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PHOTO BY JASON BOGGS

If you’ve lived in the Panhandle for any length of time, you have your share of severe weather stories. From paper boats in the street gutter to muddy football games to tornado warnings spent in the bathtub, severe weather is as much a part of the West Texas experience as sunsets and prairies. If you’ve ever searched the sky for a funnel cloud or rolled the dice on an outdoor wedding, you understand that we have weather like nowhere else on Earth. And if anyone doubts you, now you can tell them you heard it from the experts.

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“Doppler” Dave Oliver has been the chief meteorologist at Amarillo’s NewsChannel 10 since 1987. He also teaches meteorology down at West Texas A&M University. “You could not have picked a better place in the world to study meteorology,” he tells his students. “Everything in the text—we get to watch it happen. We have the craziest weather in the country. There’s a little saying, ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.’ We wrote that. We own that. That’s one of the things about my career here. I never get tired of it,
I never burn out, because of the chaotic nature of the weather.”

John Harris is another meteorology mainstay. As of June this year, Harris will have been on the air in Amarillo for 32 years, serving as the chief meteorologist for KAMR Local 4 News and Fox 14 News since 2009. I asked Harris and Oliver to share their thoughts on memorable storms—“How long do you have?” jokes Oliver. 

I also spoke with Jay McCoy and Jason Boggs, longtime storm chasers. Along with their own memorable storms, they explain the right and wrong ways to get involved chasing storms on the prairie. And at the National Weather Service, meteorologist A.J. Harrel explains why Amarillo weather takes the cake … and often blows it away.

Talking Tornadoes

Photo by Jay McCoy

Asked about memorable tornadoes, Oliver immediately recalls June 1995, when “our sky just ripped open with repetitive tornado outbreaks,” he says. “Some of the biggest tornadoes in America that year were in our area. We’re talking half-mile to a mile-wide tornadoes.” Dimmitt and Pampa both sustained direct hits. “We had mile-wide stuff out in Wheeler County. It was just unbelievable.” 

The Dimmitt tornado of June 2, 1995, registered as an F2 on the Fujita scale, with winds above 100 miles per hour—strong enough to rip the roof from a house. Days later, on June 8, two F4 tornadoes formed around Pampa, with one passing through town. (An F4 tornado, with winds of more than 200 miles per hour, can level a home or throw a car.) Two more destructive tornadoes formed near Allison and Kellerville on the eastern side of the Panhandle that month. Fortunately, none of these storms produced fatalities.

Storm chaser McCoy recalls how the Dimmitt tornado pulled crops out of the surrounding fields. “It just left a path of mud,” he says. “It had smashed the telephone poles off at the ground level and the poles were gone. They weren’t laying over, they were just gone.” That wasn’t all that had disappeared. “It had actually scoured the road. The pavement for about a hundred yards was gone. It had pulled the asphalt off the ground. I had never seen that in my life.”

Photo courtesy of KFDA

Boggs describes the challenges of chasing tornadoes after dark: “Damon Shaw and I were in Clovis at night in March 2007. We were sitting on a dirt road, looking at radar. You depend on your radar when you can’t see the storm.” At night, storm chasers use lightning flashes to spot tornadoes. Power flashes are another strong indicator of a tornado’s location. “When a tornado or strong wind hits utility poles or a transformer, you see power flashes,” Boggs says. “We started seeing power flashes and lightning strikes that lit up the tornado and it was a wedge tornado, which is a tornado as wide as it is tall. We were the only TV station [KAMR] there that night. We called in and told the people of Clovis to take cover.” The tornado caused two fatalities. “Hopefully, us being there and getting the word out saved some lives.”

Photo courtesy of KFDA

The most memorable tornado for Harris occurred on May 28, 2013, in Amarillo. “I remember telling folks this is one of these nights you want to stay awake,” he says. “I was on TV that night and we had a thunderstorm that developed over Friona and it went supercellular.” A supercell thunderstorm can last for hours and is more likely to produce severe weather. “The M.O. of this thunderstorm was that about every 20 minutes, it would drop a brief tornado or a funnel cloud. Then it turned into a hail producer,” he says. A damaging tornado formed near Bushland—the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for Amarillo—and it then entered the city’s southwest corner, causing damage to some homes in the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood.

