The April 21, 1957 West Texas
 Tornado Outbreak

by Jonathan D. Finch


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Overview
 

                        A few tornadoes occurred just south and southeast of Lubbock on April 20, 1957. Apparently these tornadoes
                        did little damage. I just requested newspaper articles from the Terry county newspaper office and will perhaps know
                        more in a week or two. The most prominent tornado was south of Brownfield.  But the show was far from over and the
                        stage was set for the Easter Sunday outbreak.                        

                        Several tornadoes occurred in a fairly localized area in west Texas on April 21, 1957 between 530 pm CST and
                        1030 pm. Other tornadoes were reported near Seminole and near Causey, New Mexico. The tornadoes west and
                        north of Lubbock caused extensive damage even though they moved over mainly rural areas and managed to avoid the
                        towns. These tornadoes moved to the northwest and north-northwest, which is very unusual for west Texas. No people
                        were killed by these tornadoes. This is due to the fact that many people heard about the tornadoes and hid in storm cellars
                        or basements. Also, the tornadoes on the 20th may have heightened attention to severe weather.  
                       
                        This website will give a detailed account of the tornadoes that occurred on April 21. This information came from the following
                         sources:

                        newspaper accounts
                        1st person accounts based on phone conversations with survivors
                        accounts told by relatives in cases where the farmowners were deceased
                        The book "Significant Tornadoes" by Tom Grazulis"
 
                        This research would not have been possible before the age of the internet. I was able to look up the phone numbers of the
                        affected people(found in newspapers from Littlefield and Lubbock) using "Yahoo People Search". My unlimited long
                        distance plan came in very handy. One question I asked a lot was "Where was your father's farm home located exactly?",
                        or  in a few instances "Where was your farm located exactly"?
                       
                        I felt that a detailed study of this case was warranted. Tornado outbreaks in west Texas are relatively rare. There are many 
                        cases of 1, 2 or 3 tornadoes in West Texas but very few cases of several significant tornadoes from different storms on the same
                        evening. Morever, this case is unique in that all the tornadoes on the 21st moved to the northwest or north-northwest. This 
                        project would have been very difficult if not impossible in 10 to 15 years. This case being 50 years old proved to be a difficult
                        but accomplishable task. This tornado outbreak could have been much worse under different circumstances. All the tornadoes
                        occurred in rural areas and no towns were hit directly. Most people in the path of the tornadoes hid in storm shelters. All the
                        tornadoes occurred in farming communities. Farmers on the high plains tend to very weather savvy and this greatly reduces
                        fatalities. The slow movement of these tornadoes(20 mph) also gave people time to seek shelter.

                        This website will also provide a detailed meteorological discussion which will include many surface maps and upper air
                        charts. I will also estimate instability and shear. If you are looking for lots of indices and magic numbers you will probably be
                        disappointed.

