The Wichita Falls tornado. Credit: NOAA Photo Library
It takes a special kind of event to earn its own nickname. You have the Super Outbreak (April 3-4, 1974), the infamous Tri-State tornado (March 18, 1925), and the Palm Sunday Outbreak (April 11-12, 1965). If you walk up to a long-time resident of Wichita Falls and strike up a conversation about weather, chances are they have their own story to tell about another event that earned its name and place in history: Terrible Tuesday.
Image Link: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/oun/wxevents/19790410/figures/sig_wx.gif
Storm reports in Texas and Oklahoma from 6:00 AM CST April 10, 1979, to 6:00 AM CST April 11, 1979. There are 28 tornado reports, 34 significant hail reports, and 23 high wind reports. Ten of the 28 tornadoes had path lengths of at least ten miles.
The morning of April 10, 1979, was cloudy and cool in Oklahoma and Northwest Texas. At 6:00 AM CST, a warm front was located in Central Texas and was surging northward, bringing warmer temperatures and moist air with it. The skies began to clear and temperatures started to rise. By noon, a low pressure area had developed near Lubbock, the warm front had already reached northwest Texas, and a dryline stretched from the low to the Rio Grande. If you’ve lived in the area long enough, I’m sure you’ve heard of the term “dryline” and associate it with stormy weather. Naturally, thunderstorms began to spark along the dryline in West Texas early in the afternoon. The National Severe Storms Forecast Center issued a tornado watch for Northwest Texas and Southwest Oklahoma from 2:30 PM to 7:00 PM. Three supercells soon formed and each produced strong tornadoes throughout the evening.
Image Link: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/oun/wxevents/19790410/figures/outbreak.jpg
The three isolated supercells spawned a total of eleven tornadoes. Their paths are mapped above.
The northernmost supercell produced its first tornado, an F2, south of Crowell, Texas, at 3:05 PM. It remained on the ground until 3:28 PM, but mostly avoided populated areas. While the first tornado was still on the ground, a second tornado developed at 3:20 PM. At 3:39 PM, the tornado tracked through Vernon, Texas, killing eleven people and injuring 67 others. It was rated an F4, the first of two F4 tornadoes that day. The supercell went on to produce another F2 tornado near Hollister, Oklahoma, at 4:15 PM, then a fourth tornado, an F1, near Faxon, Oklahoma, half an hour later. Its final tornado was an F3 in Lawton, Oklahoma, at 5:15 PM, killing three people.
The middle supercell produced the longest-track tornado. This tornado, an F2, touched down near Harrold, Texas, and traveled 64 miles to Pumpkin Center, Oklahoma. It was on the ground for an hour and a half, from 3:55 PM to 5:25 PM. Luckily, this tornado mostly traveled through unpopulated areas, but killed one person at the beginning of its life near Harrold. The supercell went on to produce strong winds in Marlow, Oklahoma, and near Purcell, Oklahoma, then two more short-lived F2 tornadoes near Noble and Prague in Oklahoma.
The Seymour, Texas, tornado. Credit: Don Burgess, NOAA Photo Library
The southernmost supercell is the one that is most remembered from this event. The storm produced its first tornado at 4:53 PM, an F2 near Seymour, Texas. Its second tornado formed just outside Wichita Falls at 5:55 PM, moved through the city just after 6:00 PM, and continued across the Red River. It tracked through Waurika, Oklahoma, and lifted after traveling 47 miles at 7:00 PM. This tornado killed 42 people and injured over 1,800 others. The supercell went on to produce a final long-track tornado, an F3, which passed near Pruitt, Oklahoma, on its 27-mile path.
A detailed map of the damage path in Wichita Falls, Texas. Credit: National Weather Service Norman, Oklahoma
The Wichita Falls tornado, of course, is the most infamous tornado of the outbreak. It was already producing F4 damage by the time it entered the city, just five minutes after it had formed. It first impacted Memorial Stadium and McNiel Junior High School (marker 1 on the map above), where it caused severe damage. It proceeded to destroy an apartment complex and neighborhood across the street (markers 2 and 3), where it claimed its first lives. It continued on its northeastward path, next impacting Southwest National Bank (marker 4). The building was completely destroyed except for its vault. The tornado continued to impact more neighborhoods and severely damaged another school, Ben Milam Elementary School (marker 6). This is where the widest area of F4 damage was documented. The tornado then entered a commercial area, destroying multiple business and claiming more lives. Continuing northeastward, it produced still more F4 damage in more neighborhoods, then weakened somewhat as it neared Highway 281. As it crossed 281 and 287, it impacted multiple vehicles, inflicting yet more fatalities. On the east side of Wichita Falls, it destroyed a housing area, a mobile home park, and large commercial businesses. As it left the city, the tornado’s appearance changed. Instead of a large wedge, it transformed into a multi-vortex tornado with as many as five distinct vortices rotating around its center. It did further extensive damage, but did not yield anymore fatalities.
The Wichita Falls tornado produced an estimated $400 million (1979 dollars) in damage. That equates to over $1.2 billion in 2013 dollars! Damaged structures included over 4,000 homes (3,000 of which were completely destroyed), over 1,000 apartment units, 140 mobile homes, thirteen schools (two of which were demolished), and over 100 businesses. 5,000 families, or 20,000 residents, were estimated to be displaced by the tornado (10-20% of the city’s population). The Wichita Falls tornado is the sixth costliest tornado in American history. The 42 deaths remained the highest death toll from a single tornado until the Joplin tornado in 2011. The tornado itself was rated a high-end F4. It had winds estimated in the range of 230 to 260 miles per hour. The width of F4 damage (not counting weaker areas of damage) reached a maximum of about half a mile near Ben Milam Elementary School (location 6 on the map). The overall width of the tornado is unknown because the F0 damage was never mapped, but the width of F1 damage and greater was generally about one mile.
Cars damaged by the Wichita Falls tornado. Credit: NSSL
A majority of the fatalities from the Wichita Falls tornado occurred in vehicles. 25 people were killed in their vehicles, sixteen of whom were trying to flee from the tornado. Eleven of the sixteen fled from homes that received little to no damage from the tornado. History repeated itself in 2013 when several thousand residents evacuated the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Area during a tornado warning. No fatalities occurred inside homes but there were over a dozen killed in vehicles from the tornado and flash flooding that occurred that evening.
Texas has been lucky over the past decade with a lack of high-impact tornadoes. The Granbury, Texas, tornado that killed six people on May 15, 2013, was a wake-up call to the region that had otherwise not seen a significant tornado with fatalities in a few years. North Texas has been impacted by several violent tornadoes over the past century. Just because the region has been below-average tornado-wise for the past decade does not mean citizens should let their guard down and become complacent. Violent tornadoes have struck in Texas before and they will do so once again. It could happen this Sunday, it could happen in May, or it could happen in five years. It’s not a matter of if we will see another deadly tornado outbreak in Texas, but a matter of when.
For More Information on the Red River Valley Outbreak
The National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, put together a brochure for the 30th anniversary of the event: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/images/oun/wxevents/19790410/pdf/terribletuesday.pdf
The National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma, has also put together a great page with much more information about the Red River Valley Outbreak. http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=events-19790410