The January 17-22, 1999 Tornado Outbreak --- Preliminary Synopsis
Sunday, January 17, 1999 will long be remembered for the largest and most deadly tornado outbreak to rake the Mid-South in decades. Spawned by squall-line thunderstorms, the tornadoes killed nine people ( 1-Hardeman Co., 6-Madison Co.,1-Henderson Co. and 1-Carroll Co.), injured more than one-hundred others, while damaging hundreds of homes and buildings. Without delving into the meteorological details, following is a brief description of each tornado and its effect.
The severe weather outbreak began over north-central Arkansas and spread into northeast sections of Arkansas where tornadoes would eventually spin up. A severe thunderstorm that moved into Lawrence county produced large hail and gusty winds. That hail-producing storm was just a precursor of even more violent storms headed our way.
Around 6:00 p.m., a tornado formed just southwest of Halls, along U.S. Highway 51 (Figure 1) in northern Lauderdale County. Touching down first in a mobile home park along Highway 51 just outside the Halls city limits, the tornado ripped several homes apart and caused eleven minor injuries before tracking east-northeast through the Halls business district. None of the people who were hurt required hospitalization. Several homes sustained damage to roofs, porches, and siding as the funnel moved through, then the tornado briefly intensified as it moved across the north end of the business district. Two business buildings were flattened, and several suffered major damage (Picture 1). Traveling on to the east-northeast the tornado toppled trees and damaged roofs as it moved quickly out of Halls. Then it demolished a solitary mobile home just outside the east city limit of Halls (Picture 2), and quickly dissipated before reaching the Forked Deer River. Along its three and a half mile- long path, the tornado was mainly F0 to F1 intensity, damaging 36 structures, but briefly reached F2 levels as it tore through the business district. The Halls tornado was narrow, only 50 yards to 100 yards wide.
Just to the east, in Crockett County, Alamo was next in the path of the thunderstorm. Another tornado formed at 6:09 p.m. and ripped a ten-mile long path that varied from 50 yards to 150 yards in width. Beginning just southwest of Alamo, the tornado tore a path of destruction east-northeastward over the town's south side before moving over rural land to the east of town (Figure 2). It spun its path along state highway 221, the Alamo- Gadsden Road, then veered north and dissipate dover bottomlands of the Forked Deer River. The Alamo tornado started with F0 to F1 strength, but quickly intensified to F3 intensify for a short segment of its path as it neared and crossed over state highway 88. Four persons were treated and released from local hospitals; eleven conventional and five mobile homes were destroyed; one commercial building was demolished; and 73 homes and buildings were damaged.
Another tornado spun down from a lone 'supercell' thunderstorm that formed in advance of the severe storms as they began moving over Haywood County (Figure 3). The twister first touched down about two miles southeast of the Eurekaton community in far southeast Haywood County. Starting at 100 yards wide and at the weak end of F2 intensity, the tornado briefly spun up to 150 yards wide and F3 intensity before crossing into Madison County. Once in Madison County, the tornado weakened to F1 strength and skipped east-northeast along Estonallie and the Denmark-Jackson Roads. The tornado again briefly intensified to F2 strength at that point in its path that was about four miles north of Mercer, and again in the northeast part of the Denmark community. Gaining strength to F2 intensity once again as it approached the west parts of Jackson, the tornado moved over the south side of the McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport. It continued at that intensity until it crossed Highway 70 just northwest of the Westover neighborhood. The tornado started to weaken and lift as it neared north Jackson but some structural damage was reported from thunderstorm winds in the north part of the city.
As this tornado began to dissipate, another tornado developed and touched down about 3 miles west of Bemis (Figure 4). This tornado rapidly intensified into an F4 tornado as it moved across Highway 45 in downtown Bemis. The tornado continued moving east-northeastward across Beech Bluff road and the Charles Lathem subdivision at F4 strength. The damage width of this tornado was ? mile wide with an inner core of F4 damage that was 150 yards wide. This was the deadliest tornado of the evening with 6 fatalities occurring along it's 15 mile path. Severe damage occurred to a shopping center (AutoZone) (Picture 1)(Picture 2)while a funeral home across the street was demolished except for the interior rooms (Picture 3) .As the storm approached the Henderson county line it transformed into a violent downburst event (Figure 5). The strong winds resulted in one fatality and severe structural damage just to the south of the Blue Goose community in Henderson County. The storm continued moving east-northeastward across the county passing over mainly rural areas before moving through northern sections of Lexington where more structural damage was observed. The storm began to weaken shortly after this time as it moved through eastern sections of the county.
On January 21 at around 6:30 pm, an F1 tornado moved through the Wheatley area of St Francis County AR (Figure 6). It had a path width of approximately 200 yards, and multiple path lengths. The first path was approximately four miles long, beginning southwest of Wheatley, and crossing through the south and east portions of the town. Several homes sustained structural damage, and five small homes were completely demolished. The tornado then stopped producing damage as it crossed over Interstate Highway 40. Eyewitness accounts suggest the tornado continued in ground contact, at least intermitteningly for approximately eleven miles on to the northeast.
A farm located about 4.5 miles northeast of Wheatley was the only other area to suffer property damage. The cluster of structures thast constitute the farm center sustained extensive damage. The farmhouse was partially de-roofed, two or three machine sheds/shops were demolished, out buildings were damaged, grain storage bins were flattened and blown hundreds of feet toward the northeast, and irrigation equipment suffered heavy damage.
The tornado left no further evidence of its passing across open rice and wheat fields in western St. Francis county. However, debris seemingly from Wheatley was found by a resident about 16 miles to the northeast, near Pine tree community. And, the bodies of hundreds of geese and ducks were strewn across open fields around Pine Tree. Speculation is that the waterfowl were killed by large hail from the severe storm.
On January 22 between 12:30 pm and 1:00 pm, an F1 tornado touched down on the south side of Corinth, MS near highway 72. Steel girders which supported a motel sign were bent over while across the road, a metal building was heavily damaged. Spotty damage was noted along a northeast track through the city. Near the courthouse in the downtown area, some buinesses were damaged where roofs had blown off. Just northeast of the courthouse, several large oak trees were blown down onto homes causing moderate to heavy damage. As the tornado moved northeast out of town, it lifted off the ground as no further damage was noted.
The Craighead County / Jonesboro area of northeast Arkansas was especially fortunate despite being hard hit by tornadoes on January 17th and January 21st. Eight tornadoes raked that section of northeast Arkansas on those days, but comparatively did only slight damage.
Three tornadoes occurred and several funnel clouds were spotted on Sunday, January 17th. The Lake City tornado (tornado #8) did the greatest amount of damage, and that storm was assessed as F1 to F2 intensity on the Fujita-Scale. On the Craighead Tornadoes graphic, tornado #6 and tornado #7 also occurred on Sunday, the 17th of January. Those storms did minimal tornado damage, and were assessed as F0 on the Fujita-Scale.
Tornado #1, tornado #2, tornado #3, tornado #4, and tornado #5 occurred and several funnel clouds were sighted on Thursday, January 21st. Those storms, too, did minimal tornado damage and were assessed at F0 on the Fujita-Scale.