Space City Rewind: November 1992 Tornado Outbreak

Everything was in place for a memorable and devastating afternoon in Southeast Texas.

An Outbreak Unfolds

By 1:30 PM on November 21, 1992, the Southeast Texas tornado outbreak began. Wharton County took the hit first, with two F-1 tornadoes and one F-2 tornado near Wharton (there is some confusion about exactly what the tornado intensities were in Wharton County. The NOAA summary after the storm said 2 F-1’s and one F-2, while the Storm Data publication showed 3 F-1s). Fort Bend County was next where two F-1 tornadoes occurred at around 2:40 near and south of Sugar Land. But the most damaging was an F-2 tornado that touched down around 2:20 PM east of Fulshear and then moved into Cinco Ranch and Kelliwood and heavily damaged the West Houston Airport.

Damage in Kelliwood after an F2 tornado. (NWS Houston/Lance Wood)

Damage in Kelliwood after an F-2 tornado. (NWS Houston/Lance Wood)

 

Things exploded as storms developed in Harris County, clashing with the moist air. An F-1 tornado developed north of Pearland and was reported as a funnel cloud at Hobby Airport at about 3:15 PM. About 5 to 10 minutes later, another tornado formed near Hermann Park and crossed the South Freeway (SH-288) into the Third Ward, then moved northeast into the East End, inflicting extensive damage north to Denver Harbor. That tornado was rated an F-2 and damaged over 600 homes and commercial buildings. Simultaneously, another tornado formed on the east side and touched down in Channelview. This tornado became the strongest in the region, evolving into a massive 0.75-to-1 mile-wide, F-4 intensity twister as it raked the Channelview area, damaging more than 1,200 homes and businesses and destroying many. The hardest hit area was the Sterling Green subdivision. The Channelview tornado weakened to F-2 intensity as it moved into Liberty County, dissipating near Dayton. As all this was going on, a third tornado developed in northeast Harris County. This one stayed on the ground for 32 miles into Liberty County before dissipating. It became an F-3 tornado that injured one and caused damage in Tarkington.

At one point on November 21, the National Weather Service was tracking three confirmed tornadoes, including the F4 in Channelview. (NWS Houston/Lance Wood)

At one point on November 21, the National Weather Service was using brand new, state of the art Doppler Radar technology to track three confirmed tornadoes, including the F-4 in Channelview. (NWS Houston/Lance Wood)

 

A larger view of the composite radar image above, with the three concurrent tornadoes circled. (Lance Wood/NWS Houston)

A larger view of the composite radar image above, with the three concurrent tornadoes circled. (Lance Wood/NWS Houston)

Let’s take a closer look at a couple of these twisters.

West Houston/Kelliwood Tornado

Damage after the November 21st tornado from the Kelliwood subdivision near Katy. (NOAA/Houston Chronicle)

Damage after the November 21st tornado from the Kelliwood subdivision near Katy. (NOAA Survey/Houston Chronicle)

 

The F-2 tornado that hit west of Houston formed south of the Kelliwood subdivision, just west of George Bush Park. According to Marshall, who conducted damage surveys after the tornadoes, the Kelliwood storm tore off roofs, destroyed garages, and removed some exterior walls. The Houston Post reported that Natalie Kurz, an 11-year-old Kelliwood resident at the time, survived the tornado uninjured by hiding in a china closet under a stairwell in her home. Natalie had been playing upstairs when her mother, Debbie, saw the tornado and called her with instructions to hide. The Kurz’s lost part of their roof as the tornado damaged the room Natalie was in prior to her mother’s phone call.

Damage and headlines from West Houston the morning after. (Houston Post/Rice Fondren Library)

Damage from West Houston Airport after the November 21, 1992 outbreak. (Houston Post/Rice Fondren Library)

 

As the tornado crossed I-10, F-1 intensity damage was found. Several metal hangars at West Houston Airport were destroyed. Rob Baron, a flight instructor at West Houston Airport at the time, said that upwards of 23 private airplanes were damaged or destroyed by that tornado. According to Baron’s account in the Houston Post, around 30 people at the airport huddled inside the main hangar terminal as the tornado hit. Fortunately it survived and no one was injured.

