Wednesday, November 10, 2010

8 Years Ago Tonight!

8 years ago today was the largest November outbreak in recorded US history. I remember the day very well as the High Risk covered a HUGE area. A lot of people may not realize this, but Alabama has more tornadoes in November than any other month of the year. There is a Dixie Alley and the threat is very high for us in the Deep South during the late Fall. If you would like to read more about Dixie Alley I HIGHLY recommend everyone to read a very interesting paper by Alan Gerard (NWS Jackson, MS). Here is the Powerpoint presentation...

Also, here is something else I came across today. A detailed account of the day by Justyn Jackson. I hope he doesn't mind me posting this, but it's very well written and basically hits on all the main points of the day. It was a big chase for LDCT, as we were basically sandwiched between 3 tornadoes that night including a F-3 that hit the University for Women in Columbus, MS. Honestly we got lucky! I have always said that chasing in the Great Plains is very easy compared to chasing in the Deep South. Usually it's HP supercells at night in the pine woods. It's a totally different ball game and if you're not experienced on how to chase in Deep South you can easily die. I have grown up a lot as a storm chaser since that crazy night and I know today I wouldn't have done half the stuff we did that night. You live and learn!

If November 9th was any indication of how November 10th would turn out, this day would be remembered for a long time. A supercell formed in eastern Arkansas late on Saturday night (11/9) and moved east-northeast into western Tennessee. It would produce multiple tornadoes including damage in Homholdt, TN to a nursing home. The storm system slammed the western United States a few days prior producing heavy rains and battering waves along the Pacific coast. The SPC outlooked much of the southeast in a slight risk of severe weather on the Day 2 Outlook. However, John and I anxiously awaited the new Day 1 Outlook which would tell us what to expect for our chase. Needless to say, we were in utter amazement as we stared at the screen. A HIGH risk had been posted for northeast Mississippi, northern Alabama, middle Tennessee, and south-central Kentucky! High risks are very rare; only a couple of issued every year. This was the first high risk that I had seen in the southeast in about two years. I immediately began calling the team and getting everyone together for a chase. Chris and Greg were definitely committed; John was committed. The only problem was Todd. He was in Biloxi - almost five hours away. There was no way I could not let him know so I called him to explain the situation, and he told me he was getting waking up his mom and coming back to Starkville! I gave Josh and call and we analyzed everything and came to the conclusion that northwest Alabama would not be a bad spot. As I was going to bed around 2:00 a.m., Todd instant messaged me and said he was leaving and would call me about 7:00 a.m. when he got back to campus.

Just after 7:00, my alarm goes off and Todd gives me a ring. I check out the latest SPC outlook and they have shifted the high risk farther to the northwest; extreme northeast Mississippi was still under the gun. I checked out some more data and it was readily apparent that a high risk was warranted. Strong southerly winds in excess of 20 mph were streaming across much of Mississippi in the early morning hours. Dew points were well into the 60s and temperatures were climbing out of the 60s and into the 70s. I decided to step out on the balcony and I immediately noticed two things: sun and strong winds. I thought back to December 16, 2000 (F4 tornado in Tuscaloosa), and I thought to myself that it indeed felt eerily similar to that unfortunate day. While I ate breakfast, I also watched a piece of vinyl siding get torn from the apartment across the street from us due to the strong winds! After analyzing morning upper-air data, a low-level jet would be present (over 50 knots) when storms began erupting and we would be in the favored right-rear quadrant of a jet max that was zipping through Oklahoma. The only doubt was how much instability would be present for the storms? An axis of 1000-1500 J/kg CAPE values was centered across much of central Mississippi and they were slowly moving north and east. After about 9:30 I decided to give Greg a call and explain what was going on. John and I looked at more mesoanalysis data and thought it still looked like an excellent chase day. I then gave Tim Wallace a call around 10:30 and we talked about the situation. He was torn whether to go chasing or run radar. However, he liked the idea of hanging around Starkville to see the storms develop. The 1630Z SPC outlook was a little late in getting out, but it shifted the high risk farther back to the southwest. Now, we were well in the risk area and Tim's forecast started sounding really good. I decided to call Josh and let him know that his viewing area in Meridian was in the high risk. We discussed the situation and still agreed that northwest Alabama looked like the favored area. Greg came over just after 11:00 and we decided to get some lunch at Taco Bell and head up to the lab. At lunch Todd, John, Greg, and I decided that Tupelo would be our destination point. We called Chris and told him we would meet him at his apartment in Columbus around noon. After lunch we went up to the lab and saw a few people up there checking everything out. After more discussing, Tim convinced us to stay around here and possibly head west in an hour or so. We then called Chris back and told him to meet us in the lab. For the next couple of hours, satellite images showed the cap was holding strong but instability was increasing over much of the state. CAPE values exceeded 1500 J/kg in east-central Mississippi and were approaching 2000 J/kg in the central part of the state. We put all of our minds together and came up with this: the dynamics would be much greater across northern Mississippi and the cap would break there first. With that said, the lab sent us to Batesville? so we packed everything up and headed west on Highway 82 just after 2:30 p.m.

