Childhood Influence of the Wichita Falls Tornado

The Red River Valley outbreak of 10 April 1979 was one of the most destructive in American history. Three major, cyclic supercells produced long-track, violent, and huge tornadoes. Unusually, three regionally major towns got struck: Lawton OK, Vernon TX and Wichita Falls TX. The most memorable and damaging, of course, was Wichita Falls: 42 killed directly and at least 1800 people hurt, in a path sometimes over a mile wide across the southeast side of the city; damage rated to at least F4 levels (whether spots of F5 damage existed has been disputed ever since, but certainly an enormous amount of F4); 20,000 residents rendered homeless; $400 million in damage in 1979 dollars (second in U.S. history, inflation-adjusted…refer to Brooks and Doswell 2001).

Wichita Falls also had tremendous personal meaning and motivation for me, even though I only would turn 12 the following month. For background, I already was fascinated by tornadoes and had been since earliest memory. I had decided at some indefinite moment long before, as a weather obsessed preschooler, to go into a career in meteorology, specializing somehow in tornadoes. This event, however, was a major turning point in that it turned me on to the concept of observing and photographing them safely.

Troy Dungan of Channel 8 (Dallas) and Harold Taft of Channel 5 each relayed tornado warnings for that area in their 6 p.m. weathercasts, then broke in sometime shortly afterward to announce with somber dread that a massive tornado had done great damage in Wichita Falls. I knew where that was, where I was, and what an anvil was, so the news prompted me to go outside in attempt to view the storm’s canopy from that distance. Much to my astonishment and captivation, the sharp, crisp edge of the anvil silhouetted to the NW in the fading light. I recall thinking, “Wow, this came from that storm producing the tornado. Maybe some of the same air went through the tornado!”

The next day, Leon Hooten’s famous photo of the giant, black, high-contrast tornado (the one eventually appearing on the NWS Spotter’s Guide cover) was printed on the front page of the Dallas Times Herald. [A woefully tiny version is online here.] That image, spread across the entire width of the front page of the newspaper, absolutely blew me away, in a figurative sense of course. I cut out and taped that shot to the wall of my bedroom across from my pillow, such that it would be the first thing I would see every time I woke up, throughout the remainder of my childhood and teenage years. [It finally yellowed and crumpled into oblivion sometime after I went off to college at OU.]

My thinking was rather audacious for an elementary school kid, but certainly within reason: “If the dude credited with taking the shot could do so, why not me? If I become a tornado expert like I want, how hard can it be to find one of those and photograph it?” Imagine that.

On 11 April 1979, I vowed to see and photograph cleanly a high contrast, mile wide tornado like that someday. Despite several big ones witnessed, either at night or in poor contrast conditions, I still haven’t accomplished that goal fully, despite 22 years of active storm intercepts. And I don’t believe there is such a thing at quite yet as a full-fledged, across-the-board “tornado expert.” What is known about tornadoes has become almost incomprehensibly vast in a historical and factual sense of “tornado trivia,” yet so little still truly is understood about how and why they do or don’t develop, and how to predict their precise location more than a few minutes (at most) in advance. The more a scientist learns, the more he realizes he doesn’t understand!

And so, the learning continues, as does the heretofore futile search for that high contrast, mile-wide tornado in my camera lens…



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