Wichita Falls tornado: April 10, 1979

 

April 10, 1979 stands out in Texas weather records as the day with the most destructive tornado in the history of the Lone Star State. Thanks to excellent warnings, it was not the deadliest twister for Texas, but it made one huge mess for the city of Wichita Falls.
 
The EF-4 which hit the city was a truly mammoth tornado about a mile wide. It was part of a larger event known as the “Red River Outbreak”.
 
In many ways it was a “textbook” setup for tornado-producing storms. Deep surface low pressure winding up over southeastern Colorado brought gusty southerly winds and very moist air northward into what would be the storm zone. A dry line, a boundary between extremely dry air and moist air, was developing to the west of Wichita Falls during the early afternoon, providing a focal point to spawn thunderstorms. Upper level analysis indicated a fast jet stream five miles above ground level, which provides further lift and offers a tilting factor which aids severe storm formation.
 
A Tornado Watch was posted by 2:30p.m., as it was becoming dangerously unstable in southwestern Oklahoma and northern Texas.
 
The first tornado dropped to the ground at 3:05p.m., at Crowell, TX. A killer tornado went through Vernon, TX about a half hour later, killing 11 and wiping out a good portion of the town.
 
The super-cell thunderstorm which would become the Wichita Falls event formed north of Abilene, TX. It then moved generally northeast towards its target.
 
The actual tornado took form several miles southwest of the city in Archer County, and traveled over mostly open country. Moving into town from the southwest, it first struck Memorial Stadium and McNeil Junior High School in Wichita Falls proper, leaving both with severe damage.
 
 
 
The tornado's first fatalities were recorded in an apartment complex and neighboring housing. As the funnel continued on the ground, it leveled the Southwest National Bank Building except for its vault.
 
Next came hundreds of homes which were chewed up and spat out by this huge wind machine; Ben Milam Elementary School was all but destroyed as well. Luckily, school was long over for the day when this happened.
 
The tornado managed to just avoid Midwestern State University, remaining on its south side, but then went on to cause extreme damage to more residential areas.
 
A number of people tried the escape from the tornado by getting in cars and driving away. The tornado blew many of those vehicles off the road, killing many of the drivers. There were a total 42 tornado fatalities in Wichita Falls, of which 25 were vehicle related.
 
The National Weather Service narrative sums up the damage:
Total property damage in Wichita Falls was estimated at $400,000,000 (in 1979 dollars). Over 3,000 homes were destroyed and another 1,000 were damaged, and over 1,000 apartment units/ condominiums were destroyed and another 130 damaged. In addition, approximately 140 mobile homes were destroyed, two schools were demolished and 11 others sustained serious damage. Over 100 commercial businesses, some of them large manufacturing concerns, were destroyed. It is estimated that 5,000 families, containing 20,000 residents, were left homeless in Wichita Falls. Such a total would mean that between 10% and 20% of the population of the city was displaced by the tornado. To put the deaths and property damage in perspective, it should be noted that as many as 42 people have not been killed in the United States by a single tornado in the 20 years since the event, and the total property damage of $400,000,000 still stands as the most costly tornado in American history.”
 
Since this report was prepared, the Moore, OK tornado of May 1999 has surpassed the Wichita Falls twister as the most destructive. Where it ranks now depends on which list you use, but it’s easily in the top five nationally and number one for tornado damage in Texas.
 
The human toll includes 42 deaths directly caused by the tornado, along with about 1,800 injuries, and a stigma for Wichita Falls as a tornado town that may never completely fade.
 
 
Steve LaNore
KXII-TV
 
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  • by Allen Location: Parkland, Florida on Apr 10, 2012 at 08:50 PM
    I was at Shepherd Air Force Base during the tornado. I am originally from NY and had never seen a tornado before. Don't ever want to see another one. I live in Florida now and have been through 3 major hurricanes since coming here from Texas. At least with hurricanes you get at least a few days to a weeks notice to get out of there. We had very little warning with that unbelievable tornado. I have saved numerous newspapers from that day from Wichita Falls.
  • by Ricky Location: Wichita Falls on Apr 5, 2012 at 01:35 PM
    I was 8 years old at the time, but can remember it like it was yesterday. Coming up on another anniversary and can still remember that day like it was yesterday. I lived about 4 blocks north of Southwest Pkwy on Lockwood off of Fairway. House was totaled but we had a mattress over our heads which saved us.
  • by Steve Location: Ohio, USA on Nov 6, 2010 at 01:07 AM
    I was at Fort Sill, OK that day when one of the tornadoes from the super cell struck Lawton, Oklahoma. I believe 3 people were killed there too.
  • by Sam J. Location: Teague, TX on May 21, 2010 at 08:00 AM
    I was born and raised in Vernon, Texas and was 21 at the time. I lived in the southwest part of town. The tornado past within two blocks of where I lived. It killed one of my neighbors and her son as they got out of her car. I will never forget this day.
  • by Sharon G. Location: China Spring, TX on Mar 29, 2010 at 09:43 PM
    I was born and raised in Crowell so going to the storm cellar was a routine in early spring. I sold my home in Wichita Falls and moved 3 years before the tornado, my home was out by Rider H.S. and was missed by about 1 block. Although a home I had rented in Faith Village was gone except for the laundry room. I drove back down to look after the curfew was lifted and after turning off SW PKY by the little neighborhood store, I had to count the streets to find the one I had lived on in the rental because it was mostly all gone, then I found my curvy little sidewalk to the front door, otherwise I would never have recognized the place. The places I shopped and banked in Western Hills were all gone. It was a sickening feeling to see. Driving into town on 287 east, the mesquite trees were stripped and had clothing and papers hanging in them. I know in Crowell as a kid I learned to be afraid of the clouds but had a cellar. Where I live now has a big tornado siren, about 2 blocks from my home.
  • by Rob Duncan Location: Lawton, OK on Mar 10, 2010 at 11:48 AM
    I was a paperboy in the downtown Lawton area and I had just finished up my route when the first Lawton tornado hit around 5 PM, about 9 blocks from my route. I remember being unable to walk in the high winds. It was like I would make it ten feet and get blown backwards fifteen. I waited it out on some stranger's porch until the storm calmed down a little bit. I got home soaking wet and my family was panicked, thinking maybe the tornado had gotten me.
  • by eric bartee Location: wichita falls on Jan 23, 2010 at 11:36 AM
    i would enjoy knowing where the pics were takien at. iwas born and raised here and love my city and want to get these pics and more to decorate my home this is a big peice of this towns history .
  • by James Davis Location: sherman on Dec 3, 2009 at 08:29 PM
    I am an avid weather watcher and was always wondering why this tornado , at wichita falls is not mentioned on the weather channel when they have shows about historic tornados? As a sherman resident it is very well remembered, steve were you in this area in those days? I for one remember well. please respond
  • by alex Location: school on Sep 29, 2009 at 11:22 AM
    thank you so much for this wonderful website. It has been very helpful for my geography project that i believe will get a really good grade on! Thak you so much, and i hope you will continue to make websites like the wichita falls one. thanks so much! Alex
  • by sharon Location: cincinatti, ohio on Jun 4, 2009 at 11:24 PM
    i lived in burkburnett when the tornado hit but my dad was at work in wichita when it hit i was never so scared in my life i was only ten at the time i dont think i will ever forget it
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