GIVE 'EM HAIL, HURRY!

FOR THE ARIZONA THUNDERSTORM CHASERS, THE SKY'S THE LIMIT. AND THEREIN LIES THE RUB.

Cerveny is happy as sunshine. This was a five-run first inning. Usually, the first monsoon storms come in dry, he says, mostly lightning, but tonight was unusually wet. All in all, this was a good start to the monsoon season.

None of the rain, however, reaches Phoenix. The storms were headed that way, but then just dumped everything out and died before they arrived. It is a lamentable trend.

Dry is the way it stays, for days. The storm line offers nothing but bad news from Shaffer, Cerveny's assistant, as the end of the month approaches. It is Phoenix's driest July on record.

The chasers hear messages like:
"No chase. The storm will dissipate before it gets here."
"No chase. There's nothin' but junk out there."
"No chase. There is an unconfirmed report of a cloud over Safford, but we don't think it's gonna be worthwhile."
"It's 116 degrees with not a cloud in the sky. No chase. Repeat: No chase."
Then, on July 28, the temperature in Phoenix hits a sadistic 121 degrees. That evening, something extraordinary occurs.

By 8 p.m., the mercury has fallen to 101 while an unusually high supercell builds near the Arizona-Mexico border, the cradle of monsoon activity.

Around ten o'clock, the supercell crashes through the stable air at 60,000 feet up, it is that strong. The penetration snaps the layer of stable air like a rubber band. It sends a massive ripple far across the desert sky that shakes loose unstable moisture sitting over Phoenix.

The moisture spills like candy from a pi§ata. But gripped by the intense heat, it fizzles, evaporates on the way down, leaving nothing but hot air. It compresses. It becomes a tremendous downdraft of air hotter than the surface air itself. It smashes into the ground like water from a faucet hitting the bottom of a sink, the same principle that results in microbursts and winds of up to 150 mph and deadly plane crashes and people swearing afterward that the rain was moving horizontally.

But this is a heat burst, and there is nothing but hot air spewing away from its collision with the earth. Waves sweep across the desert, gathering dust as they go, then tear through the Valley, packing overheated air and high winds that rip trees from the ground.

By 11 o'clock, the temperature in Phoenix has gone all the way back up to 114 degrees.

The same thing once happened in Portugal, Cerveny notes later, only much worse. It was in 1949, and there it is on page 255 of his copy of Time-Life's Mysteries of the Unexplained: The temperature rose from 100 to 158 in two minutes, killing barnyard fowl on the spot. Strange but true!

A half-century later, at a house on Oregon Avenue in north central Phoenix, the force of the July 28 heat burst wrenches an 85-foot tree from the earth and throws it across the road, breaking the foundation of an old stucco wall. The next morning, a Saturday, the home's resident finds underneath the wall a buried newspaper.

The date of the newspaper: Saturday, July 29, 1978. The knee-slapping weather gods have struck again.

Outside it is grayish brown, the color of an approaching dust storm, and all across the radar the cells are popping up in places that are just close enough to--yes! here we go!--well, shoot, actually not quite close enough, but they're getting there! We'll get a severe storm warning out of these things yet!

It is just after 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 30, at the Phoenix office of the National Weather Service, the agency entrusted with the role of sentry, to answer the concerns we have when severe weather approaches.

"I think we should expand the warning for Maricopa County," says one of the night's forecasters, Steve Sipple, a lanky guy with blond hair and glasses.

"There is no warning," replies fellow forecaster Doug Green.
Whoops! Forgot to send one in all the commotion! Let's see, we've got reports of downed power lines, a tree lying on Indian School Road--maybe it's not too late. . . . Are there any other systems? On the phone, now: Where are those downed power lines, anyway?--long pause--Hey, get this, guys: They say they're somewhere around S-R-P . . .

Sipple says the letters slowly, just to rub in the fact that the lines must be down right around the corner somewhere--and Doug, check out that mess on Doppler radar--are there thunderstorms in there or not? Get a warning ready!

No--greater Phoenix is pretty quiet right now. No reason to scare the hell out of everybody.

AZTC's Stormbase is about ten feet away from all this bustle, and tonight Stormbase is Charles Lucas, an America West reservations clerk who worked like mad to finish early and get over here once he heard a chase was on. Unit 1 is on Northern at around 107th Avenue; Unit 3, meaning John Moore and his chase-ready personal vehicle, is somewhere south of that. There is no Unit 2.

Lucas can hardly relax. He is rather excitable. His America West employee badge dangles from the arm of his shirt. You want to sit him down, tell him to take a deep breath. His job tonight is to guide the chase units through all the blowing dust, which is hampering visibility but bringing no rain as yet. For now, the best advice is for them to just hang where they are, because two systems are headed into the far west Valley and should converge nicely.

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