Aftermath of the 1997 Jarrell Tornado – The Most Intense Tornado Damage Ever Photographed

The Jarrell tornado left the most intense tornado damage ever photographed in rural Williamson County.

□  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.

A close up view of the violent tornado during its period of intensification.

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.

View of the tornado over Double Creek Estates.

Aerial view of the damage looking due east. The Jarrell tornado moved from upper left to lower right. Five homes and a recycling plant were swept away as the tornado crossed County Road 305, leading to the storm’s first fatalities. A short time later, the tornado struck two homes at the end of a long driveway, killing all five members of the Igo family. Finally, the tornado struck Double Creek Drive (the street with the empty foundations at center). Photographic evidence indicates that the tornado only broadsided the Double Creek homes. The most pronounced ground scouring passed slightly to the south. All three survivors in the F5 damage swath were on the northern edge of Double Creek Drive – a quarter mile from the center of the tornado.

Well-built homes in the path of the tornado were reduced to bare concrete slabs on County Road 305. A mother and her teenage son were killed in the home that once rested atop the foundation at right (Brown, 1997).

A steel-framed recycling facility at the end of County Road 307 was obliterated by the tornado. The few remaining metal support beams were twisted like pretzels. The muddy character of the landscape was the result of surface vegetation having been scoured to a depth of 18-inches.

Three views of damage in the vicinity of Double Creek Drive. The image at left was taken on the fringe of the damage swath and serves as a control shot for the original appearance of the area. The image at center shows severe grass scouring at the edge of the main damage path, and the image at right shows the complete removal of all vegetation in the worst affected area. (J u n g a /

Photograph of a home on Double Creek Drive. According to former Jarrell resident Kurt Breit, the home where Cindy Smith and her two daughters perished was nearly identical to the home that now sits on the same lot.

Photograph of a home on Double Creek Drive. According to former Jarrell resident Kurt Breit, the home where Cindie Smith and her two daughters perished was nearly identical to the home that now sits on the same lot.

View of empty foundations on Double Creek Drive. The core of the storm passed to the south of this area (out of frame at top).

View of empty foundations on the northern side of Double Creek Drive. Homes in this area were swept completely away and moderate grass scouring was noted. The worst damage (defined by extreme grass scouring) passed to the south of this area (out of frame at top). The foundation at extreme top center is where three members of the Smith family lost their lives. Ruth Carmona and her two teenage children were killed in the home with the circular driveway across the street.

After passing over Double Creek Drive, the tornado travelled another mile before dissipating at the edge of a wooded area.

Map depicting the path of the Jarrell tornado and the location of the fatalities and survivors. The streets and homes have been edited to resemble the area as it appeared in 1997. All of the tornado's 27 fatalities occurred within 10 homes on Double Creek Drive and County Road 305, including the three fatalities which could not be placed in their respective homes (one article indicates a woman was killed in her vehicle, but former resident Kurt Breit reported that all of the victims were likely in residential structures). The only three above-ground survivors of the storm in the Double Creek area were on the northern edge of the primary damage path.

Map depicting the path of the Jarrell tornado and the location of the fatalities and survivors. The streets and homes have been edited to resemble the area as it appeared in 1997. All of the tornado’s 27 fatalities occurred on Double Creek Drive and County Road 305, including two fatalities which could not be placed in their respective homes (one article indicates a woman was killed in her vehicle, but former resident Kurt Breit reported that all of the victims were likely in residential structures). The only three above-ground survivors of the storm in the Double Creek area were on the northern edge of the primary damage path.

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.

All five members of the Igo family were killed in the destruction of their three bedroom home. A playground was later built atop the vacant foundation in memoriam (visible at center right).

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.

The remains of the steel recycling facility (at left), a frame home (center) and two manufactured homes (far right).

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.

Much like the Jarrell tornado, the Bowdle, South Dakota, tornado of 2010 was over half a mile wide and moved extremely slowly, sometimes becoming almost stationary. Video of the tornado shows it was an extremely violent storm with rapid rotation, and a damage survey awarded the tornado an EF4 rating. Some storm chasers believe the tornado would have caused EF5 damage had it hit more structures. Even so, the building and vegetation damage near Bowdle (seen at right) was nowhere near as intense as the devastation from the Jarrell tornado. (Tornado video still by Randy Cooper)

Entrance to Double Creek Drive today. The neigborhood looks much like it did before the tornado, according to two Jarrell residents.

Me standing at the entrance to Double Creek Drive today. The neigborhood looks much like it did before the tornado, according to two local residents familiar with the area before the storm.

