WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

A tornado, lightning, heavy rain and flooding

Posted May 16, 2010

It was the an exciting day outside Odessa, Texas, in the life of stormchaser and N.C. State student Casey Letkewicz  a tornado, lightning, heavy rain and flooding. (Photo courtesy of asey Letkewicz)

Casey Letkewicz is a doctoral student in meteorology at N.C. State University in Raleigh. She is one of a half-dozen students and faculty from N.C. State participating in VORTEX2, a research project designed to learn more about how and why tornadoes form.

Yesterday the action started early, with storms firing right around lunchtime. In fact, many teams had just finished grabbing lunch (literally grabbing – not yet eating) when the field coordinator declared a target storm. Thankfully, the storm was not too far away because it produced a tornado about 45 minutes later. My team was heading north to get in position for a weather balloon launch when we saw the tornado form about 10-15 miles away (Note that I had to increase the contrast in the image to make it easier to see the tornado).

Unfortunately, soon after the tornado dissipated, my team had to turn around and find a different route to get in position to launch. This was because storms were forming so rapidly that we were prevented from reaching our desired storm relative position. Launching in the correct spot was also made difficult by the poor road network. While we were near a sizeable city (Odessa, TX), it is never a good idea to launch a weather balloon (or deploy other weather instrumentation) in an urban area due to traffic, buildings obstructing views, power lines, etc. As a result, we ended up dodging a few more storms (including one which was producing rotation right over our heads!) before finally being able to execute our mission. I don’t believe that the rotating cloud pendant was trying to produce a tornado, but it definitely got my blood pumping nonetheless!

After some careful maneuvering through the road network, my team was finally able to launch twice in our assigned storm relative position. Because numerous storms continued to fire, however, the slightly more isolated storm we were targeting merged with other storms in the area and formed a squall line. As a result, we needed to change our sampling strategy while also making sure we were staying out of the way of the squall line! My team ended up launching two balloons in front of the squall line in coordination with two other balloon teams also positioned in front of the squall line.

After our second launch in front of this squall line, operations were called off because it was becoming very difficult for teams to continue their respective missions. The best “escape route” back to the hotel ended up taking us right through the northern half of this beast. I was a little nervous about the prospect of hail, but it ended up being a lot of heavy rain and frequent lightning.

Another consequence of this squall line was quite a bit of flooding in the area. If you’ve ever been to western Texas, then you know how poor the drainage is there. Not only is it quite flat, but the soil cannot soak up much moisture (see flooding pictures above). Several streets were actually impassable (even for our large pickup trucks), so some creative navigating was necessary for us to finally reach our hotel.

Also, as a word of caution, this is NOT the correct thing to do when you see a flooded street, especially if you are in a small sedan. Remember: Turn around don’t drown!

All in all it was a really fun day – I got to see a tornado, experience rotation over my head, frequent lightning, and heavy rains and flooding! Looking forward to seeing even more of that in the coming weeks

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