Record Number of Tornadoes in the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles

May 15, 2003


Event overview

On the late afternoon and evening of May 15, 2003, numerous supercell thunderstorms developed across the region. Over a span of eight hours, a record 26 tornadoes occurred in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. The previous recorded number of tornadoes for one day was 23, on June 8, 1995. Thunderstorms began to develop over the northwest Texas and Oklahoma panhandles between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on May 15th. The
first tornado occurred near Boise City, Oklahoma at 4:12 p.m., and the last tornado moved out of Wheeler County Texas shortly before midnight. In addition to the tornadoes, hail up to the size of baseballs was also reported.

The strongest and largest tornado caused F2 damage in Wheeler County near the town of Kelton. The tornado traveled for ten miles before crossing into Oklahoma. The maximum width of the tornado was one mile across for 5 miles. The tornado damaged several homes, outbuildings, and uprooted and/or snapped large trees and power lines. The tornado traveled for 10 miles before crossing into Oklahoma.

Two tornadoes received F1 ratings. The first occurred in Texas County, where a tornado near Texhoma destroyed one hog barn with major damage to two others. Also, two homes in rural Texas County
received major damage as well. The other tornado rated F1, occurred in Wheeler County. The tornado developed in the southwestern part of the county, moved east through Lela, and then northeast to Twitty. The tornado completely overturned several vehicles along I-40 near Lela, damaged several homes and a few businesses in Lela, and destroyed a manufactured home northeast of Lela.

 

Conditions that afternoon became very favorable for tornadic thunderstorms. A strong upper level system approached the region from the west. As a result, upper level winds increased through the afternoon over the panhandles while ample low level moisture increased. Additionally, an area of surface low pressure developed in northeast New Mexico with a dryline extending south near the New Mexico-Texas border. A warm extended southeast from the surface low and across the western and southern portion of the Texas Panhandle. The dryline and warm front would be the focal regions for thunderstorm initiation. These two features combined with the ample low level moisture and strong turning of the wind with height in the atmosphere, allowed for the thunderstorms to rapidly become severe and produce tornadoes. Figure one depicts the location of the surface features at 4 p.m. in the afternoon.

 

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Fig. 1. Surface map for 4 p.m. 15 May 2003 with subjectively analyzed mean sea level pressure (solid) contoured every 2 mb. Standard station model used; temperature and dewpoint (°F), pressure (mb), 3-h pressure tendency (mb), and sky conditions reported. Winds in knots with one full barb, and one half barb equal to 10, and 5 knots, respectively. Fronts and pertinent surface features depicted.

Shortly before 3:30 p.m. storms rapidly developed across Dallam and Cimarron counties. Storms continued to expand southward through the afternoon and persist until 1 a.m. The line of supercell storms moved generally toward the northeast at 30 to 35 mph before evolving into a squall line as they continued into western Oklahoma. The radar imagery below depicts the evolution of the event. Mouse click on the figures for a larger view.

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The Amarillo National Weather Service conducted damage surveys immediately following the event. One such survey was done for the Lela tornado. The tornado developed northeast of McLean in Wheeler County and moved toward the southeast. The tornado then turned east along and immediately south of I-40 before turning north into Lela. Once north of Lela, the tornado headed toward the northeast and terminated 0.5 miles northeast of Twitty. At its widest point the tornado reached 100 yards wide, and traveled for 18 miles.

 

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Fig. 3. Survey map of the Lela tornado. The path width is not to scale.

 

The pictures below were taken during the survey of Lela. The first two pictures were taken along the I-40 off ramp looking south. Damage occurred to a pole barn constructed garage and to a gas station. The third picture is of damage to a detached garage in the town of Lela. The last picture is of a double-wide mobile home that was completely destroyed. The view is toward the northwest.

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The damage path from the Kelton tornado is depicted below. The tornado developed south-southwest of the town of Kelton and traveled northeast crossing into Oklahoma. The path length in Wheeler County was 10 miles. The tornado reached a maximum width of 1 mile across for 5 of the 10 miles. The tornado damaged several homes, outbuildings, and uprooted and/or snapped large trees and power lines..

