Happy, Texas Tornado Intercept

Chase Day: May 5, 2002

Dean Cosgrove and I caught the Happy, TX, tornado for the Tempest Tours folks on early Sunday evening, May 5. 

Like many other chasers, I was not exactly confident in my "target area" for Sunday, even into early afternoon. I liked the southeast Texas Panhandle, somewhere in the Amarillo-Childress-Shamrock vicinity. A lot of talk about the lack of a real dry line push made me nervous about going deep into the western half of the Panhandle. SPC seemed to like the Red River Valley between Childress and Wichita Falls. The Texas Mesonet from Friona to Childress showed nice southeasterlies around 3 p.m., so I stuck with my southeast Panhandle forecast. 

We finished lunch in Childress at 3 p.m. and headed WNW up 287. A severe cell developed NW of AMA, near Channing, so I was pleased that the dry line was firing. We were still under low and high-level cloud crud until we neared Claude. New cells in Parmer County went up about the time we were at Claude, and these would make for an easy intercept. I targeted the storm which was moving from Hereford to Canyon, up U.S. 60. We viewed a large wall cloud beneath the updraft base from about half a county away, and soon afterwards a report of a brief tornado near Dawn was broadcast. Just WSW of Canyon the cell showed some nice lowerings and occasional mini-rotations, but the updraft looked pathetic. A second tornado was reported with this cell near Umbarger. We were in good position to see any thing that might have touched down near Umbarger, but all we saw was a brief funnel cloud. 

A large area of precip was now just south of this storm, starving it. Radar showed that the next cell south was becoming healthier, so we headed south on U.S. 87. Fortunately, the storm's core was a little west of U.S. 87/Interstate 27, so we made it south to Happy unscathed. The updraft base was just a few miles west of the town, so I decided to drive to the west edge of Happy to get a good look. Just as we arrived at the Happy cemetery, I noticed a puff of dirt beneath a wall cloud directly west, no more than a couple of miles away. Black dirt and dust quickly began to swirl beneath the wall cloud in earnest, and soon was pulled up and into the wall cloud. A large and blocky tornado was now in progress about two miles west of Happy, and was moving towards the town. The black block was contrasted perfectly against the clear skies behind it. Rotation on the ground was strong, but not intense. After about five minutes the tornado weakened, and the soda-can-shaped updraft revealed itself above the tornado. 

It was clearly time to get out of the way at this point, so we dashed north a couple of blocks in order to head back east through the heart of Happy. At U.S. 87, rain curtains began to scream into town. A funnel cloud was dangling evil-ly right above Happy, and no doubt there was stuff happening right underneath it. We blasted south through some very strong cyclonic winds, and exited the Bear's Cage about a mile south of town. From there we were able to stop again and look back north, just as a fully-developed skinny-tapered (and silvery-white) cone tornado was crossing the Interstate from west to east. This was an amazing and extremely fast transition, from a black quasi-wedge full of dust---to a skinny, silvery, wet tornado. At first I thought that these must have been two separate tornadoes, as there appeared to be a "hand-off" of some sorts from one stage to another. Now I'm not quite sure. I was unable to see what was happening as we drove east through Happy, so I missed some crucial stages! I suspect now that the entire sequence was the consequence of one primary funnel/rotating updraft. 

I was able to get excellent, tripoded video and some slides of the black, high-contrast stage, and some nervous, sorta-shaky hand-held video of the whitish, low-contrast stage. 

I elected not to follow the cell eastward, in part because the tornado was well rain-wrapped and not visible from the southwest side. We eventually intercepted the cell again south of South Brice, and were treated to a pretty structure-at-sunset show, replete with more wall clouds, many anvil zits, and a decent white-saucer-shape look to the updraft. 

Congratulations to all of the other lucky chasers out there on Sunday, and our prayers go out to the folks in Happy, who lost two of their own. Thanks very much also to Martin Lisius, Brian Morganti, and Bary Nusz, who helped me figure out what was going on during the afternoon via cell phone. 

The Happy, Texas tornado caused 2 fatalities and extensive damage in the area.  
View the Storm Prediction Center's Storm Reports for May 5, 2002.