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Anything outdoors!  Tornadoes, eagles, blizzards, or auroras.  If it is in the sky, running through the woods or swimming in the water, I'm there!


Friday, December 28, 2007

Greensburg - Through Peg and Mel's eyes


I'm posting this at the request of Peggy Willenberg. The following sections are from the blog they posted on WE TV's website and were written before the show aired.

Peggy's blog entry:

This past week has been one of the most difficult of my life. Our guests were our friends Cindy Togstad and her sons Terry and Will. We have become very close friends with the Togstads after we helped to rescue the boys from their demolished farmhouse near Wilber, Nebraska, in May 2004. On that night I thought I had seen the most devastating tornado I would ever encounter.

The 2.5 mile wide F4 tornado destroyed the entire town of Hallam, Nebraska, as well as many farmsteads. The tornado came at night, and the scene was so horrific I still dream about it. We hoped we could show the Togstads the "other side" of a tornado, to give them a perspective of the tornado as a natural phenomenon instead of a terrible monster that took their home and almost took their lives. At least that was the plan.

The tour started well as we crossed northern Kansas, where it seemed very likely an outbreak of severe weather would occur the next day. Unexpectedly, we spotted a slim funnel directly in front of us above the highway! It was a cold air funnel, a typically harmless but relatively rare formation that results from very cold air aloft in the atmosphere. We all admired the little storm, which Cindy described as a "dainty ballerina". It seemed a good omen for the week to come.

Our first chase day appeared to offer a classic Southern Plains weather pattern for large and powerful tornadoes in southwest Kansas. But there was one problem—a layer of warm air aloft, "the cap", lay over all the brewing ingredients for supercells and tornadoes like a lid on a pot. Warm air could not rise to form clouds if the cap could not be broken. If the cap did break, however, all the energy in a large area would punch through a small gap and create a huge storm. If the cap held tight, we might not see any storms at all.

We waited rather nervously in our target area near Dodge City, Kansas. Because of the uncertainty, many chase teams headed into Nebraska where the cap was weaker but the atmosphere was less unstable. We stayed with our original forecast and watched the skies and satellite imagery carefully. At about 6 P.M., a thunderstorm blossomed in the Texas Panhandle and moved into Oklahoma, producing a tornado at 6:30. The cap had been breached! It was time to head south in a hurry.

Although the original storm dissipated quickly, more storms were forming from south to north ahead of the dryline. We intercepted the most powerful storm just west of Protection, Kansas. Just as we reached it, a slender funnel descended to the ground—tornado! Although everyone was very excited, the timing was terrible. Our storm moved north into the gathering darkness. We tried to follow it north but there was no light at all—a starless prairie night. Suddenly Will shouted "...there's a big tornado in there!" In the lightning flashes, we could see a huge wedge-shaped tornado trundling to the northeast. At times there were three tornadoes on the ground at the same time. As we checked our maps and radar, we saw to our horror the monstrous tornado was headed directly for Greensburg, Kansas, a town of 1600.

As we neared Greensburg, we saw stark evidence of the tornado's passage. Exploded buildings, injured cattle wandering on the road, downed power lines and trees surrounded us. The smell of propane and fuel oil made it difficult to breathe. A huge underground pipeline had ruptured, jetting high-pressure natural gas into the highway—we had to get out of there before it blew!

During all this the Togstads were frozen with horror and disbelief. It was the exact same scenario as the storm they had so recently survived! There were tears and prayers as they thought of the people of Greensburg whose lives were now changed forever, as theirs had been.

We couldn't get through to Greensburg; the road was completely blocked by debris. We reversed course and headed south and away from the nightmare. We knew from radio reports that hundreds of emergency personnel were in Greensburg helping the victims, but I still felt sick that there wasn't something we could do for them ourselves.

The Greensburg tornado was ultimately rated EF5, with winds over 200 mph. 10 people died in the town and many more were injured. Greensburg, Kansas, was completely destroyed.

The next day brought more tornadic storms, but we always seemed to be a little late. We continued to chase, but my heart wasn't in it. I could only think of what I had seen the night before. I felt guilty we were still intact when so many others were not.

I know there is a reason that the Togstads were with us on the night of this storm. Perhaps someday I will understand, but until then I must trust that the universe was in order and that all happened as it should have, despite our lack of understanding. All our prayers are with the people of Greensburg tonight.

Melanie's blog entry:

The Nightmare

When Peggy and I arrive at the Togstad's house to pick up Cindy, Will and Terry we were amazed by how they had come back from that tragic night when they were the ones chased down by a devastating tornado. The last time we were here, there was nothing but a pile of rubble. A pile of rubble that had only moments before been their beautifully remodeled (by their own hands) two story house.

