Longform

A Killer F5 Tornado Rips Through Dallas County -- How Ready Are We for this Nightmare Scenario?

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On those 55 points and "countless other" paths through the Dallas area, the Moore cyclone would cause at least $2 billion in damage. It would hit 30,000 structures, threaten 50,000 people in homes or apartments and trap over 2,000 people on any one backed-up freeway, Rae concluded in his report aptly titled, "The Tornado Damage Risk Assessment: Predicting the Impact of a Big Outbreak in Dallas-Fort Worth, TX." There are many paths in which it would destroy far more, he estimated. If it struck during the workday, buildings containing at least 50,000 people would be in its way.

Marty Nerren, the Dallas Red Cross chapter's emergency planning director, says he used Rae's study, as well as a 2002 threat assessment prepared by Dallas city officials, to arrive at the conclusion that the chapter should plan for 40,000 survivors needing immediate shelter. From the standpoint of planning a response, he says, something Rae's study identified as Scenario 5 provides the most headaches.

In this worst-case scenario, the twister touches down in central Arlington, crosses UT-Arlington, Six Flags Over Texas and Texas Stadium, churns through Irving, across North Dallas and up Central Expressway in Richardson. It finally lifts around East Parker Road on the eastern side of Plano. There aren't many cow pastures on this heavily-populated route. A full 70 percent of the footprint is developed, meaning a whopping 18 square miles of houses, offices, apartments and retail shops would be reduced to bombed-out rubble. Three mobile home parks covering 49 acres also would be pulverized.

In Irving, 3,884 single-family houses would be destroyed, more than 10 percent of its entire single-family housing stock, Rae's report concludes. In Dallas, where the theoretical path would enter the city near Love Field, cross the intersection of Midway and Walnut Hill roads, then cross LBJ Freeway at Hillcrest before entering Richardson, 2,859 single-family houses would be hit with winds strong enough to tear off roofs. Rae estimated that property damage along the entire path would total at least $3 billion using assessed values reported in 2000. Shaw, the Dallas emergency management coordinator, says there is a strong likelihood of fires breaking out along the damage path from ruptured gas lines, no doubt causing further destruction.

Rae's study, which he co-wrote with a researcher from the National Weather Service, did not attempt to estimate casualties in such a nightmare scenario, but Lisius says an estimate worked up informally by several of those involved with the study pegged the likely death toll at 300, with perhaps 5,000 injured. "I'm not with a government organization so I don't need to be as careful," he says. "If it's the evening rush hour and the freeways are backed up, that could make it a lot worse."

It's a given that freeway traffic at any time of day would grind to a halt as people stop under bridges and underpasses to avoid hail or seek what they mistakenly believe will be shelter, says Rae in an interview at his Arlington office. People are most vulnerable in their cars, which can be easily tossed around or pierced by wind-driven projectiles. During the Lancaster tornado, which came with a supercell thunderstorm delivering golf ball-sized hail, thousands of cars backed up on Interstate 20 as people parked under overpasses. There were numerous wrecks as the tornado tore along at a short distance south of the highway.

During the Moore twister, two people died after being blown out from under freeway bridges and 12 people who took shelter under one underpass on I-35 were all badly hurt by flying debris. They suffered injuries ranging from being impaled by a two-by-four, to compound fractures and missing fingers, noses or ears. It took rescue crews a week to find the body of a woman who was killed. She was found about 100 feet down the roadway, under a pile of storm rubble 6 to 8 feet deep.

Since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has been trying to disabuse people of the notion that underpasses provide shelter. Its safety studies also warn that climbing up a covered embankment actually puts you into stronger winds higher in the tornado. The agency's recommended course of action for motorists—get out of the car, get low in a ditch and cover your head—hardly sounds like an attractive alternative.

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In their house on Highland Drive in Moore, Oklahoma, Marty and Veronia Bernich had been following the twister's progress that evening in urgent TV weather broadcasts. They understood, as the lights went out across their subdivision, that they could be in its path. "I went outside and noticed how serene it was. The sky was all green and yellow," recalled Marty Bernich, a 55-year-old high school art teacher and potter. "My wife started yelling at me to get inside."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec