Saturday, August 18, 2012

Tornado Chasing During Wisconsin’s Record Outbreak

August 18, 2005, would turn out to be the biggest tornado outbreak the state of Wisconsin had ever seen. But it was early in the day and my sister and I had no way of knowing that as we decided to try our hand at tornado chasing for the first time.

It was a hot, muggy summer day and we were both visiting our parents’ home near Sauk City. My husband Jeremy and I would be celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary the following day in the Dells after dropping off our kids with my parents for some weekend babysitting. But today Jeremy would be participating in a golf tournament at the Reedsburg Country Club with my father and I would be spending some time with my mom, my sister Kristin, and my kids.

When we arrived at my parents’ house that morning the sun was emerging after a morning shower and the air was heavy with humidity. There were reports that the afternoon could bring severe thunderstorms, but by nightfall 27 tornadoes would scour great swaths of land in the south central portion of the state.

Like any Midwesterner, I know the inky blue darkening of the western sky, the sudden chill in the formerly humid summer air, and the distant sound of rolling thunder, only to be interrupted by the piercing wail of a tornado siren. People who live in Tornado Alley either love or hate severe storms and I, for one, love them. Back in the days before cell phones with cameras, I would carry a camera stored in the glove box of my car on the off chance that I might blunder onto a tornado sweeping through farm fields on my way to the grocery store. I am a person whose recurrent dreams usually involve a handful of themes, such as losing my teeth, searching in vain for a clean public toilet, discovering that I must take an exam for a college class I never attended, and witnessing a tornado.

The first tornado warning we heard that day was for a tornado that was on the ground and moving toward the area of the Reedsburg Country Club. Rather than be worried for Jeremy and my father, I was jealous. I have always wanted to see a tornado and now they were going to get a good shot at fulfilling my dream.

Although I had never seen a tornado first hand, that’s not to say I haven’t had some close calls. My husband and I were in Nashville during the tornado of 1998 that struck the city’s downtown. We were safely inside and away from the storm when the tornado knocked a giant old tree over onto our car in the parking lot of Vanderbilt University, crushing it. I was hoping that today’s storms would give me the chance to see a real live tornado, only without my car getting totaled this time.

The storms were coming to a full boil on August 18th around my children’s nap time. I had my mom put the kids to sleep in the guest bedroom in the basement of their house, which seemed as safe a place as any for them. Kristin and I decided we would go out chasing tornadoes while my mom kept a watch over my napping children.

Here comes the disclaimer: Don’t try this yourself. We were foolish novices, never having storm chased before. I had taken meteorology courses at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but I had not yet taken a storm spotting class and gave it no more forethought than “There’s a tornado warning for our county!” and  “Wouldn’t it be cool to see a tornado?”

We grabbed our digital cameras, jumped in my vehicle, and drove through Sauk City headed north toward the Reedsburg tornado. Fortunately for the golfers that day, the tornado dissipated before it reached the country club. Kristin and I didn’t know that at the time, but we kept the radio on, listening for weather updates. We were now hearing warnings broadcast for locations in the opposite direction, around the Madison area.

We were heading up Highway 12 over the Baraboo bluffs into a dark wall of clouds when the rain hit. It seemed our tornado chasing adventure was going to come to a quick end; it just wasn’t safe to chase in the blinding rain. I was disappointed but not yet defeated. We turned around and headed back toward town, out of the rain, making a new strategy to set up somewhere in a location that would allow us a better view of the edge of this storm.

At the base of the bluffs and across from the old Badger Army Ammunition plant was the Bluffview trailer park. I jokingly said that we should stop here, because if a tornado was going to strike anywhere, it would be this area of mobile homes. A gas station sat in front of the large collection of trailer homes and I did stop because I was running low on gas. I might have been a novice chaser but at least I knew that running on empty was not a good way to start.

