What if the U.S.’s largest tornado hit Arlington, TX?
A major tornado touches down in the heart of Arlington.
It’s like nothing that has struck Tarrant County before.
In this worst-case scenario, an EF-5 tornado like the one that struck El Reno, Okla., in 2013 would have 94,500 people and buildings worth more than $4 billion in its path.
Yet storm experts say a major tornado, maybe not as bad as this one, will eventually come our way.
“The idea is we’re not going to be able to dodge it forever,” said Scott Rae, a former research associate and IT manager with the North Texas Council of Governments who has put together various “what if” scenarios with the National Weather Service.
An EF-5 is a rare creature. El Reno was the last one to strike in the United States.
There’s never been an EF-5 touching down in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the modern era of weather records dating back to 1950 — yet some storm experts think it’s inevitable.
“Folks, wake up! DFW is within the highest risk area for violent class tornadoes in the entire world!” said Martin Lisius, a storm chaser, filmmaker and executive director of the Texas Severe Storms Association in an email. “It’s just a matter of time and it won’t just happen once. It’s part of our normal climate and will be here for a long time.”
While people think of Oklahoma as the primary spot for these storms, Texas A&M State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said they can also happen in DFW.
“Certainly Dallas-Fort Worth is eligible to receive one at some point as well as North Central Texas in general,” Nielsen-Gammon said.
It’s also important to remember that it doesn’t take an EF-5 to be a killer storm.
The deadly March 4 tornado that struck Lee County, Alabama, and killed at least 23, was an EF-4.
Tarrant County has never had an EF-4 but Parker, Hood, Johnson and Ellis have all had one. In fact, Tarrant has had only four EF-3 tornadoes.
Dallas County has had two, including the Dec. 26, 2015, tornado that struck Sunnyvale, Garland and Rowlett, killing 10 people. The monster April 10, 1979, tornado that struck Wichita Falls was also an EF-4 and killed 42 with 25 of those deaths vehicle-related.
As devastating as some of the DFW tornadoes have been, they have been on the ground for a relatively short time.
The March 28, 2000, Fort Worth tornado that hit the Montgomery Ward Building (now Montgomery Plaza) then slammed into the Bank One Building (which was later reborn as The Tower) was only on the ground for half of a mile. The El Reno Tornado stayed on the ground for 29 miles and the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado stayed on the ground for 46 miles.
Jennifer Dunn, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth, has been spending the last few months driving around North Texas conducting SkyWarn classes to get ready for the spring storm season.
She doesn’t agree with the notion that DFW is “overdue” for a major tornado but said everyone should pay attention as severe storm season ramps up.
The private weather company, Accuweather, has said four states, including Texas, could face a higher risk for tornadoes this year.
Dunn said it is impossible to predict tornadoes on a long-range basis, and Nielsen-Gammon said there’s data that suggest tornadoes are suppressed during an El Niño spring, Nielsen-Gammon said.
There is currently a weak El Niño in place and the current forecast predicts there’s an 80 percent chance it continues through spring.
Already, there have been two severe storm outbreaks this month with three brief tornadoes.
“The spring storm season runs from mid-March to early June,” Dunn said. “Now is the time to prepare and ask: ‘How am I going to get weather information? Where do I take shelter’”
Maribel Martinez-Mejia, Fort Worth’s emergency management coordinator, said the public needs to be aware of what’s going on and what the weather warnings mean.
When Fort Worth sounded its storms sirens before dawn Wednesday, many thought it meant a tornado was coming.
But Martinez-Mejia, who is also chair of the North Texas Regional Emergency Managers working group, said they can be sounded for other types of severe weather such as damaging winds or hail.
“They’re not tornado sirens,” Martinez-Mejia said. “People need to understand that.”
And people need to have multiple ways to receive storm information for when a tornado does strike.
“You never know when it’s going to hit — during the day, during the night or on weekends,” Martinez-Mejia said. “You need to know where you’re going to go, where that interior room is located at home or in your place of business. You just to have as many layers between you and the outside as possible.”