Just east of Double Creek Drive is a memorial park dedicated in honor of the tornado's victims. A tree was planted for each victim of the storm.

Just east of Double Creek Drive is a memorial park dedicated to the tornado’s victims. A tree was planted for each victim of the storm.

153 thoughts on “Aftermath of the 1997 Jarrell Tornado – The Most Intense Tornado Damage Ever Photographed

  1. Pingback: The Indefinitive List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded (Part I) | Extreme / Planet

    • I lived in Kaufman county there was a tornado I was in the middle of it. I went to Wylie and I was in the middle of a tornado there except I was in Wylie when the big tornado hit I will never ever forget that

  2. This tornado was nothing but a demon. Also, this beast has one of the most sought after tornado videos I’ve ever seen: the infamous Dead Man Walking video. This was the video of the tornado as it went from the slender rope, entered vortex breakdown in which the vortices resembled a walking man (from a Native American legend in the area), and turned into the beast. This appears to be a crappy video still from the video:

    I hope the video surfaces one day.

    • There is no “dead man walking” video. It’s just a bunch of hooplah that originated from this picture. Kind of a tornadic “urban legend”.

    • I just posted the TLC documentary on the Jarrell tornado. There’s no video of the “dead man walking” just photos but this is the show that it came from. Truly one of…if not the most terrifying documentaries I have ever seen.

      • Thanks for posting this. I didn’t know that a family survived a direct hit while in a storm shelter they built because their last house was destroyed 8 years earlier. I’m surprised extremeplanet didn’t mention it.

      • Me too!!!!!! I lived in that area when the tornado hit central Texas. I was stationed at Fort Hood and lived in Copperas Cove. I have seen hundreds of tornado videos and in some you can see the vorticies appear to be a dead man walking.

  3. In every debate I’ve seen concerning an F5 tornado vs. a skyscraper people have generally concluded that the skyscraper would be left standing, but the way the Jarrell tornado twisted the beams in that recycling building left me wondering. Had the Jarrell tornado directly hit a skyscraper, could it have knocked it down, or at least damaged it to a point that it would have to be demolished afterward?

    • Beyond a fast moving, rain-wrapped tornado following a freeway congested with traffic, I think a slow moving, high intensity EF5 tornado like the Jarrell storm would lead to the greatest number of fatalities in a heavily populated area.

      If the Jarrell tornado had gone through downtown Dallas, it would have become the deadliest tornado disaster in world history. I’m not sure exactly what would have happened, but the affected skyscrapers most definitely would need to be demolished afterwards due to irreversible structural damage.

    • If that Jarrell Tornado move over a skyscraper, you bet it knot it down & leave damage like the may 3 1999 tornado did, city be waste land.

    • Well, the number of people above ground in the EF4+ damage swath in Joplin was (my own estimates) approximately 2000 (200 of those in St. Johns Hospital). So the fatality rate was on the order of 8%. (A variety of factors make this a bit more complicated. In homes swept completely away the fatality rate was much higher).

      The Jarrell tornado’s fatality rate was near 100% within a swath nearly the same size as the EF4+ damage path in Joplin. Assuming that the density and variety of structures would have reduced the fatality rate to 50% – the death toll would have been around 1,000.

      This assumes the Jarrell-like tornado was rain-wrapped. If it were clearly visible like the Jarrell tornado was, the death toll might have dropped to something between 400 and 500.

  4. A couple things came to mind. Could the slow movement of this tornado have allowed some spots to be impacted by several suction vortices in succession?

    Also, in regard to the comparison with the Joplin tornado, how do the areas of F5/EF5 damage compare in terms of area coverage?

    • Yes, the slow movement of the tornado undoubtably led to locations being hit by suction spots (capable of causing F5 damage) multiple times.

      In terms of area, the two tornadoes caused a comparable swath of F4+ damage, with the Jarrell tornado likely being a bit larger. The more slender shape of the Jarrell tornado on film is the result of the high cloud tops common in Texas in late-May. The Jarrell tornado, however, caused a much larger zone of F5 damage, probably the largest ever recorded (about half a mile). The E/F5 damage zone in Joplin was more erratic due to the multiple vortex nature of the storm, but in the area where the most intense damage occurred (just north and east of St. Johns, IMHO) it was about 100 to 200 yards wide.

      • Do you happen to know if the joplin tornado was at its strongest right before hitting the st. john’s hospital? I am shocked at the damage that it caused but its very impressive that the hospital was still standing. Are most hospitals able to handle winds above 200mph?

