The devastation in the US South – the result of a massive tornado storm system – has a familiar look to North Texas residents who witnessed a 1979 outbreak that slammed Wichita Falls.
It was early afternoon, a windy spring day that began with tornado watches and ended with damage and deaths from the Texas panhandle into Oklahoma.
Hardest hit was Wichita Falls, where a massive funnel roared through the city, tossing trees like javelins, rolling cars into steel balls, and flattening homes to the foundation. The system to measure tornadoes in that time was the Fujita scale, and the monster that rolled into Wichita Falls was rated as an F4, nearly the largest on the scale.
Because of the flat terrain and the topography, there were opportunities to photograph the storm that did not exist in previous F4 and F5 tornadoes. A series of photos taken by a local newspaper photographer with an auto-advance film system allowed scientists to accurately gauge the speed and strength of the winds in the days before more sophisticated weather-tracking radar electronics existed.
Although there is a disparity in numbers now, at the time 53 deaths were reported as a result of the storm. In all, at least 30 tornadoes touched down over Texas and Oklahoma that afternoon, and debris from the enormous storm that impacted Wichita Falls was dropped to the ground as far away as Owasso, in northeastern Oklahoma.
Warnings of the system were issued early in the day, and Wichita Falls residents had nearly an hour to prepare, a luxury not often afforded in storm outbreaks. Unfortunately, the timing caught many residents in their cars rushing home from work.
The mile-wide swath left 20-thousand homeless and caused more than $400-million in damages, the nation’s most destructive tornado until an F5 hit the Moore and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma areas twenty years later, on May 3, 1999, and the Deep South Outbreak of April 2011, which may be recorded as the worst ever in the United States.