KEARNEY, Neb. - Hail to the storm chasers.
Or, rather, storm chasers to the hail. On a remote Nebraska highway Tuesday, winding through bare, green hills so oddly unlike the forested ridges back home in Virginia, a half-dozen first-time storm chasers encountered one of the most intense thunderstorms of their lives.
They saw distant cumulus clouds arise on the dry line, then watched them build into massive towers that dominated the sky. They saw storm structure they'd seen before only in illustrations. They saw a rotating wall cloud, which is sometimes the precursor to a tornado.
And then, they got the hail shaft.
After making a roadside stop to observe and photograph a growing thunderstorm as it rumbled over the prairies of central Nebraska, the 12-member Southwest Virginia storm-chase team turned their two vans around and tried to head south fast enough to miss any hail the storm might be dropping.
They didn't make it. Not far down the road, loud pecks were heard against the car's metal and glass. The drumbeat of the hail steadily got faster and louder, as the hail got larger and more intense.
Chase team leaders Dave Carroll and Maria Floyd, driving the vans, were forced to pull over.
Hail up to the diameter of a quarter pounded the vans furiously. Chase radio expert Seth Price reported the hail size - at roughly three-fourths of an inch, large enough to be considered severe - to the National Weather Service in Hastings, Neb. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued based on the report.
"It was intense," said Beth Owens, a New River Community College student and Pulaski County High School graduate. "We couldn't go forward, we couldn't go backward. We'd get hit with it either way."
After about four minutes of intense hail, the vans crept forward again. But a short distance later, Carroll called out on the radio that he'd seen a hail shaft, or a white mass under a thunderstorm cloud, and didn't want to get into it again.
The two vans simply pulled aside and the team members watched the mighty storm - which had morphed into a squall line rather than their preferred objective, an isolated supercell - lumber across the road in front of them, near Lexington, Neb.
About a half-hour later, the vans finally rolled south under a huge back-sheared anvil - or the high top of a storm that high-level winds have caused to form behind it as well as in front. The storm still dominated the skyline, with lightning bolts zipping and pieces of a rainbow trying to form, as the chasers regrouped in Lexington to decide what to do overnight. There appeared to be no conspicuous sign of damage to the vehicles.
"It was really, really intense. The hail shaft was surprisingly powerful," said Jacob Carley, a Blacksburg High School graduate who is a freshman meteorology student at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. "I wasn't expecting the rotation at all. I was pleasantly surprised."
The more veteran storm chasers among the group were uncertain about whether storms would fire at all. The group decided early on to go to Nebraska rather than try to find isolated storms forming in western Kansas. It proved to be a correct move - no storms were able to break through the cap, or a layer of stable air aloft, in western Kansas.
The group made a serpentine trek that never really reached the intended target, McCook, Neb.
It was an eye-opening experience, particularly for the six new chasers among the group of 12.
Isaac Sarver, a Pulaski County High School junior, had seen hail just the previous Saturday back home, but he said the storm didn't compare to what he was seeing in Nebraska.
"This was like the great-grandfather of storms," he said.