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Tornadoes hit Oklahoma and Texas with one death reported

Severe storms brought tornadoes to parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas on Nov. 4, killing at least one person and injuring at least two dozen more. (Video: Brayden Siau)

Authorities in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas were assessing damage early Saturday after tornadoes struck overnight, killing at least one person, injuring at least two dozen and damaging scores of buildings, officials said.

Seventeen tornadoes were reported, but the count is likely to grow Saturday as the scope of the damage becomes clear.

In McCurtain County in southeastern Oklahoma, one death was confirmed by county emergency manager Cody McDaniel. “Roads are still blocked, and we are trying to cut into those places,” McDaniel told the local news outlet Fox 23 on Friday, adding that there was “one fatality in McCurtain County tonight.” He did not provide further information on the fatality.

In a statement posted online early Saturday, county officials urged people to “stay away from damaged areas” and fallen power lines in areas including Idabel, Broken Bow and Pickens. Teams of first responders and experts were assessing the damage, going “block to block, house to house to do a thorough assessment,” the statement said. The Red Cross has set up a shelter at a local church for those who were displaced from their homes, it added.

Dangerous storms and the risk of ‘strong’ tornadoes threaten Texas

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) tweeted that he was “praying for Oklahomans impacted” by the tornadoes, noting that severe storms had hit several counties, with flash flooding also reported. In northeast Texas, at least 50 homes were damaged or destroyed in Lamar County, close to the Oklahoma border, by the extreme weather, the office of Sherriff Scott Cass said in a statement late Friday.

It said the tornado hit the region just after 4 p.m. local time Friday and affected areas including Beaver Creek, Powderly, Hopewell and Caviness. No deaths were reported, but 10 people were being treated at the Paris Regional Medical Center. Two of them were “critical but stable,” the statement said.

Teams would be assessing the damage and helping in cleanup operations, the statement said, adding that Lamar County Judge Brandon Bell declared an official disaster in the area, a procedural step toward obtaining federal assistance and funding. His declaration said that “at least two dozen people were injured around the county,” the local Paris News publication and the Associated Press reported.

One resident in rural Powderly in Lamar County said she had sheltered in a closet with her boyfriend and cat during the tornado. “We felt cold air, and we felt the house shake, and we heard noises, and we felt the ceiling in the hall we were at sucked up,” a woman named as Tammy told the Paris News, adding that her property had suffered roof damage and shattered windows. “The beautiful trees are all gone,” she said. “It was terrifying. I was pretty scared.”

In nearby Hopkins County, home to the Texas city of Sulphur Springs, officials urged residents to take shelter amid the tornado reports, stating that at least “four houses have sustained damage,” but no injuries had been reported late Friday.

The tornadoes formed along a combination cold front/dryline — or the boundary between cool, dry air surging in from the northwest and encroaching into a warm, humid Gulf of Mexico air mass that was trying to creep north. That clash brewed strong to severe thunderstorms that towered 40,000 to 50,000 feet tall.

Meanwhile, winds changing direction with height helped induce wind shear, which imparted rotation to the storms.

November tornado outbreaks do not occur as regularly as their spring counterparts, but they’re not uncommon.

The worst storms

Early Friday afternoon, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center took the unusual step of announcing a level 4 out of 5 “moderate risk” for severe weather. The red zone covered extreme northeast Texas, southeast Oklahoma and southwest Arkansas, including the cities of Paris, Tyler and Hot Springs. Paris was later hit by a tornado, and Tyler and Hot Springs both were at least partially included in tornado warnings.

It’s only the fourteenth time since 2002 that a moderate risk has been issued in November, underscoring the relative rarity of such a high-end event in the autumn.

Forecaster confidence was initially shaky as to how likely tornadoes would be. Despite a high-end “parameter space,” or availability of ingredients — like CAPE, or juice, and wind shear, or spin — storm mode was a wild card. In other words, meteorologists didn’t know if thunderstorms would quickly merge and interfere, or if a few discrete thunderstorm cells could become established to tap fully into the atmosphere’s volatility. By the early evening, a string of four or five main rotating supercells had become established, and as they tapped into the low-level jet stream, they became tornado factories.

  • One rotating thunderstorm became established just northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, strengthening around the time of the evening commute as it moved northeast at 55 mph. It later hit the west side of Paris, Tex., then continued north and destroyed much of the town of Powderly. Two dozen people were injured by the tornado, and a disaster declaration has been issued for Lamar County.
  • Another rotating supercell paralleled its predecessor about 30 to 40 miles to the east. It first dropped a highly photogenic tornado near Sulphur Springs, Tex., about 55 miles east-northeast of Dallas off Interstate 30.
    • Then it continued northeast, producing a massive wedge tornado in the community of Clarksville, a little more than 40 miles to the north and east. That same storm then crossed the Red River into extreme southeast Oklahoma, and produced a devastating tornado that hit the town of Idabel, where one person died.
    • The tornado hit at 6:50 p.m. A weather station in the Oklahoma Mesonet recorded a 108.4 mph wind gust as the tornado blew through town, although it’s impossible to know what part of the tornado struck the sensor. The weather station also observed a precipitous drop in air pressure followed by a sudden rebound — signifying the “missing” air in the center of the tornado’s vortex that drives the vacuum-like inward suction and generates strong winds. In addition, temperatures also plummeted and humidity rose in the wake of the tornado, representing the rear flank downdraft, or precipitation-loaded cool air wraparound on the back side of the tornadic circulation.
  • An additional tornadic supercell, once again about 30 or 40 miles to the east, passed north of Daingerfield and then hit the town of Naples, Tex. It then crossed Highway 77 and paralleled 67 northeast as it trucked toward New Boston, where it leveled structures on the west side of town. Debris was lofted to near 30,000 feet, suggesting a high-end EF3 or EF4 tornado with winds potentially in the 150 to 170 mph range.
    • A dire “tornado emergency” was issued for New Boston, Tex., and Ashdown, Ark., only the second tornado emergency ever drawn up during the month of November.
    • Debris fell from the sky more than 10 miles ahead of the tornadic circulation, having been carried high enough into the sky that it surfed the jet stream downwind. Weather radar could spot an area of low “correlation coefficient,” or jagged, irregular shapes in the atmosphere not commensurate with rain and hail. That was an indicator of tornadic debris.

The storms formed as a result of a potent mid-level disturbance — a pocket of frigid air, low pressure and spin nestled within a dip in the jet stream. That trigger ejected out of New Mexico during the late morning hours before passing over the Texas Panhandle. Thunderstorms erupted along and ahead of a surface cold front, growing into a dynamic environment favoring strong tornadoes.

Helier Cheung contributed to this report.