Significant Flooding and Tornadoes of May 6-7, 1949


Overview Meteorology Photos Tornado Tracks

Overview

The period from May 5th through May 7th of 1949 went down in the record books as the wettest 3-day stretch in Lubbock for early May.  A whopping 6.33 inches of rain occurred in Lubbock during this time; the majority of which fell during the pre-dawn hours of Saturday, May 7th.  The result was widespread flooding which inundated hundreds of homes with as much as three feet of water and caused just over $3M in damage.  Prior to this date, such significant and large scale flooding had not been documented in Lubbock.  On the morning of the 7th, many residents awoke to find standing water in their yards, homes and vehicles.  The rain proved too much for the upper dam at Buffalo Springs Lake which failed and in the process washed a road out.  Some houses in Lubbock and nearby towns became marooned by swollen playa lakes said to be five feet deep in places.  Dozens of residents were rescued from their homes by boats or canoes so they could be transported to area safe shelters for food and warmth.  Unfortunately, one woman in Lubbock was killed in her home after being electrocuted while attempting to unplug a television.  Although Lubbock received the brunt of these torrential rains, many locations throughout the southern South Plains recorded rainfall of between 1 and 4 inches during this unsettled 3-day period.

Prior to the flooding, the wet period commenced with severe thunderstorms including two destructive tornadoes during the early evening of Friday, May 6th.  The second of these tornadoes was of violent intensity near Sundown and claimed the lives of a preacher and his young daughter who had sought shelter in a church parsonage.  This F4 tornado then moved east-northeast from the north side of Sundown and proceeded to seriously damage more than a dozen homes and sweep two others completely from their foundations.  A total of 15 families lost their homes.  Some vehicles were tossed several hundred yards from their origin.  This tornado was preceded by a similar destructive tornado about 15 minutes earlier in extreme southeast Roosevelt County, New Mexico that later crossed the state line around Bledsoe and leveled two nearby homes.  This F3 tornado was estimated to be just over a half-mile wide at times.


Meteorology

The meteorological setup from May 5th through May 7th was a classic pattern for both severe thunderstorms and flooding.  A deep and slow moving upper low pressure system was positioned in the Four Corners region for three consecutive days resulting in moist and unsettled southwesterly winds aloft over much of West Texas and eastern New Mexico.  A stationary front draped from southwest to northeast over the Texas South Plains provided the greatest focus for multiple bouts of showers and storms during this time; the worst of which occurred from the evening of May 6th into the pre-dawn hours of May 7th when the leading edge of strong height falls overspread the region.  This lift in turn amplified a moist, southeasterly low-level jet during the nighttime which led to multiple rounds of thunderstorms near and north of the stationary front.  These storms likely trained, or moved over the same area repeatedly, as the surface front was positioned parallel to the steering winds aloft.  Such a setup can breed swaths of heavy rainfall for several hours and lead to flooding.

The two strong-to-violent tornadoes on the evening of May 6th occurred near or just to the north of the stationary front over the western South Plains.  The location of these tornadoes appeared to coincide with the nose of stronger southeast winds and moisture advection from the surface to 850 mb.  As can be seen in the hodograph and skew-T included below, wind shear in the vicinity of the front across the western South Plains was more than sufficient for supercells and tornadoes.  In hindisight, it is plausible that more than two tornadoes occurred during the evening of May 6th as some tornadoes during this era tended to go unreported if they caused no apparent damage.

The following plots are reanalysis data obtained from NCEP.  All wind speeds are in knots.

300mb winds at 00Z May 7.  500 mb heights and winds at 00Z May 7.  700 mb heights and temps (C) at 00Z May 7.
300mb winds at 00Z May 7. 500 mb heights and winds at 00Z May 7. 700 mb heights and temps (C) at 00Z May 7.
850 mb heights and winds at 00Z May 7.  May 6th 21Z surface analysis with the locations of forthcoming tornadoes.   Estimated Skew-T and hodograph for  Sundown, TX at 00Z May 7.
850 mb heights and winds at 00Z May 7. May 6th 21Z surface analysis with the locations of forthcoming tornadoes. Estimated Skew-T and hodograph for  Sundown, TX at 00Z May 7.


Photos

 Aerial views of the worst flooding in Lubbock.  The top photo shows the Tech Terrace area while the photo below is in Green Acres. Tornado damage in northern Sundown.  The family of this home survived even as the walls of the house collapsed around them. 
Aerial views of the worst flooding in Lubbock.  The top photo shows the Tech Terrace area while the photo below is in Green Acres. Tornado damage in northern Sundown.  The family of this home survived even as the walls of the house collapsed around them.
 Aerial view of the washed-out upper dam at Buffalo Springs Lake.

A rescue boat at work in the Tech Terrace addition.

Aerial view of the washed-out upper dam at Buffalo Springs Lake.  A rescue boat at work in the Tech Terrace addition.
Another rescue boat at workl, this time in the Green Acres area. Floodwaters inundated the Avenue H underpass in north Lubbock.
Another rescue boat at workl, this time in the Green Acres area. Floodwaters inundated the Avenue H underpass in north Lubbock.


Tornado Tracks

Map showing the path of the two tornadoes on the evening of May 6th.



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