On April 10, 1979, a massive tornado devastated the city of Wichita Falls, Texas.

When most people think of tornadoes, they probably picture something like this:

Or maybe this:

Regardless of how the media treats them, tornadoes are not common. Manypeople who live in “Tornado Alley” have never seen even a small one. But occasionally atmospheric conditions set up in just the right way that intense tornadoes are possible. Many people in Oklahoma remember May 3, 1999, when 66 tornadoes ravaged the state, including one rated F5 that completely destroyed homes and businesses with winds over 300 mph.

In the book I’m working on now, The Boys of Summer, the Wichita Falls tornado of 1979 is a major set piece. Locals refer to that day in April as Terrible Tuesday, because when the storm was finished with the city, over 20,000 people were left homeless. There were only 96,000 people living there at the time.

It’s difficult to compare tornadoes with an event like hurricane Katrina, because hurricanes are far, far larger–hundreds of miles across–and when one hits an unprepared city below sea level, the devastation is immense. Many more people died in Katrina than in any tornado. The number of lives lost in the Pacific tsunami last year is even greater.

But for their size, tornadoes are the most destructive force on Earth. Their winds can be two or three times more intense than those in a strong hurricane.

A typical tornado, like those pictured above, are only a few hundred yards across. The one that hit Wichita Falls that day was 1.5 miles in diameter, which is over 2600 yards. It is not the strongest tornado on record, nor the largest, and because of modern technology and warnings it did not kill the most people. But it is arguably the most destructive tornado in history because of the wide swath of almost unimaginable destruction cut through an 8-mile section of a heavily populated area.

When the tornado touched down just outside the city, it was already larger than most mature tornadoes. It began as three separate funnels that merged. This is a photo of touchdown:

The storm then moved into the city, first damaging a football stadiumand then a junior high school. Fortunately classes were already out forthe day. This is what the junior high looked like afterwards:

As it plowed into the city, the tornado widened and its winds became more intense:

What makes the Wichita Falls tornado different than most powerful tornadoes is the width of its most intense destruction. Even F5 tornadoes generally only inflict their worst damage in a narrow corridor of the overall funnel path. The Wichita Falls tornado inflicted near-F5 damage in a half-mile wide swath, which is exceedingly rare. Here is a aerial photo of some of the damage:

The destruction was so severe and widespread that people were forced to spray paint the names of their streets on the curb, because the landmarks were all gone. For weeks afterward, the National Guard flew over residential areas at night to discourage looting. Thousands of mobile homes were brought in to house people until their residences could be rebuilt. This is a photo of the tornado taken from across a lake, a couple of miles away. Notice how the inflow winds are so strong that even this far away there are whitecaps on the water:

Tornadoes are generally wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. This one was so wide that many people didn’t even recognize it was a tornado. Including this guy, who kept taking pictures until he was blown into his garage:

Comparing one tornado to another is not easy, and ultimately there is no way to define the “worst.” But according to the National Weather Service, the single tornado that hit Wichita Falls in 1979 destroyed more homes and buildings than all 66 of the 1999 Oklahoma tornadoes combined.

Here’s a photo of it as it left the city. By now it had separated into five separate funnels orbiting around a center:

After the tornado, scientists studied the destruction and noticed an important thing–in houses that weren’t completely blown away, there was usually an interior closet or bathroom still left standing. People who took refuge in these rooms generally survived the storm. Since that time, weather experts have encouraged residents to take advantage of these interior rooms, which is why you hear that recommendation on television when a tornado warning is issued.

If you weren’t raised in Tornado Alley, you may think this sort of thing happens all the time. It doesn’t. It’s very rare. Still, I don’t know if there is a sight more ominous than looking out your window one day and seeing this:

Or this:

Note: The above pictures of the April 10 Wichita Falls tornado were referenced from the National Weather Service site in Norman, OK. More information can be found here.

Take care,