It was a day with incredible potential energy for storms; twice as unstable as you might find on a typical severe weather day. A weak cold front lay across the Lone Star State from northeast to southwest. It was quite hot and very humid. It was May 27, 1997.
A Tornado Watch was posted by early afternoon as it became clear severe weather was developing. Unusual steering currents at the mid level of the atmosphere began to guide a tornadic supercell, a large rotating thunderstorm capable of producing tornadoes, to the south-southwest. Most storms like this move from the west to east or some variation of this, but not this time.
A low-end tornado, probably an F1 (winds 73-112mph), first hit the ground 15 miles south of Waco at 1:20p.m., near the little town of Lorena. It did some damage but no one was hurt. It lifted back into the clouds and continued its trek, basically paralleling I-35.
A second much stronger tornado, an F3 (158-206mph), popped out 7 miles further south near Moody, TX at 1:45p.m., as the supercell continued to intensify. This one did more damage, destroying one home and an outbuilding, and throwing an automobile a football field’s length through the air.
But this storm was only beginning its path of chaos.
Tornado number three, from this same extreme thunderstorm, dropped out of the sky at Lake Belton in Bell County, about 60 miles north of Austin, at 2:35p.m. A boat dock was severely damaged and several other buildings were obliterated. This twister was again an F3.
The tornado lifted again; baseball sized hail was also coming out of this thunderstorm. Spotters tracked it moving just to the west of I-35, continuing south-southwestward less than a mile from the Interstate.
The fourth and final tornado (from this supercell) hit the as the storm entered Williamson County, now about 45 miles from Austin and 20 miles from Georgetown. It was about 3:20p.m. This was just a couple of miles north of the community of Jarrell, Texas.
When the tornado appeared for the last time it was “quite small” according to the NWS, with winds on the lower end of the scale, probably 100mph. It was about a mile north of Jarrell when it “explosively” grew within moments to an F5 with winds of 260mph.
Even though the citizens of Jarrell were under a tornado warning for 10-15 minutes, which is plenty of time to take cover, this tornado showed no mercy. It was now 3:40p.m., and people began to die as the gigantic vortex crashed through the western side of the town.
Foundations were blasted clean as if by an immense machine. It was so powerful it blasted entire homes from their foundations (see photo to right). The people inside, many of whom did take cover, nonetheless died. The deaths happened in one small neighborhood of newer homes known as Double Creek Estates. All 38 homes in this subdivision were utterly destroyed, with 27 of the fatalities within this little area.
The total path length for this fourth and most intense tornado was 7.6 miles, with a width of ¾ mile at times.
Because most of the people in the path were killed, there were only a handful of mainly minor injuries. This storm weakened almost as rapidly as it had grown once its deadly business was done.
A companion supercell would develop and go on to produce another devastating F3 tornado in Cedar Park, just north of Austin. This one severely damaged an Albertson’s, a shopping center, and more than 100 homes. Fortunately, the Albertson’s manager had herded the customers into a large walk-in freezer and only one was seriously hurt there. One man died in his garage of a heart attack but not from storm winds.
A second touchdown in the hills west of the capital city killed one man and destroyed a telephone switching facility, before the tornado event finally ended.
However, this second storm would continue southward to San Antonio. Although it did not produce a tornado in the Alamo City, a new wind speed record was established for S.A. when a 122mph straight-line macro-burst was produced by the storm. Tens of millions of dollars in damage was wrought by the storm even as it began to die.
The Jarrell tornado was the deadliest and by far the most destructive central Texas tornado since the 1953 Waco storm, and one of only six F5 tornadoes recorded since 1950 in Texas. There hasn’t been another F5 anywhere in the state since then.
Portions of this report are based on an official National Weather Service (NWS) follow up done after the storm; Photos courtesy of the Austin-San Antonio NWS office.