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Nestled in the Blackland Prairies at the edge of Central Texas’ Hill Country lies the small community of Jarrell. It’s a land of contrasts, with a small-but-developing town center carved into the low, rolling hills and patchy farmland. Clumps of Indian paintbrush and Texas bluebonnet provide blotches of color against the muted greens and browns of shortgrass and crop fields. A sharp, black, six-lane ribbon of asphalt bisects the town, carrying drivers between the metropolitan areas of Dallas, Waco and Austin.
If the town of Jarrell is divided by that flat, sun-baked stretch of Interstate 35, so too are its people. To the east of the interstate, the march of progress has taken hold full-force. A brand new water tower glints in the midday sun, rising more than 200 feet above its surroundings. Newly elected mayor Dewey Hulme talks excitedly about his plans for a reinvigorated Jarrell, one in which the new water tower and a sprawling 46-acre town center — planned out on a vast 153-acre parcel of land near the interstate — will begin to attract the kind of commercial and residential growth that could transform the town.
To the west of I-35, there is no water tower. There are no freshly built developments and new businesses. There is no talk of transformation. Instead, there is the stark land surrounding County Road 305. There is a park with a small community center, flanked by two emerald-green baseball fields. There is a simple memorial plaque, white lettering etched into sepia-toned granite, and a semicircular entrance ringed by twenty-seven trees. Most of all, there is the ever-present memory of the day nature conspired to wipe 50 homes and 27 of Jarrell’s mothers, fathers, children, friends and neighbors from the face of the Earth.
The morning of May 27, 1997 broke much the same as any other Tuesday during late spring. In Jarrell the mercury rose to 79 degrees before the sun had even begun to break the horizon and filter through the scattered stands of hackberry, cypress and juniper. The air hung heavily, nearly opaque from the stifling humidity. The wind offered little relief, as a light southerly breeze only served to bring in more sticky air. By midday, dew points across the area skyrocketed to nearly 80 degrees. With temperatures approaching 90 degrees, even lifelong residents complained about the brutal conditions.
At the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma, forecasters closely monitored the atmospheric conditions. A low pressure system had progressed eastward toward southern Missouri overnight, leaving a trailing cold front draped across North Texas. Hot, dry air from the high elevations of the desert Southwest pushed eastward, sliding uneasily atop the warm, muggy surface air of the Southern Plains and trapping it beneath it. Where this dry layer of air tilted and sloped down to the surface — on an arching line roughly from Dallas to Del Rio — a dryline formed. A weak secondary low had developed just north of Dallas and begun to propagate southward along the dryline, helping to pull in more moist air from the southeast.
The layer of dry air at the mid-levels acted as a capping inversion, inhibiting vertical motion and suppressing thunderstorm development. For several days, a persistent onshore flow allowed a vast, moisture-laden airmass to overspread the Texas countryside. With no way to disperse its energy through convection, a massive influx of radiation from the late-spring sun had left the tropical airmass seething and boiling. Forecasters measure this trapped energy in terms of CAPE, or Convective Available Potential Energy. A CAPE of 500 j/kg is adequate to ignite thunderstorms, while values of 2,000 j/kg or more indicate extreme instability. Early in the afternoon, conditions over much of eastern and central Texas produced CAPE values of more than 5,500 j/kg. At Temple, 25 miles northeast of Jarrell, surface observations indicated an incredible 6,840 j/kg.
It’s clear that severe thunderstorms were likely given such an unstable atmosphere, but the forecast was a difficult one. As is typical in the deep south during late spring, winds aloft were generally light. This lack of wind shear suggested that supercells and tornadoes were probably unlikely. In the presence of light wind shear, a thunderstorm updraft is not sufficiently separated from its downdraft, leading to quick bursts of convection that blow up and then quickly choke themselves with rain. The forecast was complicated, however, by the presence of the cold front and dry line. If storms could develop along these boundaries, the locally enhanced wind shear could be enough to allow tornadic supercells. Acting more out of caution than expectation, the SPC issued its first tornado watch shortly before 1pm.
