The Spencer SD Tornado of 30 May 1998

Bill Reid's storm intercept account

The Spencer Tornado Chase

By William Reid

Hey, why didnít someone tell me about Dakota magic before? Iíve been hanging out around the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles all these years, waiting for the Holy Grail of Tornados to unfold before me. Maybe I should trade in Amarillo for Aberdeen.

The 1998 chase season was weird. I arrived in Amarillo on May 14th, and soon learned of a tornado warning. YES!! Oops, the warning was for Agoura Hills, California. That is where I live. That is where I was less than two days prior. It looked like one of those years. It looked like El Nino was turning the chase season upside-down. I abandoned the Lone Star State and placed myself in Nebraska. A couple of days passed with nary a cumulus cloud, but then, suddenly, a major turning point! It was the ultimate right-mover, right there on my motel room television in Hastings. Newt Gingrich was doing the ďLook AheadĒ segment on The Weather Channel! I chased supercells on six consecutive days after El Newtoís guest appearance.

I was in Ogallala, Nebraska, on Saturday morning, May 30th, 1998. With me were Cheryl Chang and Keith Brown. We three had been teamed up for about ten days, and we were treated to really cool storms on more than half of those days. Cheryl lives in Calgary, Alberta, and her first chase trip was nearing its end. Keith was looking at his last chase day, as he had to be in class at Norman on June 1st. Martin Lisius had met up with us the previous evening, and he was rather desperate to see a decent storm---a storm free of the smoke which was plaguing much of Tornado-less Alley this spring. On Friday, Martin drove from Arlington, Texas, to Big Springs, Nebraska, only to see some distant lightning after dark. Martin was a man on a mission on Saturday. Knock-knock-knock. "Itís 7 a.m., wake up people! We have to drive to Iowa!"

Iowa, Illinois, Indiana...geez, whatís the difference. They might as well be in Iberia. Theyíre too far away. A chaserís got to know his limitations. Iím a High Plains chaser. There are haze and trees in Iowa. Too much of Nebraska is between me and Iowa. Wake me up at checkout time. I had to chase, though. The severe-weather setup looked pretty good. It was the last chance for Cheryl and Keith. There would be no storms for several days after today. Besides, what would Martin think of me if I wimped out? Keith joined Martin in his Explorer, and Cheryl and I planted ourselves in the Pathfinder. On to Iowa!

By noon we were in Grand Island, and Martin stopped at a Bosselmanís truck stop to fill his laptop with unleaded data. The forecast charts continued to suggest that the center of the severe-weather-parameter universe would be near Storm Lake around 00Z. We could get close to Storm Lake by 4 p.m. if we continued our brisk pace towards Omaha. It would be nice to get out of Nebraska. Thick high clouds were covering the entire state, it seemed. There was a cap to break, and it was not going to break where there was no sunshine. Ainít no sunshine in the Cornhusker State.

At York, 40 miles east of Grand Island, Martin exited Interstate 80. Keith had been digesting the newly downloaded weather data, and a couple of NWS discussions indicated that a developing surface low-pressure system was moving east-southeastward through southern South Dakota. The low was forecast to be in extreme northeast Nebraska by mid-evening. We agreed that it would be propitious to place ourselves in front of this low, and to try to lose this depressing high-cloud shield. The moderate-risk area was in Iowa and Minnesota, but we were now playing the low. We headed north on U.S. 81 through Columbus and Norfolk, helped along by humid southerly winds.

Around 5 p.m. at Willis, Nebraska, the high clouds thinned considerably and some flattish cumulus were overhead. We were along an area of weak convergence, with southwesterly winds at Norfolk and southeasterly winds at Sioux City. The temperature was 82F, and the dew point was 72F. Had we found the spot where we wanted to be? On our hilltop near Willis we scanned the skies for convection, and waited. Nothing. Our chase prospects looked bleak. Keith muttered that it looked like a major Bustola Capola. NOAA wx-radio from the Siouxland said that storms could be expected after 10 p.m.---not good. Maybe our forecast had been bad. Maybe the mid-level cap was getting stronger. Maybe I should have stayed in Ogallala. It was 6 p.m. and time for drastic action, so Martin called Jason Jordan at the NWS office in Fort Worth. Jason said that there were some storms near Huron and Chamberlain in South Dakota. Wow---those towns are not very close, but at least the cells are moving east and southeast. We figured that if we were going to see any storms on this day, we would have to try to catch something associated with this activity. I had never chased in South Dakota before.

We were close to Sioux City, so we motored east a little, hopped onto Interstate 29 north to Sioux Falls, and then went west on Interstate 90. Along the way I learned of severe thunderstorm warnings for Hand, Sanborn, and Miner counties, all to our northwest. We made good progress at 75 mph on the Interstates, and a new, hard thunderstorm anvil soared overhead just west of Sioux Falls. It was almost 8 p.m., and sunset was still a ways off (thank God we were so close to the North Pole!). I had a good feeling about how things had changed for us in two hours. Radio station 1390 AM in Madison reported that a new storm, near Mitchell, deserved attention. That must be our anvil maker! Itís dead ahead. Itís moving towards us. Itís a tail-end Charlie. Itís in a Tornado Watch. Life is good!

Martin and Keith exited I-90 onto U.S. 81 (again!), and I followed. Martin missed the road west out of Salem, and we convened just north of the small town. Lightning flickered in the anvil above, and we knew that there was a strong cell to our west---we just couldnít see it. A scrawny updraft just to our west was obscuring the area of interest. Soon, a tornado warning was issued for northern Hanson County, the next county west. Moments later, AM 1390 said that there was a tornado approaching Farmer, just 15 miles west of Salem! The storm was moving east at 35 mph. It was about 8:25 p.m., and time to head west again.

