Published: Wednesday, April 04, 2001
The storm that moved through Lubbock more three decades ago was a violent tornado. It cut a 1,600-yard swath of destruction along an 8-mile path that included parts of central and northeast Lubbock. Twenty-six people died, and more than 500 people were injured. Property damage amounted to more than $530 million.
It was the most murderous and damaging twister to rip through the South Plains on record, but there have been many others.
A tornado is confirmed when a spotter -- often a law enforcement officer or firefighter trained by the National Weather Service -- observes the funnel cloud touching the ground.
Spotters confirmed 69 tornadoes in Lubbock County from 1950 through 2000, including eight confirmed in the past eight years. However, Lubbock County's severe weather history includes more than tornadoes.
The National Weather Service defines a "severe weather event" as a tornado, straight line winds that produce damage or are measured at 58 mph or higher or hailstones the size of a dime or larger.
From Jan. 1, 1993 through Dec. 31, 2000, the weather service recorded 235 severe weather events that moved through Lubbock County, including significant electrical storms and thunderstorms. High winds, lightning, hail, thunderstorms and flash floods also have frequently visited the county.
Severe weather has ravaged many counties within about 100 miles of Lubbock too. In the past 50 years, there have been 851 confirmed tornadoes in the 24-county area served by the weather service's Lubbock office. During the second half of the 20th century, Hale County was the tornado capital of the nation with 105 confirmed twisters. Lamb County weathered 70 tornadoes, and Hockley County has had 48 twisters.
When it comes to tornado formation, Texas leads the nation and the South Plains leads the state. From 1950 to 1995, there were an average of 124 confirmed twisters per year in Texas, including an average of 29 categorized as strong to violent. Ed Calianese, the weather services' warning coordination meteorologist for the 24-county area, said many of those tornadoes skipped around the South Plains.
"It is apparent that the necessary ingredients for the development of severe weather -- low level moisture, instability, a lifting mechanism and wind shear -- can come together in this portion of West Texas during any month of the year and at any time of the day," he said.
Severe weather events can happen anytime, but Calianese said they are more likely to occur during the afternoon and evening hours of late spring.
"Sixty-six percent of the severe weather events reported to the National Weather Service in Lubbock occurred in the months of May and June, and 77 percent occurred from 4 p.m. through 10 p.m.," he said.
A weather service climatological study shows that during those times Lubbock and the South Plains are in an area having the highest probability in the nation for tornado formation.
Calianese said 2000 was a mild year for tornadic activity. The weather service confirmed only four tornadoes in the 24-county area. Motley County and Cottle County each had one and Lubbock County had two. He said he hopes residents of the South Plains have not become complacent about severe weather preparedness.
"The previous year is no indicator of what will happen this year," he said. "In fact, there have been some years when we have had a spike in tornadoes right after a couple of relatively mild years."
The 1970 Lubbock storm is proof that tornadoes can be deadly, especially when a twister becomes a particularly violent storm.
Tornadoes are ranked on what is known as the F-scale, which is based on the damage caused by the winds. An F0 to F1 tornado causes little or no damage, while an F5 tornado may cause significant damage over a wide area. F0 and F1 tornadoes are considered weak, F2 and F3 tornadoes are considered strong. F4 and F5 tornadoes are considered violent storms.
"Weak tornadoes accounted for 83 percent of all tornadoes reported but were associated with 2 percent of the tornado-related injuries and fatalities," Calianese said. "Strong tornadoes accounted for 15 percent of the tornadoes reported across the area and resulted in 13 percent of tornado-related injuries and fatalities."
He said violent tornadoes, which are relatively rare, accounted for only 2 percent of all tornadoes but were associated with 85 percent of injuries and fatalities.
However, Calianese said, that in most cases it is possible to know when a severe thunderstorm or tornado is headed your way. Staying alert and knowing how and when to take cover can save your life, he said. The weather service has developed a storm warning system that uses the latest prediction and tracking technology to provide the earliest and most accurate warning possible.