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□ On May 27, 1997, an unusual tornado formed in the Central Texas foothills. Just after 2pm that day, despite unfavorable atmospheric conditions, two supercell thunderstorms exploded like atomic bombs in the afternoon sky. A little after 3pm, a thread-like funnel descended near the Bell County line. The tornado was weak initially, but suddenly entered a period of rapid intensification as it entered Williamson County from the north. Winds reached F5 intensity as the tornado thundered to the southwest and passed near the small town of Jarrell.
When it was over, news and helicopter crews descended upon the area, and images of the damage were broadcast across the country. Even seasoned meteorologists gasped at the intensity of the destruction. To this day, the Jarrell tornado remains unparalleled, and the damage it caused is easily the most intense ever documented.
The tornado missed the center of Jarrell, but two clusters of homes near the intersection of County Road 305 and Double Creek Drive lay directly in its path. As the tornado roared towards the area, several families fled in their cars. Others sought refuge in an underground storm shelter on the property of Gabriel Hernandez. By the time the tornado crossed County Road 308, there were 30 people above ground in the area that was soon to receive the full force of the F5 winds. On the northern edge of the damage track, a man was killed in the destruction of his home and his wife and daughter were injured (Wolf, 1997).
Nine other homes, containing 27 people, completely vanished. All but one boy perished in the obliterated homes, some of which were later found to be well-constructed. The survivor, a 13-year old boy named John Reyes, had taken shelter beneath a bed with his grandmother and brother, both of whom were killed.
“They were up underneath the bed, and the mattress started lifting up and the boys started to be pulled away,’ said Mullins’ nephew, Dwayne Meche. ‘My aunt went to reach for them, and she got lifted up, and John said he saw a board go straight through her back.” (Washington Post, 1997)
One rescue worker, who arrived within minutes of the tornado, said that he was amazed at “how quiet it was…no one was yelling for help, no dogs were barking, there were no sounds at all except rain falling on the dirt.” The effect of the F5 winds was so severe that search and rescue crews were initially unable to differentiate between human and animal remains (Hurtik, 2011). A thorough analysis of the storm’s victims concluded that all but one of the deaths occurred due to “multiple traumatic injuries,” a label often reserved for the catastrophic injuries sustained in plane crashes. The final victim died due to severe head trauma and compressional asphyxia (CDC, 1997). While most tornadoes cause a greater number of fatalities among children and the elderly, the Jarrell storm was indiscriminate and left no survivors above ground in the worst affected areas. Eleven of the dead were teenagers.
The Jarrell tornado defined the concept of “swept away.” Other tornadoes have left pockets of scoured pavement, but the Jarrell tornado left an unbroken swath of barren earth vacant of roads, grass, fences and the homes that once dotted the landscape. The storm completely removed trees and telephone poles in the devastated areas and pulverized the remains, leaving little for rescue workers to sift through. Surveyors also documented the disappearance of more than a dozen vehicles known to have been in the area (Grazulis, 2001). Unlike most tornadoes that cause a high number of fatalities, the tornado encountered less than two dozen homes along its 7.6 mile path (Mankowski, n.d.). The tornado was practically unsurvivable above ground, however, resulting in a disproportionately high death toll.
The homes in the direct path of the tornado were swept so cleanly away that even the plumbing fixtures and sill plates anchored to the foundations were removed (Phan, 1999). The extent of the damage made determining the construction standards of the obliterated homes difficult. While most of the homes were likely of only moderate construction, some were shown to have been well attached to their foundations. One home where three women died had heavy stone walls two feet thick (NBC, 1997). Even homes outside the zone of scoured earth were swept away.
A damage survey was conducted with the little bits of information that remained, and some researchers concluded that most of the structural damage could have been caused by winds in the F3 range. The tornado’s slow movement may have exposed some of the homes in the center of the damage track to tornadic winds for three solid minutes (Grazulis, 2001). The damage survey was focused on the empty foundations, however, and not specifically on the other damage indicators. More pavement was removed in Williamson County than in any tornado in history, and the ground scouring was perhaps the most intense ever surveyed over a large area. The telephone poles in the worst affected areas were snapped a few feet above the ground – an indication of extremely violent wind acceleration. Cars and heavy wreckers were ripped apart and granulated into small pieces, and many were never found. Video of the tornado also shows extremely violent rotation comparable to other F5 tornadoes.
The tornado quite literally left no damage indicators with which to judge higher winds. It is undoubtable, however, that the tornado deserved the F5 rating it was awarded.