A long and hectic birthday chase results in a giant tornado (first of 2019) near home in Lawrence, Kansas.
The morning started with a 15% hatched tornado risk for NE KS into MO and IA. I thought that this was a bit overdone, but it was my birthday, so I had to head out. At 1630z the outlook was downgraded to 10% hatched which I thought was appropriate. I decided to head out and went to Topeka where Lijun played with my moms dog Chapman for a while. We headed west to Junction City, as a triple point setup looked great in the Smoky Hills northwest of Salina. However, I headed south towards Herington, as the dryline along I-135 also looked intriguing. As I was going south on US 77, I saw an enormous updraft going up east of me, near Council Grove. I decided to head east from Herington towards Council Grove on US 56 after a cluster of supercells developing in the Flint Hills. I stopped a few miles west of Council Grove (where Lijun scared a prairie chicken) and contemplated my options. Northwest of Salina looked great, but that was a bit too far for me. The cells on the dryline near Hillsboro went up, but died soon after. I figured the cells to my east were my only option so I headed east through Council Grove on US 56. The supercells started rotating quickly and tornado warnings were issued to my east. I didn’t want to core punch, so I headed south to Americus and then to Emporia. I knew the supercell now going into Osage County was rapidly rotating and may have a tornado. I headed quickly east on I-35 to the US 75 exit and went north. The storm structure was hidden by rain, so it was hard to get a read on exactly what was going on. I zigzagged through Osage and Franklin Counties trying to catch up to the tornado-warned storm, and I had no data so I didn’t know what was going on. I finally got data as I came into Douglas County, and I was stunned to see a violent tornado signature over the south side of Lawrence. I drove as fast as I felt safe going to Baldwin City and then north on county roads from there. A huge rain-wrapped mass was to my north as I raced to catch up. As the tornado passed near Linwood, I saw power flashes in the rain, which was the only real indication that a tornado was there. After it became apparent that the storm was moving northeast into the KC metro, I headed towards home. I came upon the damage path just southeast of Baker Wetlands, where trees were shredded and structures were damaged. Everyone was safe in that area, so I drove home.
What a weird and shocking chase. I didn’t get a single picture the entire chase due to driving constantly to catch up with the storm. Driving all the way to Junction City only to see a huge tornado mere miles from home is strange enough. All this happening on my birthday is crazy.
My thoughts are with those affected by this tornado. Seeing a high-end tornado so close to home is humbling, and going through the damage path is something I won’t forget. Hopefully I won’t have to see something like that again. We’ll see what the damage surveys come up with, but an EF4 rating seems plausible.
Update: the tornado has indeed been rated EF4 based on damage in Linwood. It was on the ground from Lone Star Lake to just west of Bonner Springs, and was over a mile wide at points. A true monster.