By early in the morning, it was apparent that the northwest Oklahoma-southwest Kansas region would be the day's target, since several boundaries were expected to merge with a surface low there by afternoon. The strongest winds aloft would pass just south of the target area, with enough flow, and sufficient turning to aid supercell development within the target area further north.
By mid-afternoon, towering cumulus appeared in the brilliant sunlight along the dryline just northwest of Woodward, Oklahoma. Taller towers and new convection was just visible through the haze toward Dodge City. A short drive north to Coldwater, Kansas provided a front row look at the now-severe convection just to the northwest. A cluster of storms had formed and it was time to chose the one with the best tornadic potential. The storm directly north-northwest looked strong and was producing multiple confirmed tornado sightings in northeast Ford County. So, I was off to see the Wizard.
Upon arriving in Bucklin, I could see the storm's well-established, dark, ground-hugging base to my north near Windthorst. Soon, I was in position for the show just a few miles east of the wall cloud. I moved east to stay ahead of the lowering, finally stopping about 5 miles north of the tiny town of Mullinville.
Suddenly, an elegant cone tornado formed just a few miles to my west, or about 6 miles northwest of Mullinville. I photographed several minutes of the tornado as it spun beneath a beautiful pin-wheeled storm base. As it approached, the usual waterfall roar revealed itself. What an incredible sound! So mesmerizing. So mysterious. I soaked it up as long as I could and then headed south to get out of the tornado's path.
I then noticed that the tornado was quickly turning southeast, so I slowed down and watched it develop into a wedge just a couple miles to my west. I quickened my pace in order to make it through my escape window just to the south. Very abruptly, the tornado widened and precipitation curtains started to sweep across the road ahead of me. Winds were from the west now at about 60 knots. Small branches began to fall on me and I could see them also several hundred feet up in the air, over the road ahead. Tornadic debris! Several cuss words preceded a few religious thoughts at that point. Through the grace of God, I made it past the final precip curtain only to see the headlights of a car behind me disappear in my rearview mirror. I drove another mile and looked north at the tornado roping out over the road. Wow!
The tornado had apparently weakened before crossing the north-south road I was on causing the circulation to widen out. I had driven through the tornadic circulation, but a relatively weak one. In hindsight, I was in no danger as long as I cleared the smaller, ropey vortex. But, it was pretty scary when I first saw those curtains and debris race across and over the road ahead of me.
I headed back to the Bucklin area where I watched several slender cone tornadoes form beneath another storm to my west. Cool outflow from the Mullinville storm raced in from the north and ended the potential for that area.
At dark, I took the longer, south route toward Pratt, via Coldwater, to circumnavigate the still-tornadic cells that were tracking along US Highway 54. I stopped in Sawyer, about 10 miles south of Pratt on US Highway 281, and assured the volunteer fire department that the eastward moving supercells would pass to the north.
The Pratt area suffered the brunt of storm damage that evening. Some lights were out in the town and debris was scattered in the road throughout. We booked some rooms at a motel and were told that restaurants had closed early due to the tornado threat. We had a bunch of hungry guests and no food. I wasn't about to let them starve. Not on my watch. So, I headed to Pizza Hut and talked the manager into giving us anything he had. "No pizza, but we can make you sub sandwiches," he said.
Tempest staff and guests stayed up late, and watched an incredible "crawler" lightning display on the retreating side of the storms to our east, from the motel parking lot. We were rain-soaked and covered with Kansas dirt (mud). But the day's catch, along with the brilliant lightning dashing overhead, made it all worth while, and that sandwich taste like prime rib!
35mm motion picture film footage of the May 7, 2002 Pratt, Kansas lightning show.