While not Walker County related, this tornado was the author’s first observed tornado, one year ago today. I figured it was as good a time as any to deliver a write-up on this event on this date.

On June 21, 2017, I happened to be on the Alabama Gulf Coast visiting my mom at the apartment she had just moved into the month prior. During a family crisis, I was going with her and helping clean condominiums for the first part of the day throughout that particular week. This week also happened to be same week Tropical Storm Cindy, the third tropical storm of what would become a devastating and historic Atlantic hurricane season, was meandering about in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Cindy was not a very organized or particularly intense storm, but it was extremely large, bringing disorganized bands of squalls as far east as the Florida Panhandle even as the center lie south of Lafayette, Louisiana; half the Gulf away. Some debated the tropical nature of the low pressure area designated Cindy, but none could deny its widespread impact along the northern Gulf Coast. Tropical storm force winds and heavy rain buffeted the coastal regions, and treacherous seas led to at least one fatality and more coastal flooding than one would expect from a distant tropical storm lying well off to the west. Beaches were largely underwater as high seas rolled continuously almost up to some of the condominiums lining the Gulf. Along the Alabama coast, in between heavy squalls, one could see a three foot water rise and street flooding.

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But along with these other threats, lay the risk for isolated tornadoes. This was always a threat with warm season tropical cyclones affecting the Gulf Coast, but this threat had been an unusually prolonged one. Cindy’s size and relatively slow movement led to multiple days with some sort of tornado risk along the coast. June 21st was perhaps the apex of this for the Alabama coast, as heavy bands in the northeast quadrant moved ominously toward the area in waves.

The Alabama coast was under a standard Slight Risk by the SPC all day, with the usual tropical 5% risk for tornadoes. Tornado Watch 359 had been issued at 10am, noting a rather extended period of threat for isolated tornadoes from Lafayette to Pensacola throughout the entire afternoon and evening. As well it should be, perhaps, as parameters briefly became fairly impressive in isolated pockets by the time tornadoes began dropping by mid-afternoon.

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Heavy rain and 40-50mph gusts proved the primary issue in early bands, but by 1-2pm, parameters began to maximize. Pockets of 250-350 m2/s2 0-1km SRH showed up on mesoanalysis along the Alabama coast, and breaks in the overcast allowed areas of >1500 j/kg SBCAPE to be noted in the same area. EHI reached 4 in a small pocket along the coast, and there was briefly even an area where the STP was between 1 and 2. As these parameters peaked, the cells moving inland began to intensify, with weak rotations noted in showers and low-topped supercells moving NNW along the coast. Later, during the heart of the event, a mesoscale discussion noted the relatively enhanced tornado threat over this area. This noted that the increase in intensity was likely related to the approach of a low level speed maximum (50+kt at 850mb) leading to enlarged hodographs in a favorable time of near peak boundary layer instability for the day.

By 2:00pm, we had finished the last condo and headed for the main building to drop off dirty linens and head back to the apartment. I had lapsed in checking radar, too busy to notice the deepening of the showers just offshore. But at 2:29pm, while were were occupied sorting sheets, the building EAS came alive with a tornado warning for Baldwin County. I quickly checked Radarscope for the location and trajectory of this cell, and it just so happened that the storm was primed to move inland parallel to and just east of SR-59; the main north-south route from I-65 in the northern part of the county to the beach. Indeed, the road that mom’s apartment was accessed from, and our road leading there anyway.

We quickly made the decision that, since the timing and location of this cell was absolutely perfect, and would be right next to us regardless of whether or not we went to observe it on our way, we would follow it in an attempt to see if it would produce. And so, we took off, headed from Fort Morgan to SR-59 at Gulf Shores. The storm was already onshore at Orange Beach and headed NNW inland by the time we reached it, a few miles ahead of us. Heavy northbound traffic from thousands of vacationers apparently undeterred by the week’s poor weather and many red lights hampered the approach.

I haven’t located the videos of our journey there, but very ominous skies pervaded our early intercept. Black clouds, hanging very low with chaotic motion, filled the view to the northeast, though lines of tall pines, palmettos, and apartments blocked the view at ground level. These skies are typical of a tropical tornado event; extremely low cloud bases and low tops, very little lightning, and brief rotations and touchdowns make chasing a tropical tornado very different visually and logistically. But this storm happened to be perfectly located, if only we could reach it before it crossed SR-59.

North we went through Foley, leaden skies taunting us. The cell continued to track NNW and was approaching Summerdale, a few miles up from of Foley on SR-59. After miles of miserable slow traffic and many stops, a stretch of clear road allowed us to catch up, although the ground view was still blocked by trees. Soon, though, I knew we would come across several open fields at nurseries and orchards, a rare glimpse of sky before tree coverage increased again. If we could time it just right, we could observe the storm beautifully.

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Despite a persistent couplet, there was no confirmation yet of an actual touchdown, such a thing being difficult to get in most tropical events, especially in an area with only scattered spotters. It would take a public report, usually, to confirm a tornado. Wherever the sky below the clouds was visible enough to see any detail, a slight ragged lowering with vertical motion and a very shallow cone-shaped dip below could be picked out by an astute eye, but with no indication of a funnel reaching the ground. The skies were very ominous and a tornado could drop at any moment, but there was no ground truth yet.