BULLETIN – IMMEDIATE BROADCAST REQUESTED
TORNADO WATCH NUMBER 338
STORM PREDICTION CENTER NORMAN OK
1254 PM CDT TUE MAY 27 1997
THE STORM PREDICTION CENTER HAS ISSUED A
TORNADO WATCH FOR PORTIONS OF
EFFECTIVE THIS TUESDAY AFTERNOON AND EVENING FROM 115 PM UNTIL 700
TORNADOES…HAIL TO 3 1/2 INCHES IN DIAMETER…THUNDERSTORM WIND
GUSTS TO 80 MPH…AND DANGEROUS LIGHTNING ARE POSSIBLE IN THESE
THE TORNADO WATCH AREA IS ALONG AND 125 STATUTE MILES EAST AND WEST
OF A LINE FROM 25 MILES EAST OF COLLEGE STATION TEXAS TO 40 MILES
NORTH NORTHWEST OF SHREVEPORT LOUISIANA.
REMEMBER…A TORNADO WATCH MEANS CONDITIONS ARE FAVORABLE FOR
TORNADOES AND SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS IN AND CLOSE TO THE WATCH AREA.
PERSONS IN THESE AREAS SHOULD BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR THREATENING
WEATHER CONDITIONS AND LISTEN FOR LATER STATEMENTS AND POSSIBLE
OTHER WATCH INFORMATION… CONTINUE…WW 336… WW 337…
DISCUSSION…VERY LARGE HAIL/LOCALLY DAMAGING WINDS AND ISOLATED
TORNADOES POSSIBLE THIS AFTERNOON IN VERY UNSTABLE AIR MASS /CAPE
TO 5000 J/KG/ OVER REGION. ANY TORNADOES WILL LIKELY BE CONFINED
TO BOUNDARY INTERSECTIONS GIVEN COMPARATIVELY WEAK VERTICAL SHEAR.
AVIATION…TORNADOES AND A FEW SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS WITH HAIL
SURFACE AND ALOFT TO 3 1/2 INCHES. EXTREME TURBULENCE AND SURFACE
WIND GUSTS TO 70 KNOTS. A FEW CUMULONIMBI WITH MAXIMUM TOPS TO
550. MEAN STORM MOTION VECTOR 27020.
In Jarrell, life continued unimpeded. Jarrell’s local high school had just dismissed for the summer, and many children were eager to begin their vacations. Brothers John and Michael Ruiz, 15 and 14 respectively, hurriedly ate their breakfasts and rushed off to the local high school to shoot hoops in the gym. Twins John and Paul Igo, age 15, joined their father Larry on his way to the antique auto parts store that he owned and operated near the center of town. Seventeen year old Audrey joined her mother, Joan, at the local school, where she taught special needs children.
The Igos were among the most well-known and well-liked families in Jarrell. Larry Igo served as music director for Jarrell’s Baptist Church, where the entire family sang in the choir. Brothers John and Paul were active on all the local sports teams, and the family was always at the head of community projects. Audrey had a particular talent for music, often performing beautiful recitals, singing and playing multiple instruments for the community. To the delight of the community, she’d recently made plans to attend the University of North Texas to pursue music after her final year of high school.
Hundreds of miles to the east, thunderstorms which had formed along the dryline in Oklahoma the previous evening had begun decaying over northern Mississippi and Alabama. As the storm complex sputtered and dissipated, the atmosphere around it began to ripple like the surface of a pond. These ripples, known as gravity waves, rapidly spread over much of the southeast and propagate toward the Southern Plains. At the same time, the cold front over north Texas continued its slow progression to the southeast. With the dryline stalled over central Texas, the cold front began to overtake it.
By noon, the first large towers of cumulus cloud burst into the sky near the dryline just north of Temple. The timing could not have been worse. As the sun rose to its zenith and daytime heating neared its peak, the cold front had finally overrun the dryline, allowing convection to begin chipping away at the cap. Within half an hour, the gravity wave — now arriving in central Texas and oriented perpendicular to the dryline and cold front — began to expand and compress the atmosphere around the infant storm system. Fueled by the procession of rising and sinking air, the growing tower ruptured the cap, allowing the extraordinarily unstable air below to begin rocketing toward the tropopause.
As the thunderstorm’s updraft developed, its rapid acceleration helped to pull in vast quantities of hot, muggy air near the surface. The air raced in toward the center of the storm before being violently propelled upward, creating such a contrast in speed and direction with the air above that the storm began to produce its own wind shear. The resulting local shear, or storm-relative helicity, generated rotation parallel to the ground called horizontal vorticity. This rotation was soon ingested into the storm itself, where the vigorous updraft tilted it vertically and began to spin. A supercell was born.
