For more than six hours Wednesday, tornadoes raced across North Texas

Posted Saturday, May. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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For Hood County Judge Darrell Cockerham, there was initially nothing remarkable about Wednesday.

He went to several meetings, worked on paperwork and did “normal things a county judge does in a county of our size.”

But as he was going through the day, something menacing was starting to churn in the atmosphere.

The conditions were coming together to form supercell thunderstorms, the most likely kind to form tornadoes.

By the end of the day, the outbreak would produce the deadliest tornado to strike the Dallas-Fort Worth area in more than 50 years. It was also the strongest twister locally in 19 years, an EF4 packing 180-mph winds.

“We got a pretty strong hint in the morning,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Jesse Moore. “Then when the skies cleared out west and it started heating up, we said ‘Uh-oh,this might be a bad day.’ The rest of the day, it just went downhill from there.”

In Hood County, the first inkling of trouble came when emergency management officials said storms were forming to the west in Erath County.

Storm spotters were activated at 5:40 p.m.

Between 7 and 8 p.m., emergency management officials activated the Code Red phone notification system, which sent out about 18,000 calls.

About 7:45 p.m., sirens sounded and residents were advised to take cover.

The tornado hit between 8 and 8:05 p.m.

Like many Granbury-area residents, Cockerham saw the funnel race over his house.

“It was up in the air,” Cockerham said. “There was large hail. I had no idea until later that it hit the ground.”

That tornado slammed into the Rancho Brazos Estates neighborhood, killing six residents and injuring dozens. Very quickly, officials realized they had a disaster on their hands.

“It hit all at once,” Cockerham said. “It went from zero to a full-blown emergency real fast. Almost at once, we had reports of fatalities and injuries.”

The rapid development of the storms was a common theme, from late Wednesday afternoon through Wednesday night.

Sixteen tornadoes were reported across North Texas between 5:38 p.m. Wednesday and 12:10 a.m. Thursday.

Though Hood County and the Cleburne area were hit hardest, residents from Montague County to Ennis saw tornadoes develop rapidly all around them.

‘Formed on top of us’

In Montague County, where three twisters developed, residents had almost no time to react as the tornadoes struck almost as soon as the storms formed.

Spotters were activated at 5 p.m., and the first report of severe weather came minutes later when baseball-size hail was reported near Ringgold, quickly followed by a tornado warning, and then sightings of tornado near Lake Nocona about 30 minutes later.

“They pretty much formed on top of us,” Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham. “We had these storms form and the tornadoes formed right with them.”

Shortly after, another struck Lake Amon G. Carter near Bowie, where five homes were damaged and the clubhouse at the Top O’ The Lake Country Club was damaged.

Despite the storms’ rapid development, Cunningham said, most residents are always keeping an eye on the weather.

“You have to be conscious of it, living in tornado alley,” he said. “You’ve got to know it can happen real fast.”

Big hail in Mineral Wells

At the same time storms were popping up to the southwest in Mineral Wells.

Just after 6 p.m., baseball- and grapefruit-size hail began forming along the southwest side of town, then moved into downtown Mineral Wells, where hailstones pelted the landmark Baker Hotel.

“It was quite a sight watching them bounce off the Baker,” Police Chief Dean Sutherland said.

Sutherland is a former Fort Worth police officer who saw the freakish Mayfest hailstorm in 1995, which injured 109 people and caused more than $1.6 billion in property damage. He said the hail in Mineral Wells, which also knocked out the skylights at the local Wal-Mart, was more sporadic than the Fort Worth hailstorm. But it still smashed through windows of cars and left many homes needing new roofs.

“We are inundated with roofers right now,” Sutherland said.

The National Weather Service reported that an EF0 tornado, the weakest category, touched down briefly at 6:41 p.m. 3.5 miles south-southeast of Mineral Wells, but the storm was intensifying as it headed east.

‘We dodged a bullet’

At 7:15 p.m., spotters reported a tornado near Millsap in Parker County where five homes had significant damage.

In rapid succession, spotters reported seeing a tornado near Millsap, and a funnel cloud was seen near a truck stop near Weatherford, along Interstate 20.

At 7:22 p.m., another tornado briefly touched down 3 miles east of Millsap, but no damage was reported. Another tornado was reported west of the town of Annetta South in eastern Parker County, where damage was reported along Tin Top Road.

Even though Parker County had three twisters and other reports of funnel clouds, it avoided the severe damage its neighboring counties would sustain.

“We dodged a bullet,” Parker County spokesman Joel Kertok said Thursday.

To the north in Wise County, a tornado was spotted near Alvord around 8 p.m., but no damage was reported.

At this point, residents in Benbook and far west Fort Worth were getting nervous as the Parker County storm appeared headed their way with hail and the threat of tornadoes.

Social media was breathlessly giving updates on Twitter —with tweets like ‘take cover now!’ — and storm sirens were sounding. TV stations were breaking into broadcasts to report on the approaching storms.