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The Guymon tornado first developed immediately west on Rim Rock drive causing damage to trees and minor roof damage to homes. The tornado dissipated before crossing into the NW 16th/15th street neighborhood. The tornado redeveloped near the intersection of North Sunset Ln and NW 15th St. The vortex moved east down NW 15th before it curved north, just west of the YMCA building. Outer roof damage occurred on the southwest corner of the YMCA building, and glass damage to neighboring homes along N Oklahoma St. The total path length was 1/2 mile. The tornadoes maximum width was 20 yards.

 

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Fig. 6. Survey map of the Guymon tornado. The path width is not to scale.

The following pictures are of various tornadoes that occurred during the event. From left to right the pictures are of; large tornado west northwest of Stratford, TX, smaller tornado west of Stratford, TX, tornado 3 miles north of Stinnett, TX, and tornado near Boise City, OK. Photographers (from left two right); Tim Marshall, Tim Marshall, Dave Lewison, and Roger Hill/Dave Gold. All photos used by permission.

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PRELIMINARY LIST OF THE MAY 15 TORNADOES, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE AMARILLO, TX

RATING COUNTY LOCATION TIME LENGTH WIDTH

F0 CIMARRON 1W BOISE CITY 4:12 PM 1/10 MILE 100 YARDS
F0 CIMARRON 1N WHEELESS 4:25 PM 5 MILES 200 YARDS
F0 CIMARRON GRIGGS 4:45 PM 1/10 MILE 50 YARDS
F0 DALLAM 6NW CONLEN 5:36 PM 10 MILES 3/4 MILE
F0 DALLAM 6NW CONLEN 5:41 PM 1 MILE 500 YARDS
F0 TEXAS 10N TEXHOMA 6:46 PM 1/10 MILE 50 YARDS
F0 TEXAS 7NW GUYMON 7:20 PM 1/2 MILE 30 YARDS
F0 TEXAS GUYMON 7:35 PM 1/2 MILE 20 YARDS
F0 SHERMAN 6N STRATFORD 7:38 PM 1 MILE 50 YARDS
F0 TEXAS OPTIMA 7:45 PM 1/4 MILE 100 YARDS
F0 MOORE 1S SUNRAY 7:58 PM 6 MILES 200 YARDS
F0 SHERMAN 24SE STRATFORD 8:15 PM 1/10 MILE 50 YARDS
F0 SHERMAN 25SE STRATFORD 8:15 PM 1/10 MILE 20 YARDS
F0 GRAY 3S MCLEAN 8:30 PM 1/10 MILE 40 YARDS
F0 SHERMAN 12SE STRATFORD 8:31 PM 1/4 MILE 50 YARDS
F1 TEXAS GOODWELL 8:33 PM 2 MILES 30 YARDS
F0 DONLEY 12E JERICHO 8:37 PM 1/2 MILE 50 YARDS
F0 TEXAS TYRONE 8:45 PM 1 MILE 40 YARDS
F0 DONLEY ASHTOLA 8:59 PM 1/10 MILE 20 YARDS
F0 BEAVER 3W BEAVER 9:00 PM 3/4 MILE 20 YARDS
F0 HUTCHINSON 2N STINNETT 9:23 PM 2 MILES 30 YARDS
F1 WHEELER LELA 9:43 PM 18 MILES 100 YARDS
F0 CARSON 2E PANHANDLE 9:44 PM 1/10 MILE 20 YARDS
F0 WHEELER KELLERVILLE 10:30 PM 1/2 MILE 50 YARDS
F2 WHEELER KELTON 10:53 PM 10 MILES 1 MILE
F0 WHEELER 3N WHEELER 11:21 PM 1/10 MILE 50 YARDS

Web page and graphics produced by Albert Pietrycha. Statistics provided by Steve Drillette and Mark Fox.


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