MAY 28, 1997
A series of tornadoes ripped through the town of Jarrel, Texas, leaving what reporters at the scene called "total devastation."
JIM LEHRER: The killer Texas tornadoes were centered in the town of Jarrell, North of Austin. Spencer Michels begins our coverage.
SPENCER MICHELS: The storm system that swept across Central Texas spawned a series of tornadoes. This twister was photographed as it headed toward the small town of Jarrell in rolling cattle country. One resident described it like a big vacuum that sucked everything up. At least 27 people died and many were missing in Jarrell, the hardest hit town in the state. The storm brought with it rain, hail, and extremely fierce winds that reached more than 200 miles per hour. The path of destruction was a mile long and a quarter mile wide. Cars were thrown into the air and houses were ripped off their foundations. Dozens of farm and domestic animals injured in the tornadoes had to be destroyed. About 20 miles away from Jarrell, this grocery store collapsed when the twister arrived with almost no notice.
SPOKESMAN: The twister touched down right on the other side of the road there and just jumped the road and came over here so quick everybody just ran inside, and then that's when the roof collapsed.
PERSON AT SCENE: Well, when the roof came down, there was a hurt baby. A baby was really hurt and had to be taken to the hospital. People are cut and bleeding.
SPENCER MICHELS: Rescue workers searched through the town's rubble looking for more victims. It was the worst slew of tornadoes here since 1987. Jarrell, itself, had been devastated by a tornado only eight years ago. Yesterday, other parts of Texas suffered damage from the storms as well, including the capital city of Austin, where one person was killed. Weather forecasters say more tornadoes are a possibility in Texas and Oklahoma, though they say it's impossible to predict where and when.
JIM LEHRER: More now from Elizabeth Farnsworth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And to tell us more about the twisters and the damage left in their wake we turn to Jerry White, metro editor for the Austin American-Statesman, and Jeff Goldin, a senior research meteorologist who studies tornadoes for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. Mr. White, you've got nine reporters in Jarrell. Bring us up to date on what's happening there this afternoon and this evening.
JERRY WHITE, Austin American-Statesman: It's still a pretty grim scene now. There are reporters there from all over. The law enforcement folks have blocked off the area that was hardest hit and are keeping--keeping news media, keeping families out, as they continue to search for other victims. It's a heavy ranching area, and so emergency crews have gone in with bulldozers and have begun to dig what are basically mass graves for the dead livestock to prevent disease spread in the area.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what's needed there? Is there anything needed, blood is needed, anything like that?
JERRY WHITE: There have been blood drives in Scott & White Hospital in Temple, where some of the victims were taken, also in Round Rock, to the South of Jarrell, where some of the other victims were taken. The Red Cross is collecting money. Right now there are still 23 people missing, so information is the thing that the families are looking for the most.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How are your reporters describing what they're seeing?
JERRY WHITE: Total devastation in that area. You've seen the video of the--of the houses being just taken off the slabs. In Texas, there aren't--most homes aren't built with cellars are basements.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain why that is in tornado country.
JERRY WHITE: It's primarily a cost factor. It's also a soil factor. It's much less expensive to build on a slab than it is to form a basement.
JOSEPH GOLDIN, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration: Plus the flooding problem that you get there with these heavy rains if you have basements.
JERRY WHITE: Yes, sir. That's the other thing.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Go ahead. You were describing the devastation.
JERRY WHITE: Homes just splintered; cars tossed around like toys; it's just--there's--through the neighborhood that was hardest hit there's nothing left, except for the slab.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Goldin, how does this happen? The picture we saw was of a fairly narrow funnel, but you said that when it hit, it was enormous.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: Oh, yes. The other short segment that you showed, the--the width of the damage was about a half a mile wide, about four miles long, and from what I've seen in your clips here and earlier, it--this looks to me like an F-5 tornado, which is--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And explain that.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: Well, there's a scale of destruction or a scale of severity of tornadoes that my colleague, Ted Fujida, devised, ranging from F-0 to F-5, F-5 being the worst. It turns out the first F-5 tornado hit the city of Lubbock, Texas, in 1970. In fact, it was from that tornado that Dr. Fujida devised his F scale. An F-5 occurs, an F-5 tornado occurs where it hits residential construction and the bare foundation is swept clean, all the debris is swept clean. And--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How fast are the winds in an F-5?