The same supercell then marched toward downtown Amarillo. While Harris was still on the air, KAMR News Director Ny Lynn Nichols told him it was time for everyone to head to the storm shelter—which happened to be a restroom in the center of the building. The news team continued their live coverage from the bathroom and made national news. Al Roker even gave them a shoutout the next morning on the Today Show. “It’s the first time I ever made it on national TV,” Harris remembers, “and they caught me in the men’s restroom!”

All Hail the Hail Storms

Recalling his most memorable hail storm, Harris points to 2004. “It was June 21, the first day of summer astronomically speaking. We had anywhere from golf ball- to softball-size hail that pummeled the west side of Amarillo,” he says. Car lots on Soncy discovered holes in the roofs of vehicles. “The mesocyclone—the rotating part of the thunderstorm—was actually tossing hailstones into the windows at BSA on the north and northwest sides of the hospital,” Harris says. “So, the hail had a vertical and horizontal component, which made it doubly bad for people.” Hailstones ravaged the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood, where Harris lives. 

Photo by Jay McCoy

“We’ve had some humdingers,” Oliver says. Harris spoke of the tornado on May 28, 2013, but Doppler Dave says it was also an incredible hail event. “We had gosh-awful baseball- to softball-size stuff slowly move across Amarillo. It generated $600 million in damage in about an hour,” he says. Nationwide, he says, the Panhandle sees an average of $1 billion in annual hail damage. That single storm resulted in more than half the year’s damage.

The Windiest City

Amarillo is known for its constant, powerful winds. According to Oliver, “It’s usually generated by what we call a mid-latitude cyclone, a low-pressure system. The stronger the low-pressure drop is, the stronger the wind. A few years ago, we had a day with winds gusting 70 to 80 miles an hour all day. That’s as strong as a Category 2 hurricane. We had all kinds of wind damage. No rain, like you’d have in a hurricane, but it was like being in a hurricane wind field all day long!”

Ever had your umbrella blown inside out? McCoy explains the raw power of straight-line winds created by thunderstorm downbursts. “When we have these elevated thunderstorms, where it’s drier down at the lower levels, it creates downbursts. The air hits the ground and has nowhere to go but to spread out. Those winds can be a hundred miles an hour plus.”

Photo by Jay McCoy

Boggs shares his most memorable example of West Texas wind. “I was on Highway 70, north of Pampa. There was a thunderstorm to the west producing severe winds. There was a tractor trailer, a semi. His tires on the whole driver side came up off the ground. He came back down and just kept going. It was crazy.”

From Snow to Thundersnow

Dave Oliver says “weather whiplash” is also a defining part of Panhandle weather. “How many times have you seen it be 80 degrees one day and you wake up to snow the next?” he asks.

John Harris remembers the heavy Thanksgiving snowstorm in 1992. According to the Associated Press, 175 miles of I-40 were closed after a 200-car pileup in the early morning. “We had drifts up to 12 feet. Actual snowfall was upwards of 3 to 4 feet,” Harris says. He had just started working at NewsChannel 10 and the other meteorologists were all out of town. “I ended up working non-stop, doing the mornings, the noons and the evenings. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is something else!’”

Photo courtesy of ANB

Oliver remembers the more recent storm of Feb. 25, 2013, which was Amarillo’s third-largest snowfall on record. “We had a combination of 17 to 19 inches of snow and 75 mile-an-hour wind gusts,” he says. “We basically had a foot-and-a-half of snow and hurricane-force winds.” It stranded motorists and brought the city to a standstill. The extreme blizzard conditions even produced thundersnow, an unusual form of severe weather combining snow and lightning. A photo of Hillside Road in Amarillo went viral nationwide. “It looked like Chicago with all those abandoned cars in the drifting snow,” Oliver says.

Floods, Flow and Fish

Last spring reminded residents that, occasionally, the Panhandle can be a victim of extreme flooding. Severe flooding led to evacuations, water rescues, and a disaster declaration for 13 counties in the Panhandle. A viral video by Michael Botello showed a kayaker rowing down the middle of Olsen Boulevard. 

