Storm chase heads straight into path of destructive East Texas tornado

Waskom Tornado 1

The Mobile StormTracker chase vehicle endured a beating from hail & heavy rain before tracking a tornado’s path through Harrison County.

The threat of severe weather was looming and I got the call from KLTV 7 meteorologist Grant Dade that our latest chase was hours away. After filling up the Mobile StormTracker chase vehicle, Grant spent some time checking models, radar and forecast discussions to pinpoint the ideal place to watch storms fire up.

An impressive wall cloud moved through Marshall, signaling the prime time to move east. With his eye on live radar data, Grant warned that we were about to drive into some strong weather along Interstate 20; he was right. In all of our previous chases with me at wheel, this was certainly becoming the most nerve-wracking.

A wall of rain pounded us, instantly cutting visibility to mere inches in front of the vehicle and quickly got worse. We were driving into the hail core of the storm and traffic cut our speed to a snails pace. No exits and no overpasses left us stranded under the storm, driving in a convoy of motorists at 15 miles per hour. Winds shifted direction multiple times, all while gusting over 80 miles per her. Moments later, damage became quite apparent.

Waskom Tornado 3

An EF-1 tornado was confirmed in the Waskom area, completely destroying a building at a roofing company.

We pulled into a driveway near Five Starr Builders on a service road in Waskom, a small town east of Marshall in Harrison County. Sheet metal littered the lawn in front of a home next to the business. The rain had stopped, though the mid-afternoon sky remained darkened through a lingering mist. We stepped out of the Mobile StormTracker to survey the scene. In the distance, a small army of workers scurried about, picking up debris and dismantling what was left of one of their roofing supplies storage building. The corrugated aluminum building was flattened. Fortunately all the employees had hunkered down in a much sturdier building as the storm passed. Grant pointed out a large sheet of metal, twisted around the top of a tree, about 30 feet up. Noting the way in which debris was scattered around the property, Grant was certain this was not the aftermath of straight line wind. A tornado had touched down moments before we arrived. I was amazed at how quickly they were back at work, tearing through piles of construction material strewn for dozens of yards.

Waskom Tornado 2

Corrugated aluminum from a Harrison County business was wrapped around the top of a tree, several hundred feet away.

A young family emerged from the mobile home next door, telling me they had taken shelter in their bathtub. The mother, visibly shaken, said her only concern was her infant child, still cradled in her arms. Fortunately, no one was injured. She said the wind picked up quickly, with a howl that she’ll never forget. Debris went airborne and they took cover. A significant number of shingles were missing from their single-wide, but the rest of the home seemed unscathed; amazingly, considering the debris that lay on either side of the trailer. Relatives quickly jumped into action to stretch a large tarp over the roof to shield it from any rain still to come that day. About that time, I ventured back across the property to ask the workers at Five Starr about their experience. One of the managers told me the business lost its roof back in 2010 when an EF-3 tornado passed over the same spot.

After sending video of the damage and a few short interviews with witnesses back to our Tyler newsroom, it was back on the road to look for more damage. Grant was busy reporting his observations and pictures of the damage to his colleagues at the National Weather Service office in Shreveport. A survey team would be back the next day, confirming that an EF-1 had formed nearby. Based on radar and damage observations, meteorologists estimated the wind in Waskom topped 86 to 110 miles per hour.

Waskom Tornado 4

Two people were injured when a tree trunk crushed the cab of this pickup during Thursday’s severe weather.

About a mile away on FM 9, south of Waskom, the trunk of a large pine tree completely crushed the cab of a Ford F-150. It was difficult to fathom the exact conditions and circumstances that would have timed out perfectly to create this terrible situation. Volunteer fire fighters told me two people inside were transported from the scene by ambulance with unknown conditions. Traffic was backed up on either side of the scene and would remain that way for more than an hour while a wrecker cleared the unbelievable sight.

Back at Five Starr Builders, our colleagues from Raycom Media sister station KSLA were tuning in their satellite truck for live shots on both of our stations. It was a shorter drive from Shreveport, than dispatching our own satellite truck from Tyler. While the StormTracker is equipped with live video cameras, the satellite signal would create a more seamless process between both stations. By the time we returned, it was time for our first live hit for KLTV’s 4 o’clock newscast, followed by reports at 5 & 6 o’clock on both stations. It was only by chance that we found ourselves in the middle of Mother Nature’s destruction on Thursday, bringing our viewers incredible images, data and details for them to make informed decisions about their own safety.

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV-TV or Raycom Media.  They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2013 Lane Luckie

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