Monday, April 13, 2009

30 years ago there was a Tornado

Repost from over at the Great Orange Satan

Wichita Falls is not a pretty town. Texas Monthly once many years ago determined that being a full-time resident of WF was one of the worst jobs in Texas. I would have to concur. It is hotter than hell in summer, colder than a well-digger's butt in winter and occasionally Oklahoma decides to fly by in the wind, then it rains and the whole world looks like you decided to dump a bucket of mud on it. Thirty years ago this day one of the worst storms in the history of our country plowed through town.

According to the National Weather Service it was The Red River Valley Tornado Outbreak of April 10, 1979.
"When the giant tornado struck Wichita Falls just before 6:00 p.m., most people were not surprised. Severe weather warnings had been in effect for Wichita County and Wichita Falls for almost an hour. The warnings were being broadcast repeatedly by two local TV stations and three local radio stations which were receiving continuously updated information over the emergency hotline connecting them with the Wichita Falls WSO. The siren system for the city was sounded three times, the last around 5:50 p.m., just as the storm spotters reported the tornado approaching Memorial Stadium in the southwestern suburbs of Wichita Falls. The giant tornado was a massive black column extending from the low striated base of the inky clouds to the ground. Huge pieces of debris thrown high in the air were clearly visible from miles away as the storm cut a swath of destruction through the city. Eyewitnesses described details of the storm differently, but they were unanimous on one point -- it was an awesome, terrifying experience beyond anything they had encountered before."

"Despite excellent warning lead-time and multiple soundings of the sirens, some people of Wichita Falls either did not hear the warnings or failed to take prescribed lifesaving actions. More than 40 died, and about 1,700 were injured. As the storm bore down, those who sought the safest refuge in their immediate surroundings generally fared well. Those who were caught in automobiles and trucks made up a high percentage of the fatalities. People from the shopping center took shelter in refrigerator vaults, in restrooms, and under closets. Several got extra protection by covering themselves with mattresses and pillows. They survived!"

Emphasis mine.

Back in 79, the average lead time was around five minutes. Now we can get about 10-15 minute leads. But, even with the extra five minutes the risk of becoming a piece of flying debris is too great to try to outrun one of these. Find somewhere to hide. In the tub with a mattress over you is still one of the better locations in your house. If you have an interior bathroom that isn't adjacent to exterior walls, that is even better. Of course a storm shelter is your best bet. That is where my grandfather, family and their neighbors had all sought refuge. They all survived uninjured. Others were not so fortunate. There were parts of town that were blown clean away. To this day I remember seeing a truck bumper stuck in top of a sycamore tree that was still standing. The scariest part of the entire thing was the not knowing. Nobody knew anything, there was no phone service and no such thing as cell phones back then. My mom got in her car and went out there. My sister and I stayed with my dad while she went to find out if my grandfather and her brother were alive. She said when she got to the edge of town the Highway Patrol had the road blockaded. She explained herself and the officer was not going to let her in, but she managed to convince him that she was going to find a way in, come hell or high water. He finally let her go. I lost track of her for four or five days. I didn't know anything. There was no internet database to go search for victims. There was nothing to do but wait. When she finally called in and relieved my fears I found out that everybody we knew was ok, but the town was devastated.

How do you describe a tornado like this one? A mile wide and miles tall. I have heard some say it was three tornadoes that fused into one. At least one picture in the NWS link distinctly shows three funnels that later were one. I have studied weather as an amateur observer, but I know better than to think I will ever understand completely how these things form. Over-riding cold front on top of warm, humid air mass, anticyclones, wall clouds, Fujita scale, whatever other jargon I might gather along the way is no match for the terrible knowledge that any given spring or autumn day might turn out like this one 30 years ago.

If you get nothing else out of this diary and in spite of the fact that I just the other day did one on 'preppers' I implore all of dKos to be prepared for events like this. Have a plan. Have food on hand that will get you through a few days, same with water. Have a good first aid kit. Have a radio. Be prepared. If you are at home, find the safest place you can. If you are in your car, pull over and find shelter. Get in the damn beer cooler at the Quickie Mart if that is all you have. You, Apu and Bubba get in there and stay put.

I hope nobody ever needs this info. I hope you never see a day like this one thirty years ago.

Some selected comments from dear readers:

I grew up near Ada (Ardmore). One of my

earliest memories is of a terrifying night spent sitting in my mother's lap in a crowded cellar as a tornado hit.
My mother was one of nine children; the day the youngest child was born (my uncle) their house was wiped out by a tornado (West Texas). The baby was born at home, so the entire family crowded into the bedroom with my grandmother (in bed with the baby). My grandfather held a quilt over the window to block the softball sized hail that was pounding the house. The only thing left standing after the storm was the bedroom.

How weird, I was just talking about that tornado!

I was telling my family about it, having no idea it was 30 years ago TODAY.
I was in Lawton Oklahoma at the time, and we had one that day, too, that killed two people, one of whom was a baby ripped out of its parent's arms.
Crazy day. I was 17 years old and was out fishing with a buddy (in a boat! Stupid!), and then as we were driving back into town we heard there was a tornado on the ground near the downtown. We headed right down, to try to see, it and were on the scene immediately after it hit.
We only found out later about the Wichita Falls disaster. That was nasty. I was down there a month or two later and it was just a wasteland. There were still pieces of cars up in the stripped branches of the trees that remained standing. As far as you could see. That thing was a mile wide, as you mentioned.
Scary stuff.
William Casey "We will know that we have succeeded when everything the public believes is false"

I was there for this one, and MAN...

Talk about having the bejabbers scared out of you. We were on Gossett Drive, right behind the edge of the ridge above Sikes Center where so many people died.
The sirens were the most eerie, terrifying thing this East Coast baby had ever heard. When I looked out the back door toward where it was supposed to be, I couldn't see a classic funnel cloud -- because the storm was about a mile and a half wide at that point -- but I could HEAR that classic rushing roar. I saw debris flying up against the black backdrop of the "sky" (actually the funnel!), but I still wasn't sure where the storm was. It was almost on top of me!
The kids and I huddled in the hall, and luckily we were just on the edge of the worst of it. We had some damage, but three doors down the houses were flat all the way to the kids' elementary school.
Think of the worst photos of war zones you've ever seen, and you'll come close to knowing what it looked like.
Not something you ever forget.

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