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 / flickr.com)

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.

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

  1. I have uploaded new footage of this tornado on YouTube. It largely consists of the storm in its rope stage not long after touchdown, but also has a good shot of it after its transition into a F5 wedge (no video of the transition itself, though). View it here:

    • My God! That is one of the best tornado videos I have ever seen! A jaw dropping rope expertly filmed!

    • This is really good footage of how the actual winds of the tornado are much larger than the visible funnel that you see. You can tell once it starts picking up dirt that it’s probably twice as big as it appears.

      That’s what can get chasers in trouble because you may already be within the tornado before you realize ti’s time to go.

      Amazing video though.

  2. I know first hand how devastating that tornado was!! You see that day I lost my only sister, Cindy Moehring her husband Keith, and my two nephews Erik 16, and Ryan 15!! It is a day I will never forget!!

    • I’m so sorry to hear that, Kelly. Yes I’ve heard of your sister’s family and I believe the Ruiz brothers were with them. I believe Keith worked for Blue Bell. I’m here in Houston 5 counties away. My prayers and thoughts are with you and your family.

  3. Extremeplanet: I have seen that in some of your damage overviews you would estimate a wind-speed for the particular EF-5 you are discussing, based on the damage severity. Would you be interested in estimating the wind speed be for the Jarrell Tornado?

    • It’s a bit harder to estimate the winds because of the tornado’s slow speed, but I’d say 280-300mph in peak gusts – probably occurring within internal vortices that rotated rapidly within the larger funnel and continued grinding over the same areas. I’d say some EF5s like the 2011 Smithville and Phil Campbell tornadoes may have had higher peak gusts (300-310mph+), but the most extreme winds would have lasted only a couple seconds.

      • Thanks for the reply, and the estimation. I was wondering, given the total annihilation the Jarrell Tornado brought, if the tornado had winds any stronger, (like lets say 400mph) would we be able to tell?

      • I’m sure winds do reach 400mph, but on a small and brief scale – like for 0.2 seconds on the side of a fast moving, rapidly rotating vortice in a Smithville/Jarrell-type tornado. Instantaneous gusts, according to some models, could reach the speed of sound (at least according to a sidebar (not included) that accompanied this article in the original magazine edition (I still own a copy).

      • ExtremePlanet, would 400 mph winds for just 0.2 seconds be enough time to cause extreme damage though? I believe you may have mentioned in a comment on here somewhere that winds of this magnitude would shatter reinforced buildings.

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