The event developed in an environment typically associated with severe weather. Strong southerly winds brought warm, moist air into the region from the Gulf of Mexico. A vigorous upper level disturbance moved across the area during the late afternoon hours, when surface heating was maximized. A surface low-pressure area developed over western Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle. The airmass over north Texas became more unstable as the day progressed, suggesting that any storms that developed may become severe. The winds in the lowest 10,000 feet of the atmosphere showed a profile that was favorable for rotating thunderstorms known as supercells.
The staff at the Fort Worth forecast office quickly recognized the potential for severe weather to occur on March 28. The early morning forecast products mentioned the possibility of severe thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening. A Hazardous Weather Outlook issued in the predawn hours discussed the potential of 'explosive thunderstorm development' that afternoon.
Throughout the morning, the office issued updated forecasts and statements, which continued to emphasize the severe weather threat. In the mid afternoon, an updated Hazardous Weather Outlook stated that the 'threat of a few tornadoes will spread across the area through mid evening'. The Storm Prediction Center issued a Tornado Watch for much of north Texas from 3:30 PM until 10:00 PM.
As predicted, thunderstorms developed during the afternoon to the west of the Fort Worth metropolitan area. The Fort Worth forecast office issued Short Term Forecasts to describe the location and movement of the developing storms. Once a storm or storms became severe...or tornadic... the office issued warnings and additional statements focusing on those threatened areas.
The forecasters monitored the storm that eventually struck Fort Worth for about an hour as it approached from the west. The storm was severe as it moved through the counties to the west of Tarrant County, and was 'covered' by a Severe Thunderstorm Warning and frequent Severe Weather Statements. The storm was being investigated by storm spotter groups and probed by the Doppler weather radar in Fort Worth. As the storm approached Fort Worth, the warning forecaster noted some changes in the wind flow around the storm. The radar system's computer programs had not suggested a tornado was forming, but the forecaster observed rotation in the storm's mid levels along with winds converging, or coming together, near the base of the storm.
Using analysis and experience, the forecaster felt that a tornado was starting to form, and issued a Tornado Warning for Tarrant County at 6:10 PM.
Once the warning was issued, the local media outlets quickly broadcast it to their viewing or listening audiences. The local Emergency Managers activated the city's warning sirens and cable override system. As the storm moved across western sections of Fort Worth, video from storm spotters and citizens showed the initial tornadic circulation developing about 6:18 PM.
The tornado became well defined about 6:22 PM, and that is when the first significant damage occurred (just west of downtown Fort Worth). The tornado moved into downtown Fort Worth about 6:26 PM, with debris doing considerable damage to glass enclosed skyscrapers.
Spotter reports poured into the office as the tornado tracked across. The forecast office issued a series of Severe Weather Statements following the 6:10 Tornado Warning. Statements were issued at 6:18, 6:28, 6:37, with an updated Tornado Warning at 6:40 PM. Each of these products provided updated information on the tornado, and highlighted areas, which would be threatened by the tornado in the next several minutes. The storm was also producing extremely heavy rainfall over central and eastern portions of the city. In response, the forecast office issued a Flash Flood Warning for Tarrant County at 6:43 PM. Each of these statements was quickly broadcast by the media and relayed to the local Emergency Management Agencies.
The Fort Worth tornado lifted just east of the downtown area. As the storm moved across eastern Tarrant County, another circulation developed to the south of the Fort Worth storm. The new circulation produced a tornado, which struck southeastern Arlington and western Grand Prairie between 7:00 and 7:15 PM. The information flow from the Fort Worth forecast office continued, with a Severe Weather Statement issued at 7:05 PM and a new Tornado Warning for Dallas County at 7:07 PM as the storm moved toward Grand Prairie.
The success of the services provided by the Fort Worth forecast office can be measured by comparing the loss of life with the magnitude of the damage. The subsequent state disaster declaration request cited 171 homes destroyed, and 1500 damaged. Six high-rise commercial buildings in and adjacent to downtown Fort Worth suffered extensive damage. The damage to two of these buildings is so severe that they may have to be torn down. The Southwestern Insurance Information Service estimated storm damage at $450 million. Cleanup efforts have cost the cities another $8 million.
In spite of this destruction, only five lives were lost. Of those, only two were a direct result of the tornado. One person was critically injured by softball size hail, and died approximately 36 hours later. Two people drowned in flash flooding at roughly 7:15 PM, approximately 30 minutes after the Flash Flood Warning had been issued. Miraculously, despite the wind driven fragments of thousands of large glass windows blown out of downtown buildings, only about 150 people were injured.
Clearly, the Tarrant County tornadoes were an example of the warning system performing as it should. Emergency Managers activated and staffed their offices. Spotters provided visual observations and ground-truth reports as the storms moved through. The forecast office issued timely warnings and follow-up statements. Local officials activated sirens and cable override systems. The media relayed warnings and statements as they were issued. People took appropriate action to protect themselves. Later, people would say Fort Worth was lucky. In many respects, though, many people contributed to the warning system - which helped result in Fort Worth's 'good luck'.
The story of the detection, warning and response efforts in the tornado that struck downtown Fort Worth is indeed a success story - a story of clear and timely communications, as well as a story of preplanned and effective cooperation. With advances in technology and training, the United States National Weather Service indeed leads the world in its severe weather prediction and tracking capabilities. Emergency management has benefited from these enhanced capabilities, and has in its own right made tremendous progress in the ability to not just respond to but prepare for such emergencies. Together, these teams of dedicated professionals help to make America an increasingly disaster-resistant nation!
Gary Woodall is the Warning Coordination and External Affairs Meteorologist for the National Weather Service's (NWS) Southern Region Headquarters in Fort Worth. He oversees the hazardous weather warning, preparedness, coordination, and education programs for the 31 forecast offices in the Southern Region. Gary also oversees the public awareness, education, and community outreach programs at the headquarters as well as at the forecast offices. He has worked for the NWS since completing his M.S. program, and has been stationed at the NWS offices in Midland and Lubbock before moving to Fort Worth.
Gifford (Skip) Ely has been the Meteorologist In Charge of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Fort Worth since 1983. He graduated from Florida State University in 1965, and subsequently served four years in the U.S. Navy. His National Weather Service duty stations include Tallahassee, Florida; Jacksonville, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi; and San Antonio, Texas. He is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association.