Report names Tarrant County hail capital of Texas

FORT WORTH -- Minutes after the storm ended, Pete Geren and his family crawled out of their battered station wagon and began walking across a now-eerie landscape of white, enveloped by the suddenly steamy air.

The Gerens and thousands of other people were in Trinity Park for the annual Mayfest celebration on that afternoon in May 1995 when they were caught outside by a fast-developing, and devastating, hailstorm.

"It was like something out of a science fiction movie," Geren remembered Tuesday. "We started seeing people coming out from behind trees. We saw some bloody faces. It looked like people were coming out from some kind of explosion."

The Mayfest storm injured 109, by far the most ever during a single-day hail event in Texas. To this day, it remains the most expensive hailstorm in the state, causing $1.6 billion in property damage.

It is the storm most often referenced when discussion turns to the weather's destructive force in Tarrant County. But it is hardly the only tale of nature's fury.

Since 1955, Tarrant County spotters have recorded 800 hail events, more than any other county in Texas, according to a recently released report by the Insurance Council of Texas.

In one case, a widespread weather event on May 24, 2011, Tarrant reported 32 different hail events in a little more than five hours, with some spotters describing hail as large as 3 1/2 inches.

No. 2 on the list was Randall County, near Amarillo, with 680 hail events, according to the report, which is based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data and will be presented at next week's War on Hail Conference in Irving.

Most of the hail events, of course, occurred in the spring, with April the worst month. October, however, came in fifth, with 54 hail events in Tarrant County over the years.

Of those 800 hail sightings in Tarrant County, 518 reported hail measuring 1 inch or more, with 10 reporting hail 4 inches or larger. A hail event is defined as a report made by a spotter to the National Weather Service. The NOAA data includes several events recorded on the same day.

The Insurance Council's report offers an interesting profile of the power of nature, but state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon cautions that it doesn't provide an accurate comparison of hail events among counties.

It "would be a great resource for somebody looking to set up a dent repair business," he said. But "hailstorms produce hail whether or not someone is around to observe it, so this map by itself would overestimate the risk in urban areas compared to rural areas."

For example, lightly populated Kenedy County in South Texas reported only 57 hail events during the same time period, the fewest in the state.

Terror at Trinity Park

The Mayfest storm, which produced softball-sized hail, taught Geren a healthy respect for the sudden and destructive power of a hailstorm.

"The sky turned an unusual color, the wind started picking up, but there was no sense that something that extraordinary was about to happen," said Geren, a former congressman and secretary of the Army who is now president and chief executive of the Sid Richardson Foundation in Fort Worth.

As the hail pounded Trinity Park, Geren and his family took shelter in a relative's station wagon. The hail broke out side windows, turned the windshield to mush and caused the roof to sag.

It was a similar story across much of the county, where vehicles sitting out in the open were damaged or destroyed, skylights were knocked out, and thousands of roofs were damaged beyond repair.

"The noise was so loud, you had to shout to be heard," Geren said. "It knocked the two rear-view mirrors off, and they were dangling from the wires. I remember, as the roof started to bow, my wife asked if the roof was going to cave in. I said 'No. It's not.' And she replied: 'How do you know?' "

The roof did survive, Geren said.

An expensive day

Dallas County, which reported 550 hail events, received the most recent reminder of hail's powerful punch.

A June 13 storm caused $1.2 billion in property damage, making it the second-costliest hailstorm in Texas history.

Resident John Council said his east Dallas home sustained $24,000 in damage from that storm, which shattered 55 windows, pounded his roof and even hit a car beneath a carport.

"I've been through five or six hailstorms in my life, but I had never seen that happen before," said Council, a former Star-Telegram reporter. "These are vertical windows. Giant hailstones are coming through them. All you can do is back up because you're concerned you're going to get cut by glass. It was really scary. It happened really quick."

Dan Huckaby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth, said the number of hailstorms isn't as important as the amount of damage, noting that Dallas has seen as much property damage through the years as Tarrant County.

"Unfortunately, there's really no way to prevent hail from impacting your home or business, but the National Weather Service emphasizes preparedness," Huckaby said.

Preparing for hailstorms will be one of the topics discussed at the Texas Department of Insurance's War on Hail Conference, which is Nov. 27 at the Irving Convention Center.

At that meeting, experts in engineering, construction and insurance will discuss ways to prepare or protect property.

"Oftentimes, the focus of severe weather in Texas is on hurricanes or tornadoes, but hailstorms cause the bulk of the damage to vehicles, homes and businesses in our state," said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council. "The data shows that every county has experienced hailstorms, and the statewide average is just under three hailstorms a year."

Body shops stay busy

Regardless of where the storms happen in the Metroplex, they can have a regional impact.

Ronda White, co-owner of Perfection Auto Body in Haltom City, said Tarrant County residents who work in Dallas are still bringing in their vehicles from the June 13 storm.

"They've been waiting so they can afford the deductible," White said. "A lot of when they get fixed has to do with the economy."

She can tell that Tarrant County tops the list for hailstorm events simply by seeing what drives into her body shop.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

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