      • The Joplin tornado probably reached EF5 intensity just before passing St. Johns Hospital and reached peak intensity just to the northeast as it travelled down W 26th Street.

        The very northern portion of the hospital may have experienced EF5 winds, but the most intense damage was slightly to the north. Had the tornado passed directly over the whole complex at maximum strength, it likely would have still remained standing but experienced significantly worse exterior and interior damage.

      • I believe the St. Johns Hospital had to be demolished because of extreme structural deformation from this tornado am I right?

  5. Once there was a good documentary on this storm, a man was seeking eyewitnesses for his insurance company, that there really was a 10 ton dumptruck on his driveway, which was never found again. And a farmer had a compressor housing in the ground next to the barn, the storm still in development tore the concrete lid of and sucked the compressor and all out of it never too be found again.

    • I interviewed two people from Jarrell during my trip who had direct experiences with the storm’s aftermath and were familiar with the victims. I was unable to find anyone who had been directly affected by the storm.

      • That’s because almost all of them died. And those who weren’t home at the time don’t want to talk about it.

      • i was there, I am and was john reyes. i have since been adopted. But i lived through it. It has been a very long time but i still remember everything from the time i woke up till i passed out in the hospital that afternoon. if anyone has any questions at all please feel free to contact me. my email is

  6. Did this tornado manage to scour foundations from any of the homes? I’ve always wondered if any tornadoes have been capable of doing such a thing. Has it ever happened before?

    • John – If you look at the aerial image of the Igo home it appears as though sections of the foundation may have been chipped away, but no home foundations were completely dislodged.

      Depending on how raised a foundation is, they can be partially shattered. Like how cement porches in Rainsville were ripped from the ground. I saw some of that just west of Moore this year. And beams or chimneys well-attached to foundations can rip out portions of concrete (may have been the case in Mount Hope and Smithville in 2011).

      There are suspicious claims about foundations being blown away after the ’98 Lawrence County and ’74 Guin tornadoes. As for as I know, there is no documented proof of it having happened before, but it certainly is possible. The 2011 Philadelphia tornado dug the depth of a typical residential foundation.

      • Hey Michael, as you can probably imagine this photo was one of the most interesting that I came across while researching my article. Surveyors indicated that a portion of the foundation was indeed torn away and either broken apart or carried off some distance. There’s no record of just how much foundation was actually removed or what sort of structure actually sat atop the foundation, but it was said to be “about a foot” in thickness.

        My first thought was that it looks like it may have been a storage shed or some other sort of outbuilding given that it appears to be fairly small, but usually such structures have foundations that are more like 4-6″ thick. Of course, a 12″ foundation would seem to be a bit excessive even for a home, so who knows.

        Anyhow, it’s certainly an impressive example of the sheer power of this tornado no matter what the structure was originally.

  7. What do you think would ha have happened if the Philadelphia, Mississippi tornado had moved at 10mph similar to the Jarrell tornado? Would the damage have been much worse?

    • The Philadelphia tornado was moving between 55 and 60mph when it caused the extreme scouring. Theoretically, that would mean its most intense winds would decrease by 45 to 50mph if it slowed down to 10mph like Jarrell.

      It’s hard to know what would really happen though. Surely it would leave EF5 damage, but the variables are endless. Tornadoes probably follow a normal curve, meaning over progressively longer time frame there are rarer and rarer events. So I’m sure a “1 in 1,000” year tornado would be capable of scouring the ground to extreme depths – maybe 6ft or more – if it moved real slowly.

      • Then we won’t have no where to hide…

        Be scarer to have a tornado that can do that, winds have to be at least 600+ MPH & 5 miles wide.

  8. My dad and uncle told me the Udall, Kansas tornado on May 25, 1955 removed home foundations but I don’t know how accurate their description was because they were only in their teens. They did witness a lot of the devastation of the Udall tornado and said it was the most impressive damage they have ever seen.

  9. is there a certain wind speed tornadoes can reach (maybe well above 300 mph in rare cases) where the winds are so intense that any material in its path is shredded up almost completely and granulated? Even reinforced concrete structures? That looks like the case with the Jarrell tornado. It sounds like even those 2 feet thick stone walls were pulverized.

    • In nature I think almost anything is possible over a long enough time frame. Who knows what would have happened if the Jarrell tornado had passed over steel re-inforced bunkers.

