highway.
Looking ENE.  1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inch hail fell and was blown by winds between 60 and 80 mph.   Even though I had lost site of the tornado due to the heavy precipitation, the collar cloud is still partially visible near the top of this image. 

 

 


Copyright 2001 - Samuel D. Barricklow - All rights reserved


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Last revised: December 20, 2008