National Weather Service marks 20th anniversary of Red River Valley tornaodes

Two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) organizations located in Norman, Okla. are joining residents and officials of Wichita Falls, Texas, this Saturday in commemorating the 20th anniversary of the April 10, 1979 Red River Valley Tornado outbreak.

The National Weather Service (NWS) Forecast Office in Norman will provide weather forecasting and severe storm safety information during the free event at the Public Library. In addition, the National Severe Storms Laboratory will display their mobile storm-intercept laboratory. This modified 15-passenger van is stocked with high-tech equipment that looks right into the storms including radiosondes and electric field sensors.

“We’re participating in the event to tell people about the advances in research and technology developed at the National Severe Storms Laboratory that contributed to the modernization of the National Weather Service and have resulted in significantly improved warning lead times for severe weather, especially tornadoes,” said Jim Purpura, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the NWS Forecast Office in Norman.

The Red River Valley Tornado outbreak included 13 tornadoes in northern Texas and southwestern Oklahoma. One tornado, rated an F4, was up to 1.5 miles wide as it passed through Wichita Falls, Texas. It is considered among the most destructive tornadoes in history and resulted in 45 deaths and 1,740 injuries. About 3,095 homes were destroyed, and about 20,000 people were left homeless. Another 15 deaths and 179 injuries occurred from additional tornadoes along the storm’s path, including an F4 in Vernon, Texas.

Twenty years ago, National Weather Service forecasters could see only ghostly white blobs on their radar scopes and had to wait for visual confirmation of the tornado before issuing a tornado warning. Today’s forecasters, thanks to a $4.5 billion National Weather Service modernization effort, view evolving storms in graphic detail and can now issue warnings often before tornadoes even form, with an average lead time of 11 minutes.

“With modernized technology such as Doppler radar, weather satellites, and advanced computers, forecasters can often warn of tornadoes even before they touch down,” Purpura said. “Deadly storms like the one that happened in the Red River Valley 20 years ago will happen again. The National Weather Service has doubled its warning lead times for tornadoes, but these warnings mean nothing if people don’t receive them and take appropriate action to save their lives and protect their property. That’s why we encourage everyone to own a NOAA Weather Radio with a warning alarm.”

The National Severe Storms Laboratory works in partnership with the National Weather Service to advance the understanding of weather processes through a balanced program of research to improve forecasting and warning techniques, development of operational applications and transfer of understanding, techniques, and applications to public and private agencies.