      One National Geographic article in the early 2000’s said that computer models have shown that winds in tornadoes could theoretically be able to approach the speed of sound for very brief periods. I’m not sure of the context or the veracity of the statement but I do believe turbulent wind motions in extremely violent, rapidly narrowing vortices could maybe exceed 400mph momentarily. Such winds could shatter reinforced buildings, assuming that area just happened to impact a manmade structure.

      • I believe Howard Bluestein mentioned the computer models, but mentioned that the model may be flawed in that regard.

      • I found the article online but it lacks the quote because it was a caption beneath an image (I own the magazine back in my old room). I know I saw it online a few months ago so it’s findable.

      • Max, I assume that was probably in reference to the work done by Steve and David Lewellen. An extended abstract can be found here:

        It’s kinda technical but it’s a very interesting read. Some other relevant papers along the same lines:

        Fiedler, Brian H., Richard Rotunno, 1986: A Theory for the Maximum Windspeeds in Tornado-like Vortices. J. Atmos. Sci., 43, 2328–2340.

        Lewellen, D. C., W. S. Lewellen, 2007: Near-Surface Intensification of Tornado Vortices. J. Atmos. Sci., 64, 2176–2194.

        Lewellen, D. C.: On the limits to near-surface intensification of tornado vortices

      • Wow 400mph sounds extreme! ExtremePlanet do you think that the Phillidelpha tornado could have potentually produced these winds?

      • Wind speeds are very dependent on duration – so a 250mph three-second gust might have a one second value of 300mph, and maybe an instantaneous value over 300mph.

        Do I think the Philadelphia tornado had instantaneous gusts up to 400mph? I’m not sure since there are so many variables and so little history of direct observation, but I would guess that peak values were probably around or just over 300mph.

      • Yea I can imagin direct observations in tornades is next to impossible for obvious reasons. “I do believe turbulent wind motions in extremely violent, rapidly narrowing vortices could maybe exceed 400mph momentarily. Such winds could shatter reinforced buildings, assuming that area just happened to impact a manmade structure.” How much more powerful would an instantaniouus gust of 400mph be vs an instantaneous gust of 300mph? I know you can’t really go beyond complete devastation but i’m just curious. Out of curiousity when you mentioned “rapidely narrowing vortices” you were refering to suction vortices right?

  10. What would 350mph + winds exposed to a certain area for about 10-15 seconds do to it? Do you think the damage would be inconceivable? Fujita himself described an F6 as being inconceivable on the original F-scale. I doubt if it would be even possible since E/F5 damage is complete destruction.

    • There is never going to be an F6 tornado, at least the way the scale is currently set up as it terminates at E/F5. There most certainly are tornadoes with wind ranges so far into the EF5 category that they probably cross an ordinal threshold into an even higher category, but that’s just semantics. I believe Jarrell, Smithville, Philadelphia, Bridge Creek and Phil Campbell were tornadoes that were “well above the F5 threshold.”

      I think it would be extremely rare for a tornado to bring winds in excess of 300mph to an area for more than a second or two. Winds over 350mph for 10 – 15 seconds might be a 1 in 100 or 1 in 1,000 year event, assuming it is possible at all. The resulting damage would be catastrophic – similar to but likely worse than Jarrell. The destruction from the Jarrell tornado was so complete that very few markers were left to judge stronger winds short of dislodging the slab foundations.

  11. Yeah, I used to think a lot about tornadoes and wonder if they could rip not only a well-built, well-anchored home off the foundation but also the slab embedded several feet into the ground. I would think it would take winds well over 300mph to do such a thing. I used to wonder if this might had been considered F6 damage on the original F-scale if the slab was also gone. I know that F6 was only theoretical and most likely we will never see an EF6 category on the EF-scale.

  12. Do you think the damage done by the Jarrell tornado was done in a matter of seconds rather than minutes? The Elie tornado was proved to have done F5 damage in a matter of maybe 15 seconds despite of its stationary movement.

    • I believe most EF5 tornadoes are capable of sweeping homes completely away in a few seconds. In tornadoes with narrow damage cores that moved quickly (Smithville, Phil Campbell, Rainsville) this phenomena can be verified.

      The Elie tornado was clearly capable of sweeping a home completely away in a second and tossing it into the air as captured on film. The Jarrell tornado surely was capable of causing EF5 damage very quickly within suction vortices, and it’s quite likely those vortices impacted areas multiple times, leading to the extreme nature of the damage.

  13. What if you had a mile-wide EF5 tornado of similar or nearly similar intensity as the Jarrell tornado moving at 15 mph, and cutting a 15-20 mile path through downtown Chicago’s most populated areas, including people being caught in the middle of rush hour? Do you believe the death toll would be in the tens or hundreds of thousands?

