Saturday, March 26, 2011

Green Street fire on Univ of Illinois Campus

Early on Wednesday morning I awoke to messages on various mediums alerting me that 'Za's', one of my former employers was "on fire!". Sure enough, in waking up and getting on the computer it became clear that there was a major fire underway on the University of Illinois campus. In addition to working with Ed Kieser in the WILL weather office, I worked for three years in a popular 'italian cafe' on campus. It was one of the most popular places on campus, and constantly had lines out the door on Friday and Saturday nights before the college crowd hit the bars. I had a love / hate relationship with that place, but I did meet a lot of cool people working there, and it funded plenty of chases from 2006 to 2009.

My former employer, Mia Za's Italian Cafe` also shared a building with my all-time favorite place to eat; Zorba's. Home of America's favorite gyros! This place has been a campus staple since it's inception in the early 1970's. In fact, both were once featured in a Sports Illustrated article outlining the time line of a typical student's day before attending an Illinois basketball game. Zorba's for lunch, and Za's for dinner said SI. Zorba's was absolutely filled with old Illinois sports memorabilia dating back to old bowl games and Final Four births from the 70s and 80s. They had a big plasma TV that I sat and watched the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament on when I visited Champaign-Urbana and had lunch at my favorite spot just four days before the fire.

Thanks to the amazing world of social media I was able to do nothing but sit and watch these two places burn all morning. This video was shot by someone in the apartments across the street, and is what really made it sink in for me:

Pretty weird to watch a place that I worked almost daily a couple years ago, and a place that I just ate lunch at a few days ago up in flames. The area above Zorba's and Mia Za's was Mia Za's seating area. I'd hide up by those windows and check data on my phone on the morning of a chase day, or to keep tabs on weather elsewhere. And then Zorba's, I would go out to lunch with my parents there when I was just a kid. It was one of those 'treat' places. Gyros aren't the first choice of your average kid, but I couldn't and still can't get enough of them. In being a connoisseur of gyros, I've yet to find anywhere to top Zorba's.

I used to go out to lunch occasionally with my friends to Za's, and it always had a fun atmosphere. So, when the U of I budget cuts had my hours at next to nothing at my primary job in the weather office at WILL, I went on a trip to campustown in search of an additional source of income. Za's was the first place I went (I was going next door to Zorba's next!) and the GM at the time liked hiring townies, and said the job was mine if I wanted it. I started the next day, and worked exactly three years there before transferring to Northern Illinois University in 2009.

I'm not sure what either place is going to do in terms of rebuilding. I don't think they have been able to get inside and determine a cause yet, because the building needed to be partially demolished before it would be safe for an investigation crew to enter. Only after a cause is determined will the owners even be allowed to get in and assess the damage. My guess is Zorba's rebuilds somewhere, if not in the same building. The founder of Mia Za's has franchised to other college towns in the midwest, so it may be that he just focuses on the other stores, and opening new locations. However, this was his first, and the lines out the front door on the weekends show that the place has a solid following and it would surprise me if he just let it go. But, time will tell the real story of what kind of a time frame we are looking at for renovation. Much of the top floor needs to be demolished, and the main floor is likely a complete mess with fire, smoke, and water damage. There is another video that showed water rushing out the front door of Za's like a river.

I've turned this into a novel, but just wanted to post a few photos that I took yesterday evening once I got back into town. They were in the process of demolishing the front facade. It's even more exposed this evening but my phone battery was too low to take any photos. My guess is they'll get whatever demolishing they need to get done, and then the building will be covered up while they do their renovations.

Here are the photos that I grabbed while they worked. You could still smell charred wood.

For comparison, this was the only photo I could find in a quick look for the building before the fire. Obviously only the Za's portion is shown, but you get the idea.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Overnight elevated convection / Tuesday

We had a line of pretty weak thunderstorms move through DeKalb around 10 PM last night. Well timed after my Illini fell in the NCAA Tournament. I expected a little bit more in the way of lightning, since the earlier round that evening was fairly well stacked. Unfortunately I didn't time that cluster of storms well and rolled into DeKalb only half an hour before they erupted just south of town. Such is life!

