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June 1997 EXTRA!


Where were you when it touched down?

Jim Bresch (MMM) took advantage of a convenient gap in the trees to snap this photo of the 6 June tornado from the third-floor FL3 office of Nolan Atkins. See the end of this article for links to more tornado photos. (Photo copyright 1997 Jim Bresch.)

It was a Friday afternoon like any other . . . until a funnel thing happened. At around 2:15 p.m. on the afternoon of 6 June, a tornado touched down near the north side of Baseline Reservoir. It was only the second tornado ever reported within Boulder's city limits. (The other, on 15 October 1980, partially unroofed the Boulder County School District's Education Center at 6500 Arapahoe.)

Developing and elongating toward the south end of a westward-moving storm, the twister could be seen easily from both the Mesa and Foothills Labs. After touchdown, the remnant circulation passed over town en route to its mountainous demise.

In its few moments of life, the Boulder tornado destroyed a barn, damaged the roof of a home, and kicked up spray at the reservoir. Its preliminary rating on the Fujita tornado-damage scale was borderline F1, believed to correspond to winds in the neighborhood of 70 to 90 miles per hour. Weak as it was, the twister was a sight many of us thought we'd never see in our own backyard.

The view from Mitchell Lane

The third floor of FL3, home to the storm researchers of MMM's Mesoscale Dynamics Group, was a hotbed of activity as the twister developed, as were the COMET program offices downstairs. Wendy Abshire files this report from COMET:

"We had our 11:30 a.m. staff weather briefing and were excited about the potential for strong storms in the afternoon. We used our real-time data feed and Garp display to keep tabs on the developing weather situation during the afternoon.

"At 2 p.m. visiting meteorologist Ron Przybylinski and I were looking at the radar data and several other meteorologists looked in. We collectively decided that things looked interesting enough to go take a 'visual ob.' Being on the first floor of FL3, we trotted upstairs to get a better view. As we emerged on the third floor, there seemed to be some excitement by the south windows. We ran over and saw the early funnel stage of the tornado.

"Timing is everything!"

Archivist Diane Rabson (Information Support Services, FL1) had to see the twister for herself. She joined an awe-struck group just outside the Foothills Lab.

"I've never seen so many NCAR people at one time with their mouths open, staring at the sky. I've always wanted to see a tornado--now, if I die tomorrow, I'll die happy. It's impossible to put it into words.

"Afterward, I went to pick up my son Steve at Platt Middle School [near Cherryvale and Baseline, just northwest of the tornado's path], where I overheard the question, "Do tornadoes have a Richter scale?" Of course, I piped up with Fujita talk. One of the kids, a girl about 12, told me she grew up in Oklahoma and when she was 5, her best friend was killed by a tornado. It was quite eerie, to say the least.

"Observing the kids at Platt, I saw quite a scale of emotions. Some kids were downright terrified and crying. Mine, a true NCAR child, was curious, excited, and wanted to see more."

Meanwhile, at the mesa . . .

Several dozen staff clustered in the Mesa Lab's parking lot or on the tree plaza for a spectacular view of the funnel and debris cloud. Just below the mesa, Bruce Morley was attending his daughter's fifth-grade graduation ceremony at Bear Creek Elementary School. The twister touched down just as the ceremony ended. With his camcorder at the ready, Bruce got over five minutes of 8-millimeter footage.

Selected video clips and stills from Bruce Morley
Click on each image to get a full-size version. If you have a choice of viewers for the stills, xv works best. The above URL may change, so be sure to bookmark this page rather than the URL. (Digitization courtesy Tim Scheitlin.)

Susan Montgomery-Hodge (UCAR President's Office, Fleischmann Building) didn't see the tornado herself, but her husband had a ringside seat.

"The center of the tornado [at cloud base] formed right over where Bill works [Sievers Instruments, near 63rd Street and Arapahoe, about a mile north of the touchdown point]. Bill saw the tornado forming and alerted others in the company. Most of the staff went outside to watch the funnel's tip touch down, go up, then hit the tractor barn, and then the reservoir. Bill said that after the tornado quit, he realized the danger they could have been in had the funnel whipped down right on top of them!

"Incidentally, Bill had had a dream about a tornado at his workplace. In the dream, he was wondering whether it was safer to be in the building or get out, since the entire building, including the roof, is made of concrete."

[For tornado safety guidelines, check the Tornado Project "Safety" page or see the list of guidelines at the end of this article.]

A group of youngsters from a day camp in Avon visited the Mesa Lab on Friday for a tour and got a glimpse of the twister on their way home. Instructor Chris Schlender sent the following to Rene Munoz (Education and Tour Program):

"Our circumstances played out so that we got to see the whole thing! It may interest you to know that it was a few of the kids who recognized the funnel initially and brought it to my attention. On the way home it hailed, and we were able to put into perspective the hailstone duplicate you showed us as well!"

. . . and at UCAR North . . .

Back on the other end of town, Russ Rew describes the scene at Unidata (UCAR North):

"Glenn Davis first alerted people to look out their windows if they wanted to see a tornado. Out of the east-facing window in my office, we could clearly see a funnel cloud that hadn't touched down, but pointed off almost horizontally to the west. Unidata has a fairly high density of "weather weenies" and "weather-weenie wannabes" (I count myself in the latter category), so everyone ran out the door to the parking lot on the east side of UCAR North for a better view.