    • A slow-moving Jarrell type event in a densely populated area would undoubtably lead to thousands of fatalities, possibly over 20,000 fatalities under the worst possible circumstances (following a freeway at rush-hour, completely rain-wrapped, passing over miles of densely packed homes and low/mid-rise apartment buildings).

  14. Yeah, I wondered if a tornado like Jarrell with a little bit wider and a little bit more long tracked, a little bit faster, but of similar intensity could lead to one of the most deadliest weather disasters in world history. I would think even if you had like a mile-wide EF3 tornado take a 20-25 mile track through downtown New York City’s most populated areas(including rush hour traffic) would probably would have the potential to kill well into the thousands. I am sure it would be very deadly but I don’t think it would causes as many fatalities as an EF5 would.

      • Agreed, tornado intensity and fatality rates have a linear correlation, meaning the percentage of people killed in buildings in an EF3 tornado is perhaps 1% of the fatalities that occur in EF5 tornadoes.

        So a large, EF3 tornado passing through heavily urbanized sections of Chicago would cause a fraction of the deaths caused by an EF5 tornado taking the same path.

  15. I was thinking along the lines of a mile-wide EF3 hitting a rush hour traffic bridge in New York City. I mean an EF3 I thought was capable of at least throwing a car for a 100 yards or making it go airborne. I would think as a result there would be a death toll well into the thousands resulting from this tornado. Of course if you make that same tornado an EF5 there is probably going to be a death toll well into the tens or possibly even hundreds of thousands. This is because an EF5 can do a lot more damage to a building than an EF3 can. EF3+ tornadoes have resulted in 85-90% of all tornado related fatalities and injuries since 1950. I was thinking an EF3 tornado would have the potential to be very deadly but would not be as deadly as an EF5.

    • EF3 tornadoes can throw cars long distances, but many EF3 tornadoes are only rated as such due to a lack of damage indicators. If a tornado were to pass through a highly populated area, there would be thousands of damage indicators that would make the final rating easy to ascertain. As a result, a tornado given an EF3 rating while passing through Manhattan would likely be weaker than the majority of tornadoes given EF3 ratings on the plains.

  16. It would be like if you had a mile-wide tornado with a 20-30 mile path length with different intensities going through New York City(EF3), Chicago(EF4), or Dallas(EF5). Though New York City is much more populous than Dallas I would still think the EF5 tornado in Dallas would still kill more than the EF3 tornado in New York City because it is more statistically likely to survive an EF3 tornado than an EF5 tornado.

    • Speaking of worst case scenarios, people rarely think of places outside the United States. Dhaka, a city of 15 million people in Bangladesh, is located close to where the world’s deadliest tornado struck in 1989. Since central Bangladesh is capable of spawning violent, long-tracked tornadoes, it is quite likely that someday a massive tornado will sweep through the city’s crowded residential districts.

      Houses and apartment buildings in Dhaka are very poorly constructed and often severely overcrowded. An EF4/EF5-equivalent tornado with a wide damage path could completely obliterate countless buildings and cause literally a hundred thousand fatalities in only a few miles.

      • I had been thinking of The Daulatpur-Saturia tornado when I made my last comment. Do you have any guesses on the intensity of that one?

    • Wow, buckeye, that video is the only imagery I have ever seen regarding the tornado. Also, that clip of the young girl sobbing next to her dead mother is one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen.

      I have no basis to estimate how powerful the tornado was sans the above video and the high number of fatalities. Considering the death toll, the tornado must have, at the very least, attained EF3 intensity for a fairly long duration. My best guess would be that it was a long tracked tornado that maintained EF3 or possibly EF4 intensity for a large proportion of its track. The two towns the storm is named after are a good 15 to 20 miles apart.

  17. Just an odd question but how much debris in terms of weight could potentially be in a powerful tornado while its churning through a suburb or a city. There’s probably no way of knowing but maybe there is with estimation. Like could a one mile wide violent tornado have hundreds of thousands of tons of debris in and around its funnel at a given moment?

  18. how much of an effect would potential transonic wind speeds have on buildings and the overall landscape since it sounds like they make up a very tiny portion of the overall tornado.

    • My guess would be that it has already happened (assuming it is possible over an area wider than a few square feet). Such winds would mix in with the EF4/EF5 winds surrounding it and likely not lead to any significant damage indicators above and beyond the EF5 threshold. I imagine the typical extreme damage patterns – scoured earth, bare foundations, completely debarked/sandblasted tree stumps – would be present.

