One description in the Houston Chronicle recounts how a mother grabbed two of her daughters quickly from an upstairs shower so they could hide in a closet under the stairs. Their house was destroyed, but they were unharmed. Another resident described hiding in a bathroom with his family while he held out his arms “like Superman” to try and hold the walls back from collapsing. They survived with only a three foot by three foot space to spare.
A woman told the Houston Post of a baby shower she and about 40 other people were attending for her granddaughter. They hit the floor to avoid shattering glass windows. Meanwhile, her granddaughter’s home across the street was destroyed. Another resident hid in a hallway with his son as a mobile home was carried 300 feet across the neighborhood into the top of his house.
Time and time again, it’s clear how miraculous it was that no one died in and around Houston that day. Channelview had 16 minutes of lead time before the tornado struck, which would be good in 2016, let alone 1992.
A good deal of education on how to survive a tornado, coupled with absolutely phenomenal work by the Houston National Weather Service office was the likely reason fatalities numbered zero on November 21, 1992. After large events like the 1992 November tornado outbreak, NOAA typically publishes a post-mortem analysis of the event, with details on the size and scope of the event, a summary of how operations fared, and lessons learned and recommendations for the future. The NOAA report after this outbreak, published in November of 1993, showered the NWS Houston office with extreme praise. In the executive summary, they stated:
In particular, the performance at the Weather Service Office (WSO) Houston was exemplary and the value and capabilities of the recently installed WSR-88D radar there were clearly demonstrated. The Houston office issued warnings for 15 of the 17 tornado events that occurred in its area of responsibility, with an average lead time of 25 minutes.
The Houston office had predicted the event during the morning shift, leading to the office increasing staffing for the afternoon. This allowed one meteorologist to focus solely on the new radar technology to help with warnings (all of their warnings verified and only one tornado went completely unwarned, which was a tremendous accomplishment).
At that time, we were improving what meteorologists call “mesoanalysis,” which is analyzing weather on a smaller scale, say over Texas instead of over the United States as a whole. In this case, mesoanalysis contributed to a strong understanding that the atmosphere was primed for tornadoes in East Texas. Word got out about the storms well in advance, so Houstonians were prepared. And having an average lead time of 25 minutes was incredible in 1992.
Thanks to the new radar technology and excellent training from NOAA, the NWS in Houston had an edge in forecasting that once was only a dream. One of the recommendations in the NOAA report included the idea that one meteorologist should be on “radar duty” at all times during severe weather.
Credit is also owed to the actual victims of the storm. Most practiced proper safety techniques established during tornadoes. From the NOAA report:
Several citizens in the Channelview section of Houston, Texas where an F4 tornado had devastated a multi-block area were interviewed. Most had been aware of the possibility of tornadoes from their own knowledge of local weather or from the radio and TV forecasts. Those who were listening to radio or television heard the Tornado Warnings. Those who were busy with outside activities or shopping did not hear the warnings. However, those in the vicinity of the tornado all described its intense blackness, the roaring sounds of freight trains and the debris funnel. The tornado was clearly visible. Many Houston citizens have been trained since third grade on the correct actions to take during tornadoes, and, in all cases, they saved their own lives.
The combination of good forecasting and analysis, fantastic work at NWS Houston, and Southeast Texans implementing proper safety techniques during the event, limited injuries and prevented loss of life. Given the circumstances, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome from this event.
From reading accounts after the event, the response was what one would expect from Houston: Many offered victims of the storms aid, shelter, clean up assistance, and on and on. The typical generosity and concern for neighbors was on display throughout the region.
The takeaway message here is simple: While an outbreak of this magnitude represents an outlier for Southeast Texas, the fact is that it can happen here. Know how to respond to a tornado. Have a plan ready if a tornado is about to bear down on your home. You should also have a method to receive weather warnings at night or when you may be distracted. Recall, last October we had several tornadoes occur during the pre-dawn hours while most of us were asleep. A simple alert could end up saving your life in this situation. Back in 1992, people responded well to the threat, and thanks to their knowledge and the impressive work at the Houston NWS office at the time, the death toll was zero. For an event like the November 1992 tornado outbreak, that’s a wonderful thing.
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