Still under the influence of the passing gravity wave, the supercell began to drift unexpectedly southwestward. Soon it produced its first tornado near the town of Lorena, where several mobile homes and a frame house were damaged. Tornadoes of varying intensity also struck Moody, Belton and Temple. The worst, however, was yet to come. Rather than becoming outflow-dominant as most storms do on low-shear days, the massive supercell sustained itself by propagating southwest along the cold front/dryline and constantly regenerating its updraft with extremely unstable air. Finally, at 3:30pm CDT, a tornado warning was issued for Williamson County in south-central Texas.
BULLETIN – EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE AUSTIN/SAN ANTONIO TX
330 PM CDT TUE MAY 27 1997
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN AUSTIN/SAN ANTONIO HAS ISSUED A
TORNADO WARNING EFFECTIVE UNTIL 430 PM CDT
FOR PEOPLE IN THE FOLLOWING LOCATION…
IN SOUTH CENTRAL TEXAS
… WILLIAMSON COUNTY
AT 325 PM A TORNADIC THUNDERSTORM WAS LOCATED ABOUT 5 MILES WEST OF
JARRELL MOVING SOUTHEAST AT 10 MPH. THIS STORM HAS HAD A HISTORY OF
PRODUCING TORNADOES AND LARGE HAIL. THE CITY OF JARRELL IS IN THE
PATH OF THIS STORM.
IF YOU ARE CAUGHT OUTSIDE…SEEK SHELTER IN A NEARBY REINFORCED
BUILDING. AS A LAST RESORT…SEEK SHELTER IN A DITCH OR LOW
SPOT AND COVER YOUR HEAD.
PEOPLE IN OR NEAR THE PATH OF THIS STORM SHOULD TAKE IMMEDIATE ACTION
TO PROTECT THEIR LIVES. GO TO THE CENTER ON THE LOWEST FLOOR OF YOUR
BUILDING…COVER YOUR HEAD. STAY AWAY FROM DOORS AND WINDOWS. DO
NOT STAY IN MOBILE HOMES OR VEHICLES…GET INTO A STURDY BUILDING.
Within minutes, the frightful wail of tornado sirens reverberated through the town of Jarrell. Residents stole nervous glances at the suddenly menacing sky. The Ruiz brothers quickly grabbed their basketball and headed home. Larry Igo rushed to close his auto parts store, ushering twins John and Paul to the car. At the same time, Joan and her daughter Audrey packed up and left the school in a rush. Familiar words of warning echoed from televisions and radios throughout the county, the same safety precautions that folks in the Midwest knew by heart: seek shelter in the innermost room on the lowest level of a sturdy, well-built structure. Protect yourself as best you can. Hang on. Pray.
Just off I-35 on Double Creek Drive, the trumpeting sirens preceded a flurry of activity. John and Michael Ruiz arrived home, but they knew their small trailer offered little protection. As they’d always been told to do, they left to seek shelter in the well-built, two-story home of the neighboring Moehring family. In their front yard, Keith and Cindy Moehring stood with their sons, Erik, 16, and Ryan, 15. Together the neighbors stared with rapt attention as the northern sky filled with writhing, twisting masses of sooty cloud. The brilliant afternoon sunshine quickly faded, tinged an unearthly greenish-gray by the incoming storm.
Just to the east, traffic along the interstate had come to a standstill. From a lowering at the edge of the cloud deck, a slender rope of condensation began slithering earthward. Thin wisps of dirt and water vapor emanated from the ground, circling and gyrating about a common center like an ethereal dance. Some motorists pulled to the shoulder to gawk at the developing tornado. Others abandoned their vehicles to take shelter in the perceived safety of a highway overpass. Within minutes of forming, the fiercely spinning funnel began to undergo vortex breakdown. A complex interplay of updrafts and downdrafts within the tornado worked to split the singular column into a series of threadlike suction vortices.
