Photo of Moore, Okla. tornado. courtesy of CNN
By Carolyn Poirot
Special to the Business Press
Pictures and video of the devastating tornado that tore through Moore, Okla. May 20 could not help but spark vivid memories of the “Terrible Tuesday” monster that killed 42 people, injured 1,800 and left 20,000 homeless in Wichita Falls, April 10, 1979. Aftermath of the storms looked exactly the same – mile after mile of complete and total destruction – thousands of slabs of cement where homes and schools and churches and businesses once stood, huge old trees torn up by their roots, twisted and mangled metal that was once cars and trucks and street signs, piles of broken glass. Flying low over the neighborhood where I grew up, I strained to see anything that might tell me where we were early on the morning after that 1979 storm. I was supposed to be acting as “tour guide” for the team of Star-Telegram reporters and photographers dispatched to Wichita Falls in a four-passenger prop plane that morning. I had lived in Fort Worth less than three months – not long enough to make the A-team covering the biggest news story most of us would ever encounter close up and personal. But, I had grown up in Wichita Falls, worked at the Wichita Falls Times and Record News for nine years before moving to Fort Worth and knew the territory as well as most of the people in charge of civil defense, city management, police and fire departments, public works, schools, churches and hospitals. All of that proved valuable over the next few days, but in the first few minutes, I could not locate a single landmark. I had no idea what to tell the pilot when he asked me which direction to turn to get to Kickapoo Airport, where I had suggested landing because it was on the southwest side of town – where the tornado had just torn a mile-wide, eight-mile long path of destruction – and I could “easily find it” because the small municipal airport was only about a mile from the house where I lived the first 17 years of my life. It took awhile to easily find it. All that is to say that really destructive tornados all look alike the morning after. But, I have always been fascinated by them. I watched the 1964 Wichita Falls tornado with my brother from the roof of the house where we grew up – until we heard our mother frantically calling our names and demanding that we come down and get inside. That tornado killed seven and injured 100. My father drove us out to Sheppard Air Force Base the next day to see the destruction, which included the base’s old hospital, torn to pieces only days after the last patients were moved to the new hospital. And, I was driving down West Seventh into downtown Fort Worth less than an hour after the March 28, 2000 tornado that did $450 million damage, destroying many smaller buildings and blowing all the windows out of the Cash America Building, Bank One and Mallick Tower, where the Fort Worth Business Press is now located. No one was surprised when I volunteered for a big “storm chasing” story later that spring. Carolyn Bauman, a wonderful photographer who, like me, now does freelance work for the Business Press, and I followed Mike Foster, then a meteorologist in the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth office and his daughter, Erin, then 17, some 3,221 miles in pursuit of “the perfect storm.” We trailed the weatherman and his daughter through the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. We learned what wall clouds looked like and which ones were most likely to produce hail. We saw menacing green skies and dark clouds a dozen shades of grey. We heard warning sirens in several small towns, drove through several hail storms and saw several funnel clouds, but none that touched down to become full-fledged tornadoes. We didn’t find the perfect storm, but we found some good advice from a couple of storm experts: • Always pay attention to tornado and other severe storm watches. Once a watch is issued, stay tuned for a warning. • Always heed severe storm warnings. • Have a designated place to go when a warning is issued – preferably a cellar or basement or an inside closet or bathroom with no windows. I remember seeing hundreds of bathtubs intact, some with pillows and mattresses piled inside, most in houses with nothing else left, after the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado. I arrived home just before 6 p.m. March 28, 2000 to find my then 13-year-old daughter in our basement with her ski helmet buckled on, an armful of Beanie Babies and our dog, a smelly Beagle that usually stayed outside. I waited out another storm with a transistor radio and four bed pillows in the closet of a small upstairs apartment. (Big mistake. If you live above ground level, you should know your downstairs neighbors well enough to pile in their closet or basement or storm shelter.) While storm chasing, we made note of all the lowest-lying areas and ditches on the sides of the roads – just in case. (You don’t want to be in a vehicle or on the ground under an overpass when you realize you can’t outrun a tornado.) The point is, every family should have a plan – discuss the safest spot in your home and at work, and at school, and make sure children and teachers – and neighbors if your safe place is big enough to share – know the plan.
In Market is a column written from the perspective of a plugged-in business journalist about business happenings in and around Tarrant County. Got an idea for In Market? Robert Francis can be reached at email@example.com.