2013-05-19: South Haven, KS tornado

After a near-midnight arrival at our hotel, we (Dan D., Dan S. Steve W., and I) awoke near Wichita Mid-Continent Airport Sunday morning. We were in prime position at the western edge of our target area, which spanned a considerable longitude band – all the way from Guthrie, OK to Topeka, KS. Our logistical and tail-end Charlie biases urged us to move south. We evaluated the obs and high-res guidance mid-morning, and decided to target an outflow boundary near the KS/OK border. We crossed the border via the Kansas turnpike and sweltered through the lunch hour sitting stationary in Blackwell, OK.

When the Wichita storm attracted our attention, we were hesitant to backtrack north for fear of being suckered. From the McDonald’s parking lot, we watched a steady stream of identifiable chase vehicles pass us headed north on I-35, evident on Spotternet as ant trails. As the Wichita storm grew into an HP supercell, we heard reports of a destructive tornado moving into Wichita – right over the hotel where we’d spent the night, in fact – and wondered if we’d made the wrong decision.

We did eventually backtrack north a few miles into Kansas, targeting the next storm southwest of the Wichita storm near Wellington, KS. It quickly gusted out. We continued south on U.S. Hwy. 81 until it kinked west at South Haven, KS, delivering us into the inflow notch of the next storm in the line. A mile or two west of South Haven, a dense precipitation shaft loomed at the southwest end of the line. As we approached, we observed a dense cluster of chasers parked along U.s. Hwy. 81, watching the approaching hook ball. The time was about 4:35 p.m. CDT.

I happened to lean forward in the driver’s seat and see a finger of white cloud extending down toward the field to our southwest. I quickly pulled off the road and pointed the funnel cloud out to my companions, who jumped out with cameras at the ready.

The narrow South Haven tornado kicked up a small dust whirl in a field less than a mile to our south. At one point, the upper portion of the tornado was almost directly above our car. We darted west briefly, then followed the sinuous vortex back east toward South Haven until it dissipated outside of town.

The South Haven storm congealed into the line and gusted out, so we continued southwest to another non-tornadic cell. Nature called, and I pulled briefly into a gas station in Braman, OK. The town’s tornado sirens went off while I was in the bathroom, and when I came out, I was nearly swept up in a group of customers and employees that was hastily packing itself into the gas station’s freezer. As I walked against the crowd flow towards the front exit, a gas station attendant moved to intercept me, a walkie-talkie in one hand, eyes glinting with concern, arms outstretched as if to grab me and carry me into the freezer. I simply looked him in the eye and sidestepped him, and he let me exit to the parking lot with a shrug.

We hopscotched south and west to each new storm along the line as it back-built into drier air. In the meantime, news of the destructive tornadoes spawned from the Edmond-Arcadia-Carney and Lake Thunderbird-Shawnee storms trickled through to us. We could see the backsheared anvils of both of those storms to our distant south. Our final target storm produced a brief funnel cloud over Blackwell, OK, but we called off the chase near Newkirk when the storm moved over the road hole around Kaw Lake. We made it back to Norman in plenty of time to get a decent night’s sleep for work the next day.

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