Photo: City of Lubbock
DISCLAIMER: This is a fictional piece, written from the point of view of myself, as a storm chaser. The event was very real. The storm chasing part of it is fiction. This is how it might have played out if I were old enough then to be storm chasing (I wasn't quite 4 years old yet), based on the actual event timeline from the National Weather Service. I was very aware of the event, living near Lubbock though, as everyone talked about it for a long time. I wouldn't chase my first storms for another 14 years. What follows may have been my chase account from that day.
After an early morning visit to the Lubbock Weather Bureau Office (what the National Weather Service used to be called), I learned that Severe Local Storms Unit (SELS, now the Storm Prediction Center (SPC)) has issued a convective outlook that included "Isolated thunderstorms with large hail expected in High Plains of West Texas east of Pecos late afternoon and early evening." Yes, today would be a chase day! Little did I know what was coming...
Went and had lunch at BB's hamburger joint down on 4th street (some of the best burgers around!), and decided to go ahead and top the gas off in my old 1966 Dodge Charger. She wasn't much to look at, what with all the hail dents from previous storms and all, but she made a reliable chase vehicle. Wish I could afford one of those new 1970 Chargers, man those are sharp! Speaking of affording things, wow, gas went up to 36 cents a gallon today. It's getting so expensive to fill this car up, that cost nearly $5.00 to fill up at the Texaco. I may have to cut back on my chasing a bit.
Decided to head back over to the Weather Bureau to see what the latest was. I sure wish they were closer in to town, I hate having to drive all the way out to the airport. SELS had sent down word that the air mass in the high country of West Texas was unstable, and we should be watching for storms. Being a storm chaser, of course that was music to my ears, even though it felt pretty dry out there, dewpoints were only in the 40s and it was getting a bit hot and already 90 degrees! Yeah, the moisture is east of Lubbock I think, maybe I'll head out toward Crosbyton. These southwest dry winds here in Lubbock just aren't going to cut it, I need to get out east into the moisture or I'm going to be playing catch-up all day.
By the time I got to the east side of Lubbock though, the winds shifted back to the southeast with that distinct smell of moisture on the South Plains. Hmmm, the dryline is retreating? Maybe I'll stay put right here, so I stopped just outside of Lubbock on US62/82 on the northeast side of Lubbock. Already, a nice cumulus field was beginning to form.
After sitting around for a couple hours trying to conserve gas and mostly being bored and starting to think today was going to be a bust chase, I noticed we were finally starting to get some towering CU. It's about time too, because it's nearly 6 o'clock, and there is only a couple hours of daylight left.
I decided to head south down toward Slaton. One of the towering CU there is really getting it's act together, I think that might be my storm for the day! In fact, by the time I got in position, we were finally starting to get some decent CGs (cloud-to-ground lightning) out of that cell, yep, this was a good move on my part.
About 7:45pm KFYO was talking over the AM radio about my storm now. Evidently an alert for a moderate thunderstorm has been issued. This was my storm! I decided to head on back toward Lubbock and head around the east Loop 289 so I could stay east of the storm. I didn't get too far though before golf ball sized hail started falling, but what the heck, I already had plenty of hail dents. They were now announcing a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for my storm, here about 8 o'clock.
I made it around to 50th and the Loop when I spotted the first funnel cloud coming down off to my west. It happened really quick and went from rain free base, to wall cloud, to funnel in a very short time! This is not good, the storm is still over Lubbock! It was kind of intermittent though and remained aloft, so at least that was some good news, but now I was getting pounded by baseball sized hail wrapping around the rotation in the cloud base. Just great! Another windshield busted!
Just as the sun was going down (and it always gets darker, earlier, under a thunderstorm), the funnel cloud finally touched down just to my west, couldn't have been more than couple miles at most. I was already hearing Tornado Warnings being announced by KFYO, so at least people are getting some warning. Man, I really wished I had a way to call in a report. That's it, I'm not procrastinating any more, I'm going to get me one of those fancy ham radios and take the test so I can be an official weather observer.