A pile of rubble under which Will, Terry and two of their friends were trapped. Now, before us was a gorgeous new house on the hill.

Although the Togstad’s had a new home, they were still trying to recover emotionally from that terrifying night. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to have your life of hard work and memories just blown away in minutes. The menacing tornado must haunt their dreams constantly.

Despite the hurt inside, Cindy, Will and Terry seemed to be doing quite well and it was wonderful to see them all again. I was actually shocked by Cindy’s enthusiasm to chase with us and to see a tornado, this time as the chaser and not the chased. I was really looking forward to showing the family the other side of the storm, the beauty of a tornado in the open field with the sun filtering through the clouds and turning the sky all shades of orange, pink, and purple. It was going to be a fun few days (I hoped) with the Togstads!

The first day our chase didn’t look very promising for severe weather so we decided to spend the day driving to Kansas to get in position for the next day, May 4th, which looked like it might be a big day. During our drive to Kansas small thunderstorms were popping up around us as we drove into an unstable air mass (with cold air aloft). It was a great opportunity to start teaching the Togstads about storm structure. These “low topped” cells had nice wall clouds and rain shafts. Then to our amazement, directly in front of us on the interstate a funnel descended out of one of the storms! There was just enough vorticity in the atmosphere to get that small storm to rotate. The funnel was fairly small but quite exciting! We caught up to the storm just as the funnel dissipated but had a chance to watch the wall cloud for a while and take some photos of a gorgeous rainbow and the sun was getting low on the horizon.

May 4th was a day, a night, that will live with me forever. We started the day with excitement, but also a hint of fear. All forecasts were pointing towards SW Kansas as an area where a tornado of Epic proportion might develop. Anytime there is a chance of a strong tornado, I worry. I worry for any people, any towns that might end up in the path of the deadly winds. All I could do was pray that if this tornado did develop is would be out in the open fields, and cause no harm. Unfortunately, the storm that we saw was headed directly for Greensburg, KS.

We caught up to the storm just after it initiated and watched it produce a couple small tornadoes near Protection, KS. The sun was setting and it was getting dark, too dark to chase. We decided to head back towards Hays, to our hotel but kept watching the storm. As we got closer, Terry said "is that a tornado?". I watched the storm more closely and the lightning revealed a tornado all right. A tornado that was getting bigger and bigger as we watched. A strong, persistent tornado ripping through the country side. We stopped, I mounted the video camera, and we watched. I think all of us were shocked to see such a powerful tornado continue to get stronger in the middle of the night. It is rare to see a tornado at night and unimaginable to see one like this.

When we realized Greensburg, KS was directly in the path of the tornado, I prayed it would weaken or take a different path. It didn’t. Fortunately, chasers and spotters had been watching this storm for a while and had been calling in reports to the National Weather Service so the residents of Greensburg had about 20 minutes of warning time before the tornado hit. My heart sank as we watched this monster continue directly for Greensburg.

We never made it into Greensburg to see if we could help that night. Debris was blocking the road where it had crossed our path. Gas was hissing loudly. Cows were wandering aimlessly crying in the night. It was chaos. It was a living nightmare. It was just like we had been transported in time and were reliving that tragic night in Wilber, NE when we came upon Will Togstad stumbling down the road in shock. How could this be? How could this happen again? To another community, to another family, to many families? And how could this be happening while the Togstad’s were with us? We didn’t want them to re-live that night that haunts their dreams. And yet, here we were. All I could do is pray that the people in the path had made it to shelter on time.

We ended up back at the hotel about 3am exhausted and heart broken. I couldn't believe the reports we heard on the news about the devastation to Greensburg, that 95% of the town had been destroyed. Unfortunately 10 people died. But the toll could have been much worse, considering a town of about 1400 was destroyed. The 20 minutes warning time helped save lives. What a relief but still how terribly sad.

We chased the next day still exhausted and heart broken. The mood wasn’t the same. This day there were storms all over and we got stuck behind a tornado warned storm after dark. Kind of a scary ending to the day.

While it was an extremely emotional week for all of us, I was glad in the end that we got to spend time with Cindy, Terry and Will. I felt closer to them all, especially Terry. I hoped somehow this trip helped them to feel more in control, more able to read the sky and somehow more at peace. Although, considering we relived their nightmare, I’m not so sure this week helped them find peace but instead brought back some terrible memories. But maybe it also helped them face their fears and maybe now they can move forward.

To top it off, here is a video segment KMSP Fox 9 (who the girls and I chase for) in Minneapolis MN aired regarding the Greensburg event.

1 comment:

Fish said...

Hi Bill...I've enjoyed following your chases. If you ever know you're going to be in northern Iowa let me know. I'd like to ride with you sometime! Thanks


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