The Spencer SD Tornado of 30 May 1998

Martin Lisius' storm intercept account

Needle in a Haystack

Chase Day: May 30, 1998 - Spencer, South Dakota

By Martin Lisius, Texas Severe Storms Association

It was Saturday evening, June 13, 1998. I was having dinner with some of the top storm chasers in the country at the Wagon Wheel Tavern in historic Marysville, Kansas. Fellow chasers Carson Eads, Tim Marshall, Alan Moller, Gene Rhoden and I sat down to a late meal after chasing a fast-moving, high-precipitation supercell along the Kansas-Nebraska border for several hours. The storm started out well to the west of Highway 81 and moved rapidly to Southeast Nebraska. At times, it looked like the storm might produce a view-able tornado, but the high-precipitation structure and rapid movement made things difficult for us. We abandoned the storm northeast of Marysville as our visibility deteriorated.

Before arriving to dinner, we heard about a tornado that had just tracked across the north side of Oklahoma City. All of us had driven to Northern Kansas, separately, from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. We had passed through Oklahoma City just hours earlier. We were surprised to hear about the tornado that had had occurred much closer to home. During a pause in the dinner conversation, I sighed and then said quite profoundly, "tornado forecasting is very difficult."

Veteran storm chasers often look at a multi-state area when forecasting where they think tornadoes will occur before departing on a chase. They may consider a 300,000 square mile region. If they are lucky enough to see a tornado that produces a path one-half mile wide and ten miles long, for example, then simply put, they just pinpointed a five square mile area out of a possible 300, 000. Forecasting and intercepting tornadoes is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack!

When I departed Dallas-Ft. Worth at 4 a.m. on the morning of Friday, May 29, I had no idea that the needle I would eventually find would be in Spencer, South Dakota. My target for that day was South Central Nebraska. Specifically, I was targeting Hastings, where much of my family lives. Conditions appeared to be coming together there for a possible tornado event later in the day. Thermodynamics and wind shear both looked good. That was until I reached Central Kansas and got a call via cell phone from storm chaser Bill Reid. Bill relayed data that indicated that outflow from nocturnal storms had stabilized the atmosphere over much of Nebraska and Northern Kansas effectively eliminating any chances for tornadoes later in the day. His updated analysis showed that there was a slim chance of tornadoes perhaps in Northeast Colorado. So, at Salina I turned west on Interstate 70 for the Rocky Mountain State. By 8 p.m., I was in Colorado and could see distant, weak thunderstorms near the intersection of the Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska border from my location north of Yuma. Things were not looking good. Soon after a mild attack of despair began, I received a much-needed pep call from Bill who was just over the border in Big Springs, Nebraska passing time with chasers Keith Brown and Cheryl Chang. Bill announced that it was basically a bust for everyone and asked me to meet up with him. I had not chased with Bill since 1996, and was eager to visit with him.

Bill, Keith, Cheryl and I sat down to a hearty meal in Ogallala. After dinner, we drove to the edge of town to watch a distant and meager lightning display originating from somewhere over the Nebraska Panhandle. Back at the motel, the radar indicated that this activity was isolated and that large-scale convection may not form, leaving an unstable atmosphere for chasing on the Plains the next day.

I rose with the sun on the morning of Saturday, May 30. I was very eager to download weather data on my laptop to see how and where conditions were coming together for a possible chase. One of the first discussions I read was a public outlook issued by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) that called the event shaping up "a particularly dangerous situation" with the possibility of damaging tornadoes. Their area of concern was primarily over Iowa, Eastern Nebraska, Southeast South Dakota and Southern Minnesota. A quick look at surface and upper air data supported their outlook. I was soon on the phone attempting to wake the Reid gang with the news. After several failed attempts to contact them by phone, I decided to drive over the Platte River to their motel in Downtown Ogallala. Once stirred from bed, the three weary but expedient chasers were ready for the road and our long trek eastward across the Cornhusker State. Our initial target was Northwest Iowa via Omaha. We would split the four chasers up into teams of two. Keith rode with me in my Explorer while Cheryl rode with Bill in his ubiquitous and storm-battered Pathfinder.

We broke for lunch at Bosselman's Truck Stop in Grand Island, hungry for both food and data. A quick download of data was facilitated by a special digital phone booth there which featured a data jack and small table. Over a tuna fish salad sandwich, compliments of Mr. Brown, we analyzed data. After a hasty glimpse at conditions, our initial target remained intact. However, as we drove east on Interstate 70, Keith read deeper into our noon (1700Z) data download. A surface analysis indicated that winds were veering to the southwest over Central Nebraska. In addition, the huge cirrus cloud shield that I had seen on the satellite loop early that morning was now covering much of Nebraska including our location. This was not good. We stopped at York and decided to go north to Northeast Nebraska as quickly as possible where the noon analysis indicated backed winds and sunny skies would await us.

