Saving lives: Tornado tests weather team

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Robert Royals
  • 27th OWS
Cannon Air Force Base sits on the high plains of eastern New Mexico, a scant 15 miles from Texas, and on the cusp of "tornado alley."

This narrow buffer saved Cannon from damage on March 23, as EF-2 tornadoes ripped through nearby Clovis, N.M., causing deaths and substantial damages.

The day brought real concern to the Cannon Weather Flight as a strong cold front coupled with the dryline by mid day west of Cannon. Strong directional wind shear was also evident giving thunderstorms the associated spin to produce large tornadoes, and large hail. At 1 p.m., our civilian meteorological technician James Kratzer and I had a meteorological conference with the 25th Operational Weather Squadron forecaster Senior Airman Chelsea Hedrick to issue a severe thunderstorm watch.

As the thunderstorms began pushing into more unstable air to the east, it was clear that this was a very historic set up for Cannon, and Clovis. Large hail in excess of 1 ½" was being reported in the towns of Hobbs, and Logan. By 3 p.m., Kratzer and I held another conference with Hedrick to issue the warning. At 3:25 p.m. the first tornado was reported on the ground in the town of Logan 60 miles northwest of Cannon. This was the beginning of a very long day for Cannon and Clovis.

At 6:30 p.m., a storm making its way north, had been dropping tornadoes for nearly 90 miles, and strong rotation was easily defined on the radar. At 7 p.m. this storm was eerily close to the town of Portales (where many Cannon residents live). At this time we began getting very uneasy. While keeping our eyes and minds glued to the radar, the phone rang at 7:40 p.m., and it was the National Weather Service telling me that the tornado was on the ground 10 miles northeast of Portales. We called the station chief, Master Sgt. Rick Lopes, to tell him that it would miss the base by six to eight miles. He wanted the tornado warning issued. After another conference with OWS forecaster Senior Airman D'ilompio, the warning was issued. We called the command post to tell them it was on the ground, and they took appropriate measures to protect the base. Ten minutes later, I stepped outside and with a bright stroke of lightning, I saw the funnel cloud.

Col. Jeff McDaniels, the 27th Operations Group Commander at the time, was in constant contact with me so that he could keep the rest of the base updated of the developing situation.

Around two dozen people were injured, and sadly two people lost their lives as a result of the storm. The tornado itself was nearly 350 yards in diameter (nearly a quarter mile), cost the city of Clovis over $16 million, and inflicted the first tornado related deaths in the state of New Mexico since October 1974. However, at the end of it we have to chalk a victory. The good communication between me and National Weather Service gave me and the city of Clovis plenty of time to react. Real tragedy was averted by getting people both on the base, and in the community ample time to seek shelter.