Anyway, infrequent as the lightning was, I did manage to capture a few strokes atop the parking garage on the NIU campus downtown. I will certainly be hitting this place up more in the future as there are quite a few interesting angles that would make for cool foregrounds in a lightning strike.

This is looking west as the line moved into DeKalb with a little roll cloud along the leading edge.

Moments before this, the moon (which is directly behind this storm) began poking through a little hole in the cumulus clouds adjacent to the storm. I began almost crying anxiety tears praying to the storm gods for a lightning strike as the moon was shining through. This flash came probably two exposures after the moon finally disappeared again. Of course! Hard to complain though... finally have the first lightning and storm shot of 2011. Here we go!

I'm a bit perplexed by Tuesday, but in just getting back to town I haven't done much more but take quick glances at the forecast guidance. The NAM seems to be somewhat of an outlier with a further south placement of the surface low and warm front across Iowa. It's easy to throw it out, but at the same time it seems that with these early season storm systems it's very common for the models to struggle with warm front positions often showing them surging northward allowing for a tornado outbreak, while in reality on the day of, the darn warm front doesn't budge an inch and your target area remains in the 40's with elevated hailstorms.

The SREF, GFS and ECMWF all have the surface low around Des Moines, IA at 7 PM on Tuesday evening with a warm front near the Quad Cities. If this ends up being the case, giving sufficient destabilization it does appear possible that a few tornadoes could occur in the southeast 1/4 of Iowa ahead of the surface low and along the warm front.

The 80 knot 500 mb jet streak will be punching into the tri-state intersection of IL/IA/MO at 7 PM with a 997 mb surface low over Des Moines according to the SPC SREF model. Instability doesn't seem to be too robust despite surface dew points near the 60F mark. I've done a lot of "well you only need such and such amount of instability with such a strong early season system" chasing and seen a whole lot of nothing so I'm not dying to go after this one.

I'm almost watching a sleeper target on the nose of the H5 shortwave along the warm front in western or central Illinois. This target is a lot closer, so I could sit and watch and decide last second rather than get up and leave early for a southern Iowa target that may or may not produce tornadoes. I like the potential for maybe an isolated tornado report somewhere near Peoria or Bloomington in central Illinois during the mid-afternoon.

I just don't see myself shooting into Iowa tomorrow, and if I did it wouldn't be very far into the state. Perhaps Iowa City? Eh, probably not.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

March 14-18 Arizona Trip

Well, back in the midwest now. Gone are the 90 degree temperatures and abundant sunshine! However, with a shot at thunderstorms over the next several days I suppose it isn't the worst time to be coming home. I don't foresee any storm chasing expeditions in the next week, but hearing some thunder would be nice.

I don't have a lot to write, but I figured I would post a few photos from the last several days in the Phoenix area. The photos can do the story-telling, I suppose. The bulk will be from the White Tank Mountain Range, west of Phoenix.

Halo around the moon on the first night in town with one of the many palm trees that dot the Phoenix city scape. The high level clouds are under-lit by the city lights.

Some of the interesting petroglyphs that can be found all over the rocks in areas around the mountain range.

Tia in yellow, and then my sister Kaylin a little bit further down.

The view to the north up on the little ledge that I was photographing the petroglyphs from. Whoever it was that etched those carvings into the rocks many many years ago had quite the view!

I love these cholla cacti!
More petroglyphs a little bit further up the mountain.

Tia admiring the canyon at the top of the mountain, where a little water "fall" trickles down. During the monsoon season this place is surely hopping, but around this time of year a little pond is all that was to be found.

My poser Tia, and then Kaylin in the background photographing something. We sat here for half an hour eating some sandwiches and enjoying the cooler air. It's amazing when you're out in the desert how drastic the difference between the open sun, and shaded areas really is. Here in the midwest when the dew points start pushing 70F during the summer, it's hot wherever you go, shade or no shade.
Looking up toward the top of the canyon where the waterfall trickles down.

Heading back down the mountain now.

Looking east toward 'the valley'. The city of Phoenix can be seen way down there.

Just classic desert landscape.

Looking back toward the mountains that we were just playing on. I miss this already!

More cholla fun!

