AUSTIN (KXAN) — April 10, 2023 will mark the 44th anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in Texas. On Tuesday, April 10, 1979, the city of Wichita Falls was struck by a tornado that leveled much of the southern part of the city.
It’s a day I won’t ever forget. I was the chief meteorologist for the CBS affiliate, KAUZ-TV. I had the responsibility of reporting on a tornado that would ride into history for the deaths and destruction it left.
The storms were easy to forecast given the atmospheric setup. A warm front lifted north bringing in warm, moist and unstable air. A cold front with an associated area of low pressure was moving out of the Texas South Plains towards Wichita Falls. An area of low pressure was over Colorado. The upper-levels were such that thunderstorms were bound to happen in a part of what is commonly referred to as Tornado Alley.
Our Monday, April 9 forecast alerted viewers that strong storms with a likelihood of tornadoes were possible. We urged people to have a plan of action.
You have to remember this was 1979. In a market as small as ours, we did not have color radar. Ours was the old black-and-white system once used in an Air Force plane. We also did not have weather apps, a station dedicated to broadcasting only weather information, or any of the technological advancements that we have in 2023 that helps our First Warning Weather Team at KXAN bring you critical information when you need it most.
We got our information on this day from both the National Weather Service and the Ham Radio network.
The day was ugly with a partly to mostly cloudy sky and obnoxious humidity. That aforementioned warm front brought copious amounts of moisture from the Gulf so when people walked outside they got hit with all that moisture. That’s what helped create the instability in the atmosphere.
There were two tornadoes in the KAUZ viewing area that day. The first struck Vernon around 3:40 Tuesday afternoon. We saw the storm on the black and white radar requiring our breaking into programming and urging our viewers in Wilbarger County to take their shelter. The tornado ripped through Vernon. Eleven people were killed. That supercell crossed the Red River into southwest Oklahoma where another tornado was spawned resulting in another fatality in Lawton.
As if this wasn’t enough, the worst was still to come.
The second supercell formed in Baylor County near the city of Seymour before 5 p.m. where a tornado was reported but, thankfully, with no fatalities. The storm then crossed into northwest Archer County.
Fifteen miles southwest of Wichita Falls is the community of Holliday. At 5:50 p.m., a tornado touched down three miles east-northeast of Holliday.
After a brief lifting, the big tornado touched down in southwest Wichita Falls near the community of Ponderosa Estates. That’s where it was when our newscast started at 5:58 p.m. We were about to give the location and what people should do when, a minute later, we got knocked off the air when a transformer was hit.
The tornado would cause extensive damage at the city’s football field, Memorial Stadium, before doing damage at McNiel Junior High School. Thank goodness school was not in session at the time, otherwise the death and injury counts likely would have been much higher.
With no further broadcasting possible, we went to the back door to watch as this big, black monster of a storm hit the city’s mall, Sikes Senter. After wreaking havoc there, the tornado crossed Southwest Parkway and continued its rampage in the city’s eastern section.
Once the tornado left Wichita Falls, an eerie calm remained. It was the next day, Wednesday, April 11, 1979, when we saw the true extent of what this thing did.
The tornado passed through eight miles of the city and was 1.5 miles wide. The intense damage was about .25 to .50 miles wide.
The tornado was given an F4 on the original Fujita scale of tornado strength.
This tornado killed 45 people. Of those, 25 were vehicle-related. It was determined that 16 of those 25 were from people leaving their homes. What makes this statistic even sadder is that 11 of those 16 homes were untouched by the tornado.
More than 3,000 homes were destroyed, along with more than one thousand apartment units and nearly 100 mobile homes. In today’s dollars, $1.93 BILLION damage was caused.
Storm spotters in the field, the continued updates from the National Weather Service and the time the tornado hit the city kept the death and devastation from being worse.
It took 24 hours for our station to come back on the air. All we could do then was talk to the people who did have power and try our best to be as comforting as possible. There was nothing else to say. We did everything we could to let people know where they could get help.
It was positively gut-wrenching to see what the tornado did to our city and our citizens.
An anniversary to never forget.