An Aussie eye on the sky

This storm season, Herbert said, he, King and colleague Jane ONeil have had plenty to talk about during their annual U.S. “chasecation.”

“If we’re out in Western Kansas, they want rain. Eastern Colorado they want rain. If you’re Oklahoma, they don’t want a storm. Same here in Southern Kansas.”

Herbert returned in March to work on the house he and Jane ONeil purchased last year. His brother and son came as well.

“My brother is a carpenter,” he said. “My 19-year-old son came with me, too. My son is very keen on stormchasing. We renovated the lower floor.

“Next year we’re coming back to renovate the top floor.”

ONeil arrived April 14 and left June 1, Herbert said, adding that King joined the Down Under duo May 21 and headed back June 12 with Herbert.

April 14 was the day the U.S. Storm Prediction Center had warned 24 hours in advance of possible severe storms for Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

“Hillsboro was lucky that day because the tornado that touched down near Goessel was quite large,” Herbert said.

“It’s known as an elephant trunk tornado, more of a classic-type ‘Dorothy’ tornado.”

That Saturday, Herbert said, six or eight supercells traveled through the state.

“Some were fleeting or brief, but at one stage all of the supercells that moved into Kansas were tornadic,” he said.

Supercells, which have a deep rotating underdraft, are the most severe type of thunderstorms because they can produce heavy hail and severe tornados.

Herbert said he had met in the morning with Jessey Hiebert, Hillsboro’s assistant police chief, who asked him and ONeil to stay in touch and report if storms were hitting in this area.

“That leads us to the Goessel tornado,” Herbert said. “We were on site before it touched down.”

They called in the sighting to the Hillsboro authorities, who sounded the siren.

“We also photographed and videoed the touchdown and followed the track to northeast of Goessel where it was intermittently lifting and touching down all the way virtually to Manhattan, I think,” Herbert said.

They followed the tornado up to Kansas Highway 15, southeast of Durham.

Hiebert, who also had been monitoring radar coverage, said he had multiple sources tracking the storm and received reports from sheriff’s deputies after the fact.

“(But) he was my eyewitness,” Hiebert said about Herbert, who had relayed information all day.

Earlier in the day, Herbert and ONeil were in western Kansas and followed the Langley to Salina EF4 wedge tornado.

“This tornado was ripping oil well (pumps) out,” Herbert said. “If you an imagine the force to do that…They were bent and twisted and carried away.”

Their chase vehicle, a 2011 eight-seat all-wheel drive Chevy Traverse, is well-equipped.

“We own the vehicle, plus we fitted it out,” he said. “We did that this year. That’s part of what we planned to do.”

Their Traverse has radar as well as various backup antennas for radio and radar.

“We use a system known as GRLevel3, a sophisticated radar system,” Herbert said.

“We have a Davis onboard weather station, which gives us wind vector, temperature and dew point, plus a couple of other things that are relatively minor.”

Wind vector indicates wind direction and speed.

“We have to carry a car invertor to transform 12-volt DC to 120 volt,” he said, so they can operate their computer and other electronic equipment. “All that’s packed into the vehicle.”

The hood and the roof have dents from the hail they’ve encountered.

“We’ve had damage, yes,” Herbert said. “We call them trophies. We tend to stay away from what’s known as the storm core. This is where you get the large hail.”

The couple plans to winterize and store their vehicle in Hillsboro.

“We’ll have to put a stabilizer in the fuel and things like that,” Herbert said. “We’ll strip off the weather station. It’s all easily taken apart.”

This year, both Herbert and ONeil took the exam with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that qualifies them as official storm spotters by the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.

“So when we’re actually in the field and associated with GRLevel3, our position is plotted by NOAA,” he said.

NOAA is interested in ground proof for weather phenomena and the supercell thunderstorm and is testing different types of doppler radar.

“They’ve run us into the middle of nowhere because we are plotted on their charts and their screens,” Herbert said. “They know where certain qualified chasers are, so they’ll ask us for information regarding the storm, its motion and what its doing….so what we do then is photograph it and send them copies of photographs and video to prove that we were seeing what we were recording and we’ll send them photos of hail and measurements. It’s quite interesting.”

Herbert keeps a journal and writes each day of his stormchasing.

“I’ve probably written hundreds of (reports),” he said.

This visit, the Aussie stormchasers have traveled to more than 15 states, including New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, and as far north as Ontario and south near the Mexico border.

“We’ve done 23,000 miles and we’re not quite finished yet,” Herbert said last week.

Next year they plan to be here from late March to early July and then come back in late October.

“We really love this area because we live in a farming community,” he said. “There’s a lot of similarities in the way people treat each other. It’s clean. It’s safe. The road systems are good.”

And there’s plenty of opportunities meet people and to pursue their wide range of interests.

“We’re not just interested in weather,” he said. “We like antiques. We like geology. We study the countryside. Birdlife. It’s such a rich area for wildlife. We enjoy studying trees.

“All sorts of stuff.”

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