By the time we reached Norfolk, winds had veered to the south-southwest and the cirrus shield above was thick. North of Norfolk, we turned east toward Sioux City, Iowa. As NOAA Weather Radio in Sioux City drifted in on my HAM radio, we could hear reports of sunny conditions from Yankton into Northwest Iowa. Just west of Sioux City, we crossed over a wind shift line and stopped. It was apparently a local outflow boundary from a morning storm that tracked through the county based on old warning statements we read in our data. Winds were easterly at about 5 kts. there. A small towering cumulus grew overhead. For a few minutes, we were excited. Things looked promising. But then the tower collapsed along with our spirits. We continued toward Sioux City and our original target.

It was late afternoon when we stopped on the west side of Sioux City, to view a lifeless sky. What was going on? There should be storms by now, we thought. I called fellow chaser and friend Jason Jordan at the National Weather Service Forecast office in Ft. Worth. Jason relayed information about building storms well to our north in South Dakota. Meanwhile, Bill was monitoring an AM radio station in Yankton. A tornado watch had been issued north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It would be a stretch to reach it by dark but we had no other choice. We had traveled far on our quest. We couldn't give up now. So, it was north to Dakota!

Based on information gathered from the AM radio station in Yankton and from Jason, we decided on a target area near Mitchell, South Dakota. Two, then-existing thunderstorm cells would merge there about the time we expected to arrive. The southern storm was moving east, while the northern of the two was tracking southeast. It was after 6 p.m. now, so it would be tough to make it there much before sunset. That was until we realized that the sun would not set until around 9 PM! Finding this out was a jump-start for us. We continued to monitor the radios as we passed by the Gateway 2000 computer factory painted up like a giant Holstein, and located in a pastoral meadow alongside the blue waters of the Big Sioux in North Sioux City, South Dakota.

While on Interstate 29, south of Sioux Falls, Jason Jordan relayed updated information which indicated that the two previous storm cells had fallen apart. Still, the Mitchell target seemed as good as any. We stuck to it.

As we entered the Sioux Falls area, we could make out a sharp anvil edge overhead. We turned west on Interstate 90 toward our target area. The southern edge of the anvil was directly overhead, with pulse waves evident, and paralleled the east-west Interstate. Our mission now was rather simple. We would follow the anvil westward to the storm it was anchored to.

We exited the Interstate at US Highway 81 near Salem. The anvil edge had led us to the southern-most cell in a line that stretched northward. Our plan was to turn west down Highway 38 toward Spencer. However, we missed the turn in Salem and continued north about a mile and pulled over on Highway 81 to view the storm. Winds at Salem were south-southwest at about 5 kts. Our storm displayed decent, but slightly mushy towers. I was not impressed. Soon, I spotted a small and newly-developed anvil just to the west of the convection in front of us. A brief moment passed and a tornado warning was issued. Radio reports indicated that the tornado was moving in our direction. Should we wait for it to come to us? Bill didn't like that idea. So, the decision was made to go west on 38, our original plan.

I had never chased a storm in the Southeast South Dakota area before. I was impressed with the terrain. It was very much like South Central Nebraska, in the Hastings area, for example. Gently rolling, mostly flat topography, with only scattered trees and an excellent, section road network. The countryside was occupied mainly by corn fields and pastureland.

As we headed west on Highway 38 from Salem, Keith exclaimed that he could just make out striations in our newly-discovered western storm. A few miles more and we could see a lowering nearly touching the ground just to our west-northwest. At least that's what it looked like. An area of trees just to our right was obscuring our view to the ground. We cleared the trees and the "lowering" turned out to be a fully-developed tornado! We cleared a small hill and pulled over at a flat, treeless area 4.4 miles due east of Spencer on Highway 38. Bill and Cheryl continued west a few hundred yards further.

Adrenaline was rushing for Keith and me as we unloaded camera gear. My priority was to begin shooting the tornado as soon as possible with my 35 mm motion picture camera. Pointing my spot meter at the tornado, I received a reading of 2.8 at an ISO rating of 250. Luckily, the zoom lens I was using was fast, with a maximum aperture of 2.8. Perfect. The tornado had quickly developed into a small wedge. It was to our west-northwest and spinning hard. I shot about 200 feet of film and then grabbed my Betacam SP camcorder while Keith shot Hi8 and took stills. For us, the moment was about concentration, getting the image and doing it right. There was not much time for anything else. The tornado was moving rapidly east-southeast, at about 30 kts. in what appeared to be our general direction! Frequent cloud-to-ground lightning was hitting so close to our position that the thunder sounded like shotgun blasts with little reverb. At times, I could feel the heat of the lightning on my face. Keith and I moved about in crouched positions to reduce our risk of death by electrocution.

A citizen pulled over and asked us, "is that what I think it is?!" Keith and I replied that it was a violent tornado. He asked if it was safe for him to continue driving west. We told him no. He said that he was on his cellular phone with a local radio station and asked if he should report it. We told him yes and asked him to tell them that it was a large and dangerous tornado.