But we would have to wait no longer to determine if a touchdown would happen, even before reaching the open spots.

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Briefly passing a gap in the trees, where CR 73 and a Foley Beach Express access road branched off SR-59, the lowering came into obvious view. And in perhaps some of the most fortuitous timing I will ever receive even if I were to chase storms for the next half century, a light and wispy, super thin and barely visible condensation and leaf debris trail twirled up from just behind the trees below the cone-shaped funnel, for perhaps a single second. It wasn’t even obvious enough to appear on video, even in high definition, but we both witnessed this brief, transient moment of contact.

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Blocked by trees for the next several moments, we excitedly debated on whether or not we had actually seen what we had just seen. Were we certain enough to even count it? As brief as it was, the motion in the condensation whirl was enough to tip the scales in favor of it. Several long seconds later, we were in view of a field again, though traffic and advertising signs were ever-present in our field of view.

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The cone had morphed, the obvious lowering hidden. The touchdown we had seen was brief, as there was no indication in the little patch of sky I assume to be the same immediate area of any motion right at the ground. We would later learn that a spotter with a much better vantage point was able to confirm a touchdown had occurred roughly in the area we witnessed it. However, at this point, from my view, there was a chaotic rolling motion at cloud base that I would describe as an elongated funnel cloud with no ground connection. The motion was highly impressive.

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From this point, the sky became increasingly visible. The entire sky seemed to be rotating, as the cell approached SR-59 to cross. Classic storm structure training is sometimes severely challenged by these tropical supercells. Very little in the way of a RFD, wall cloud, or other visual cues was present in favor of a low rotating mass scooting off to the north, and which exact point in the storm was the point favored for a touchdown became increasingly unclear. Small wisps of rapidly moving scud formed underneath and were swallowed up in rapid succession, making the identification of any true funnels a little harder.

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We pulled off to a gas station and car wash near Summerdale to watch the sky and let the cell cross SR-59 ahead of us. Over an open field, we could see the low rotating flank of the storm race NNW, dragging a mass of low grey rotating clouds low to the ground. Scud continued to form and rise, making for a fascinating scene of chaos. There may have been further intermittent touchdowns, but their brevity and poorly consolidated structures made that impossible to tell from our vantage point.

We continued to follow the storm a bit to the north, but then broke off on a hunch to get in position for another smaller cell beginning to rotate that was south of the main warned storm. We parked in an open area and watched impressive storm structure, but no indication of a tornadic threat. The videos of this I fear may be lost as I had to borrow a phone to record on, mine being full from the previous catch and its associated chase. The lesson here is to always make sure whatever you’re recording on has plenty of free space to document whatever you may find.

The brief Summerdale tornado was overshadowed by slightly more significant tornadoes in Conecuh and Escambia counties, and a couple of stronger touchdowns just across the border in Florida – not to mention the significant coastal and flash flooding occurring across the immediate area. And even those touchdowns seemed to pale in comparison to the sudden surprise tornado in Fairfield the next day, way up in Central AL, that injured four and damaged several homes and businesses. Cindy produced impacts all over the state indeed, despite the center staying far away.

One never forgets the thrill of their first tornado, as small and insignificant as it may sometimes be. In my excitement and confusion over whether it was worth reporting because of its brief nature and my uncertainty over whether or not it was an actual tornado, I forgot to report it until the next day, wherein NWS Mobile told me it matched well with other spotter reports. I was still excited over my catch but not too confident that it was an actual touchdown until I looked at the AL tornado database months later and found that, based on a much better report from another spotter, it had been confirmed (See Tornado 36) It wasn’t mentioned in any LSR or PNS as far as I recall so I had no indication of this until then.

I am still not fully sure I saw the actual touchdown reported by the spotter, but, based on my location, it seems that this is probably the case, and I count it as my first tornado. I suspect there were multiple very weak touchdowns along its trek, none causing damage, and I happened to spy one of these. For what it’s worth I complied some of the more interesting video into a clip a while back, though again, there is little to see in regards to a tornado within them. It’s on Youtube.

Obviously, for Tornado #2, I am going to have to try much harder; this one practically fell into my lap. But it was an amazing experience I wouldn’t trade for many others. This was not a high tech chase, with only a cell phone, Radarscope, and an SUV. And honestly it was not even much of a real ‘chase’ at all; rather, a right-place, right-time rare opportunity that led us only a few miles out of our way to see a marginal event that wound up producing. To see a classic, high end photogenic plains tornado, much more effort, expense, and planning is usually required – and even this does not guarantee success. To see a tornado on technically one’s first chase after putting almost no effort into it is absolutely absurd, but when presented with a perfect opportunity very close to home, why not see what happens? You might catch a break in the trees and see the telltale wisp of success right above the horizon.

 

NHC archive for Cindy

NWS Birmingham write-up

NWS Mobile write-up

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