FORT WORTH -- Heaven was seemingly raining money, with dozens of reports of "nickels," "dimes," "quarters" and "half dollars" falling from the sky.
The hail scale also tallied numerous reports of golf-ball-size chunks of ice as an "unprecedented" outbreak of severe storms spawned at least nine tornadoes Tuesday night in Texas.
Inside the National Weather Service's Fort Worth office, near Northeast Loop 820 and North Beach Street, it was a "once-in-a-decade event" for a team of meteorologists who tracked the swarm of storms that started just south of Fort Worth and stretched to Waco and into East Texas.
"I've been here 10 years this summer, and I've never seen more tornadic storms at one time," said meteorologist-in-charge Bill Bunting, as he watched four angry red blobs march across his radar monitors at 6 p.m., about two hours after the storms blew up.
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"It's going to be a long evening. A lot of roofers will be happy tomorrow," said Bunting, who filed hundreds of messages over the course of the night on an Internet chat group for emergency managers, storm spotters and TV meteorologists.
Bunting was one of five meteorologists on their sixth straight night of extended duty, tracking severe storms across the 46 counties they monitor.
The strongest tornado, with 90- to 100-mph winds, damaged about 100 structures in Van Zandt County and seriously injured one woman, Bunting said Wednesday afternoon after surveying the damage.
"It's amazing no one was killed. It was on the ground for about five miles at one point. A church where about 25 people had taken shelter was damaged, but no one was injured," he said. "Everyone we talked to knew it was coming and knew what to do. The warning system worked."
The storms were generated by extreme atmospheric instability created by the convergence of overriding cold air aloft and a stationary cold front that intersected with the dry line, the divide between dry air from the deserts of Mexico and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, meteorologist Dan Shoemaker said.
How bad was it?
"This has to be serious -- they are delaying Glee," Shoemaker deadpanned at 7 p.m. as some local TV stations stuck with the storms and pre-empted prime-time viewing.
In all seriousness, he said, it "was the perfect storm for Texas. I've never seen anything like it."
The scene in the weather service office resembled a busy air traffic control center or a newsroom on deadline -- not enough time and too much information.
Meteorologists gathered around a central desk equipped with 21 computer monitors and multiple laptops. On the walls around them, giant TVs displayed the latest images gathered by helicopter news crews and citizen journalists who snagged photos and videos of hail, wall clouds and tornadoes.
Meteorologists Nick Hampshire and Ted Ryan were intently monitoring three-dimensional pictures painted by radar and looking for features that indicate severe weather like large hail, damaging winds and tornadoes. All the while, they were updating and extending watches and warnings.
"Those video games are paying off," Shoemaker said. "You don't learn those radar skills in college."
Alongside them, meteorologist Greg Patrick was writing updated statements that followed the rapid progression of the storms.
"To excel as a meteorologist, you have to be intelligent, but you also have to be able to make instant decisions," Bunting said. "The trick is knowing when to worry."
Three other meteorologists were lending a hand and producing the office's daily load of two seven-day forecasts, eight aviation forecasts and two fire weather packages, as well as updating the office's website and Facebook page.
Working with the meteorologists were five volunteer radio operators communicating with an estimated 100 storm spotters in search of "ground truth," said Mike Heskett, a Skywarn Radio operator.
By 10 p.m., the meteorologists had compiled more warnings and updates than a clipboard could handle.
With about 7.5 million people in the office's territory, "our highest priority is issuing warnings to save lives," said Bunting, who noted that a shift of 40 miles could have landed the storms in the middle of the Metroplex.
Over more than six hours, the weather team veered off point only for a moment, when Shoemaker got a call announcing the birth of another grandchild.
Coincidentally, Hampshire's wife is expecting May 8, and the wives of two other meteorologists had babies last week.
"Nine months ago, the weather must have been pretty benign," Shoemaker said with a laugh.
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981