  19. Could a significant damage indicator way beyond the threshold and an indicator of the transonic winds be something like a destroyed monolithic dome since they are built to withstand 300+ mph winds yet these transonic velocities move close to the speed of sound.

    • As I understand it, if these velocities exist at all, they’re likely extremely small both temporally and spatially. Almost instantaneous gusts on a scale perhaps as large as a few feet. It isn’t clear how they would translate as far as damage, but my guess is that instantaneous transsonic gusts wouldn’t cause much more damage than, say, the 300 mph wind speeds over a duration of 30 seconds that you may see in a “typical” EF5 tornado. If these gusts exist then they’re likely present in many high-end tornadoes anyway.

      A well-built monolithic dome would definitely be one possible indicator that could record damage well beyond the typical EF5 threshold, though. Any significant damage to a dome would probably come as a result of large debris impacts (vehicles, etc) rather than sheer wind force alone. Debris impacts have caused moderate damage to domes before.

      • As Shawn says, the impact forces from heavy debris (oil tanks, large vehicles) exceed the forces even of the most intense winds for a brief instant. Such impacts could surely breach a monolithic dome or above-ground safe-room in rare instances and therefore might not be evidence of winds well beyond “regular” EF5’s.

        If a massive, dense object in a rural area was lifted and thrown a great distance, that could be more solid evidence of exceptional wind velocities following mathematical calculations.

      • You think it would be possible for an extreme high end EF5 to destroy a monolithic dome without the assistance of debris; only from sheer wind force alone? That would probably be something like a 1 in 1000 year tornado.

      • @Dean: The safety factor for a well-built monolithic dome vs. the expected force imparted by a 300 mph tornado is generally somewhere between 2 and 4, meaning the dome should be expected to withstand two to four times the force of what is essentially the highest wind speed ever recorded in a tornado. Assuming a dome is built to these specs and has no structural defects, its destruction from wind force alone would probably require a tornado of a magnitude that isn’t generally possible on Earth under normal atmospheric conditions. So, no. Not really.

        But I want to be clear that we’re talking wind force alone. When you account for debris, both large, heavy missiles like cars and fuel tanks and so on and fine-scale debris like sand and dirt and smashed up bits of who knows what, the forces involved suddenly go up exponentially. Tornadic winds would still be extremely destructive regardless, especially for violent tornadoes, but you’d see considerably less damage if they were somehow unable to generate and loft any debris.

  20. Just a few questions. Was the tornado at peak intensity when it hit the recycling plant? How long did it maintain peak intensity for? because most EF5s only stay at peak for a few mins right? Also do u think winds could’ve exceeded 300 maybe even 350mph for brief moments at the ground based on the fact that everything was granulated into tiny pieces? Why do some researchers still think it was an F3? I’ve heard some are still bent on believing that but no F3 could granulate debris like that. Also based on the damage indicators, if its winds had been a little higher, do u think that would’ve been the point to where even foundations would’ve been scoured since it dug to depths of 18 inches? Do u reckon we could ever have a tornado even more powerful than Jarrell?

    • Re: the F3 rating, that was based on this paper.

      The only aspect of the damage that is addressed is the sweeping away of frame homes, which the authors suggest could have been done by a tornado with F3 wind speeds (keep in mind that, under the old scale, a high-end F3 would have wind speeds of ~200 mph – about the same wind speed as we now associate with EF5 damage). Their paper was less a comment about the rating of the Jarrell tornado in particular than it was a critique of the F-Scale and the associated wind speed values.

      They didn’t take any of the other context into account (extreme scouring/debris granulation, mangling of vehicles/farm equipment, pulling out of plumbing in some homes, etc) and they weren’t suggesting that the rating should actually have been F3. They simply said that the sweeping away of homes could have been accomplished by wind speed less than the 261-318 mph that was associated with an F5 rating at the time.

      • Mitch – of course we have/will have tornadoes more powerful than Jarrell. I did some rough calculations on the percentage of land area in the Great Plains covered by man-made structures, though I cannot remember my final figure, but it was something well below 0.001%. As a result, it would be an incredible coincidence if the strongest tornado of the last few decades happened to reach peak strength above a housing development. There have probably been hundreds of tornadoes in the past century capable of causing damage more intense than Jarrell at some point in their lives.