Sunset on our final night in Phoenix was quite spectacular!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

White Tank Mountain Regional Park

Here's a little preview of our exploration yesterday in the White Tank Mountains west of Phoenix. We wound up taking a little trail up into the mountains and having lunch next to a water "fall" inside a canyon. I say waterfall in quotations because at this time of year, the falls are no more than a trickle of water falling into a two inch deep puddle. During the monsoon season however, the place is certainly hopping.

Plenty of photos to come this weekend, but for now here's a shot from my phone!
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Monday, March 14, 2011


I realized I had never even mentioned it on the blog, but I will be flying out to Arizona this morning. I'll be flying out to Phoenix in about an hour with Tia and my sister, Kaylin. Will be spending the week in the Phoenix area playing in the desert and enjoying the forecast high temperatures in the 90s. In a dry heat, that will do just fine!

It's been 8 years since I ventured to the southwest so I'm thrilled! That was the last time I did anything adventurous for spring break beyond chasing moisture starved storms in Kansas back in 09.

Intrigued by the storm system that will be impacting the region when I return next weekend!

Anyway, I will try and update through the week and will certainly have plenty of photos upon my return.
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Friday, March 11, 2011

Sean Casey's Tornado Alley IMAX Film and Aurora Borealis!

I was lucky enough to be contacted by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago earlier this week with an invitation for myself and a guest to attend the exclusive world premiere screening and banquet for Sean Casey's IMAX film, Tornado Alley. Being a tightwad, I had hoped to see the film but wasn't dying to pay museum prices to do so. Who was I to turn down a free invitation, though?!

I was joined by the lovely Tia for a wonderful evening at one of the coolest museums in the world. The banquet was nice, with an open bar along with the typical catering heaters stocked with pretzels, quesadillas, and miniature pizzas. But of course, I'm not writing to discuss the quality of the overly salted pretzels, or the far understocked miniature pizzas!

Sean's film far exceeded my expectations. In a way that's hard to say though, because I wasn't really sure what to expect. I was not sure if he'd go the route of a quiet nature documentary, or something with a lot of behind the scenes mumbo jumbo. As it turns out, he found the perfect middle ground.

I would equate the film to the movie Twister, but without the crappy Hollywood special effects. Plenty of action, but with 100% real in your face tornado video. Rather than computer animated houses rolling on to the field, you've got real life 50 gallon oil drums flying past the camera like leaves blowing in a breeze. There was a lot of shuffling around and mix-matching dates, but when you're fitting a decade of filming into a 45 minute film there isn't a lot of time to establish different filming dates. Any storm chaser could probably tell you that each subsequent scene was not from the same date, but the general public would probably never know. He was also able to mix in some behind the scene information on the Vortex 2 project, but not so much that it became boring and lost its way. A little information was cool, but people aren't filling the theater to see IMAX footage of gear covered trucks and gangly grad students hanging out in wheat fields.

As if anyone familiar with the storm chasing world didn't see it coming, his featured "shot" was during the Goshen County, Wyoming tornado. The scene from the Discovery Channel show Storm Chasers can be seen here. The shot was definitely sweet, but I don't even think it was in the Top 5 coolest shots featured in the film, but that may just be the storm chaser in me.

Sean and crew were inside Wadena, Minnesota on June 17th 2010 when a massive EF4 violent tornado rolled through the town. The footage captured by his IMAX camera while they drove through, and came to a stop in a residential town were just incredible. You can see the Discovery Channel clip from this intercept film here:

There a snippits from Sean's IMAX camera in there, but the quality is low and for obvious reasons they did not air any of the coolest shots. I couldn't help feel like I was a helpless resident of Wadena standing on my front lawn watching this monster fly by my home while I watched this scene.

The other thing that struck me while watching this film, was that it was almost like getting to stand and watch a tornado in real life while in a protective bubble. As a storm chaser I've been close to significant tornadoes before, but during these moments your heart is racing and you're often concerning yourself with several things while you watch the tornado churn. Being able to see a tornado in as close to real life as you are going to get without being there as it happened, but being able to sit in a reclined leather chair while it happens was amazing. You've got a life size tornado, with your body shaking from the loud roar of the tornado, and you're able to just sit back and look up/down and side to side at all the beauty of the tornado in front of you.

