2016 Storm Season: Tornado Stories

Every tornado is unique, as is their stories. Learn about the mightiest winds before they strike.

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NOAA photo of a funnel in Dimmit, TX. 1995

FORT WORTH, Texas, April 2, 2016 — Welcome to springtime in Texas! It is the start of our annual spring weather: tornadoes, thunderstorms, flash floods, lightning, straight line winds and wind shear.

Western states seem to have the most earthquakes. Northern states experience bitter blizzards. The east coast and Gulf Coast get hurricanes. Although they happen in all 50 states, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are synonymous with tornadoes. And as the residents of the other two do, Texans know it’s not a matter of if severe weather will happen, but when it will happen.

Mind-boggling destruction to the town of Joplin, MO. May 22, 2011 Photo: Bob Webster/Flickr>
Mind-boggling destruction to the town of Joplin, MO. May 22, 2011 Photo: Bob Webster/Flickr

And even though severe weather is pretty common here, it does not make the loss of life and property any easier. In the face of such destruction and heartbreak, it’s hard to believe that basements are a rarity in the Lone Star State. Home construction consists of laying a concrete slab and building a house on it. We do, however, have the option of building underground shelters or in-home safe-rooms.

Texas lies at the bottom of Tornado Alley. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) lists some common forms of severe weather native to the area:


Lightning — Texas is not the No. 1 state for lightning; Florida has that honor, but we get quite a few strikes from thunderstorms and super cells that spawn every year.

Straight-Line Winds are tornado-strength winds that do not rotate but blow in straight lines (horizontal or vertical) and can exceed 100 mph. They cause the most wind damage from thunderstorms. From them comes a downburst that often creates wind shear, which is very dangerous to aviation. Wind shear caused the crash of Delta Flight 191 at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Aug. 2, 1985.

Flash Floods are the No. 1 cause of deaths during thunderstorms in Texas. Gentle flowing creeks, streams, and rivers become torrential flows from excessive amounts of precipitation. And because it’s not uncommon to go months without any rain, the earth has a hard time absorbing the deluge. It is too much for regular run-off and loosens soil until it gives way.

Many motorists don’t realize that water can rise to dangerous levels in an instant and cars will float in only 18 inches of water.

According to United States Search and Rescue Task Force, “Flash floods occur within a few minutes or hours of excessive rainfall, a dam or levee failure, or a sudden release of water held by an ice jam. Flash floods can roll boulders, tear out trees, destroy buildings and bridges, and scour out new channels. Rapidly rising water can reach heights of 30 feet or more. Furthermore, flash flood-producing rains can also trigger catastrophic mudslides. You will not always have a warning that these deadly, sudden floods are coming.”

This writer has lived in Tornado Alley her entire life and has had to take cover on several occasions. But I never actually had a tornado come directly my way until March 28, 2000. On that day a tornado roared through downtown Fort Worth heading east, in the direction of my house.

Miraculously the power didn’t go out so we could hear the TV weather man from the inner hallway where we were hiding. Experts say if you don’t have a basement or storm shelter, to go to the innermost room in whatever kind of building you’re in.

Every room in that house was on an outside wall except the hallway.

The storm came directly towards us, went back up into the clouds and then down again and continued its eastern path.

Earlier in the day I had cut back lots of trees and bushes in my backyard. The trimmings made a pile at the curb in front of my house, 10 feet long, six feet wide and three feet deep. The city of Fort Worth comes by and picks up debris like that a few times a month.

Upon inspection after the storm, we noticed that not one twig of that pile was out of place. Yet there was absolutely no debris in our street — the wind blew it clean. Go figure. That’s a tornado for you.

The winds from them are notorious for the strange phenomena left in their wake:

  • Tornado Project Online has a section, Tornado Oddities, which tells of a 1915 Kansas tornado that had wiped away an entire farmstead so completely it looked as if it had never been there. Yet the wind carried its five horses a distance of a quarter-mile, all unhurt, and found together still hitched to the same rail.
  • The same tornado blew down the south wall of a store and scattered the debris, but shelves and canned goods that had stood against that same wall were unmoved.
  • Other storms left hoses and wires driven through tree trunks without damaging them
  • Weather.com reports that a corn stalk was driven through the radiator of a truck in Pampa, Texas, on Nov. 16, 2015.

    Devastation - May 11, 1953 Waco, TX.
    Devastation – May 11, 1953, Waco, Texas

These wonder-producing forces of nature are also destructive beyond comprehension. Go outside, look at your house, and try to imagine wind blowing it completely away. It’s incomprehensible.

The deadliest tornado in Texas history happened in Waco, Texas, on May 11, 1953. The F-5 twister was approximately one third of a mile wide; its 23-mile path was in the heart of downtown Waco. Witnesses said the heavy rain made it difficult for people to see the tornado coming toward the city.

One hundred fourteen people were killed, 597 injured; the destruction was so complete that victims waited up to 14 hours for rescue. Rescuers would not be able to get to the dead bodies for several days. The F5 tornado demolished over 600 homes and a thousand businesses that cost $41,000,000, which is $369,369,369 in today’s money.

The deadliest tornado since they began keeping records in the U.S. was the Tri-State Tornado. It happened on March 18, 1925, when a mile-wide storm tore a path through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana without once leaving the ground.

Startling statistics from the storm and its devastation shared by NOAA include:

  • ¾ -mile average path width (some accounts of 1 mile wide—a record width)
  • 3 ½ hours to cover 219 miles of continuous devastation (record path)
  • 1:01 p.m.—tornado touched down three miles NNW of Ellington, Missouri
  • 4:30 p.m.—tornado dissipated about three miles SW of Petersburg, Indiana
  • 695 deaths—a record for a single tornado
  • 2,027 injuries
  • 15,000 homes destroyed

    Path of terrifying Tri-State Tornado, 1925 Photo/University of Arizona
    Path of terrifying Tri-State Tornado, 1925 Photo/University of Arizona

The catastrophe was so great that it completely destroyed the entire town of Gorham, Illinois.

Why was the devastation so great? NOAA states, “Communication was… in its primitive stage, as radio was just coming into existence in the larger cities during the 1920’s, and television wouldn’t make an appearance for another 25 years or so.”

People had never heard of the terms “tornado watch” or “tornado warning” then. Radar and satellite imagery were still science fiction. The fastest way to communicate at this time was by word of mouth. Yet a lot of people didn’t have telephones, and even then there just wasn’t enough time to warn people. Also, surviving witnesses said that the storm was so big that it didn’t look like a tornado — just a giant cloud of dust. A good many people didn’t even know danger was coming right at them.

Tornadoes happen all over the world, with the U.S. having the highest incidents and most destructive storms. Alaska has had the fewest of them, with only two tornadoes between 1950 and 2006. Texas has the most tornadoes with an average of 126 per year.

Since the 2000 tornado I’ve invested in a NOAA Weather Radio. It wakes you up like an alarm clock if bad weather happens while you sleep. The device has alerted us on more than one occasion, making it one of the best investments I’ve ever made, and they don’t break the bank.

So the next time there is a tornado watch or the tornado warning sirens go off, PLEASE listen to and do what the experts say. Folks in all 50 states need to be vigilant and be prepared. The Weather Channel has a Tornado Safety and Preparedness page. It’s a great place to learn as much as you can about these storms and get information to keep you and your loved ones safe.

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Read more of Claire’s work at Feed the Mind, Nourish the Soul in the Communities Digital News and Greater Fort Worth Writers.

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