Photos of damage and a portion of the analyzed tornado track from the 1992 West Houston tornado. (NWS Houston/Lance Wood)

Photos of damage and a portion of the analyzed tornado track from the 1992 West Houston tornado. (NWS Houston/Lance Wood)

 

The tornado continued northeast into Bear Creek and damaged several homes and apartment complexes. Damage also occurred at a Randall’s at West Road and Jones Road in Northwest Houston, with windows blown out, cars damaged, and part of the roof blown off. This tornado was ultimately on the ground for nearly 20 miles before it dissipated.

East Side/Denver Harbor Tornado

Damage from the Inner Loop tornado began at the southeast edge of Hermann Park. As that tornado lifted north and east, it injured six, damaged over 600 homes and businesses, and likely contributed to a natural gas explosion just east of the junction of the South Freeway and US-59.

This tornado was on the ground for about 11-12 miles, inflicting some of its worst damage on some of the city’s most vulnerable residents east of downtown and in Denver Harbor. Ben Reyes, the City Councilman at the time whose district took the brunt of the damage from this storm said “The people who got hit the worst are the poorest people in my neighborhood.”

Radar-derived storm tracks from November 21, 1992, in the first days of our current Doppler Radars. (Lance Wood/NWS Houston)

Radar-derived storm tracks from November 21, 1992, in the first days of our current Doppler Radars. (Lance Wood/NWS Houston)

 

As in many instances of this event, the fact that more people were not seriously injured or even killed is almost a miracle. It seems many residents realized this. One victim was quoted in Monday, November 24th’s Houston Post as saying, “I feel all right. We just don’t have an apartment. Other than that, I’m glad no one got hurt.”

Another resident was injured, picked up and carried about 10 feet during the tornado while he was at a car repair shop on Navigation. Unfortunately he was there to check on a car that was being worked on, and both that vehicle and the other vehicle he drove over in were damaged.

The Denver Harbor tornado was classified as producing F-2 damage.

Channelview: Worst of the outbreak

Without question, the most severe tornado of the outbreak occurred in Channelview, just east of the city. The same storm that produced a weaker F-1 intensity tornado in Brazoria County, near Pearland around 3:10 PM, produced the monster F-4 tornado in Channelview about 15 minutes later.

Map of tornado tracks across the Houston region. The storm that produced the F1 tornado on the Brazoria/Harris County line eventually produced the devastating Channelview tornado. (NOAA)

Map of tornado tracks across the Houston region. The storm that produced the F-1 tornado on the Brazoria/Harris County line eventually produced the devastating F-4 Channelview tornado. (NOAA Survey)

 

Per Tim Marshall’s damage survey, the Channelview twister formed near the Houston Ship Channel and lifted northeast, rapidly intensifying as it crossed I-10 and went on to ravage the Sterling Green subdivision. The damage was massive, and reporting at the time commonly compared the destruction in Channelview to that inflicted by Hurricane Andrew in South Florida three months earlier. Marshall’s survey found 183 homes that lost roof structures, 88 homes that had just a few interior walls left standing, and 14 homes with no interior walls left at all, indicative of F-4 damage. Marshall’s comments on patterns of damage is worth a read.