        I ditto what Shawn said regarding the “some say it was an F3” myth. Just like how some are now mistakenly saying the Joplin tornado was an F2 due to the recently published engineering study (which I think is complete non sense, no offense to the authors). Point is, surveyors look for the minimum velocity capable of causing a certain level of structural damage. But that is not to say that the true windspeed was not far higher. In a way, it’s kind of like saying that we know, for a fact, that the temperature in Antarctica is at least below 32 degrees due to the presence of glaciation. The true temperature, when measured directly, however, often falls to -90 or lower.

  21. Please respond to this one, extremeplanet. I didn’t check the “Notify me” box for the comment above this one, Do you think that it would have been survivable in a typical basement?

    • I am not sure if people would have survived in a basement. A tornado in Harper County, KS, in 2004 caused extreme home/vegetation damage yet did not kill a couple hiding in a basement that was completely exposed and partially filled with debris. On the other hand, the Jarrell tornado was probably stronger.

      My guess would be that anyone in a basement on CR 305 or Double Creek Dr. would have, at the least, been injured from the blender of dirt and debris. Further speculation, I’d guess that at least 30% of those people would have died.

  22. Just thought you should know that Shawn dug up a ton of remarkable high-quality ground level pictures from Double Creek over at Talkweather, and they are definitely worth a look. They leave no doubt in my mind that this was the most violent tornado ever documented in modern times.

  23. I watched it all from Salado and I will tell you this it was three tornadoes that formed into one and that one tornado till this day I have never been able to forget the friends I lost nor the smell of death. I helped from the time it was done till I had to leave for basic. That whole day was full of tornadoes and that should of been Salado. For those who don’t believe in dead man walking guess they weren’t there that day to watch it from the bridge that crosses over I-35 in Salado. I was there that whole day and can tell you more of it all than some CNN guy who asked me if he was in the right town and what the name of the town was. That whole day was full of tornadoes Jarrell got the worst of it all.

  24. sorry for the trouble, I would ask if it were possible to build a structure capable of withstanding, suffering little damage to an EF5 tornado, around the internet it is said that a reinforced concrete structure could really withstand an EF5 tornado with no damage, but it is the truth ?
    ps: sorry for the bad english, I’m Italian

    • It is possible to build a steel reinforced structure that could survive the force of an EF5 tornado with little structural damage. However, that is only in regards to the force of the winds. A 15,000lb tank could become a flying missile in a tornado, breaching even a highly reinforced structure.

  25. What kind of damage would a tornado of this magnitude cause to skyscrapers in a major city; say Chicago for example. I was watching the weather channel and they said 300mph winds would blow out windows in large skyscrapers but not much else would happen. I find that very hard to believe that only windows would shatter in such extreme winds.

    • No one really knows – but steel-reinforced skyscrapers would likely remain standing but suffer extreme damage – complete loss of windows and vulnerable interior walls, possible structural deformation. Huge flying objects would increase the damage and possibly breach some concrete walls. On the other hand, a few high-rise buildings have been shown to be vulnerable to collapse in hurricane force winds (Citigroup Center in New York prior to being retro-fitted) and might collapse in tornadic winds.

      Mid-size, early 19th century brick and mortar buildings between 4 and 8 stories, on the other hand, would suffer more damage – and some would surely be completely destroyed in a Jarrell-type storm.

      • Hi Max Since Im A Structural Engineer This Is Not A Question A Lay Person Should Ask You If A 300 Mph Winds Could Level A Skyscraper, I Will Answer This Yes It Is Possible Under A Direct Hit For A Skyscraper To Collapse Under A Wind Speed That High From A Tornado 300 Mph Winds Is Above Most Skyscrapers Ultimate Design Wind Speed Which Is Usually Around 220-250 Mph At Most 3 sec gusts i Have Experience In Knowing This, So under A Wind Speed Of 300 Mph Unless Its For A Very Short Duration Like 1 Or 2 Seconds Most American High Rise Buildings Would Either Partially Or Totally Collapse In A Tornado Like That Its Difficult For Any Bare Steel Frame Or Concrete Frame to Withstand A Wind Speed That High the Building Would Have To Be Extremely Stiff With Several Feet Reinforced Walls Thick Non Structural Components To Survive That Beyond Practical Design Limits So Yes Failure Would Result In A Tornado Like Jarrell But The Collapse Mechanism Will Vary From Building to Building

  26. If a EF5 tornado were to hit a densely populated area with many high rise buildings, such as New York City couldn’t those buildings channel the winds of the tornado into wind speeds in excess of 350 or even 400+ mph?

