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Disaster
Report

The Red River Valley Tornadoes of April 10, 1979

The following text comes from Chapter I of the NOAA Natural Disaster Report 80-1, "The Red River Valley Tornadoes of April 10, 1979."

"To the people of the Red River Valley in Texas and Oklahoma, nothing about the weather appeared unusual during the early hours of April 10, 1979: it was business as usual. But before the day's end, three very large, devastating tornadoes swept across the area leaving scores dead and hundreds injured. Most of the deaths were in Wichita Falls and Vernon, Texas, and Lawton, Oklahoma."

"Early on April 10, NWS forecasters became aware of the threat of severe weather. During the morning, closely monitored air mass movements, temperatures, dew points, and winds had all been shifting towards critical values indicative of severe thunderstorms and potential tornadoes. By noon, all doubt was gone. Forecasters at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City 1 had to decide only how soon tornadoes would develop and how large an area would be threatened. Tornado Watch #67 was issued at 1:55 p.m. Central Standard Time (CST) 2 calling for tornadoes, large hail, and damaging thunderstorm winds in portions of a 30,000-square-mile area in north central Texas and southwest Oklahoma. Just minutes later all counties included in Watch Area #67 were being alerted through statements by the NWS Forecast Offices (WSFOs) at Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. The messages were fanned out by NOAA Weather Wire, NOAA Weather Radio, and by direct phone calls to media outlets for radio and TV broadcasters to the public. In Wichita Falls, an emergency hotline to key local officials, TV, and radio stations assured rapid and complete local dissemination."

"Storm spotter networks were alerted. Members of the Wichita Falls Repeater Club Weather Spotters manned their pre-planned command post on the NWS Office (WSO) and deployed radio-equipped members to vantage points that assured good observation coverage southwest of the city. Radio and TV stations aired the Tornado Watch so that most people were alerted to the threat and ready for warning messages and sirens that were to come later."

"At Vernon, reports of earlier damage to the southwest of the city had alerted spotters and city officials. For example, the police chief called the city manager out of a meeting with county commissioners. The police chief and county sheriff conferred and dispatched patrol cars to the southwest edge of town to watch for the approaching storm. Sirens blew as the tornado bore down on Vernon. In slightly more than 10 minutes, the tornado passed across the southern tip of the city leaving 11 dead, more than 60 injured, and several hundred homes destroyed or damaged. The police chief and sheriff later said the approaching storm did not look like a normal twister, but appeared as a thick, dark mass of clouds low to the ground and difficult to see because of the heavy rain, hail, and low cloud base."

"The thunderstorm system that produced the Vernon tornado crossed the Red River and left a 50-mile-long skipping track of tornado damage through Oklahoma. Just after 5:00 p.m., another tornado spawned by the same thunderstorm system crashed into Lawton, Oklahoma. Lawton had been alerted by Tornado Watch #67 and had received a tornado warning issued by WSFO Oklahoma City. Lawton was as ready as a community could be for the tornado. Using spotter and radar reports, Lawton officials sounded the siren system to warn the people of the approaching storm. As a result of the early warning, the casualty list of 3 dead and 109 injured was relatively small despite the destruction of several hundred homes and businesses."

"About the time the Vernon tornado was moving across the Red River into Oklahoma, 20 miles to the south another funnel cloud was dropping out of the thunderstorm clouds approaching Harrold, Texas. This thunderstorm spawned a tornado with a continuous ground track of almost 60 miles. Fortunately, its long path on the ground was mostly over open farmland so that it caused relatively few casualties and small total property damage. However, several small communities, among them Harrold, Texas and Grandfield, Oklahoma, were hit by the storm."

"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!"

"The three main storms in the Red River Valley outbreak were giant tornadoes. Each lasted for an hour or more and left a continuous track of ground damage 35 miles or longer. In addition, the damage paths of all three were wider than normal. This was especially true of the Wichita Falls tornado, whose more than 1-mile-wide path of damage is one of the biggest on record. T. T. Fujita, noted tornado researcher from the University of Chicago, said, 'The damage path was one of the widest I have ever seen, and its intensity was almost equal to that of the giant storm that leveled Xenia, Ohio, in the 1974 tornado outbreak.'"

"When the day had ended, the tornadoes had left in their wake a tragically high toll -- 56 dead and 1916 injured. According to the American National Red Cross, 7,759 families suffered losses in the storms (Table 1). Losses eligible for Federal disaster relief totalled $63 million, but Federal disaster assistance did not cover additional millions in damages."

1 The Storm Prediction Center is now located in Norman, Oklahoma
2 All times in Central Standard Time

Table 1 -- Casualty and Property Losses -
Red River Valley Tornadoes
  TEXAS OKLAHOMA TOTAL
       
Deaths 53 3 56
       
Injuries 1,807 109 1,916
       
Hospitalized 240 19 259
       
Dwellings      
Destroyed 2,784 150 2,934
Major Damage 923 97 1,020
Minor Damage 1,803 440 2,243
       
Mobile Homes      
Destroyed 103 36 139
Major Damage 1 4 5
       
Apartment/Condominium      
Family Units      
Destroyed 1,124 8 1,132
Major Damage 0 4 4
Minor Damage 170 0 70
       
Small Businesses      
Destroyed or with      
Major Damage 98 14 112
       
Families Suffering Losses 7,006 753 7,759
 
These figures include 12 counties. In Texas: Clay, Foard, Wichita and Wilbarger; and in Oklahoma: Carter, Cleveland, Comanche, Cotton, Jefferson, Pottawatomie, Stephens and Tillman. Casualty data were supplied by the Texas and Oklahoma NWS offices. Other data were supplied by the American National Red Cross.


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