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Needle in a Haystack
Chase Day: May 30, 1998-Spencer, South Dakota
By Martin Lisius

It was Saturday evening, June 13, 1998.  I was having dinner with some of the top storm chasers in the country at the Wagon Wheel Tavern in historic Marysville, Kansas.  Fellow chasers Carson Eads, Tim Marshall, Alan Moller, Gene Rhoden and I sat down to a late meal after chasing a fast-moving, high-precipitation supercell along the Kansas-Nebraska border for several hours.  The storm started out well to the west of Highway 81 and moved rapidly to Southeast Nebraska.  At times, it looked like the storm might produce a view-able tornado, but the high-precipitation structure and rapid movement made things difficult for us.  We abandoned the storm northeast of Marysville as our visibility deteriorated.

Before arriving to dinner, we heard about a tornado that had just tracked across the north side of Oklahoma City.  All of us had driven to Northern Kansas, separately, from the Dallas-Ft. Worth area.  We had passed through Oklahoma City just hours earlier.  We were surprised to hear about the tornado that had had occurred much closer to home.  During a pause in the dinner conversation, I sighed and then said quite profoundly, "tornado forecasting is very difficult."

Veteran storm chasers often look at a multi-state area when forecasting where they think tornadoes will occur before departing on a chase.  They may consider a 300,000 square mile region.  If they are lucky enough to see a tornado that produces a path one-half mile wide and ten miles long, for example, then simply put, they just pinpointed a five square mile area out of a possible 300, 000. Forecasting and intercepting tornadoes is literally like looking for a needle in a haystack!

When I departed Dallas-Ft. Worth at 4 a.m. on the morning of Friday, May 29, I had no idea that the needle I would eventually find would be in Spencer, South Dakota.  My target for that day was South Central Nebraska.  Specifically, I was targeting Hastings, where much of my family lives.  Conditions appeared to be coming together there for a possible tornado event later in the day.  Thermodynamics and wind shear both looked good.  That was until I reached Central Kansas and got a call via cell phone from storm chaser Bill Reid.  Bill relayed data that indicated that outflow from nocturnal storms had stabilized the atmosphere over much of Nebraska and Northern Kansas effectively eliminating any chances for tornadoes later in the day.  His updated analysis showed that there was a slim chance of tornadoes perhaps in Northeast Colorado.  So, at Salina I turned west on Interstate 70 for the Rocky Mountain State.  By 8 p.m., I was in Colorado and could see distant, weak thunderstorms near the intersection of the Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska border from my location north of Yuma.  Things were not looking good.  Soon after a mild attack of despair began, I received a much-needed pep call from Bill who was just over the border in Big Springs, Nebraska passing time with chasers Keith Brown and Cheryl Chang.  Bill announced that it was basically a bust for everyone and asked me to meet up with him.  I had not chased with Bill since 1996, and was eager to visit with him. 

Bill, Keith, Cheryl and I sat down to a hearty meal in Ogallala.  After dinner, we drove to the edge of town to watch a distant and meager lightning display originating from somewhere over the Nebraska Panhandle.  Back at the motel, the radar indicated that this activity was isolated and that large-scale convection may not form,  leaving an unstable atmosphere for chasing on the Plains the next day.

I rose with the sun on the morning of Saturday, May 30.  I was very eager to download weather data on my laptop to see how and where conditions were coming together for a possible chase.  One of the first discussions I read was a public outlook issued by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) that called the event shaping up "a particularly dangerous situation" with the possibility of damaging tornadoes.  Their area of concern was primarily over Iowa, Eastern Nebraska, Southeast South Dakota and Southern Minnesota.  A quick look at surface and upper air data supported their outlook.  I was soon on the phone attempting to wake the Reid gang with the news.  After several failed attempts to contact them by phone, I decided to drive over the Platte River to their motel in Downtown Ogallala.  Once stirred from bed, the three weary but expedient chasers were ready for the road and our long trek eastward across the Cornhusker State.  Our initial target was Northwest Iowa via Omaha.  We would split the four chasers up into teams of two.  Keith rode with me in my Explorer while Cheryl rode with Bill in his ubiquitous and storm-battered Pathfinder.