LUBBOCK, Texas — May 11th, 1970 was just a normal day for many folks across the South Plains, but just after sunset everything changed. An F5 tornado with winds of 200 miles an hour ripped through the Hub City causing mass destruction and numerous fatalities. Despite the tragedy that arose from this deadly event, it helped to shed light on how we forecast severe weather and has allowed us to better prepare the public for any tornadic event.
The forecast was just like any other day with the dry line set up to the east of Lubbock, but as the dry line moves westward things changed.
Justin Weaver, Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Lubbock gives us a recap. “The forecast late that afternoon that was issued by this office actually didn’t have any mention of thunderstorms due to this feature called the dry line had moved east.. So the forecasters on duty that day figured that ‘well it’s too dry.’ What happened that evening was that dry line moved westward like they typically do, but most of the time dry lines move westward during the evening hours and they’re non-eventful. Not much happens. We’ll this particular evening thunderstorms developed right near the city of Lubbock and as the dry line retreated westward, one of those went on to produce the devastating Lubbock tornado.”
While thunderstorms were not originally in the forecast, as things started to change the folks at the national weather service took action quickly.
“As those thunderstorms developed, they noticed what we call a hook echo on the local warning radar at Lubbock International Airport. So they actually issued tornado warnings about an hour and fifteen minutes before the first tornado touched down. So the initial tornado warnings went out about 8:15 PM. The big tornado touchdown about 9:35 PM. So actually quite good lead time from those warnings that night.”
One of the reasons why forecasting this event was so difficult is because 49 years ago they didn’t have the technology that we have today. Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Lubbock National Weather Service explains. “There’s a lot of things different when you look back at the 70s. Our computer models were really in their infancy. We try to predict the weather with models but now they’re much more high resolution, we run multiple models, we do multiple ensembles. So, when you look back at the 1970s, it really was very crude. I think most forecasters would have a difficulty if they were just given the data, meaning radar, satellite, and the primitive models, they would have a difficult time making the forecast….they did a great job with what they had, but we’ve made such great strides, not only with our understanding with the computer models, but the technology, and one of the big things was communication.”
In this day in age you can get your weather information through TV, radio, your cell phone, and social media. We also have the NWS Chat which allows us to get the latest updates from the NWS experts.
Along with the improvements in communication, our ability to forecast a severe weather threat several days out has immensely improved due to our ability to see the ingredients necessary for thunderstorm development coming together, giving people enough time to prepare in the event of a disaster.
“We can see sometimes those ingredients we think will come together three, four, even five days in advanced. Now that’s not to say that we can pinpoint where thunderstorms or tornadoes will develop, but that’s what we do with our thunderstorm outlooks. We’ll start out looking areas a few days in advance and say ‘hey in this part of the country, in West Texas or western Oklahoma, it looks like coming up in three days or four days we can have some severe weather.”
While our ability to forecast in advance has improved tremendously and the information that we use to create these forecasts has expanded, the threat of severe storms AND tornadoes on the South Plains AND here in the Lubbock metro areas has not gone away.
“The best thing for people to do is to recognize the fact that it could happen again.” Weaver says. “Like I said, Lubbock is a much bigger target. Know what you’re going to do if that big tornado is coming up Marsha Sharp Freeway. Know where your home, your business, your school, where you spend the majority of your time, know where your safe place is. The time to do that is now, not when the tornado is coming. The second thing is to take some personal responsibility to get that information. No one is going to come knock on your door and tell you there’s a tornado coming.”