The supercell’s slow movement afforded many in Double Creek Estates an uneasy, transfixing view. As residents looked on, the funnel again began to change. Ragged strands of cloud and vapor rushed to join the maelstrom, tearing soil from the earth. The entire inky sky appeared to reach downward, grasping fervently at the ground below. The funnel pulsed and breathed, growing ever-larger as it meandered south-southwest. Nearby oak trees began to sway, gently at first, then bent and jerked under the tremendous force of the wind. Large branches gave way first, followed by entire trees and full canopies, snapping off like oversized florets.
On Double Creek Drive, the dull drone in the distance began to grow deeper, louder, more ominous. From an indistinct smudge dotting the northern horizon, the storm had grown to devour the sky. Rain fell fitfully, rising from a light drizzle to a torrent, turning the remaining sunlight into a diffuse haze. Those who had not yet sought shelter frantically searched for protection. The Moehring family huddled at the center of the house, joined by the Ruiz brothers, still praying that this warning, like so many others, would be a false alarm. Larry and Joan Igo arrived home within moments of one another. Urging their children inside, they too sought shelter from the howling storm.
Billy and Debby La France had instinctively sprinted to the bathroom at the first blast of the siren, knowing the bathtub offered the only bit of protection they could find. Billy placed his ten-year-old daughter Kristin in the tub. Exchanging the sort of knowing glance that comes with more than two decades of marriage, Billy knelt on the floor as his wife joined Kristin in the tub, doing her best to protect their daughter as the roar closed in around them. Rain lashed the windows. Hail spattered and thumped upon the roof. Wind seemed to infiltrate every crack and crevice, hissing and whistling like an angry tea kettle.
Tatters of murky cloud raced by overhead, falling inexorably toward the vacuum of the storm’s low pressure. The sky shimmered with remnants of domestic life: ragged splinters of lumber, aluminum flashing, batts of insulation. The tornado, an anemic cloud of dust and dirt just minutes before, had exploded in intensity as it lurched toward the west side of Jarrell. Winds inside the chaotic tangle of vortices likely exceeded 200 miles per hour, perhaps significantly higher. The funnel continued to grow, devouring anything and everything in a swath at least three-quarters of a mile wide.
As the tornado approached the intersection of County Roads 305 and 307, it reduced a recycling plant and several trailers and other structures to rubble. Thick steel beams at the plant were bent and contorted. Trees and utility poles were twisted and snapped just above ground level. Vehicles were tossed and rolled hundreds of yards, deposited across the surrounding countryside in completely unrecognizable lumps. More than 500 yards of asphalt — the length of five football fields — was torn from CR305 and promptly disintegrated by the furious winds, leaving the roadbed scoured out. Fields, too, were scoured down to the bare earth. In some areas as much as 18 to 20 inches of grass and topsoil were stripped from the ground.
Continuing along County Road 305, the tornado began its deadly rampage in earnest. The Igo home was among the first to be impacted. Large chunks of debris shattered windows and pounded exterior walls. The roof began to peel off and lift like an airplane wing, aided by the aerodynamic uplift of the intense winds. The exterior walls, no longer supported by the roof structure, collapsed almost instantly. Anchor bolts in the foundation were sheared cleanly away. The interior walls followed quickly behind, demolished and swept away by the immense force. Within seconds, all that remained of the Igo family home was a foundation strewn with small bits of rubble. The tornado had claimed its first five lives.
Video of the tornado growing from a thin rope to a massive wedge as it barrels along CR-305.
Moments later, the tornado barreled into the Double Creek Estates subdivision. The Moehring family and the Ruiz brothers clung together as the tornado bore down, issuing frantic prayers into the deafening tumult. The wind came first in spasms; brief, intense gusts stripped shingles, smashed windows and pelted walls with rocks and other small debris. The cacophony grew as the tornado inched closer, peeling roof decking off like the lid of a tin can. Because of the agonizingly slow forward speed of the tornado, most structures were exposed to the tempestuous winds for several minutes. Even well-built homes such as that of the Moehrings, with evenly spaced anchor bolts and sill plates that met or exceeded the local building code, were no match for the sheer duration of wind force.
Shortly after, the La France home began to rip apart. Debby La France clawed desperately at the porcelain tub beneath her, resolved to give her life to protect her child. She maintained consciousness long enough to witness her roof hurtling skyward into the storm, followed shortly by her husband. Exposed to the full fury of the wind, the entire house began to disintegrate. Debby and her ten-year-old daughter were ripped from their tub and became airborne. The same scene repeated all across Double Creek — homes ripped from their foundations, vehicles shredded, the remnants of daily life pulverized and added to the devastating, churning, debris-clogged vortex.
Seven and a half miles and 45 minutes after it began, the Jarrell tornado dissipated near a treeline southwest of the town. Left in its wake was the most complete devastation ever wrought by a tornado. Where an entire community had been just minutes earlier, virtually nothing remained standing. Each of the 38 homes and three businesses in the tornado’s direct path was reduced to a bare foundation, the resulting debris so finely granulated that it was difficult for surveyors to see from the air. Vehicles and farm equipment were thrown great distances and left in mangled, unrecognizable heaps. Some vehicles disappeared entirely, unable to be located even after detailed damage surveys. Most trees were stripped completely of bark and branches, leaving only gnarled stubs. Virtually every blade of grass and clump of vegetation within the tornado’s three-quarter mile wide swath was scoured away, leaving nothing but mud.
In Double Creek Estates, twenty-seven people were killed. The entire Igo family was gone. The school and the auto parts store they‘d fatefully decided to leave were left virtually untouched. The Moehring family, too, perished in the terrible storm. The Ruiz brothers, despite making the right decision in seeking more sturdy shelter, were also lost. Their trailer stood a short distance away, undamaged. Their mother Maria was killed as well, engulfed by the tornado as she drove home to be with her sons. The list of fatalities also included 41 year old Billy La France. In total, six separate families lost at least two members to the tornado.
After the storm had passed, emergency officials and concerned citizens began to trickle into the devastated area to assist in search and rescue. Linking arms to form a long human chain, they waded through the muddy, swampy, debris-strewn fields in search of survivors. Many would later report the tornado was so violent that they had difficulty distinguishing between human and animal remains. It would take many days before the final death toll could be arrived at, and much longer before each victim could be positively identified. However, amid the overwhelming destruction was one ray of hope.
As search and rescue volunteers canvassed the area, they approached the lot on which the La France home had formerly been. In a nearby field, partially buried and caked with mud, rescuers stumbled upon ten year old Kristin La France. She was badly hurt and covered nearly head to toe in blood, but alive. A short distance away, Debby La France was found clinging to the remains of the peach tree in her yard. Despite her severe injuries, she too would survive. If it had not been for the fortuitous placement of her favorite tree, she almost certainly could not have survived.
Today, there are few visible scars left from the Jarrell tornado. Double Creek Estates has been largely rebuilt, though two lots still remain auspiciously blank. The trees have returned. The grass, ripped from the ground by the winds, has grown back. County Road 305 and Double Creek Drive have since been repaved several times. Many businesses, too, have rebuilt and returned to normalcy. The memorial park, along with its twenty-seven trees and two baseball fields, was built on land donated by relatives of the Igo family. The same land on which Larry, Joan, John, Paul and Audrey had lived and died together.
The emotional scars, too, have largely faded with time. In the years following the tornado, both adults and children became frightened at the first rumble of thunder or gust of wind. The community grieved for the loss of Audrey’s beautiful singing, of Joan’s inspiring leadership, of Larry’s presence in the community and his passion for classic cars. The school, its teachers and its children mourned the loss of brothers John and Michael Ruiz, twins Paul and John Igo, Audrey Igo and all fourteen of the children whose lives were unfairly taken too soon. Some of those who remained moved away to escape the pain they would forever associate with Jarrell. Others simply couldn’t afford to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
Today, most children have only the vaguest sense of what happened on that May afternoon a decade and a half ago. Most of the adults, too, have little or no direct connection with the tornado. Of those who do, the wounds have healed as much as could be expected. Indeed, in the “new” Jarrell, east of Interstate 35, there is a relentless drive to minimize the past, to escape the tragic, painful legacy that so few residents are now bonded to, and to plunge headlong into a future that could be bright indeed for the little town. But west of the interstate, May 27, 1997 still holds a tangible presence. The colorful blotches of Indian paintbrush and Texas bluebonnet are now joined by smooth, glimmering white structures dotted across the land like ant hills: storm shelters.
Below is a gallery of additional photographs which couldn’t be fit into the article.