  27. Hey Max what do you think about the F4 tornado on June 15, 1990 in Hitchcock County Nebraska. It had a a path length of 28 miles and a width of a mile to a mile and.a half wide. The tornado actually grinded up farm equipment into unrecognizable fragments. I can’t find any photos of the damage but I am highly certain it would have done F5 damage.

  28. Shane – Shawn said it all. I don’t have a strong opinion on the tornado as I haven’t seen any real damage shots beyond the fragmentation close-ups, but it sounds like it was probably capable of causing E/F5 damage.

  29. I was looking at your list of heaviest objects lifted by a tornado and was curious if it’s possible for a tornado to pick up very heavy objects such as passenger airplanes or objects weighing hundreds of tons and toss them hundreds of yards? I’ve seen an EF2 tornado launch empty tractor trailers so what about a high-end EF5? I don’t think we’ve yet seen such a phenomenon take place but in a tornado as bad as Jarrell, could that sort of thing possibly happen?

    • Yes – it just depends on the shape and aerodynamics of the object. The take-off speed of a 747 is 160 – 180mph (that is with flaps partially deployed). Theoretically, that means head-on winds of 200mph with an updraft would be capable of lifting a 747. I believe all the tornadoes given EF5 ratings in the past 8 years have had winds well in excess of 200mph.

      • I remember seeing vintage film of a tornado in which you could see the headlights of cars swirling around in the funnel at least 100 feet above ground. I think it was in a tornado documentary. Have you ever seen this film, and if so where can it be found.

      • From the look of the cars, the film appeared to be from the 50’s or 60’s. It also seemed to be during the evening or night. I think it may have been part of a national geographic vhs tape from the late 90’s. I have seen this film clip at least 3 times over the years, though not recently. If I recall correctly, there are at least 5 cars swirling around iin the funnel.

  30. Looking for boy injured @ 13 y.o. named John Reyes, I visited him in the hospital and went to Ryan’s funeral. His mother Pam used to work with me at Walmart. I would very much like to visit with this young man who would now be 30 y.o.

  31. My husband is John Reyes. He was adopted after the tornado and had his name changed to Dillon Denherder. It wasn’t his cousin who passed away along with his grandmother. It was his 5 year old brother Ryan Fillmore. If you could change that detail in your article it would mean a lot to him. The email address I gave you is his. So feel to ask any questions.

  32. That was my brother that died not my cousin. I just wanted to clear that up. And there are a few inaccuracies in the story. I was up walking around and I was above ground. If you or anyone else would like to know more I remember everything that day from the time I woke up till I passed out at the hospital. You can get in contact with at djd1908@gmail. Com thanks. And have a great day.

  33. Someone uploaded video of the “Dead Man Walking” documentary from TLC, and it included a rare view of the tornado actually transitioning from its rope phase to wedge phase:
    Video should start at 10:11, when this transition takes place. Probably one of the better views of the tornado I’ve seen personally.

  34. I’ve been to Jarrell several times, but never in the Double Creek area. I cant believe something like that could happen so close to us. My dad remembers while working at HEB, a firefighter came in and started to get supplies to help out the relief effort in Jarrell. The man said that everything was gone, and my dad thought he was over exaggerating. In one of the few cases in history, “everything is gone” is very literal.

  35. Also, I have a hypothetic explanation of that ground/pavement scouring thing (pardon my English, I’m from Russia). Tornadoes don’t act like a vacuum cleaner – except cases when they do. I think in some rare cases conditions allow tornado to form a (temporary) near-perfect round pipe of condensation near surface similar to that of waterspouts. This is the time when tornado sucks everything from the ground and ground itself.

  36. According to the meteorlogical synopsis there was low wind shear, no hook echoe and the cell moved southwest. Now this tornado needs a study. Everyone studys the tuscaloosa joplin n moore tornadoes. This needs some serious investigating.

  37. I was in the Temple area that day and was part of the SAR efforts the next day. It was an event that I will never forget.

  38. If you were not in Jarrell, Tx that day you cannot imagine the devastation and the horror sufferered by that little town.. I can, because I was. And will never forget.

  39. Reblogged this on jthebergeblog and commented:
    Interesting information on a very powerful, “unsurvivable above ground” tornado. I live in “new tornado alley” and have been through a few, but none this bad. I’d like to see a weather synopsis for that day.

  40. I have uploaded new footage of this tornado on YouTube. It largely consists of the storm in its early stages, but also has a good view of the tornado after it transitioned into an F5 wedge (no footage of the transition itself, though). See it here:

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