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.