Experts discuss lesson from D-FW tornadoes of 2000

FORT WORTH -- Weather watchers and emergency planners in North Texas learned plenty of lessons from the tornadoes 10 years ago that gouged destructive paths through downtown Fort Worth and southeast Arlington.

And at least one of those lessons may have saved lives elsewhere, Mike Foster, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla., said Wednesday.

Foster was among several speakers at a symposium organized for the 10th anniversary of the tornadoes that struck Tarrant County on March 28, 2000. Five people were killed, and damage was estimated at $450 million. Foster was then the science operations officer at the weather service's Fort Worth office.

It had been rare for a major urban area to take a direct hit from a tornado.

"My experience here left me feeling frustrated that people were caught downtown," Foster said. "I thought a lot afterward that, if I had another opportunity like that, could I go early with a tornado warning -- with fewer direct indications from radar and storm spotters?"

Forecasters had scant warning that the downtown tornado was developing. At 6:05 p.m., they suddenly noticed on radar how wind signatures were converging at the base of a storm, suggesting a funnel cloud's birth.

They issued a tornado warning five minutes later, but 10 minutes after that, the tornado was headed toward downtown.

Another funnel cloud was sighted west of Arlington. It touched down near Cooper Street just south of Interstate 20 and moved east. It inflicted damage to neighborhoods and the Arlington Municipal Airport before falling apart in Grand Prairie.

Later, Foster was reassigned to the Oklahoma City area. In May 2003, he was monitoring a storm system and saw signs similar to what he saw in Fort Worth in 2000.

He said he decided not to wait for radar confirmation and issued a tornado warning at 4:30 p.m. A twister popped up about 40 minutes later, but even though it was rush hour, the roads were clear because of the warning. "There were no injuries or fatalities along its path," he said. "If we had waited for typical radar signatures, it would have been too late."

Importance of early warnings

About 80 people -- many of them emergency management coordinators -- attended the daylong symposium at Texas Christian University.

Mayors Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth and Robert Cluck of Arlington urged people at the symposium to use early warning technology and social networking Web sites to help people prepare and respond to weather threats.

The discussions were timely, considering that forecasters are already predicting that North Texas may be in for an active storm season because of a wetter-than-usual winter and a jet stream draped over the Southern Plains.

BILL MILLER, 817-390-7684