We received a phone call from the other group saying that they were going to Pontotoc and that we should get north. We barely made the exit, but we thought this was a logical decision. We finally met each other in Pontotoc just after 4:30 at a McDonald's. The other group got a call from the lab saying the cap showed signs of breaking northwest Mississippi, but they were concerned with new storms developing in central Mississippi. We sat around for about 30 minutes discussing fantasy football, eating, and waiting for the cap to break in our area. Just after 5:00 p.m., we noticed towers going up to the south of us and lightning was evident in a couple of storms. The lab then called and told us to head south because storms were growing stronger. We then got on Highway 78 east and then took Alternate Highway 45 south back to Starkville. Driving back, lightning was becoming increasingly more intense in almost every quadrant. We heard of severe thunderstorm warnings for Oktibehha (Starkville) and Lowndes (Columbus) Counties. We decided to give Josh a call since the lab was not calling frequently enough. He told us storms were growing stronger just south of us and also northwest of us! He also said that it was going to be a long night for him with frequent cut-ins. Not long after this, we heard of a tornado warning for Lowndes County. Business was sure enough picking up in a hurry! Soon after that, tornado warnings were issued for Oktibehha and Winston Counties. We finally made it back to Highway 82 and headed west towards Starkville. While Starkville was still under a warning, we decided to park on the side of the road and get a good vantage point for spotting. It was impossible with torrential rain in the dark of night. I called Josh and asked for his opinion on where we should go; he recommended going down Alternate Highway 45 towards Macon. We then turned around and headed east on 82 towards the airport. When we got to the airport, we saw more rain, lightning, and even some small hail. However, the group called and told us we were under a tornado warning (Lowndes County again). We then headed south on Highway 45 to see if we could get a clear opening to see anything. Still we encountered very heavy rain, but there were occassional spurts of light rain. I called Josh back and he told us the storm was off to the west of us but showed indications of a hook. He told me a storm moving through Columbus showed very good signs of rotation. We later heard that Columbus was indeed hit by a tornado. Chris was concerned because his fiancee was close to the damage area, but he got in touch with her and she was fine. We kept driving up and down Highway 45 for some reason? We finally were told to keep going south towards Macon. Just before we got to Macon, we pulled off the road and watched a storm with a wall cloud. I did notice that it felt like we were feeling rear flank downdraft winds because they were warm and moist. We relayed our report to the lab and they told us to stay where we were. About this time, Robert noticed a power flash just to our north but we didn't really notice anything about this. The lights at a nightclub also flashed. The wall cloud we were watching soon dissipated and the outflow air became quite chilly. We later found out that the power flash may have been a tornado that stayed on the ground for 46 miles (rated only as an F1)! We somehow missed it by less than 2 miles. Josh told us more storms continued to build back to the southwest but nothing that looked overly impressive. We kept riding around aimlessly for some reason and listened to James Spann (ABC 33/40 Birmingham) on the radio do live coverage of the Carbon Hill, AL tornado. It sounded like the tornado caused massive damage in that area (that tornado was later rated at F3). With the storms dissipating, we decided to go to Columbus with Chris and see how bad the damage was. As we were going back to Columbus, we ran across a turned over truck and we decided to turn around and see if anyway was in it. Right as we got to the truck, police cars came up and and we saw the man who was in the truck. He was alright but shaken up. It appeared as though a tornado went across this area because a wide swath of debris was on the road along with many snapped trees. We later learned this was the tornado that struck Crawford and claimed the only fatality in Mississippi. When we got close to his apartment, we saw a neighborhood that looked like a tornado had gone through. Sure enough, trees were uprooted everywhere and on top of a few houses. I guessed if that was the only damage, the tornado would probably be rated as an F1; Mississippi University for Women a couple of miles away suffered the worst damage with numerous buildings damaged on campus. Chris and Greg had a Thermo exam the next day, but he had no power. However, Mike said there were no "ifs" "ands" or "buts" about it, they would have the test at 8:00 a.m.

I will remember this outbreak for as long as I live. A high risk stretched from Ohio down to southern Mississippi! Over 80 tornadoes were reported and damage was the most severe in eastern Tennessee and north-central Alabama. The models did a decent job forecasting this event. The GFS was consistent run to run about 8-9 days out. However, it did back off the risk for a couple of runs about five days before the event and numerous meteorologists discounted the storm. Many thanks go to Josh Johnson for his help. This may have been one of my most frustrating chases, but we could have possibly been killed if not for his help.

Justyn Jackson

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