JARRELL, Texas (KXAN) — It’s a day the Jarrell community won’t forget, even 24 years later.
An F5 tornado with winds more than 260 miles per hour destroyed the Double Creek Estates subdivision the afternoon of May 27, 1997, taking 27 lives.
KXAN’s former chief meteorologist and Austin’s longest weathercaster Jim Spencer was there to cover and witness tragic day.
“It was the most awful day of my career,” Spencer said in a January 2021 interview.
An F5 tornado had never been spotted in this part of Central Texas until that day. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the entire subdivision of about 38 single-family homes and a few mobile homes were destroyed, along with three businesses.
“That tornado wiped homes completely off their foundations, swept them away. There was nothing left but the concrete foundation, even plumbing was pulled out of the concrete. It was gone; it was devastating.”
The Jarrell tornado traveled for 7.6 miles and was 3/4 of a mile wide at one point, according to the NOAA.
Spencer said it was a “no brainer” a tornado was going to hit the area, because other tornadoes had formed earlier in the day along the front near Waco, about an hour north of Jarrell.
He remembered at the time, KXAN had the only live doppler radar in Austin. But even with the expert coverage, lives were still lost — and not only in Jarrell.
That same day, an F3 tornado in Cedar Park and an F4 tornado at Lake Travis also formed and killed two more.
The NOAA said more than 130 homes sustained damage in the Buttercup Creek subdivision in Cedar Park, and a 69-year-old man died from cardiac arrest as he was waiting out the storm.
A 25-year-old man was killed in the Lake Travis tornado, as he was trying to get away from the storm, the NOAA said.
“That’s the first an only F4 tornado that’s ever happened in Travis County. That’s how rare it was,” Spencer explained.
Even though it was a difficult day, Spencer highlighted the preparedness of the KXAN team to jump into wall-to-wall coverage long before anyone else — springing into action more than 20 minutes before the National Weather Service issued the first warning for Williamson County, according to Spencer.
“I was proud of our coverage, but also devastated at the loss of life from this freak, freak tornado. How it formed is still mind boggling,” he said.
“Our brand is ‘First Warning,’ and we take that seriously.”