In Their Own Words: Storm Chasers Reflect on Historic Tornado

Submitted by Storm Chasers Barry Hansen & Nick Weig

EF-5 Tornado east of New Hartford on Sunday, May 25, 2008

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By Becky Ogann

After days of ominous signs that a severe weather outbreak was possible, May 25th, 2008 began with a lot of clouds and haze.  It was not the best weather for a possible chase and the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK began lowering the threat of severe weather in Iowa.  We actually went about some usual Sunday activities, I went to brunch and Barry traveled to Raymond for his niece's third birthday.

Mesoscale Discussion After brunch, I stopped into KCRG to quickly double check on the threat with Kaj O'Mara.  The two words out his mouth I will forever remember were "go north."  Kaj showed me a boundary that was setting up along highway 20.  He believed the area around Grundy County was a good place to go and go quickly.  I called Barry who at this time was traveling home to Quasqueton with his wife Gayle.  He met me at the station and we got on the road as fast as possible.

We drove north on Interstate 380.  At this point the storms were difficult to spot.  I recall discussing with Barry some strong storms located far north that looked promising.  But they were too far away and we decided to turn west and try to intercept future development.  At this time a cell in Butler County was taking shape.  We thought further development to the southwest would provide a prime area to chase, instead that Butler County cell took a life of its own.

Parkersburg Radar After heading west for a while we made a pit stop near the town of Brandon.  We began to realize a growing sustained wind out of the southeast and no storms developing to the south of the Butler County cell.  It was then we realized it could be a developing supercell.  Barry plotted the best course to intercept it and we began to race because we were a bit out of position.

At this point we were coming up US 63 toward Waterloo from Hudson. We took US 20 west hoping to intercept the storm. The intercept plan was to go north after we exited US 20. We took our exit at Dike and started north towards New Hartford. We could already see extremely dark clouds at the base of this thunderstorm and could tell it was very violent.

It was at this point I recall warning Barry to get the camera ready, but it was too late.   As we came upon New Hartford coming from the south about 3 miles away from the town we spotted a large tornado to our northwest moving towards New Hartford.    Our reaction was obviously a little chaotic.  We came upon the storm much faster than either of us anticipated.  Barry jumped into the back seat, hoping to get a better shot of it.  My job as driver was to keep us safe.  I drove closer to the tornado and found an east road to get us out of there.  We tried to stay with it, but at this point we did not know which direction the tornado was moving.

New Hartford TornadoBarry filmed a secondary tornado extending south of the main vortex.  As we raced to the east we could see the size of the tornado.  We could see multiple funnel clouds coming down from the storm and decided to err on the side of safety and get out of the way.  I recall at one point driving well over the 55mph speed limit with Barry shooting out the side window.  At that point a state trooper came up behind us.  Instead of pulling me over, he passed me at an even higher rate of speed.  It wasn't until we got further east that we found out why.

IMG_0037 After trying to get our bearings we wound up behind the storm, trying to play catch up.  Law enforcement raced to Cedar Falls and Waterloo, blocking off every road north that could have gotten us closer to the tornado.  I finally managed to get enough cell phone reception to report the tornado, not knowing the initial report of it striking Parkersburg had already come in.  We then approached the Waterloo Airport, finding a lot of debris from straight-line winds reported around 90mph.  Further to the north we encountered more damage.  As I called in a report of confirmed tornado damage, Barry continued to shoot, neither one of us had ever seen a storm as devastating as this.

untitled 2 We came upon homes that replaced homes destroyed in the Dunkerton tornado in May of 2000.  We made one final stop after driving in heavy rain in the town of Hazleton.  There was considerable damage to the town's south side.  We both shot what we could but ongoing storms made that difficult.  One thing I recall is how out of the loop we were as to what was going on behind us.  We had no idea how severe Parkersburg, New Hartford and other areas were damaged.  When you're a stormchaser, although you are "plugged in" with good technology, the focus ALWAYS must remain on your surroundings.

The next day, Barry traveled around Buchanan County to survey some of the damage in his home county.  There were trees that were snapped off if not uprooted altogether, buildings shattered like they had exploded.  Barry could tell that this storm had intense winds seeing whole sections of power line poles leaning toward the direction of the storms path. He passed a farm near Lamont that its outbuildings had taken a direct hit from the tornado.

As for the impact on us in the days, months and years after, I think Barry sums it up best:  “People lost their property and some lost their lives with this storm. I certainly have a new appreciation for ths phenomena of nature. There were homes destroyed while others 500 feet away sustained little if any damage. It was almost like reading about all of the tornadoes that had destroyed so much in the past. Thoughts of Dunkerton in 2000 or the Jordan tornado in the 70’s, or even going to back to reading about Oelwein and Charles City in 1968. It is definitely an experience that you will never learn about in a book. It was just like going to Iraq, you can’t appreciate what is truly going on there until you experience it for yourself.”

Barry and I are still stormchasing, but I think with a different attitude.  I always thought tracking down a tornado would be exhilarating and it certainly was.  But in that moment of thrill a lot of terrible things also happened.  I've always said I wanted to catch "the big one," but preferred it take out some farm land and nothing else.  I now know how impossible that is.  Big storms will come again, they will do damage again and they will hurt and kill again.  We can't pick and choose how they come, we can only do all that we can to understand them, study them and prevent them from hurting people.

What keeps us stormchasing is finding the good that can come of it.  Today we operate a blog and facebook fan page where we not only document our chases, but do our best to provide real-time coverage to keep people informed.

All the work and effort, the video and writings we gather and produce about these monsters will hopefully someday make us safer from them.  I hope to catch a tornado again as I know Barry does too.  But I also know our mission remains the same as what it was before May 25th, 2008, to document, study and educate.  It might not help much, but anything we and other stormchasers can do to unlock the mysteries behind these phenomena can bring about positive change.  We owe that to the people of eastern Iowa.

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