If Not A Tornado, What Was It?

Story and photos by Laurie Ezzell Brown

At times on Friday, it seemed for all the world like the tornado that historically has never dared venture into Canadian had finally breached the perimeter.

The storm that cut a swathe through Hemphill County that night tossed dumpsters and shipping containers aside like feathers. It plucked massive century-old trees from the ground and ripped rooftops from houses. And in the midst of an expensive makeover to Hemphill County Airport runways, it had the temerity to wreak havoc, picking up hangars and depositing them unceremoniously in a twisted heap of metal and miscellaneous that crushed a classic Beechcraft Bonanza V35 airplane that had just been brought to its new home in Canadian.

National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists were unanimous in their assessment, though. This was no tornado, they said. The damage area covered approximately 2 square miles, according to a preliminary storm report, and was caused by straight-line winds of 80–100 mph, with wind speeds reaching as high as approximately 115 mph along a small corridor a few dozen feet wide.

NWS Science and Operations Officer Todd Lindley said that Friday’s conditions were favorable for all forms of weather. “We did have a few tornados across the area,” he added, “so it was not outside the realm of possibility.”

There was a complex of storms, Lindley said, and this storm did have signs of rotation. With that rotation, the momentum started translating down toward the ground, which on radar, looks like a bow. At the bow’s apex, the highest wind speeds occurred.

According to Lindley, the storm developed on the south side of the rotation and was enhanced by it, creating “a broad area of very intense wind.” A NWS survey team that came to Hemphill County on Saturday to assess the damage actually expected to see tornado damage. Instead, they found damage over a slightly broader area than expected.

“The trajectory of damage was out and away from the center,” Lindley said, “where with tornado damage, it would converge in on a center line.”

To our growing vocabulary of weather terms, such as “gustnado” and “polar vortex,” Hemphill Countians may now add “microburst.”

According to Lindley, strong winds aloft inside the storm form a microburst when cold air rushes down, hits the ground and immediately spreads out. The debris forms in a 360-degree circle. The microburst moves in the direction of the storm, leaving a path that may lead some observers to believe that a tornado has occurred.

The train sound that some Hemphill County residents mentioned when describing Friday’s storm is just the rushing of wind, he said—whether caused by high-speed winds or a tornado.

Lindley noted that tornados were confirmed on Friday in two locations: 15-20 miles southeast of Spearman and near Channing in the western Panhandle. Reports of a tornado near Mobeetie “did not correlate to anything we were seeing on radar,” he added.

A final report of Friday’s weather event will be prepared by the NWS and released in 60 days. Whether or not Hemphill County residents who weathered Friday’s storm will finally be convinced that the tornado they believe they saw was instead a microburst and straight-line winds remains to be seen.

Read much more about the storms in this week’s e-edition. See more photos here.