Sunday-Night EF3 Tornado Leaves Extensive Damage in Dallas

October 21, 2019, 3:22 PM EDT

Above: Henry Ramirez, a member of Primera Iglesia Dallas, is consoled by his mother Maribel Morales as they survey severe tornado damage to the church, where Ramirez plays drums and Morales attends, after a tornado tore through North Dallas on Sunday night, October 20, 2019. Image credit; AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter.

An after-dark tornado cut a destructive path across the heart of densely populated North Dallas around 9 pm CDT Sunday night. A National Weather Service survey team found EF3 damage with the tornado, with estimated top winds of 140 mph. The City of Dallas reported in a Monday morning news release that there were no serious injuries—amazing, given the extent of damage—but the financial and emotional toll will be high. A separate EF1 tornado was confirmed in Rowlett, just east of Dallas.

The DFW-area tornadoes struck as part of a widespread nighttime outbreak that brought severe weather from the Southern Plains to the mid-Mississippi Valley. At least one tornado was reported later Sunday night near Beckville, in far northeast Texas. Another twister caused preliminary EF1 damage at Tyronza in eastern Arkansas. Major disruption occurred at Memphis International Airport early Monday morning when a tornado-warned storm prompted authorities to evacuate passengers from aircraft.

More than 150 reports of severe wind and hail have been tallied by the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center for the period from 7 pm Sunday to 7 am CDT Monday. At least two deaths were reported due to trees striking homes, with one fatality in Valliant, Oklahoma, and another near Rogers, Arkansas, according to weather.com.

Early reports indicate that one or more tornadoes cut a path roughly 10-15 miles long, extending from near Dallas Love Field Airport to just south and east of the suburb of Richardson. Among the most dramatic scenes in the wake of the tornado were the smashed-in front of a Home Depot and a ravaged home that belongs to Dallas Stars hockey player Tyler Seguin.

The tornado’s timing may have made a big difference in the outcome. Traffic is normally on the lighter side late on a Sunday evening, as compared to a weekday rush hour. Moreover, the tornado hit while a Dallas Cowboys football game was under way at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, about 20 miles to the southwest, too far away to be affected by the tornado. Since this game was televised, many Dallas-area fans were surely at home and able to take shelter. (Interestingly, the tornado originated very near the site of the former Texas Stadium in Irving, where the Cowboys played for nearly 40 years.)

“As devastating as last night's tornado was, including crossing several highways and interstates, the situation could have been significantly worse if the tornado had directly impacted the ongoing Dallas Cowboys football game or moved across the state fairgrounds where the last day of the State Fair of Texas was ongoing,” said Patrick Marsh, SPC warning coordination meteorologist, in an email.

“The fact no one appears to have died during a nocturnal tornado in a major city is a testament to the timely outlooks, watches, and warnings that had been communicating the severe thunderstorm and tornado risk for days to hours to minutes in advance.”

A tornado-vulnerable region is getting even more so

Dallas–Fort Worth typically ranks near the top of the nation’s metropolitan areas most at risk from a major tornado. The Southern Plains experience as high a frequency of violent tornadoes as any place on Earth, and the sprawling, fast-growing DFW metroplex extends more than 30 miles from west to east—a configuration that would allow an eastward- or northeastward-moving tornado to plow across huge amounts of developed area.

Increased urbanization is hiking the threat for a single powerful, long-lived tornado to wreak immense amounts of damage. In March, meteorologists and emergency managers carried out a simulation of an EF4 tornado ripping through downtown Dallas—the most comprehensive such exercise ever conducted in North Texas.

'“What we’re really facing here in North and Central Texas is that our footprint just keeps expanding year after year,” said Tom Bradshaw, meteorologist in charge at the NWS Fort Worth office. “There is a lot of real estate that weather can potentially impact.”

Last night’s Dallas tornado is in line with climatology

Perhaps surprisingly, the Sunday-night-in-October timing of the Dallas tornado wasn’t all that far from climatological norms. We’re now firmly in the “second season”—the period in October and November when severe weather hits a seasonal maximum over the Southern Plains and Southeast, as the polar jet stream begins returning to these areas from its summer hangout further north. Nighttime tornadoes are a particular risk in autumn, since sunset is so much earlier than during the primary seasonal peak in springtime. Nationwide, November ranks fourth in the prevalence of nighttime U.S. tornadoes, according to a weather.com analysis.

Tornado paths reported in Dallas County, Texas, from 1880 through Sept. 12, 2019
Figure 1. Tornado paths reported in Dallas County, Texas, from 1880 through Sept. 12, 2019. The 1957 and 1969 tornadoes discussed below have been annotated. Image credit: NWS/Fort Worth.

A DFW-area tornado climatology maintained by the NWS Fort Worth office shows that October is the third most frequent month for tornadoes in Dallas County. The county saw 101 tornadoes from 1880 through September 12, 2019. Of that total, 25 occurred in May, 23 in April, and 11 in October.

Likewise, many of Dallas County’s tornadoes have struck in the late-evening hours. About a third of them have begun between 6 pm and midnight CST, and one of the most likely hours for a tornado in Dallas County is between 8 and 9 pm CST, which is exactly when last night’s twister occurred. Just four years ago, eight people were killed by a violent EF4 tornado that struck Garland in eastern Dallas County after sunset on December 26, 2015.

Dallas County tornadoes by month and time of day
Figure 2. Frequency of tornadoes in Dallas County, Texas, from 1880 through Sept. 12, 2019, organized by month (left) and time of day, in CST (right). Image credit: NWS/Fort Worth.

The DFW climatology shows that only two tornadoes in Dallas County—with greatly contrasting seasons and times of day—have had path lengths longer than 10 miles.

—October 12, 1969, 6:50 am CDT:  28 miles long, 200 yards wide. This path appears as the long orange path in Figure 1. In his book Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991, Thomas Grazulis classified this as a family of small tornadoes causing mostly light damage. There were three injuries.

—April 2, 1957, 4:15 pm CDT:  17 miles long, 100 yards wide. This destructive EF3 tornado took 10 lives and injured some 216 people. More than 100 homes were completely destroyed, and hundreds of others were damaged, according to Grazulis. At least 125 people took photos of this twister—a huge number for the pre-digital era—and the tornado was captured in high-quality 16-mm film footage. “This was among the most photographed and studied tornadoes in history,” said Grazulis in his 1993 book.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

author image

Bob Henson

WU meteorologist Bob Henson, co-editor of Category 6, is the author of "Meteorology Today" and "The Thinking Person's Guide to Climate Change." Before joining WU, he was a longtime writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, CO.

bob.henson@weather.com

@bhensonweather

Recent Articles

Tropical Storm Sebastien Forms in Atlantic

Bob Henson


Section: Hurricanes, Typhoons & Cyclones

Earth’s Second Warmest October on Record

Bob Henson


Section: Climate & Climate Change

Please note that DISQUS operates this forum. When you sign in to comment, your sign in information, along with your comments, will be governed by DISQUS' privacy policy. By commenting, you are accepting the DISQUS terms of service.

The comments made below do not necessarily represent the views of Weather Underground; The Weather Company, an IBM Business; or IBM. Comments below should not be perceived as official forecasts or emergency information. For official information on potential storm impacts and evacuation information, please follow guidance from your local authority's emergency operations department.