"The funnel cloud was off to the southeast, in the general direction of Baseline Reservoir, though it appeared not to have touched down. We couldn't hear any sound from it, though Steve Chiswell remarked, "It sounds just like a freight train," to make sure we all had the complete tornado experience. Steve Emmerson said that it looked like an F1. This was Linda Miller's first tornado sighting, but Steve Chiswell told us of several he had seen in Oklahoma.

"My daughter Keely was getting ready to take a bus home from Platt Middle School at the time; it was her last day of sixth grade. She was exhilarated to tell us later how she and her schoolmates survived the tornado that actually came quite close to their school.

"The tornado dissipated rapidly, but then reappeared as a thin winding and twisting horizontal rope. As Glenn Davis remembers:

A Cessna 172 aborted its approach to Boulder Municipal Airport and turned towards the tornado, and then to the west. What were they thinking? Then a Cessna 210 landed. The wind was picking up. We could see another vortex more directly overhead, but it did not form a funnel. . . .

"This was about two or three minutes after we had rushed out to look at it. Then it started to rain, and the fun was almost over.

"But not quite. On the following Monday, we got Steve Sadler's note about tornado safety rules, and I could not resist the temptation to compose my own version for Unidata staff and Steve."

Tornado Viewing Rules (courtesy of Russ Rew)

1. Seek the best view of the tornado immediately . . . a rooftop or tree is best. Protect your head and eyes from deadly flying debris so you can have the longest duration of viewing. DO NOT STAY IN A BUILDING.

2. If no rooftop is available . . . go to the exterior part of the HIGHEST floor. Stay close to windows to increase your chance of viewing multiple funnels. Get on top of something sturdy like a bench or table. Rooms with large windows are best, such as cafeterias or structures with wide spans of glass.

3. Lower floors limit your view. Immediately go to the highest floor possible. TAKE THE ELEVATOR IF IT'S FASTER THAN RUNNING UP THE STAIRS. Peripherally-located elevators with windows are best.

4. Automobiles and other vehicles: A fast car or truck can get you closer to a good viewing area quickly. As a last resort take public transport, if it's headed for the tornado.

5. Open country: This is ideal if located nearby and time permits, especially if you want to see flying cows. If there is time, stand on the nearest elevation, such as a hill or rise, and protect your view with your arms.

Russ adds: "Fortunately, Steve took this in the spirit in which it was offered, rather than as an attempt to ridicule sensible precautions."

But seriously, folks . . .

Although it was clear to many that this tornado was at a safe distance, the next one might not be. Steve Sadler (Health, Environment, and Safety Services; UCAR North) was working at his home in Longmont Friday afternoon when his pager sprang to life. "A number of people were genuinely concerned about what they should do," he says. Because twisters form and dissipate too quickly to permit timely warnings through institutional channels, says Steve, it is up to staff to be aware of weather conditions and to know how to respond. See the bona fide list of precautions below.

"As a native of Boulder, I grew up with the notion that tornadoes just don't happen here or in the mountains, thus it wasn't ever a worry. They are such a novelty for us that instead of taking proper precautions, people run out to watch them. I know from visiting Iowa, Ohio, and Minnesota that people there take them seriously and rush to their basements, rather than rushing to the rooftops. There must be a happy medium."

Finally, we have this uncorroborated report from Lynda Lester (SCD, ML):

"I was walking along Table Mesa Drive with my little dog, Toto, when suddenly I saw it--a terrifying, tubular, twisted tornado. I dashed into a house to hide, but the cyclone snatched up the house like it was a toothpick. Then I saw a witch bicycling past me in the sky on a HealthRider(TM)! I looked down and saw the NCAR shuttle just leaving Foothills Parkway.

"I figured I was toast, but the funnel dumped me, Toto, house, and witch down in this weird place where I met a lot of people from other national labs like NOAA, NIST, and LANL. Finally, though, everyone got new Nikes, clicked their heels, and came home. I took a vacation day."

Editor's postscript: I've seen over a dozen tornadoes in four states, but on 6 June I was working away, blissfully unaware, in my third-floor office with a north-facing window. Of course, the funnel touched down to my south. --BH

Other Web coverage of the 6 June tornado

NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory
NOAA Climate Diagnostics Center/Boulder Tornado Info.

Other good sites for tornado information

Tornado Project Online
NOAA Storm Prediction Center
Storm Chaser Home Page

Tornado safety precautions (the real ones)

A TORNADO WATCH means tornadoes and/or severe thunderstorms are possible over a wide area. Be alert.

A TORNADO WARNING means TAKE COVER NOW! A tornado has been spotted or is indicated by radar.

1. Seek inside shelter immediately . . . a basement or underground shelter is best. Protect your head and eyes from deadly flying debris. DO NOT LEAVE THE BUILDING.

2. If no basement is available, go to the interior part of the LOWEST floor. Stay away from windows. Get under something sturdy like a bench or table. Small rooms are best. Stay out of auditoriums, cafeterias, gymnasiums, or structures with wide free-span roofs.

3. Upper floors are unsafe. Immediately go to the lowest floor possible. DO NOT TAKE THE ELEVATOR. Centrally-located stairwells are good shelter.

4. Automobiles and other vehicles: Abandon the car or truck and seek refuge in a basement, storm shelter, or sturdy building. As a last resort, seek shelter in a culvert or ditch.

5. Open country: seek inside shelter if nearby and time permits. If there is no time, lie flat in the nearest depression, such as a ditch or culvert, and protect your head with your arms.

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu