JANUARY 21, 1999 ALEXANDRIA TORNADO
by Robert B. Darby & Raymond J. Sondag *
WFO Lake Charles, Louisiana
During the evening hours of January 21, 1999, a strong tornado hit the Central Louisiana city of Alexandria, which is located in Rapides Parish. The tornado caused considerable damage to the south part of the city and was later classified as an F2 tornado on the Fujita scale. Earlier that day a strong upper level trough of low pressure moved into Central Texas. In response to this feature, a surface low pressure system developed over Southern Oklahoma with a dry line extending into far Eastern Texas, along the Sabine River. Ahead of the dry line, a strong low level wind developed, with 50 knots measured at 2000 ft. The wind profile was strikingly similar to the pre-atmospheric conditions that led to the January 1-2, 1999 tornado outbreak across Southeast Texas and Southern Louisiana. As a result, scattered showers and thunderstorms developed during the early evening hours over Central Louisiana and intensified rapidly. One of these thunderstorms produced the tornado that moved over Alexandria.
Below is a map of the city of Alexandria with the tornado damage track. The star symbols on the maps indicate where damage occurred from the tornado.
PRODUCTS ISSUED BY THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN LAKE CHARLES
The following are the products issued, leading up to and during the tornado on January 21, 1999. A tornado warning was issued by the National Weather Service in Lake Charles at 748 PM CST for Rapides Parish. The tornado touched down on the south side of town at approximately 802 PM CST. Warning lead time on the tornado was 14 minutes. Numerous residents heard the warning and were able to seek shelter from the tornado. Persons who owned a NOAA Weather Radio, with an alert feature, received the tornado warning immediately after its issuance. Given the intensity of the tornado and its path through the highly populated area, it is fortunate that more people were not seriously injured or even killed.
HAZARDOUS WEATHER OUTLOOK
...TORNADO WATCH IN EFFECT FOR NORTHERN SECTIONS OF SOUTHEAST TEXAS AND PORTIONS OF CENTRAL LOUISIANA UNTIL 900 PM...
...CONDITIONS WILL BE FAVORABLE FOR SEVERE WEATHER TONIGHT AND FRIDAY...
A STRONG LOW PRESSURE SYSTEM IS DEVELOPING OVER SOUTHERN OKLAHOMA THIS AFTERNOON. THIS IN CONJUNCTION WITH A STRONG COLD FRONT WILL SET THE STAGE FOR SEVERE WEATHER THROUGH EARLY FRIDAY AFTERNOON FOR MOST OF THE AREA.
SHOWERS AND THUNDERSTORMS HAVE ALREADY BEGUN TO DEVELOP ACROSS NORTHERN SECTIONS OF SOUTHEAST TEXAS AND CENTRAL LOUISIANA. THE THUNDERSTORMS ARE EXPECTED TO INCREASE IN COVERAGE AND INTENSIFY IN AND NEAR THE WATCH AREA THROUGH THIS EVENING. SOME OF THESE STORMS MAY BE SEVERE WITH LARGE HAIL AND DAMAGING WINDS. ISOLATED TORNADOES WILL ALSO BE POSSIBLE.
IN ADDITION TO THIS ACTIVITY...A SQUALL LINE IS EXPECTED TO DEVELOP ALONG THE COLD FRONT WHICH IS FORECAST TO MOVE INTO WESTERN SECTIONS OF LOUISIANA LATE TONIGHT...MOVING THROUGH SOUTHCENTRAL LOUISIANA DURING THE MORNING HOURS ON FRIDAY. THESE STORMS ARE EXPECTED TO INTENSIFY AS THEY MOVE EASTWARD THROUGH LOUISIANA.
RESIDENTS SHOULD MONITOR THIS SITUATION CLOSELY AND CHECK WITH MEDIA OUTLETS FOR THE LATEST UPDATES...ESPECIALLY BEFORE RETIRING FOR THE EVENING. WEATHER RADIOS SHOULD BE SET TO ALERT.
ACTIVATION OF SKYWARN STORM SPOTTERS WILL MORE THAN LIKELY BE REQUIRED LATER TONIGHT.
STAY TUNED TO NOAA WEATHER RADIO...COMMERCIAL TELEVISION OR RADIO FOR LATER STATEMENTS CONCERNING THIS POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS SEVERE WEATHER THREAT. ADDITIONAL WEATHER INFORMATION CAN ALSO BE OBTAINED THROUGH OUR HOME PAGE AT WWW.SRH.NOAA.GOV/LCH.
BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN LAKE CHARLES HAS ISSUED A
* TORNADO WARNING FOR...
* UNTIL 835 PM CST
* AT 745 PM CST... NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A DEVELOPING TORNADO 17 MILES SOUTHWEST OF ALEXANDRIA MOVING NORTH AT 40 MPH.
* THE TORNADIC THUNDERSTORM WILL BE NEAR
REMEMBER... A TORNADO WATCH MEANS THAT TORNADOES ARE POSSIBLE IN AND NEAR THE WATCH AREA. LARGE HAIL... DAMAGING WINDS... AND TORRENTIAL RAINFALL MAY ALSO OCCUR. BE READY TO SEEK A PLACE OF SAFETY IF A WARNING IS ISSUED FOR YOUR AREA.
SEVERE WEATHER STATEMENT
...TORNADO WARNING CONTINUES FOR RAPIDES PARISH UNTIL 835 PM...
AT 800 PM...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR CONTINUED TO INDICATE A TORNADO JUST SOUTH OF THE CITY OF ALEXANDRIA. STORM MOVEMENT WAS TO THE NORTH AT 40 MPH. PERSONS IN THE ALEXANDRIA AREA SHOULD TAKE COVER IMMEDIATELY.
SEVERE WEATHER STATEMENT
...TORNADO WARNING CONTINUES FOR RAPIDES PARISH UNTIL 835 PM...
AT 820 PM...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR CONTINUED TO INDICATE A TORNADO IN NORTHEAST RAPIDES PARISH...JUST EAST OF BALL. PERSONS IN NORTHEAST RAPIDES PARISH SHOULD TAKE COVER NOW FROM THIS STORM.
RADAR IMAGES, DESCRIPTION AND DAMAGE:
|Date / Time||Lead Time||Parish||Path Length||Path Width||F-Scale||City|
|802 PM CST||14 Minutes||Rapides||2 miles||1/4 mile||2||Alexandria|
WSR-88D Radar Images
Below are the some of the products from the WSR-88D radar in Fort Polk, Louisiana. These products were taken just before and during the tornado.
756 PM Four panel base reflectivity / VIL product
756 PM Four panel storm relative velocity / composite reflectivity product
801 PM Four panel base reflectivity / VIL product
801 PM Four panel storm relative velocity / composite reflectivity product
806 PM Four panel base reflectivity / VIL product
806 PM Four panel storm relative velocity / composite reflectivity product
The tornado initially touched down southwest of Highway 71, taking a northeast track through the MacArthur-Lee business district area in the south part of Alexandria. Winds were estimated between 120 and 130 mph during the most intense part of the tornado. There was extensive structural damage to homes and businesses all along the tornado's path. The first known damage occurred on Temple Street, where a small shed was destroyed and several roofs suffered shingle damage. The tornado continued northeast, moving over Maywood Street causing significant roof damage to several homes. The strongest winds occurred just northeast of Maywood Street. Numerous large trees, some more than 6 feet in diameter, were sheared off several feet above the ground. One large tree landed on a house destroying one room.
Just west of Highway 71 on Random Street, almost every house received damage. The one injury occurred on this street, when a man driving home had a tree land on his truck. He sustained minor to moderate injuries. The tornado continued northeast, moving over Highway 71 and hitting many businesses in the MacArthur-Lee area. The damage was mainly confined to roofs, signs and store front windows. Just east of the Louisiana State University - Alexandria, a car wash was completely destroyed. A strip mall nearby also lost its roof.
The tornado continued it northeast track hitting a mobile home. The home was rolled over and debris was blown for over a half a mile away. A radio tower and several satellite dishes were also damaged northeast of this area on Duhon Lane. The tornado then lifted and dissipated, sparing the east side of the city from further damage.
Large fallen tree on home
Another view of fallen tree on home and tree tops snapped
Very large trees snapped in half
Another view of the snapped trees. Note the tree base width
Tree and roof damage
Mobile home destroyed
Another view of destroyed mobile home
Mobile home debris and boat strewn by the tornado
NEWS STORIES from ALEXANDRIA DAILY TOWN TALK
An apparent tornado which hit Alexandria at a rate of about 40 mph Thursday night ripped apart businesses and downed electrical lines, cutting power to hundreds of residents but injuring no one.
Rhonda Baker said she could "feel" the tornado as it cut a swath of destruction across South Alexandria.
"It was something - you could just feel it encircling you," said Ms. Baker as she surveyed the damage to a Lee Street strip mail where she works as an office manager for Stewart Finance. The business, near South MacArthur Drive, was open late making tax loans.
"My ears started popping as everything went black - I couldn't see nothing -- and I could feel the building shaking."
The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning at 7:45 p.m. Thursday when radar indicated a developing tornado 17 miles southwest of Alexandria. The warning ended about 8:30 p.m. when the tornado ripped a zigzag pattern from the Martin Park subdivision north along Lee Street toward the Red River.
Sherry Ledington of the Rapides Parish Communication District office, said emergency 911 operators received reports that a tornado had touched down in the Martin Park area.
"We had reports that it tore up one building and hit a couple of houses," she said. "We also had a report that a tree was blown onto a car at the intersection of Random and Ransbottom that may have caused an injury or injuries." The storm also hit other parts of Rapides Parish and south Grant Parish.
Officials said 300 to 400 CLECO customers in Pollock, Ball and Paradise lost electricity about 7:30 p.m. Power was restored an hour later. Near Horseshoe Drive and Mil-Mar Boulevard in Alexandria, bulldozers worked to clear away several flattened trees blocking the area. Trees also crushed a truck although no one was injured, authorities said.
Barber Derrick Alexander was thankful he left Rumors About Beauty minutes before the tornado's high winds blew out the business' front windows.
"The shop is completely destroyed - it's just total destruction. I could have been seriously hurt," he said as he stood underneath a metal canopy across the street at the Circle K to escape the rain.
Alexandria police Lt. Sherman King said he could not begin to explain the damage he witnessed on the city's southwest side Thursday, Police officers remained stationed throughout the neighborhood to ensure looting and other problems would not occur at about 20 businesses hit by the storm, King said.
Spirit and Truth Ministries remained untouched as one business after another along Lee Street from South MacArthur Drive to Duhon Lane suffered indescribable damage.
Alexandria police cordoned off several thoroughfares while electrical crews worked to contain live wires draping from businesses and neighboring homes along Lee Street. Authorities reopened the street to traffic about 10 p.m. Thursday after electrical workers cleared the way. "It sounded like a big whistle and then boom, the lights went out", said Edward Celestine, a crew leader at Sonic drive-in's Lee Street location.
Celestine and co-worker Candice Green headed to the fast food restaurant's storage room for safety when they saw power lines spurting out electricity a few hundred feet down the street.
"I'm just thankful I'm OK," said Ms. Green.
Bernice Cohen, 25, was inside Damico's Bingo World when the tornado hit.
"It sounded like a train coming," she said.
Detective Lee Leach who was inside the building tried to go outside. When he opened the door, it swung back and strong winds filled the bingo hall sending the 185 occupants scurrying for cover.
Leach told players and workers alike to "hit the deck, and everybody went down," said Michael Robertson who was working as a caller inside the bingo hall when the tornado hit.
"The policeman told everybody to run toward the back. It was just spinning around, everybody was getting under the tables. Then the lights went off," Ms. Cohen said.
Robertson said he thought the building was "falling down on top of me when a piece of roof landed on the floor in front of me. The windows were shaking and rattling, and you could tell the weather was picking up." When people finally got outside to assess the damage, they saw a parking lot filled with damaged vehicles, Ms. Cohen said.
"All that glass was in the parking lot. Everybody's car windows were busted out. We were running, trying to get to the phones," she said. She said nearby Burger King's roof "is in the parking lot" at Damico's. Soft Touch Car Wash Systems, she said, "is tore up." At Western Auto, trucks were flipped on their side, windows shattered.
Ms. Cohen said "debris and trash" littered the area. She called a friend to pick her up and take her back to her Garden Street home. High winds picked up and spun around an Isuzu furniture truck, depositing it on its side in the parking lot outside Saye's Office Supplies on Lee Street, said owner Kenny Sayes. A trail of glass sprinkled across the business floor, leaving debris embedded in a wall.
Reports of a tornado and damage kept Alexandria firefighters on the run, said Danny Fookes, communications director. "We've had over 20 runs. All of my units were out, they just made it back in and it looks like we're going to get hit with calls again," he said. "We had reports of cars turned over and lines down. We had a report of smoke coming from the Days Inn, it turned out to be an electrical problem, probably caused by the storm."
Part of Alexandria looked like a war zone after a tornado ripped it up with 130 mph winds, but residents cleaning up on Friday were counting their blessings.
"We've lost almost everything here, but thank God no one was here," said Gwenda Bennett, whose business was among those in the path of the tornado's fury.
"God knew what he was doing by doing this after working hours," she said, looking at the exposed floor of her office. "I just don't think anyone would have survived in this trailer."
Residents were stunned by the extent of the damage, but were thankful there were no major injuries.
The only reported injury came when a tree fell onto a vehicle at the intersection of Random and Ransbottom drives. The injury was reportedly minor to moderate.
Approximately 30 homes and buildings suffered damage from the fast-moving twister. Alexandria wasn't the only area hit by the storm system. Other areas hit were Catahoula, Vernon and Avoyelles.
Residents spent Friday sorting through debris and removing trees from homes, businesses and vehicles.
The tornado's 120-130 mph winds ripped businesses and homes apart and downed electrical lines around 8:30 p.m. causing power outages to hundreds of residents in the Mac-Lee and Martin Park areas.
City of Alexandria utility workers were out most of the day Friday restoring power to the many homes and businesses that could be repaired.
Roger Erickson, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist, rated the tornado an F2 after examining the affected areas in Alexandria.
"All I can say is Alexandria residents are extremely lucky," Erickson said. "An F2 tornado is a very strong tornado and luckily, the tornado never really touched all the way to the ground - it only touched down at the treetop level.
"If it had touched down all the way, damage would have been much worse," he said. "The strongest part of the tornado's path was at the beginning around Bayou Robert. Here, winds must have reached speeds of 130 mph to have snapped so many large trees in half." Erickson said Duhon Lane also was hard hit.
"Winds reached about 110 mph here," he said. "All in all, the tornado's path was about two miles long and 1/4-mile wide. It was probably on the treetops for only about five minutes max - it was moving very quickly." Residents Friday were counting their blessings, agreeing the situation could have been much worse.
"We just thank the Lord for watching over our 15-year-old son who was home by himself at the time the tornado blew a tree onto our home," said Maudie Bergeron, whose Random Drive residence was partially leveled by a fallen tree.
"The tornado wiped out all our 150-year-old trees including our big pecan tree and about eight cedars," she said. "The tree that fell on our house caught the back corner of the back bedroom and the inside of the garage is completely caved in but we're still happy. Material things can be replaced but lives cannot," Mrs. Bergeron said. "My husband and I are just thankful Cory's OK." Mrs. Bennett, who owns Granite Tile and Marble Inc. with her husband, Warren, on Friday stumbled over broken desks and pieces of roofing, but said she was thankful the tornado hit after hours when no one was in the building.
"We've still got our workshop intact but there's not a building here that hasn't been damaged," she said.
Bennett returned to Granite Tile and Marble, located on Duhon Lane, shortly after hearing his business was hit.
"Gwenda was on the phone with my mom who lives right beside our business and she was telling us about the weather when all of a sudden she heard glass break and started screaming," Bennett said. "Then my mother's portable phone went dead.
"I immediately called her back and she told me what had happened," he said. "So I came into town to check things out and the police wouldn't let me down here right away." When he finally was allowed to enter his property he was amazed at what his eyes beheld.
"There was a Soft Touch car wash sign hanging in one of my trees - the car wash is about one block away - and the trailer which served as our office was upside down and our boat was blown off its trailer and thrown into Gwenda's truck," Bennett said.
"I just couldn't believe it when I saw all the damage," he said. "You see this kind of stuff on TV and everywhere else and you don't think it would happen to you. You just don't realize how much stuff you have inside a building until it's gone. But those are only material possessions that can be recouped. Lives cannot be and we're so very thankful no one was hurt." Bennett and his wife were able to salvage many of their records and have been able to continue working.
"All our equipment was spared and our guys can still work," Mrs. Bennett said. "It looks bad out here, but I think we can still operate." Gary Gomez, owner of Crawfish Port Inc. on Lee Street, said he had just left the business before the tornado blew through town.
"I got home and shortly thereafter, the tornado came through and blew a tree branch down on my truck window smashing it," Gomez said. "I decided I should come up and check my business right away.
"When I got here, all the front windows were blown out, all our signs were blown down on the ground and were strewn about the place, but luckily the inside was pretty much still intact," Gomez said.
"As bad as the outside looked, I was amazed the inside looked so good," he said. "I walked in and a 300-400 pound air conditioning unit had been blown out of the wall but a roll of paper towels was still sitting soundly on the table. It was weird. We were blessed, however, and are glad no one was hurt." Gomez said he took his cash register, weigh scale and computer home and a representative of Chandler Corp. stayed on and kept watch over the building to keep looters out.
"Friends have been stopping by all day to see if they could help me out in anyway," he said. "It's been great. I couldn't do this without the help of my friends. What can I say? They're great." The Bennetts also agreed they have been able to get through this difficult situation with help from friends.
"When we got here this morning, friends of ours were already here waiting to help us with the clean up," Bennett said. "People keep coming by to see what we need, too." People helping people is also what Erickson said may have helped keep more injuries from occurring as a result of the tornado.
"While I was in Alexandria investigating, one lady in particular told me she had a weather radio and as soon as she heard about the warning around 7:45 p.m., she immediately began calling friends and warning them," Erickson said.
"That is what has really made a difference in this situation I believe," he said. "So many people were notifying others about the tornado that injuries were kept extremely low. It just goes to show what people watching out for other people can do." As this is just the beginning of tornado season, Erickson warns residents to be prepared - this year could be tough.
"This is the start of tornado season for Alexandria and hopefully, it will be quiet," he said. "But when it starts out this bad, it doesn't look too good."
Acknowledgments: The authors would again like to thank Roger Erickson (Warning Coordination Meteorologist) for the tornado damage pictures and the post-storm survey.
*Authors' current affiliation: National Weather Service, Tulsa OK