We quickly cleared the annoying condensation of the intervening mini-cell as we drove west from Salem on Highway 38. The sky opened up dramatically, and, along the horizon to the west-northwest, was a strange yellow tinge. Trees occasionally blocked our view, but there was something bisecting this shallow band of light. Could this be the tornado that was reported? One more line of trees to clear...OH MY GOSH---YES!! Itís HUGE! Look up there---an awesome striated rotating updraft! In front of us, and headed towards us, was a classic Midwestern supercell, with a fully developed and beautifully backlit tornado.

This is the moment that chasers yearn for! This is why we drive 10,000 miles every spring! This is why we save all of our money for gas, motels, maps, cameras, film, laptops, scanners, and cell phone bills. This is the moment that we fantasize about while driving down that deserted two-lane road in West Texas after another busted chase. This is the moment of fulfillment and exhilaration, and all of those other feelings that are impossible to explain to someone who doesnít give a thunderstorm a second thought!

Elation notwithstanding, I had to concentrate. Where should I stop? I could practically drive right next to the tornado by continuing west. I was leading the two-vehicle chase team down Highway 38, and I elected to stop relatively soon. The tornado was still about 5 to 6 miles away, but it was approaching rather rapidly, it was not going to dissipate any time soon, and the lighting and contrast were too good to pass up. I turned right on a paved north-south road and almost immediately pulled into a turnout on its west side. (This road was six miles west of Salem and four miles east of Spencer. Martin and Keith stopped along U.S. 38 about an eighth of a mile behind Cheryl and me.) I did not know that the town of Spencer was between myself and the tornado. A large and empty farm field afforded an excellent view of the storm, and I nervously set up the tripod and the camcorder. Make sure itís level, Bill! Make sure the lens is clean, the unit in focus, and NOT on pause!

The time was 8:35 p.m. A few small hailstones struck the Pathfinder, and winds were from the east-southeast at about 20 mph (compared to light winds in Salem ten minutes earlier). Just north of due west spun a scene of congruity and chaos: above, the mother cyclone, in perfect tropospheric harmony; below, total tornadic tumult. The seething vortex distributed dust, dirt, debris, and accessory clouds in fast-forward speed. Dust plumes and curtains, condensation skirts and collars, spokes and fingers---all whirled around in an unbridled frenzy. The funnel motion on this thing was unreal! Upward translation along its north fringe was at warp speed. The small town of Spencer found itself in the direct path of the tornado at 8:37 p.m. Six residents perished, and most of the town was demolished.

The tornado maintained its size and strength as it drew nearer. Early on I thought that it might pass just to our north, but now it was only a couple of miles away, and due west. The orange-yellow background turned a faint peach color, not much brighter than the gray tornado. The tornado hid itself momentarily in dust and condensation, and then emerged completely for new photo-ops. The front edge of the rotating updraft moved overhead, and lightning activity suddenly increased. I told Cheryl to get inside the vehicle, and I tried to stay low. The landscape lit up a couple of times and thunder crashed within two seconds. It was too dangerous to be outside. The camcorder came off of the tripod and into Cherylís hands. I tossed the metal Bogen tripod into the vehicle, closed the rear hatch, and jumped into the driverís seat. Whew! A violent-class tornado was just down the road, but I felt a LOT safer now!

For about 20 seconds we watched the increasingly black funnel accost the farmland to our west-southwest, less than two miles away. We could not stay here. The tornado was going to be just to our south in a couple of minutes. I decided to blast south towards Interstate 90. Cheryl pointed the fully zoomed-out camcorder towards the west as I accelerated south of Highway 38, and the surface circulation soon filled the entire video frame! A developing squall line was advancing upon the tornadic mesocyclone, and conditions were changing fast. The tornado, though wider, was weakening, and it was incorporating a lot of dust and dirt. After about two miles, or halfway to the Interstate, I turned the Pathfinder around for a quick look. Yikes! A wall of blackness was rapidly descending upon us. There was almost zero contrast. We knew that there was a tornado in there, but this storm looked like something from the Kansas Dust Bowl Days. Plumes of dust were zeroing in on us. The storm was turning outflow dominant, and these chasers needed to get away fast!

We bailed eastward on I-90, south on U.S. 81, and east to Canistota. A new supercell was in the works south of the Spencer storm, which spawned tornadoes (which we never saw) near Alexandria. The sirens were wailing in Canistota, where storm core and severe outflow appeared ready to converge with the vertical storm tower to the west-southwest. Our visit to Canistota was very brief. We surged south and east again (on Highway 42) to avoid the ugly jaws. It was getting dark, and I wanted to be as far away from this double-headed monster as I could! New tornado warnings were issued for towns just behind us, lightning streaked through the mammatus in front of us, and I just held on tight and flew eastward against the strong inflow.

I called Martin after we rode out a core in a motel parking lot in Sioux Falls. He and Keith were out of harmís way, south of Sioux Falls. I stepped into the motel, and found the lobby and hallway filled with folks, many of whom were quite distressed. The lobby television showed an endless stream of radar loops and warning scrolls, and we learned that Spencer had been struck by the tornado we had seen.

Martin and Keith found Cheryl and me at the motel, and we searched for an open restaurant in Sioux Falls. It was celebration time! Our chase was a tremendous success! On the restaurant television, however, the news was becoming increasingly disheartening. There were fatalities in Spencer. Our meal didnít taste so good all of a sudden.

It was a scary evening for many South Dakotans on this Saturday, and it was a roller-coaster ride of emotions for my friends and myself. Four storm chasers, who started the day in southwest Nebraska and wound up between Salem and Spencer in southeast South Dakota, caught a storm that they will never forget. Sadly, six souls from Spencer were caught in a storm they will never remember.

      William Reid
      Agoura Hills, CA

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