Within five minutes of arriving at our site (appx. 8:38 p.m. CDT), the tornado had developed into a mighty and majestic wedge back-lit by the orange light of a setting Dakota sun. The vortex was dark gray with a lighter "skirt" rotating wildly above, highlighted with a hint of blue from the clear sky to the south. The storm base of this relatively small supercell resembled an inverted wedding cake and was classic in form. Surface winds were dramatically different than what we had observed just 5 miles to the east and 10 minutes earlier. They were now strong, at about 25 kts. and gusty, from the east-southeast. It was amazing how this supercell simply wrangled the local atmosphere. Was the storm the cause or was it the effect of this change? Looking back, it appears that the earlier convection to the north may have put down a southeast to northwest aligned outflow boundary, increasing convergence and causing winds to back.

The tornado was now nearly a mile wide and entering Spencer to our west. Muted power flashes were observed at the base of the funnel as electrical lines, and possibly transformers, arced and exploded. A violent inflow jet was evident over Highway 38 as the powerful tornado ingested black soil from a plowed field. It was apparent that the tornado was going to pass over Highway 38 just to our west.

Since I had been driving earlier, I did not have the acute knowledge as to our position relative to Spencer that Keith had. As team navigator, Keith knew that Spencer was possibly being devastated. I saw an area of trees between our position and the tornado. I suspected that the trees represented the location of the town and that the tornado was skirting along its west side. Neither of us were certain, so our concern remained with the storm itself which was now south of Highway 38 growing larger and becoming wrapped in dust. At one point, the northern edge of the apparent vortex seemed to hover over Highway 38 for a moment while the tornado grew larger. At this point, it appeared that the dark giant was tracking east, toward us! Path analysis would later indicate that the tornado was actually moving east-southeast as it crossed 38, 1.5 miles to our west, eventually turning southeast, south of the highway. Just to be safe, we made a hasty departure, tossing cameras and tripods into the back of my Explorer. We headed east down 38 glancing back at Bill and Cheryl who were heading south, crossing in front of the tornado!

Soon, hail and driving rain raked us from the north. We motioned motorists along the highway to head east. I dialed 911 on my cell phone and reported that the tornado was tracking rapidly toward the Interstate. Once again, I emphasized that it was a large and violent tornado. Keith quickly reviewed the map and prepared a route that would keep us east of the tornado as we zig-zagged southeast.

By the time we reached Interstate 90 at US Highway 81, the tornado was heavily shrouded and obscured by dust to our west-northwest. Along the way, Keith mentioned that a flash of lightning revealed what appeared to be a small cone-shaped tornado within the dust.

We tracked the storm southeastward to Parker driving in and out of violent straight-line winds. We avoided making the dangerous mistake of stopping downwind from trees. The storm was racing now. Our fear was that tornadic activity might still exist deep within the dust. We weren't taking any chances after seeing what the storm had produced earlier. I recall hearing the squeal of my tires numerous times during the retreat.

Darkness had arrived and the storm had all but collapsed by the time we reached Interstate 29 south of Sioux Falls. Radio reports were indicating a new tornado warning to the north over the city. We headed to Sioux Falls to take a look and received a call from Bill who was waiting for us there with Cheryl.

Keith and I spotted Bill and Cheryl parked in town. We were greeted by sweet, rain-cooled air and two weary but happy chasers. We found a restaurant still open and serving steak, the symbolic prize for a successful chase.

A steak dinner was well-deserved by this chase team. Our intercept had begun hundreds of miles earlier. We had thwarted all the obstacles and met all the challenges Mother Nature could muster. Analysis, more analysis, hope, trust, perseverance and teamwork led us to that little fragment of Tornado Alley at Spencer, South Dakota. We had found the needle in the haystack. And, I was able to capture possibly the first violent tornado on 35 mm film. All was well.

Still, our journey was not complete. A television at the restaurant was tuned into a Sioux Falls station broadcasting live from Spencer. We grew silent as news indicated that the tiny community had been destroyed. Reports said that several had died and dozens were left hurting. Our logistical victory was now a human tragedy as well.

Keith and I were greeted by sunny skies, and cool, blustery north winds as we arrived in Spencer early the next morning. Highway 38 was busy on the south side of town as a media camp had been established. All roads to Spencer were blocked by order of the McCook County Sheriff. Large trees were stripped clean of branches and leaves, a farmer placed dead cattle into a truck using a front end loader. The sounds of earth-moving equipment drifted in the wind. We saw a car in a tree, farmsteads destroyed, a toppled grain elevator, and what looked like a bombed-out town. We measured the tornadoes path at .8 mile wide at Highway 38. Northwest of town, we estimated damage along an east-west section road at 1.5 miles long. The damage was incredible.

As storm chasers, we live two lives, one as scientists, the other as humans. As scientists, we concentrate on the physics and the logistics. We are excited and awed by the power of nature. Violent storms and tornadoes are beautiful to us. Sometimes we forget, if only briefly, that to many others violent weather is a curse. Spencer was destroyed by nature. Simply put, an amazing amount of atmospheric energy came together there for a moment. It was haphazard. Unlike man, weather does not kill by intent.

Tornadoes are difficult to forecast. Each time we find the needle in the haystack, we take a step. Sometimes, it's a step back, as nature shows us how little we really know. But, over time, perseverance will move us forward and closer to fully understanding tornadoes. The more we know the more we can help humankind.

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