“If Amarillo gets repetitive rainfall, we lose our ability to get rid of it,” Oliver explains. “Our drainage system is a group of playa lakes—a group of big ponds, if you will—that start to build up when there’s rainfall. They’ll pump water from one to another to distribute it. But when we get an overwhelming rain, like we had last May and early June, all of the ponds fill up and then there’s no place to put it. There was just too much rain in too short a time.”

Oliver has seen a lot of local weather, and that flood event still surprised him. “Those were two things I never thought I’d see: They were sandbagging homes down at Greyhawk Landing, and there were fish swimming in the streets of Amarillo,” he says.

Storm Chasing on the Great Plains

Jay McCoy and Maria Pasillas

Oliver and Harris have been around forever, but so have Boggs and McCoy. Boggs started storm chasing in his hometown of Lefors, Texas, around 1997, and he’s loved it ever since. McCoy may have been involved with West Texas weather longer than anyone else. Along with McCoy’s own decades of experience, he also carries on the legacy of his father. Roy McCoy forecasted on KAMR Local 4 News for nearly 30 years, and his son Jay continues to work with Harris and other meteorologists as a professional storm chaser.

“My dad got me into loving weather,” remembers McCoy. “When I was a little kid, I was terrified of lightning and thunder. It scared me to death. And then one time my dad just had me sit out on the porch with him in this big thunderstorm, lightning everywhere. All of a sudden, it just clicked. After that I just became fascinated with thunderstorms and lightning. I still love a good lightning storm anytime.”

He began chasing storms in 1985 before he was old enough to drive. A license wasn’t the only thing he was missing. “There was no such thing as onboard radars or cell phones. I had a CB radio, a paper map and an AM radio, which I used to listen to the thunderstorm warnings and tornado warnings on KGNC. And that was all I had.”

Technology for tracking storms has become much more accessible. Unfortunately, untrained and inexperienced storm chasers are also now common. “This all started with the movie Twister,” McCoy says. “After that, the chase community exploded.” Social media may also encourage unsafe storm chasing. “When people go out and take their family, especially kids, that is so unsafe. They don’t realize they can get themselves into a lot of dangerous situations.”

Jason Boggs

Many longtime storm chasers understand the importance of safety. “To me, ethics are doing what’s right when nobody’s looking,” Boggs says. “When you’re going down that dirt road in the middle of nowhere and there’s a stop sign there, do you keep going or do you stop at that stop sign? A lot of chasers speed and do dangerous stunts to get to the tornado. If you kill yourself or somebody else trying to get to a tornado just because you want to see it, your priorities are out of whack.”

McCoy says even knowledgeable storm chasers can be taken by surprise. The 2013 El Reno tornado in Oklahoma—the largest ever recorded, at 2.6 miles wide—made that clear. It was the notorious storm that took the lives of prominent researchers and television personalities Tim Samaras, his son Paul Samaras, and their colleague Carl Young. “At one point it was coming right at me,” says McCoy, who found himself in the storm’s path first. “I’m moving down a dirt road as fast as I can, trying to get out of the way. When it was just a few hundred yards from me, it changed direction and caught [the researchers]. We lost three good friends that day.” 

In fact, untrained storm chasers created unnecessary dangers during the recent Texas wildfires. As an Amarillo Emergency Services volunteer, McCoy understands the need for thrill seekers to stay out of harm’s way. “Anytime you get a big fire with huge black smoke, people come from everywhere just to see it. It interferes with the job of trying to get the fire out and to protect the surrounding community,” he says. Citizens can block emergency responders and prevent firefighters from laying fire lines across certain roads. “Wildfires are a huge hazard because visibility gets so low. You may drive right into the back of a fire truck, or if you stopped to shoot video the fire truck may run into you. Even professional storm chasers shouldn’t try and get in the middle of fires. You can get trapped so easily.”

Still, those interested in storms can get involved in a safe and positive way. The National Weather Service hosts free spotter training classes all over the Panhandle and online, McCoy says . “They’ll give you books and manuals on storm structure and the safe places to spot. You don’t have to go and figure it all out yourself. That’s the very first place to start.”