JOSEPH GOLDIN: The estimated winds are--range from about 260 to 318 miles per hour. And that's an estimated range. We still need to do research with our colleagues, the wind engineers, to narrow down that range and to calibrate it. It still has to be calibrated with actual measurements.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But that means this was a very rare event.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: Oh, yes, oh, yes. The last really--the last tornado this bad in Texas was one that hit Saragosa I think in 1987--you may remember out in West Texas--killed many people in that town as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us what a tornado is exactly and describe what causes one of this size.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: Well, a tornado fortunately is a relatively rare phenomenon. It's a concentrated whirlwind or whirlwind of air, if you will. It turns out that we have the misfortune in the United States of being the world's capital for tornadoes, which is partly our geology. It has a lot to do with the North-South range, the Rocky Mountains, and the fact that we have this very large warm body of water, the Gulf of Mexico. Those two features are what cause--what produce the tornado alley, and, of course, Texas is--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you mean? Why do they produce it?
JOSEPH GOLDIN: Because you get this frequent collision of very warm, very unstable air masses, with colder air that comes southward out of Canada, and the same storm that caused 16 or so tornadoes in Texas yesterday produced about 40 tornadoes the day before in Oklahoma and Kansas. And we had a NOA team with two portable Dopplers that, in fact, collected measurements on one of the tornadoes in Oklahoma.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Dopplers being a kind of radar.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: Yes. These are a new kind of radar that we now--in fact, we have a network of them in the United States called MIXRAD, and they sense not only the rainfall and precipitation, but they also X-ray the storm to give you the motions inside the storm. So we're now able to improve our warnings, and, in fact, the warnings for this tornado, I understand, were about fifteen to twenty minutes, which is actually above the national average now.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Goldin, but just briefly, what was happening above the town? What was happening in the storm clouds that makes a funnel come out? I know it's partly updraft, partly downdraft, but I've never understood it.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: Well, this is why we still have to focus our efforts on research. We don't understand all the mechanisms, quite frankly. But we're beginning to understand some of the mechanisms that produce tornadoes, and it's--it's a concentration within middle or low levels of the storm, and the Doppler is able to detect a preexisting circulation within the storm, and as the air converges into a portion of that circulation, it spins faster and faster and faster, and you get a funnel. And then you get a funnel in many cases, and you get the destruction on the ground.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. White, what about the warnings? People did get about fifteen or twenty minutes of warning, but they were supposed to do if they didn't have a basement?
JERRY WHITE: Well, that's been quite the topic of discussion today in Central Texas. We're hearing that many of the families did what they're told to do, found a room inside their home, and their home was just swept off the foundation. We're also hearing stories of survivors and started to do that and changed their mind and did what is contrary to the advice and got into a car and ran, and, and survived, while their home was destroyed. There was about 15 minutes notice, and--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the notice is that the tornado warnings sirens were sounding, right, that's what you mean?
JERRY WHITE: There was--I'm not quite sure if there were tornado warning sirens in Jarrell or not.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: There's a siren, a new siren that was put in by the fire department after the 1989 tornado, and we understand that was sounded once the National Weather Service warnings were received.
JERRY WHITE: That's also the same siren used by the volunteer fire department to notify firefighters of alarms, so there may have been a question of whether or not people responded to that.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: That's--
JERRY WHITE: But, again, it was such a large storm, and the warning was to do--if you did what you were told to do in a warning and you were in the path of the storm, it just wouldn't have helped this time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So what should people do in that situation? I mean, if you haven't got a basement, you go in an internal bathroom or an internal closet, you're liable to be killed.
JOSEPH GOLDIN: No. This is an area where we're making some progress. There are some very good wind engineering experts there in Texas at both Texas Tech, as well as Texas A&M, and over the past several years they've developed a concept for in-residence tornado shelters whereby reinforcing an interior bathroom or hallway, a relatively inexpensive--there are plans for doing this--they're relatively inexpensive--in fact, you can even retrofit your house--this will provide--this will provide occupants safety for most tornadoes. Now I have to tell you a tornado of this magnitude there isn't much you can do, but I also have to tell you that I would still hesitate against advising people to outrun a tornado in their car. We've had a series of catastrophes from other instances during rush hour--1979, Wichita Falls--two thirds of the deaths, two thirds of the thirty-six people that died in Wichita Falls were caught in their automobiles trying to outrun it in a rush hour traffic jam. So I still think it's important that people heed the National Service warnings, go get away from windows. If you have a basement, go to the basement, but if you can't, get into an interior hallway or bathroom and get low, cover yourself with mattresses or whatever, but get low.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Thank you both very much for being with us.