April 11, 2004
The Wichita Falls Tornado

Twenty-five years ago, a massive tornado levelled the North Texas city of Wichita Falls, killing 42 people and injuring 1700.

Walking through tornado-ravaged neighborhoods after a deadly storm 25 years ago, architect Charles F. Harper saw something strange: small closets or bathrooms that seemed to be rising from piles of debris.

In many cases, the center room of a house or business -- even a bank vault -- was the only thing standing after a tornado up to a 1 1/2-mile wide churned through town, hitting 5,000 houses and several apartments. About 20,000 people -- nearly one-fourth of the city's population -- were homeless, while 42 were killed and 1,700 injured.

Harper, who had developed disaster response plans for nearly 10 years for the American Institute of Architects, started studying his town's damage with researchers at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

What they learned from Wichita Falls sped up the development of "safe rooms" -- center rooms with reinforced walls designed to protect people during storms. Building plans and information about safe rooms are now included in brochures distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"That event was unequivocal proof that you could build an structure that could withstand tornado winds," said Chad Morris, associate director of what is now the Wind Science and Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech.

The April 10, 1979, tornado that hit Wichita Falls is the state's fifth deadliest and one of the largest in U.S. history.

On that spring day, three large supercell storms developed, each producing a series of tornadoes that moved quickly across the northern Texas and southern Oklahoma plains.

Some of those twisters killed 11 people in nearby Vernon, one in Harrold and three in Lawton, Okla.

The Wichita Falls tornado stayed on the ground an hour and traveled 47 miles as it wiped out a fifth of the city and damaged even more areas before dissipating in Oklahoma. It is rated an F4, with winds from 207-260 mph.

"I don't know if any tornado in Texas has affected so many people," said Alan Moller, a Fort Worth-based National Weather Service meteorologist who spent a week in Wichita Falls after the tornado. "And we really learned a lot in terms of safety."

I have relatives who were living in Wichita Falls at that time. I spent Thanksgiving with them every year while I was in college in the 80s. You could drive around town and see where the tornado had been - in some cases you could tell how badly damaged a specific building was by the different-colored bricks. I'm glad to say that they rebuilt and recovered, but the reminders were there to see.

Although the mall was heavily damaged, no shoppers died inside. Several who ran to their cars were killed or severely injured.

More than half of those killed, including the girlfriend of Harper's son and her sister, were in cars trying to flee -- believing that buildings were more dangerous -- or were passing through town and had not heard the warnings.

"The big lesson learned was that if you're in a reinforced structure, you need to stay there when a tornado's approaching," Moller said. "Automobiles are a steel death trap in a tornado."

Many people at that time had only seen narrow, funnel-shaped clouds and didn't recognize that the approaching wide, wedge-shaped mass was a tornado, Moller said.

This article from the local paper is about a family that tried and failed to outrun the tornado in their car.

In assessing damage, researchers realized that they had been giving the wrong advice in telling people to open windows as a tornado approached, Harper said. They realized that what blew the roofs off houses was wind getting inside -- and that homes with storm doors and windows or shutters fared better.

"We rewrote the book on what happens in a tornado and how to mitigate damage," said Harper, 74.


Since the tornado, some builders say the demand has increased for safe rooms -- with walls made of concrete blocks or plywood with reinforced steel beams. Buchanan Construction Co. builds safe rooms with 6-inch-thick concrete walls, and only builds concrete houses to meet customers' demands for tornado safety in addition to energy savings, said owner Jay Buchanan.

"I hear more about safe rooms now than I did 20 years ago," Buchanan said.

Today, the town has few reminders of the storm. Near downtown, a memorial park features large sculptures representing crepe myrtle trees that bloomed after the storm and became a symbol of the town's resolve. Another park has a plaque with the names of 45 victims, including three who died of heart attacks right after the storm, and a tree planted for each one.

Even today, the tornado still haunts many.

Dale Sanders, now 56, survived by huddling in her neighbor's cellar with three dozen other people and two dogs. Several men struggled to keep the door closed by clutching the rope.

When Sanders emerged, she didn't recognize her surroundings because houses, street signs, power poles and trees were gone. She saw a dazed man, his arm severed, walking down the street.

"I don't want to remember it," Sanders said. "The only thing I do really is watch for storms, and I do a lot of praying."

You can see a picture of the tornado in this article from USA Today. More pictures are here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 11, 2004 to The great state of Texas | TrackBack

I've been living in hurricane zones since 1969, more or less; the "windows shut or cracked" debate has gone on for those storms too. Now the CW seems to be lock everything up tight.

Posted by: Linkmeister on April 12, 2004 1:30 AM

Iwas three years old when this tornado destroyed our house. My mom had to throw my brother over a fence to unlock it so we could get in a cellar. I dont remember much about this storm but I know now anytime severe weather is in my area I pay close attention to it

Posted by: jason worthley on June 12, 2004 10:10 PM

i was 14 yrs old when this came threw town. it sound like a freight train and a jet. still remember the sound like it was today. my parents house was miss by 2 blocks from the most damage zone. power lines down, automobiles. houses destroyed everywhere. it was scarey during it and afterwards with no lights or water to drink. when i do get back there time to time i always remember it. my parents still lives there and my brother. i now live in tennesse near the smokey mountains.

Posted by: ron boyce on December 15, 2004 9:52 PM

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Posted by: Erin on November 19, 2005 8:12 PM

I was a teen living in the french quarter apartements when that twister came we heard the siren's and ran for the tunnel in the ditch it was the most horrific sound as that twister came down on us like a train or a roaring lion, the hail was the size of soft balls and when it was over we all came out about 12 of us the place looked like tooth picks and people were looking for what used to be there home.

Then it was trailer park city(GOV) for us all, those were some hard days and i will always remember that day and look back at it as a chapter in my life that I will never want to live again, But thank full to the city we all pulled through it......I thought it was a F5

Posted by: rudy b hutchison on September 6, 2006 11:08 AM