The Opdyke-Whitharral-Littlefield tornado

                   
A tornado developed southwest of Smyer around 535-540 pm. Witnesses describe multiple funnel clouds. A tornado
                        was observed by many onlookers at the Spade ranch in Smyer for 20 minutes. The owner of the ranch, Joe 
                        Christopher, assured everyone that it was too cool for a tornado. This tornado(es) moved northwest and northwest.
                        Mr. Avery said that one big tornado moving from the southeast merged with a smaller tornado and formed a  giant tornado
                        south of Whitharral. The two photos shown here were taken by Avalanche staffer John Rogers who had to be pulled
                        out of the flood waters. Baseball to softball sized hail fell with the storm before the tornado struck according to Avery.
                        The tornado hit near Whitharral between 6 pm and 630 pm. After hitting {1 mile south and 1/2 mile west) and (2 miles
                        north and 1.5)  west of Whitharral, the tornado turned to the north-northwest and passed 5 miles southwest of Littlefield
                        and 4 miles west of Littlefield. Deputy Sherriff Elson Mcleese had his car tossed around on highway 84 due south of Amherst.
                        The time of this event in the papers was 930 pm. In order for this to be the same tornado that hit Littlefield, the time must
                        have been much earlier. The tornado knocked down 18 power poles in this area. Tornadic damage also occurred 1/2 mile
                        east of Amherst. This tornadic storm missed all towns but caused major rural damage.
                        Two houses were destroyed on the L.W. Hill farm east of Levelland(1 mile east and 1.5 miles north of the Opdyke gin). The Hill's
                        and Mexican laborers were not home. Numerous sheds and barns were destroyed and irrigation pipes disappeared. The
                        Reuben Mayes home was destroyed as well as the tractor and pickup. The family was not home. The home owned by Joe
                        Dominguez near Opdyke was destroyed. Homes owned by Joe Pelfrey, Sylvester(Clyde) Brock, and Will Redding were
                        destroyed west of Whitharral.  The Charley Vineyard rent home was destroyed. F. E. Sadler saw the funnel approaching and
                        escaped in a pickup. Almost everything around his residence was heavily damaged. Several motorists between Whitharall and
                        Littlefield sought shelter in the Water's storm shelter. The Water's had guests at their house for easter and they all took shelter.
                        5 cars and a pickup were tossed like toys and hurled into fields. The Walters had 26 people in their storm cellar. A car was
                        hurled 1/2 mile close to the Water's shelter(2 nw Whitharral), with a board driven though the frame and into the front seat.
                        Hens from the Walter's brooder house were lying dead all over the place. The cars and trucks that were parked  outside the
                        house were scattered over a 1/2 mile and demolished beyond repair. Every imaginable automobile part could be found strewn
                        in the fields. The hood of one are was several hundred feet from the car itself. Household items were scattered for a half mile.
                        A tractor parked on the south side of the house which lowered the plows in the rear and the tractor was blown through the
                        house, plowing furrows right through the foundation and on past the house on the other side. Only the foundation of the house
                        was left. Waters indicated that 2 tornadoes hit his farm--one from the east and the other from the south. The first tornado
                        destroyed the brooder house then the second tornado hit. Several persons on the Avery farm 1 mile south of Whitharall went into
                        a storm shelter. Only some boards remained where the Avery farm house was, with only a couple of tractors recognizable. A
                        storm shelter saved 14 people in the Herrin house as the house was destroyed. A brand new pickup and combine near the
                        Herrin house were hurled over 300 yards. Eleven homes were destroyed between Whitharral and Opdyke. Several people
                        took refuge in the Lumsden-Perkins gin 4 miles west of Littlefield. The Lopez family took shelter behind the gin in their car.
                         They were buried in rubble as the gin was destroyed. Several shacks owned by Latin american workers were destroyed.
                        Wanda Fry and her sister were driving between Levelland and Littlefield and their car was flipped over several times. Other
                        homes destroyed near Whitharral belonged to John Waters, Ben Waters, Robert Avery,  and Myrtle Douglas. Texas highway
                        patrolman Bud Simmons described the funnel as the "largest funnel I've ever seen, and I've seen lots of  them." He said the
                        funnel was at least 1/4 mile wide and possibly wider. According to Simmons who tracked the tornadoes, hail the size of eggs
                        fell with the tornado near Whitharral. Simmons alongside Ted Court found that little was left of most of the houses, with furniture,
                        refrigerators and butane tanks scattered across the fields.  Their  "tornado hunt" was ended by 3 to 4 foot flood waters that
                        stalled their vehicle. Five homes were destroyed in the Whitharall rural area. B. F. Waters came out of a storm shelter to find his
                        home demolished.  Thirty people were injured southwest and west of Littlefield. Mrs. Jim Shipman,  Mrs. Claudio Lopez
                        and Mary Brooks(4 sw Littlefield) suffered pelvis, shoulder or back injuries. After passing 4 miles west of Littlefield, the tornado
                        continued north to north-northwest and passed 1/2 mile to 1 mile east of Amherst. Barns and outbuildings were damaged or
                        destroyed on properties owned by Ben Greener(2 ne Amherst), Barney Sherrill, Forest Nutall, Pete Thompson, Leon Sherrill,
                        Larkin Nix and Maud Bennett. The Charley Vineyard house located 4 miles northwest of Opdyke(half way between Opdyke and 
                        Whitharral was damaged and the hired hand house was destroyed. The Bud Mayes(Reuben Mayes) home 1/2 mile south and 1/2
                        mile east of the Vineyard home was destroyed.


Hart Camp tornado

                        A tornado developed north of Lubbock around 845 pm and moved northwest to Hart Camp and then to southwest of Olton by
                        10 pm. This tornado caused extensive rural damage but missed all towns. This tornado may have been produced by the same storm
                        that spawned the tornado southeast of Lubbock. This tornado caused extensive damage in the Hart Camp area. Pat Pickrell of the
                        Littlefield Press office staff talked about the tornado as it moved across rural areas between Spade and Abernathy. She said that
                        she was driving fast to get home before the roads became muddy when she encountered the tornado 7 miles east of Spade. Power
                        lines were torn down and telephone poles were left as stumps. A barn owned by Joe Blankenship was was damaged only 200 yards
                        from her house. No homes were hit but several barns were destroyed. The Prentiss home was completely swept away 2 miles southeast
                        of Hart Camp at 915 pm with parts of the house wrapped around the neighboring Neinast home. Nothing was left of the house
                        including the furniture. The J. W. Wells home was destroyed but the southwest walls were left standing and some of the furniture was still
                        undamaged. The Mcafee home was heavily damaged with outbuildings completely disappearing. The H. R. Monroe home north
                        of Spade was heavily damaged. Farm buildings were damaged on the A. Farr farm. The Neinast home was heavily damaged. Damage
                        in the Hart Camp/North Spade areas was $1/2 million. This tornado apparently continued to the northwest since outbuildings were
                        destroyed 6 miles southwest of Olton with farm homes unroofed. The tornado apparently hit southeast of Hart Camp at 915 pm
                        and Hart Camp around 930 pm. The Lilly McGill home was damaged 5 miles sw of Olton(3 s and 4 w). The Paul Burrus farm was
                        damaged 5.5 miles sw of Olton. Barns and outbuildings were destroyed 6 miles sw of Olton. Wayne Monroe, 9 years old when the
                        tornado occurred, told me that a barn was anhialated down  to the foundation on their farm.
                        
                       

The Shallowater-Anton-Spade tornado

                    A tornado developed south of Shallowater and moved northwest to 2 miles east of Anton and to 4 miles east of Littlefield and then
                        to 4 miles east of Amherst. The time of this tornado is in question. One estimate was 730 pm as clocks stopped south of Spade.
                        Another time was 845 pm and this was probably more accurate. The storm that caused this tornado is probably the same storm that
                        produced the tornadoes south and southwest of Lubbock. This tornado missed all towns but caused extensive damage to rural
                        homes. The David Mcvey home was damaged 2 miles east of Anton. The family took shelter at 8 pm and the home was hit at  845 pm.
                        Walls were left standing but the roof was gone. The garage was destroyed. The George Sooter home was unroofed 3 miles
                        southeast of Shallowater. The garage was demolished.  The family was in the storm cellar. On the J. E. Paden farm 3 miles west and
                        3 miles south of Spade, all the walls were flattened and barns were leveled. The pump house was unroofed. The Leonard King home
                        4 miles east of  Littlefield(2 south and 4 west of Spade) was unroofed.  The A. W. Duncan home 2 miles northwest of Shallowater was
                        destroyed. The pickup was rolled on top of the rubble. The entire family was in the storm cellar. The George Sooter home southwest
                        of Shallowater was unroofed. The last damage from this tornado was to Clyde Brock's house 4 miles north of Littlefield. A pickup
                        belonging to Leonard king was thrown 400 yards into a pasture and parts of the pickup were thrown for 1/2 mile. The Kings made a
                        dash for the cellar when they saw and only made it to the sw corner of the house when the tornado hit. All that was left of the house was
                         the little room where they were huddling. A funnel cloud was observed from Resse AFB at 804 pm to the northeast(5 miles). This funnel
                        was probably produced by the same storm that hit the southern outskirts of Lubbock around 730 pm. At 730 pm a tornado was sighted
                        from the Lubbock airport 10 miles south of the airport.  At 743 pm and 745 pm, Reese AFB and the Lubbock airport observed a funnel
                        cloud 10 miles southeast and 10 miles southwest respectively. They were likely looking at the same funnel(not a tornado). This is
                        in agreement with the fact that no damage occurred in the Lubbock clty limits. 
                       

The Mayfield Tornado

                   
Another tornado hit near Mayfield and then moved to the southeast of Olton and continued to 5 miles north of  Olton. Homes were
                        unroofed near Mayfield and a wood frame shop owned by Fred Long was totally destroyed 5 miles north of  Olton or just north of the
                        Running Water Creek.

            
Other tornadoes

                   
Other tornadoes occurred in open country with little or no damage. A tornado swept over highway 385 and across Postmaster Arbie
                        Joplin's farm 1.5 miles north and 1 mile west of Lums Chapel from the southeast corner to the northwest corner. Trees and power
                        poles were uprooted and a feed  house was demolished. Contents of the feed house(made of corrugated iron sheets),  which included
                        a chest type deep freeze, were found a few miles away to the northwest and northeast. This information was gathered from Charles
                        Joplin(son of the deceased Arbie Joplin) and from newspaper reports out of Littlefield.
                         