Intersection of Moorside Lane & Grassington Street in Channelview's Sterling Forest subdivision after the tornado. (NOAA/Houston Chronicle)

Intersection of Moorside Lane & Grassington Street in Channelview’s Sterling Forest subdivision after the tornado. (NOAA Survey/Houston Chronicle)

 

Houston (HGX) four-panel radar image of storm relative velocity around the start of the Channelview tornado. (NOAA)

Houston (HGX) four-panel radar image of storm relative velocity around the start of the Channelview tornado. The circle in the bottom right panel indicates the storm’s mesocyclone using a radar algorithm. (NOAA Survey)

 

Radar around the time the tornado began to bear down on Channelview. (Lance Wood/NWS Houston)

Radar storm relative velocity image around the time the tornado began to bear down on Channelview. The green/blue vs. red/yellow east of the loop indicates the storm. (Lance Wood/NWS Houston)

 

Reading the harrowing accounts of the Channelview tornado underscores how much good luck occurred that day.

(Post continues on next page)

14 thoughts on “Space City Rewind: November 1992 Tornado Outbreak

  1. Matt B

    My wife and I will always remember that day! We were married at St. Paul’s UMC on that blustery Saturday. Celebrating our 24th anniversary today.

  2. Timothy

    Brings back memories that had been filed away. Yet another reason for reliving these events. Not only for new residents for obvious reasons, but also for longer time residents as well. Certainly not sensationalism, but a gentle poke that things do happen and what we can do to raise our odds of survival.

    Though not directly personally affected, I was a public school teacher of a sixth grade campus that served Pecan Grove at the time. The damage to a Randall’s grocery store (Jones Rd and West; now an HEB) was within a mile of the homestead.

    Excellent job of reporting. Looking forward to future installments.

  3. Justin L.

    I was just a 13-year-old middle school kid from Sterling Green South in Channelview when this happened (ironically, we were nearer the Kelliwood tornadoes — shopping far from home at West Oaks Mall — when we first learned about what was going on), but I credit the entire experience — and especially helping many of our fellow church members with damaged and destroyed homes in the Sterling Green subdivision — with developing my interest in weather that now makes me appreciate this blog so much.

  4. nat

    I am looking forward to future articles in your retrospective series.

    In ’92 I was a student at Rice working late in the library on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. I remember it was around 3PM and I looked east from the 3rd floor lounge and saw the blackest sky I have ever seen before or since, moving west. Decided to get out and go home before I might be stuck in thunderstorms.

    There wasn’t much weather on my way home, just some rain and wind. However later that day and for the next week the media were full or reports of the local tornadoes that had hit so severely just before the holiday.

    PS I remember this also because there was really no forewarning. I was a weather radio fan at the time and recall it was strange that there was no NWS warning for what seemed to be such bad weather coming in. For a few years afterward, local radio and tv went overboard and exaggerated almost any threat of bad weather. That’s how I remember it. Took them years to shake this habit and now we have in my opinion situations in which the media either exaggerate the danger, or overlook it almost completely.

    1. Matt

      Thanks for sharing your story!

      It’s interesting, as the post-storm analysis really commended the NWS for adequate warnings and good lead time (actually, amazingly good for the early 90s). I wonder why that happened. Maybe there was a transmitter issue…will have to go back and see.

  5. Susan

    I, too, was a Rice student at that time. I remember that we were playing Navy that afternoon, and if Rice won, we would have our first winning football season in who knows how many years. The game was paused in the third quarter while the tornadoes passed by, but it was not cancelled. Morning heat gave way to a wet, cold afternoon. [I learned to recognize that pattern, but at that time I had been living in Houston for about three months.] The field was drenched, as was the audience. Both the MOB and the Navy band moved undercover during the pause, and they played impromptu concerts until the game resumed. The atmosphere at Rice Stadium was festive and unworried.I knew that windows were blown out downtown, but I had no idea of the widespread severity of damage until much later.

    Rice did beat Navy that afternoon.

  6. Lindsey

    Thank you for this well-researched and informative article. Fascinating – and a good reminder not to let our guards down when it comes to severe storms.

  7. Sharon

    I very much appreciate the research and reporting that went into this story & look forward to more retrospectives on Houston’s wild weather.

  8. Matt Grubbs

    I truly enjoyed reading this.

    I’ve always remembered the TV images of the planes flipped upside down at the West Houston airport.

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