As I got out of the car by the pumps I heard a sound that I had never heard before. It sounded like the rumbling of a locomotive, only it was coming from straight overhead. The noise was also eerily like the constant rolling of thunder, but there was no lightning whatsoever.

“What is that sound?” I screamed to my sister over the roar and rush of the wind. She had also gotten out of the car as I was filling up my tank.

“You’ve never heard that before?” she yelled in disbelief. She knew I had been close to tornadoes before, but this noise was new to me. “That’s it! That’s the sound!”

I still don’t know what made that sound. How can you hear thunder without lightning? Isn’t that physically impossible? Or was it something in the clouds, the wind and the pressure warning us of the genesis of a tornado?

“But where is it?” I yelled. The clouds overhead were a gray color, and not that menacing, although they were rushing by quickly. Because of the gas station blocking our view to the west, we couldn’t see the whole horizon. I willed the gas to pump faster into the car so we could get out of there and get a better look to see where this tornado might be. It sounded like it was in the sky right on top of us.

Suddenly a new terrifying sound filled the air. But it was a sound that, this time, I was quite familiar with. It was the sound of the tornado siren going off, right behind the gas-station building. Now we were really deafened by the noise. I stopped the gas pump even though the tank wasn’t quite full yet. We jumped in the car and took off down the road back toward Sauk City. But my desire to see a tornado wasn’t going to scare me away entirely.

At my next chance I turned off the highway on County C, about a half mile down the road from the gas station and trailer park. I pulled the car off the road and turned it around so that if we needed to escape from our position we were headed in the right direction. We rolled down the windows and sat on the edge of the car doors like the boys in The Dukes of Hazzard. We started snapping pictures of the clouds behind us. The roar of locomotives could still be heard overhead. We watched the gray, smooth cloud formation stretch above us and curl into a tail toward the western horizon. It was not at all how I expected the clouds to look. I was expecting dark thunderheads and wall clouds.

We exited the car and moved to the yard of the farm house across the street, where we continued snapping pictures until we realized that the clouds in the “tail” of the storm by the horizon were moving to our left, and the clouds over our heads were moving to our right. We discovered to our horror that the entire cloud formation was circulating above us. I took one more photograph before we retreated into our vehicle. It was the only picture in which either of us was in the shot. Kristin was turning to look back at me and was about to tell me, “We have to get out of here, NOW!” But she is captured in mid-turn with a look of concern and fear stretched across her face that speaks volumes.

It was a lucky thing that I had my sister with me on this tornado chase. Because even though I was aware of the situation I was in, I was more exhilarated than afraid. Had I been making the decisions on my own, I almost surely would have unknowingly put myself in the path of the tornado that day. My sister was more cautious and directed me when to back up from the storm. I followed her directions to retreat even though I wanted to stay.

I drove us a little farther down Highway 12 and again turned off on the next convenient road, Old Bluff Trail. We passed a quiet farm on our left and great stretches of farm fields. On our right and behind us was the storm. Also on our right were high hills that blocked a good portion of our view. A convent was tucked in among these hills.

We stopped twice along Old Bluff Trail to take more pictures. The sky was turning green overhead and the roaring continued unabated. We could see the clouds racing in opposite directions in the sky behind us, yet the air was quite still on the ground — for the time being, anyway.

The storm (and Kristin) continued to push us farther away from where we first stopped at the gas station. We cut across old Waterbury Road, a little-used stretch that is bordered by fields on each side, and came to Highway 12 once more as it straightened out after it curves around the extensive grounds of the former ammunition plant. By this time some of the other drivers were taking note of the storm and pulling off to the side of the road. The clouds were taking on newer and stranger appearances. It seemed as if an invisible giant were shredding little clouds by the horizon and then yanking them upward into the cloud mass above. We watched the now rain-wrapped cloud mass cross Highway 12 at the corner by the ammunition plant, and we crossed at a greater distance but parallel to the storm. The storm was heading toward the river and the hydroelectric dam. We got out of the car one last time by a graveyard at the side of the road and took a few more apropos pictures.