This tornado is moving east it looks like, maybe northeast, but it's definitely coming in my direction. I keep pace with it as it crossed over Loop 289, right where I had been sitting earlier in the afternoon. It crossed just a few blocks in front of me and debris was going everywhere. I sure hope no one got hurt! I had to head out east 4th street to stay with it, there was just too much debris blocking the way. It was beginning to rope out now, and my attention was being drawn to the southwest.
I'm not sure if the storm is back-building or not. I kept noticing cells build to the southwest, then they seemed to get absorbed into the main storm. The tornado had finally dissipated now as it moved out into the rural areas, but a new, even larger wall cloud had formed back to the southwest of the old one. This was rather strange, they usually form upstream, to the east or northeast of the old one, I'm really confused about what is going on now. But, I need to get back to the new one, so I head back to the Loop and head south again.
I cut west on 19th street and got back to Quirt (modern day Martin Luther King Blvd). It's really dark here, power is out in this whole area from the previous tornado. I spotted quite a few power lines down and some roofs blown off in this area, but overall it didn't look as bad as I thought it was going to be.
By now the large wall cloud just to my southwest could be seeing in the frequent lightning. It's dark now and hard to see and I'm getting pretty nervous, still a bit shaken up from the tornado that had just happened.
It was about 9:35 when I first saw the tornado. This one was even bigger than the previous one. I didn't see it at first in the lightning, but lit up by power flashes as it was tearing up power lines. This is bad, really bad. It's come down right in the heart of Lubbock. You never want to see this as a storm chaser, and yet there it is, and I'm helpless to do anything about it.
I just sat there and watched as power flashes continued and between them and the lightning you could see a significant debris field around the bottom of the tornado. The sirens were sounding too, I sure hope everyone managed to get in the cellar! I was noticing larger and larger areas blacking out as the power lines were getting ripped up. It was almost completely dark now aside from the lightning! The tornado is a huge wedge shape. It must be a mile wide or more! What a scary sight!
It appeared to not be getting in closer to me, so I decided it was heading more north, and I went north on Quirt to keep up with it. I started getting pelted by more really large hail and some smaller debris wrapping around the back side of the tornado.
I was still able to keep up with it until I was stopped by debris just north of Loop 289. I was losing sight of it now, it seemed to have rain all around it. It was heading in the direction of the airport last I saw it. I was worried about my weather friends at the Weather Bureau. I later learned their office was hit.
Every place I tried to go west was blocked with debris, so I ended backtracking down Quirt and heading west on Broadway, but as soon as I got near downtown I realized just how bad it was. The only lights were a few car headlights, power was out all over, and you could only see the eerie destruction in the lightning. It was the worst thing I had ever experienced. Ended up spending all night helping out where I could, but I still really didn't realize the extent of it until the sun came up the next morning.
A tornado scientist I had heard about in the news, Dr. Ted Fujita came to town after the tornado to study it. He later put out this map of the two tornadoes. I've drawn my chase path on the map.
I don't know if I'll ever chase again. I wasn't prepared mentally or emotionally for this. I used to enjoy seeing tornadoes out in the fields, but I never saw anything happen like this before. I later learned that 10,000 cars were destroyed, 119 planes at the airport torn up, 250 businesses damaged or destroyed, and 8,800 houses damaged, of which 440 destroyed. Over 1500 people got hurt, and 26 people died. Dr. Fujita ended up rating this tornado an F5 on his new Fujita Scale, the strongest possible.
DISCLAIMER: The above was a fictional chase account, from the perspective of a storm chaser, had I been chasing that storm. The event and timeline are real, I just told the story, how imagined I would have chased it, if had I been old enough, and been storm chasing back then, based on the timeline available from the National Weather Service. I hope you've enjoyed my different take on this story.
To learn more about the event, and to read REAL stories of the people that lived through this event, please visit: http://www.lubbocktornado1970.com
If your interested in the meteorology of the event, check out this site from the National Weather Service Office in Lubbock, TX http://www.srh.noaa.gov/lub/?n=events-1970-19700511
The Lubbock Avalanche Journal has some photo galleries online from the event. Being after dark, and the lack widespread photography and video equipment in those days, so far no photos or video of the tornadoes have surfaced to date that I can find.