Dave Oliver

Storm spotting is one of the essential roles for storm chasers. “It’s not just about getting video so John Harris can show footage of storms on the air,” McCoy says. Everything spotters report to the stations also goes directly to the National Weather Service. According to Boggs, “The guys and gals at the National Weather Service look at radar and they can say there might be a tornado on the ground. But spotters are still the eyes in the field and giving them the ground truth. We tell them which way it’s headed and how big or how small the tornado is, stuff like that.”

Part of being safe on a chase is being prepared. “I have a go-to box and a go-to bag that I leave in my vehicle,” says Boggs. “It has safety stuff, like a tire repair kit. We’re out on dirt roads a lot. If you get a flat tire and there’s a storm close, you’re going to have to get it fixed quick. There are tow ropes, because we go down dirt roads and get stuck sometimes when it rains. I will not chase without that stuff.”

McCoy hopes locals will avoid risky behaviors. “Let the professionals go out there,” he says. “We’ll get the video for you, we’ll show you what’s happening. You don’t want to get your vehicle destroyed. Even we don’t like getting our windshields broken all the time!”

The Perfect Storm

Originally from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, A.J. Harrel moved to Amarillo 18 months ago to work as a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. He was familiar with Texas weather, but says the “extra craziness” of Panhandle weather has been an adjustment. “It’s a lot sometimes, but it’s really rewarding whenever you get to do your job well and help people out. It’s also quite a challenge whenever things don’t go quite the way you expected,” he says. “It can be very humbling.”

Photo by Jay McCoy

Harrel says our location relative to the Rocky Mountains is what makes local weather unusual. “The models we use to predict the weather have a good handle on weather systems as they approach the Rockies,” Harrel says. “But as soon as they get to and cross over the Rockies, those systems tend to change. Our models end up having to play catch-up, and we have to play catch-up along with them.”

The dry line also contributes to severe weather on the Great Plains, putting the skills of local meteorologists to the test. This boundary divides areas of warmer, moist air from the east of the United States and drier air from the west and acts as a focal point for severe weather during the spring and early summer. Many factors contribute to the dry line’s location, so predicting where it sets up is yet another challenge. “The dry line varies its position throughout any given day,” Harrel says, “and that plays a role in severe weather risks.” These quickly shifting factors make for a dynamic working situation throughout the year. 

That’s why Harrel and other meteorologists share a common message to the public: Stay prepared. “Most people here are well-equipped for severe weather, but it can always catch you off guard. It’s always best to have a safety plan in place.” Know where to go when severe weather threatens, and have multiple ways to receive weather information beyond social media or a phone. Weather radios are a good idea. “Have backups and stay informed,” he says.

Harrell points out that local meteorologists are communicating
the most accurate information they have, but weather systems change fast. “Things evolve,” says Harrel. “At the end of the day, it’s a very crazy place weather-wise. We’re all just trying to get through it together.”

There’s no denying that all of these lively elements combine to make Amarillo a memorable place to live and an exciting place for weather aficionados. “That’s why my dad loved it so much,” says Jay McCoy. “A lot of reporters and anchors rotate through our area. But the weather guys, they’re here for a career. It’s because this is one of the most fun and challenging places to do weather. That’s why they stay. You can’t get rid of them.” 

Photo by Jason Boggs

Jason Boggs and Dan Skoff were chasing a funnel cloud near Campo, Colorado. Boggs hopped out of his truck and was getting his camera ready. Glancing in a different direction, a tornado neither of them had seen was on the ground about a mile away. “It was the most beautiful tornado either of us had ever seen.”

Unlike most storm chasers, Jason Boggs focuses on photography rather than video. He likes Canon cameras, but he recommends focusing on lenses. He leaves a 24-70mm lens on his camera and keeps a wide-angle lens ready.

Author

  • Ryan McSwain

    Ryan is the author of the horror thriller Monsters All the Way Down and the superhero meta fantasy Four Color Bleed. Alongside his fiction, he’s written for all the best industries in Texas. With his wife and two children, he’s happy to call Amarillo home. You can find him at ryanmcswain.com.

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