At this point we could see what looked to be a rain-wrapped funnel. It didn’t yet appear to us that it was making contact with the ground. But in fact, on every step of our retreat as my sister urged me to abandon our previous locations, an F2 tornado was tracking our steps.

As we had sat in the car’s windows on County C, two miles down the road and beyond our vision the tornado was ripping apart a garage and barn. As we passed the quiet farm before the convent on Old Bluff Trail and then drove beyond it to take more pictures, we were unknowingly crossing in front of the tornado’s path. A few minutes behind us, the tornado shattered the stillness at that farm, tearing off the barn’s metal roof and discarding it in a field. As the tornado crossed over the curve of Highway 12 in the cloud bank, it blew cars off the road not a mile from where we were watching on Waterbury Road. And as we stopped by the cemetery to take pictures of what appeared to be a rain-wrapped funnel cloud on the other side of the corn field, it was flattening old storage buildings at Badger Army Ammunition.

As the storm crossed the Wisconsin River I knew that we could no longer safely follow it and see, what I thought would be, the point when the tornado finally appeared out of the clouds and rain. The land on the other side of the river is hilly and forested and the curving roads are dangerous even in good weather. We crossed the bridge over the river as two miles away from us, the tornado, hidden from our view due to the rain that encased it, blew out a big electrical station at the dam. We were now close to home so we turned south as the storm continued east. As soon as we made the turn that took us farther away from the tornado, the skies opened up and the rain fell so heavily I could hardly see to drive the four miles home.

We would learn that the storm we chased until it crossed the Wisconsin River and entered Columbia County died out about ten minutes later after roping off into a very visible tornado shape. At the same time, a new storm was forming 30 miles away in southern Dane County. This storm would produce an F3 tornado that would rip through the community of Stoughton and kill a man who was sensibly taking shelter in his basement when his chimney toppled over onto him.

The tornadoes on that single day produced more than $40 million in damages across the state of Wisconsin. In Stoughton alone, 69 homes were destroyed and 304 were damaged. Governor Jim Doyle requested federal aid but by the time the request was considered, a hurricane by the name of Katrina had brought a large US city to its knees. Even though Wisconsin had received federal disaster declarations recently for damage caused by tornadoes and flooding that had a lower price tag than the August 18th tornadoes, FEMA denied aid to the tornado-stricken people of Wisconsin.

When I look back at my tornado-chasing adventure I think about what close calls we had and the destruction the tornado caused, and how I would have been directly in the path of this destruction had it not been for my more fearful (or is it sensible?) sister. Yet the event has only made me want to go out and chase tornadoes that much more. Even driving past the destruction the next day of mangled metal in fields and trees broken off at odd angles has not dampened my enthusiasm. So for now “seeing a tornado” will remain on my bucket list. Let’s just hope I continue to have a sensible chase partner with me so that it’s not the last item I ever get to cross off.

The "tail" of the storm near the bluffs was moving one direction while the clouds above us were moving the opposite direction, resulting in one massive rotation.

Nearly the same pic - the farm in the back to the right would sustain damage maybe 10 minutes after this picture was taken.


My sister's look of worry that got me to get in the car and leave the path of the storm.
(I think she'd want you to know that she has since ditched the unflattering capris.)


In reality the sky looked quite green. Taken from nearby the convent on Old Bluff Trail.

Waterbury Road, where vehicles were starting to pull off, looking back toward convent.

Rain-wrapped tornado leveling old buildings at Badger Army Ammunition behind the field. Taken from Prairie Road.


Gratuitous shot of a cemetery. Storm behind can barely be seen.


Peering toward the damage at Badger. I think these photos were taken several days after the tornado.

As I understand it, the buildings with the worst damage at Badger were farther back on the property, which is closed to the public.

1 comment:

  1. Great story. I'm glad your sister was with you :)