Fort Worth

20 years after Mayfest hailstorm, grand weather greets festival

Diane Williams paints a butterfly for Lily Velasquez, 4, of Saginaw on the first day of Mayfest on Thursday. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Mayfest hailstorm.
Diane Williams paints a butterfly for Lily Velasquez, 4, of Saginaw on the first day of Mayfest on Thursday. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Mayfest hailstorm. Star-Telegram

Just days after tornadoes, hail and flooding hammered areas south and southwest of Fort Worth, Mayfest is being greeted with sun-drenched skies and near-perfect temperatures.

That’s dramatically different from 20 years ago, when a storm pummeled the annual festival on the Trinity River with softball-size hail before producing deadly flash floods as it moved to Dallas.

The Insurance Council of Texas said the May 5, 1995, storm had insured losses of $1.1 billion, making it the fourth-costliest weather-related event in Texas history. The top three were all hurricanes or tropical storms.

By comparison, Sunday’s supercell outbreak, which produced 11 tornadoes and widespread hail and flooding, is expected to result in $65 million in losses from automobiles alone, according to the insurance council. Insured losses from damaged homes and businesses are expected to be even higher.

“It was a very similar storm to the Mayfest storm,” said Mark Hanna, a spokesman with the council, an industry trade association. “It didn’t hit a metropolitan area, but anybody in the line of that storm will tell you it was a major event.”

The 11 tornadoes were all measured as EF-0s, with top wind speeds of 85 mph. Most of the damage was in and around Rio Vista in Johnson County, where five tornadoes were confirmed. Hail, some of it softball-size, was reported in a 100-mile stretch from Rising Star in Eastland County to Cleburne.

“What I’ve learned is the Dallas-Fort Worth area tends to get hit with repeated hailstorms,” Hanna said. “North Texas is not the only area prone to hailstorms. Almost the entire state has seen hail during the month of April.”

Prepared for bad weather

While Mayfest appears headed for four days of great weather, officials say they learned from 1995.

“We have a pretty comprehensive emergency plan,” Mayfest spokeswoman Carrie Cappel said. “We can empty the park in 30 to 40 minutes.”

If a storm develops too quickly, festgoers can be sheltered at Will Rogers Memorial Center, across the street from Trinity Park.

In 2012, Mayfest closed early on Friday as storms approached.

“We were monitoring it all day,” Cappel said. “We cleared the park, and it still looked beautiful. We had people asking, ‘Why are you clearing the park?’ About an hour later, it started storming.”

Jason Dunn, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, said forecasting technology has improved dramatically since 1995. When the Mayfest storm hit, Doppler radar was still relatively new.

Twitter and weather apps were still more than 10 years away.

“I would say the biggest thing that has changed since 1995 is our ability to communicate better with our emergency managers and partners who oversee large crowds of people,” Dunn said. “We now have the ability to instantly communicate with them.”

While tornadoes get most of the attention, far more people are likely to feel the impact of hail.

“Anytime we get springtime thunderstorms, hail is the main threat,” Dunn said.

That threat tends to diminish during summer, but Dunn noted that the June 2012 hailstorm in Dallas was nearly as bad as what hit Mayfest.

Riding out the ’95 storm

Pete Geren, now president and CEO of the Sid Richardson Foundation, had taken his family to Mayfest when the hailstorm struck 20 years ago.

“Before the storm actually hit, the skies turned to a blue-green,” Geren said. “It was an eerie feeling and look to the skies. Like everybody else, we waited too late to try and leave.”

But they were fortunate. He and his wife — with their daughters and about six other children — crammed into a station wagon belonging to Geren’s brother-in-law.

“The noise inside that station wagon was incredible,” Geren said. “There were huge softball-size hail balls hitting the roof. That station wagon had chrome rearview mirrors, and the hail balls knocked each of them off.”

As the pounding continued, Geren said, there were concerns about whether the car would survive.

“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?’” Geren said.

The roof did hold, and the carload of kids was unharmed. Others weren’t as fortunate: 109 people were injured during the storm.

The storm has had a profound effect on Geren’s oldest daughter, Tracy, who now lives in Lake Worth. By age 15, she had lived through the hailstorm, the 2000 Fort Worth tornado and a hurricane in Washington, D.C.

“If there’s a bad storm or threatening weather, she’s quick to call and talk about it,” Geren said.

Geren plans to be back out at Mayfest this weekend with his granddaughter. But he said he now pays closer attention to springtime storms.

“If it hadn’t been for our brother-in-law’s station wagon, I’m not sure where we would have tucked our children,” Geren said. “It’s given me a much greater respect for the potential of a storm. I remember it well and think about it often.”

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698

Twitter: @fwhanna

If you go

Mayfest continues through Sunday at Trinity Park off University Drive and Interstate 30 in Fort Worth.

▪ Hours: 3:30-10 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday

▪ Tickets: $8 for ages 13 and over; $5 for ages 3-12 and seniors 60 and older; free for 2 and under

▪ Military: Free for active or retired military personnel, veterans with ID, dependents and up to five relatives

▪ Friends-family pass (for five people): $25

▪ Parking: $10 per car at Farrington Field, 1501 N. University Drive; free at LaGrave Field, Sixth and Calhoun streets, with shuttle buses to the Mayfest site

▪ www.mayfest.org

5 costliest storms in Texas

1. $12 billion*: Hurricane Ike, Sept. 13, 2008, Galveston Island

2. $3.5 billion: Tropical Storm Allison, June 8, 2001, Houston

3. $2.8 billion: Hurricane Rita, Sept. 24, 2005, Sabine Pass

4. $1.1 billion: hailstorm, May 5, 1995, North Texas

5. $890 million: hailstorm, June 13, 2012, North Texas

* Insured losses. Actual dollars.

Source: Insurance Council of Texas

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