But as other cells intensified all over North Texas, the one headed to Fort Worth moved south across Lake Benbrook and weakened.

EF4 in Granbury

Hood and Johnson counties weren’t as fortunate.

This storm, which formed in Erath County, was only getting stronger as it moved toward Granbury.

Shortly before 8 p.m., baseball-size hail was reported in Granbury. Within 10 minutes, a tornado warning was issued, followed quickly by a report of a tornado on the ground.

The twister, an EF4-category tornado, with winds between 166 and 200 mph, stayed on the ground for 2.75 miles. It was the strongest tornado to hit Dallas-Fort Worth in 19 years, and it dropped down on the Rancho Brazos Estates neighborhood, leveling homes and killing six people.

Scott Followill was in his home in Rancho Brazos when the sirens blared. He, his sister and niece ran for cover.

“When the tornado hit we were in our bathroom with the mattress over us,” Followill said.

As soon as the storm passed, they were evacuated because of concerns about gas leaks.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” Followill said. “It’s going to stick with me the rest of my life.”

Amanda Hernandez also took cover with her three children in a closet as the tornado struck.

“It seemed like it lasted for an hour,” Hernandez said as two children sat in silence while her 11-year-old daughter cried out, “Please, God! Please, God!”

When it was over she no longer recognized her neighborhood.

“You could see across where houses were supposed to be,” Hernandez said Thursday. “Lots of people were bleeding. Some of them were hurt pretty bad.”

Given the power of the tornado, Red Cross volunteer Ray Fishercord said it, was remarkable that the death toll wasn’t higher.

“The good Lord was busy last night,” Fishercord said. “Most of the homes had people in them when the tornado hit, and most of the people said they couldn’t believe what happened.”

Survey crews also found damage from a separate tornado near Pecan Plantation.

But the storm wasn’t finished wrecking havoc.

Raking across Cleburne

In a few minutes, it weakened, then began strengthening again as it lumbered toward Cleburne.

Though radio and social media warned of a “mile-wide” funnel cloud rumbling toward Cleburne, it wasn’t quite that large but “it was close,” weather service meteorologist Mark Fox said, as it headed toward Lake Pat Cleburne.

“Power flashes” were seen on the south side of Cleburne and 80 mph winds were reported. At 8:43 p.m., the weather service tweeted that strong circulaton was moving across U.S. 67, southwest of Cleburne.

The storm tracked northeast across Lake Cleburne, where some homes were flattened.

“A couple families were trapped in their homes,” Mayor Scott Cain said.

They were rescued, but first responders kept looking through the night.

On Thursday, Emaleigh Brooks, 9, a second-grader at Gerard Elementary School, stood in a field beside her school, which had roof and brick damage, shattered windows and blown-out doors.

“This is awful,” she said with a quavering voice. “I’ve just never seen anything so bad.”

The weather service classified the Cleburne tornado as an EF3, with 140-mph winds. It stayed on the ground 8.5 miles with a path 1,060 yards wide. Another tornado with 85-mph winds touched down southeast of Cleburne, damaging the roofs of five mobile homes.

While Cleburne was getting hit, tornadoes were also striking in Hamilton and Mills counties, where minimal damage was reported

The final twister in Ennis

The strong storms would continue to push east into early Thursday.

At 12:10 a.m,, the last tornado in the outbreak damaged buildings in Ennis. The EF1 twister, with 90-mph winds, stayed on the ground 6 miles, leaving 17 homes damaged and four uninhabitable. The tornado also damaged 55 commercial properties, 20 of them severely.

One of the hardest-hit areas was downtown Ennis, where the awning of Keith Jantz’s century-old building collapsed and the roof sustained damage.

The building, which once sold Model T’s, housed a furniture store and a health food store in addition to Jantz’s office. It is awaiting a structural engineer’s report to determine whether it is structurally sound. Jantz said other downtown businesses are also still assessing the extent of the damage.

“I’m not sure there’s enough of a portrait yet to tell yet what’s going to happen,” Jantz said. “There’s a good outcome and then there’s a not-so good outcome. I think a lot of people around here just aren’t there yet.”

For forecasters, Wednesday’s storms were an anomaly in an unusually quiet spring.

“It was our first tornado of the season,” Moore said. “We just happened to get 16 of them.”

But Moore said these outbreaks aren’t that out of the ordinary. In April last year, 17 tornadoes touched down across North and Central Texas, some causing heavy damage in Arlington and Kennedale.

What was unusual was that so many tornadoes were clustered into a relatively small area. Often tornado outbreaks can happen over wide areas, like several Midwestern states or across the southeastern U.S. That wasn’t the case this time.

“Things just happened right across North Central Texas,” Moore said. “We had to bear the brunt of these storms. … It was all concentrated into a fairly tight area.”

Staff writer Diane Smith contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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