In the times that I have run into Sean Casey and his TIV in the field I haven't always been thrilled with his presence. On two separate occasions I was honked at aggressively to move out of my lane to avoid a head on collision due to other cars parking on the roadways. As Sean mentioned in the Q&A section as someone of course brought up the issue of "non-professional" storm chasers getting in his way while filming, no one has any more right to the road than the other, regardless of their purpose. I realize he had built a tank, and was filming a multi-million dollar project, but I did not take it kindly being honked at to attempt to coax me into driving into the ditch so he can drive on the wrong side of the road in my lane. But, I've let things go, and after seeing this film am glad he was out there filming.

While he likely has no idea who I am, and I haven't rarely been thrilled to see his giant tank driving down the road toward me, I can definitely say that the final product is something that I was thrilled to be able to experience. I know many of my friends already have tickets to see the show this weekend and am sure they will not be disappointed.

On a completely unrelated note, with a minor X-class flare from the sun 36 hours ago I was hopeful for a minor geomagnetic storm and a chance at seeing the aurora borealis in this region. I was slammed with seeing the performance of Casey's film during the evening and having two exams this morning but I ducked out for about 20 minutes last night and caught a few dim glimpses at the northern lights just outside of DeKalb last night.

Very faint pillars and a slight green hue near the horizon. Nothing to get overly excited over, but after a 5 year absence I'm glad to welcome the aurora back!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Marginal storm threat along I-55

I wouldn't be surprised to see a few marginally severe thunderstorms along Interstate 55 in western and central Illinois tomorrow (Friday the 4th) afternoon or evening. Weak lapse rates will likely limit the overall severe threat, but given substantial clearing and insolation sufficient low level buoyancy in the warm sector ahead of a deepening surface low could be enough to ignite a broken line of thunderstorms along the cold front and perhaps near the warm front as far north as Interstate 80 in north central Illinois. Widespread thunderstorms will develop in central Missouri by mid-afternoon, and more isolated development will then likely expand northeast along I-55 in central Illinois around sunset. The threat for any severe storms will likely be short-lived and limited to an hour or two around sunset as convection becomes more widespread after dark and a flooding threat becomes the main story. The area most under the gun for heavy rains and thunderstorm activity should be along a Springfield to Pontiac line.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

WX in Motion, Meteorological Spring, and a lazy friend shows his face.

Happy first day of meteorological spring everyone! I did the "Overlooked Photo" series to get myself through the 28 most painful days counting down to the kickoff of meteorological spring, and what I consider the unofficial beginning to the storm chasing season. I don't often find things very fun to chase until mid-April, but mother nature usually throws a couple teasers out before that period that allow me to get my hopes up foolishly for that elusive early season tornado.

As a capper to my 'Countdown to Spring' I've decided to upload a slightly tweaked version of my "WX in Motion" segment that was found on my PWX 2010 DVD this winter. If anyone suddenly becomes interested in purchasing a copy, the information can be found on the main PrairieStormMedia.Com website. I think that ship has sailed for the most part, however as even I have already begun thinking about the 2011 edition.

Also, I'm proud to announce that long time friend, and one of the only people I will share a vehicle with while storm chasing, Colin Davis, has finally released his new website. Without sounding too much like I'm writing a eulogy here, Colin is someone I'd consider a brother in storm chasing. We both came onto the storm chasing "scene" at approximately the same age and time, and have had a mutually beneficial relationship as we grew up and collectively fell back out of love with the storm chasing "scene" over the last decade. We have both stepped back into the shadows, but our friendship only escalated. It's been damn fun sharing chases and stories with this dude, someone who shares my love of simply going out, shooting some neat photos or video, and writing about our collective adventures. Being an anti-social asshole is a lot more fun when you've got someone to keep you company. I knew I'd turn this into a big description of my man crush... so without further gushing I present the web-return of Mr. Davis himself.

The dude can write circles around me so he'll definitely push me to be the best that I can when it comes to sharing my adventurous 2011 with you. Check his stuff out at: