The Happy, Texas Tornado

May 5, 2002


I chased with Patti, my wife, today.  We left the Dallas area around noon.  The morning was spent working on a forecast to determine where tornadoes might form.  Two target areas were identified, one along the Red River, from Wichita Falls westward to near Childress, and extending northward into southwestern Oklahoma and a second area that extended from northwest of Lubbock to near Amarillo.  The target areas were where it appeared that storms would form and the most likely area where tornadoes might occur during daylight hours. 

The first target area was along and just south of a warm front, where convergence and wind shear should be maximized.  However, a thick overcast of cirrus and mid-level stratus, with imbedded showers, covered this area.  The cloud cover would limit solarization (i.e., daytime heating), reducing the instability required for storms to form and become severe.  A capping inversion was also present over the area, which would serve to prevent surface based convection, another ingredient usually required for supercell thunderstorms to produce tornadoes.  The showers and a few thunderstorms that had formed in this area were "elevated", with their updrafts located above the capping inversion.  With their updrafts above the capping inversion, these storms were not able to draw on the moisture rich air near the surface, nor were they able to draw upon the favorable wind shear that existed in the lower few thousand feet of the atmosphere.

The second area, between Lubbock and Amarillo, was located just east of the dryline.  The clear, sunny skies along and behind the dryline were expected to provide the needed instability required to feed the  intense convection required to produce significant tornadoes.   The capping inversion was not as strong over the Panhandle and upslope flow of moist air at the surface across the 3,000+ ft above sea level elevation of the region was expected provide, as usual, added lift to support the formation and intensity of storms.

When we arrived in Childress about 5 PM, it appeared that the area was still tightly capped by the inversion.  The overcast was thick.  We heard reports that conditions in the western target area, up on the Caprock, were favoring storms, with the area just northwest of Lubbock looking like the most likely area for storm initiation.   Shortly after, reports were heard on a Lubbock AM radio station of a severe thunderstorm that was producing hail northwest of Lubbock.  We continued northwest, up highway 287 to highway 207and then drove west on a farm to market road to bypass Amarillo and intercept the storms.

In Childress, as we topped off the gas tank we crossed paths with Al Moller.  As we left town, we contacted Bobby N5OLO, Ed Cohen, Amos Magliocco and Scott KC5DES, all from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.  We formed a loose caravan, and continued northwest, discussing chase strategy either on the 2 meter ham band or via cell phone.

As we drove out from under the mid-level overcast, the hail storm's anvil became visible to the southwest.  A tornado warning was issued for another storm which was visible to the distant north.  And another cell could be seen developing to our northwest toward the western side of Amarillo.  However, the greatest instability was located northwest of Lubbock, and east of Clovis.

Two storms that developed northwest of Lubbock were moving northeast, one was moving toward Canyon, with a second located about 15 miles to its southwest.   As we continued to drive west toward I-27, a tornado warning was issued for  the northern storm.  Baseball size hail was also reported to be falling from this storm!  

As we turned south on I-27, east of Canyon, we could see the updraft base of the northern storm, which was about 10 to 15 miles southwest of Canyon.   The storm's rain-free base was ragged, with two wall clouds, one which was occluded, with a second newer wall cloud a mile or two northeast of the first.  We observed two small funnels under the occluded wall cloud.  However, precipitation from  the southern storm was beginning to fall just south of the northern storm's updraft.  We felt that the northern storm would suffer as rain cooled air from the southern storm flowed into its updraft.  The southern storm should have better inflow.  We continued south.

Looking south, an inflow band could be seen that appeared to be pointed toward the southern storm's updraft area, which was shielded from our view by heavy precipitation.  After driving another 10 or so miles farther south, the southern storm's rain free base came into view, along with a well developed wall cloud.  At this point, some 6 1/2 hours after leaving home, the chase was on.

As a SKYWARN spotter in my home county, I feel an obligation to report severe weather.  During this chase, I checked into the Amarillo SKYWARN net on 444.200 MHz.  After my initial wall cloud reports, a spotter from Amarillo, who had been spotting the "Canyon storm", was sent south to spot the southern storm.  We worked as a team to report the development of the storm and the formation of the tornado.

The tornado formed about 6:33 PM on a Sunday afternoon.  The warning sirens in Happy began wailing about 15 minutes before the tornado moved into the western edge of  the small Texas Panhandle town.

At least two fatalities resulted.  My condolences to the families who lost loved ones and to those who were severely injured by this deadly tornado.

Click on any image below for a larger version.  (Images from video unless otherwise labeled.)


02050501.jpg (9902 bytes) Looking north from a vantage point about 10 miles west of the intersection of highways 287 and 207.  This storm was in the northern Texas Panhandle and produced at least one tornado that other chasers intercepted.
02050502.jpg (9070 bytes) Looking south at an inflow band feeding into the storm that produced the Happy, Texas tornado.  This inflow band was a visual clue that the storm was strong and might produce a tornado.

02050503.jpg (8851 bytes)

Looking west at a wall cloud produced by the storm about 12 miles WNW of Happy.  This wall cloud was undercut by outflow, but never completely dissipated. The updraft was pushed ESE toward Happy where it reorganized about 3 miles west of town.
02050504.jpg (12947 bytes) Looking west at the newly reorganized wall cloud with tail cloud pointing north toward the precipitation area.  I contacted the Amarillo NWS SKYWARN net control on 444.2 MHz about this time to report the rotating and strengthening wall cloud.
02050500.jpg (11610 bytes) Looking west from a spotting location on the northwest corner of Happy, Texas on highway 1075.  Note the small dust whirl located left of center under the wall cloud.  This was the first concentrated dust whirl under the wall cloud.
02050505.jpg (11302 bytes) Within about 20 seconds of the first concentrated dust whirl, a blast of RFD descended along the front edge of the wall cloud as an RFD intrusion began wrapping around the eastern side of the wall cloud.  I reported a developing tornado to the Amarillo NWS SKYWARN net control about this time.  Shortly afterwards, the sirens in Happy were sounded, about 15 minutes prior to the tornado moving into town.
02050506.jpg (11799 bytes) Still looking west at the developing tornado.  The first of about 5 cars and trucks drives out of the area where the tornado formed.  There were a few homes near the tornado.  Although I don't know for sure, I do suspect that the residents saw the tornado and decided to drive away and not try to ride out the tornado.  The tornado was moving slowly and they had an unobstructed road leading due east away from the tornado.  The road, FM 1075, intersects Interstate 27 on the east side of Happy where they could then quickly drive away from the tornado at a right angle to its path.
02050507.jpg (10100 bytes) Another vehicle was seen leaving the area.
02050508.jpg (11482 bytes)  
02050505a.jpg (10236 bytes) The tornado as it appeared at maximum size and strength.
02050509.jpg (9536 bytes)  
02050510.jpg (10269 bytes) Yet another vehicle departs the area.
02050511.jpg (10436 bytes) Still looking west from the same vantage point.  The tornado began to shrink and temporarily weaken.
02050512.jpg (10913 bytes) The tornado weakened for a minute or two and appeared less impressive.  But, it strengthened again as it moved into the western edge of Happy.  Although not visible in this image, another circulation formed just to our northwest.  The new circulation was rotating and moving directly toward our spotting location.  We were concerned that the new circulation might produce another tornado.  The original tornado had moved to within less than one mile of our spotting location and was moving slightly south of east.  We decided to abandon our spotting location, drive to the interstate, and then south on I-27.   
02050513.jpg (17041 bytes) We drove south expecting an exit to FM 1881.  However, there was no exit.  We eventually were able to turn around.  Looking north after making a U-turn to intercept the tornado once more.  The tornado had just moved through Happy and had crossed the interstate.  Contrast is poor since the tornado is in front of a backdrop of heavy precipitation.
02050514.jpg (10720 bytes) Looking north after we exited on FM 1881, turned east and then drove parallel to the tornadoes path.  The tornado made a gradual left turn after exiting from Happy and crossing I-27.  It traveled northeast until it was just south of FM 1075, then it again moved almost due east, damaging two more homes that were located on the south side of FM 1075.
02050515.jpg (11368 bytes)  
02050516.jpg (12556 bytes) The tornado began to shrink.
02050517.jpg (11725 bytes) The tornado was eventually wrapped by rain where it slowly dissipated, shielded from our view.
02050518.jpg (19546 bytes)  

Copyright 2002 - Samuel D. Barricklow - All rights reserved.


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Last revised: November 29, 2003