Day two of storm chasing began around noon when Bill and Mike picked me up in the Wal-Mart parking lot across the street from AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Our late start was due to a meeting Bill had that morning combined with the target area only being three hours away near Texarkana. We were heading to the jungle.
"The jungle" is the nickname chasers give to areas, such as Arkansas and Missouri, where roads are lined with trees, making storm chasing both more difficult and more dangerous. Many of the chasers we'd met the day before had stayed the night in Kansas, and we could see from their GPS locations that they were assembling in Illinois. Later that afternoon, we would all watch live footage of the deadly Illinois tornado before it was sold to news networks around the country.
Texarkana was at the very southern end of the yellow blob on the radar that indicated the best chances for tornado activity. Speeding along small back roads in southwestern Arkansas, we encountered plenty of rain, lightning and wind, but no tornadoes.
As on the previous day, we were live streaming our chase via a web cam on the roof of the vehicle that was protected by a plastic dome. Due to a wiring issue, the wiper on the dome wasn't working, which caused ongoing grief as the rain obscured our picture. By the time we stopped at a Wal-Mart so Mike could run in and buy a new fuse, the severe weather in that area was pretty much finished.
As we began making our way back to the Metroplex, Mike just happened to check some other chasers' live video feeds exactly as the Illinois tornado was on the ground. One of the videos was being streamed by Scott Peake and Kevin Rolfs of Basehunters, whom we had met up with the day before. Apparently, that van load of European tourists were getting their money's worth. As I took the photo above, I joked that I had gotten my photo of a tornado. None of us knew at the time that two people would die as a result of the tornado we were watching.
Soon thereafter, the rain had stopped, the sun was out and we were half-way home. Running on around four hours of sleep and having spent the last two days in a car, I was looking forward to getting home at a reasonable hour, cooking some dinner and probably vegging out to something on Netflix. But the best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry.
About an hour and a half from where I'd parked my car, Mike got word that a possible tornado had passed through Longview, Texas. While the tornado would have been long gone before we could get there, they wondered if there had been any storm damage. Due to their partnership with Minuteman Disaster Response, they weren't just chasing storms, they were there to help after the fact.
I didn't want to go. I mean I really didn't want to go. I was tired and hungry, and there was Netflix to be watched. But I didn't have a vote, and they didn't ask. Somewhere near Mount Pleasant, we took a hard left toward Longview while I grumbled to myself in the backseat. So much for my plans. It didn't help that I was already worried about my car getting towed, and our detour only made the feeling worse.
When we arrived in Longview, Bill called the local police and the county to offer assistance. I only heard his end of the conversation, but I gathered that their response was, "Thanks, but we have it under control." Undeterred, Mike navigated us through town, turning here and there in search of damage. I tried to stifle angry sighs and head wagging in the backseat, which, unfortunately, everyone who knows me can well picture reading this. I thought, are we really driving around a town at random, in the dark, hoping to be useful?
But before long, we came across what looked like mulch that had been spilled onto the road. Turning onto smaller and smaller roads, we eventually came across what Bill and Mike had been looking for. First, we saw a few small broken limbs. Then, larger ones. Then, some twisted pieces of sheet metal roofing. And then we saw a large tree with its roots in the air. Driving farther down a darkened street, the only lights were coming from our vehicle and a few cars at the far end of the street.
We noticed a family standing in their driveway, and Bill called out to see if everyone was okay. They said they were, but they were worried about their next door neighbors, whose house had been more badly damaged. We parked in their driveway, and Bill headed toward the house to see if anyone needed help. He called for me to follow, but it was raining and I didn't want to get my camera wet. Instead of saying this, I shook my head and he continued on.
Standing there, I didn't know what to say or do. I wasn't scared or freaked out, but it was emotionally jarring to, in the span of about a minute, go from being self-absorbed and sulking to seeing stunned people standing in the dark outside their tornado damaged homes. As Bill walked toward the house, it immediately stopped raining, so I grabbed my camera from the back seat and began taking photos. I didn't know what to say, but now I had something to do.
Mike handed me an extra flashlight, which I began using in place of my flash, which was still in my bag and seemed to conspicuous. Bill returned from the house; no one was home. Some neighbors standing nearby said something and pointed down the street, so we made our way in that direction. We saw twisted metal, downed limbs and uprooted trees along the street but everyone seemed to be okay. In fact, people were quiet and calm as they checked on each other and tried to help.
As Bill and Mike made their way to the end of the street, someone noticed a metal bar that had been driven high up into a tree trunk, which had been snapped off just above it. Every house on that street seemed to have received at least some damage. And yet, no one seemed to need assistance. The tornado had come through at least an hour prior to our arrival, and the local response teams had everything covered.
We walked back to the car and drove slowly back the way we'd come. As we headed down the highway toward home, I perceived a feeling of disappointment in the car. They had gone well out of their way to offer assistance, but none was needed. It had been the first time they responded to tornado damage as a part of the Minuteman organization. A practice run. For me, I felt the lingering sting of a slap in the face. Those people wouldn't be cooking dinner that night, wouldn't be watching Netflix. They wouldn't be going to bed on time, and they almost certainly wouldn't sleep well when they did.
A little after midnight, my car hadn't been towed from the Wal-Mart parking lot, and I drove home with the radio off.