                        On the Don Spain house 1.5 miles w of Olton, an irrigation well motor was turned askew from its concrete moorings. Two barns were
                        demolished and telephone poles were sheared off at the ground. There was damage to the Raymond Motely outbuildings 6 miles NW
                        of Olton. There was severe damage to the 2 southwestern Public Service Co. lines out of Plant X. 3 twin pole structures on each of 2
                        (115,000 volt) lines about 3 w of Olton were toppled. A tornado hit 2 miles w and 2.5 miles north of Olton and destroyed a chicken
                        house and barn and flattened a windmill. A tornado hit the J. W. Wells house just north of Hart Camp and did extensive damage.
                        There were several tornadoes around Hart Camp and they are impossible to sort out.

                        A tornado was seen by thousands of onlookers south of Lubbock. Fortunately this tornado lifted just before reaching city limits.

                        Tornadoes were observed near Coyote Lake or about 12 miles southwest of Muleshoe.

                        Ted Court saw a lot of debris strewn across Highway 82 to the east of Idalou when he was driving back to the Lubbock area
                        on April 23. I believe that this tornado was a continuance of the tornado observed from the Lubbock airport from 15 miles away.

                        A tornado occurred near Causey, NM on April 21. The farms belonging to Cicero Bilberry,  Howard Gardner,
                        L. V. Thompson,  and Fletcher Judah were hit to some degree. The tornado described by many witnesses ripped the
                        roof off Howard Gardner's dairy barn and lifted 2 barns off their foundations at the Cicero Billberry farm, splintering them
                        over a wide area. Jess Padon who watched the tornado said that the tornado moved in an unusual direction, to the
                        north and west. A piece of flying timber was "tossed like a javelin"  into the side of the Bilberry house, and penetrated the wall.
                        The irrigation pump house at the L. V. Thompson farm was splintered and the engine was blown from its blocks. A windmill
                        on the Judah farm was demolished. Jess Padon witnessed 5 tornadoes between 330 and 4 pm but the worst one didn't
                        hit any houses, although it could be seen "roaring through fields and pastures".

                        A tornado did some property damage15 miles west of Seminole, TX on April 21.

Credits

                        Individuals that I talked to about this tornado include::

                        Don Avery, Robert Avery, Mr. Spain, Wayne Monroe, Elson Mcneese, Charles Joplin, Jerry Brock,  John Hope,
                        Ted Court, Fred Long family, Charles Vineyard Jr., R. L. Hipp,  Mr. Neinast, Charles Vineyard Jr., McGill family,  Bud Mayes,
                        Gary Motley and Mr./Mrs. Greener.             

                        Newspapers that I used include:

                        Plainview Daily Herald
                        Lubbock Morning Avalanche
                        Lubbock Evening Heald
                        County Wide News--Littlefield, TX
                        Herald--Littlefield, TX

Synoptic Sequence of events 


                        On April 19, a strong shortwave trough ejected northeast across the plains. Strong tornadoes occurred in Wisconsin and
                        tornadoes also occurred in Kansas and Oklahoma. After the shortwave passed, a front pushed through most of Kansas
                        except for the southeast. By 1730 UTC April 20, the front was mainly stationary across the southern plains. Thunderstorms
                        pushed an outflow boundary through west Texas. The mid(500mb) and high level flow was still fairly strong early on April 20.
                        Thunderstorms also helped develop a cold pool further south and east in northeast Texas and Arkansas. North of the outflow
                        boundary in west Texas, the winds were easterly and dewpoints very high(64F at Lubbock). This set the stage for a few
                        torndoes in April 20th just south and southeast of Lubbock. The plains front was weakening on April 20. However, persistent
                        convection in the uncapped southern plains was helping to maintain a baroclinic zone. Also, a weak shortwave trough of sorts
                        was located ahead of the westerlies across east Texas and Arkansas. Thus, we had a split jet with a weak branch across the
                        Arkalatex and the main branch retreating to the intermountain west. A large cluster of storms developed along the weakening
                        front on the afternoon of April 20. When the flow at all levels is weak, thunderstorm outflow tends to run amuck. This happened
                        late on April 20. Thunderstorm outflow pushed well south into Texas. This process was well underway by 0630 UTC April 21.        
                        A separate cold pool pushed well south into east and south Texas. By April 21 at 12 UTC, most of the state of  Texas was
                        in the cool outflow air. Dense fog was noted at Lubbock and Clovis due to thunderstorm outflow moving upslope. In addition,
                        the retreating westerlies and closing off of upper low over the desert southwest left light mid(700 and 500mb) level flow over
                         the western high plains by 15 UTC April 21. Amarillo and Midland both had 10 kts at 500mb at 15 UTC. The high level
                        winds had also weakened at 250mb. Surface pressures started to lower on the afternoon of  April 21 as a result of the mid
                        level flow edging east into far west Texas and daytime heating on the front range. This resulted in mid level downslope  flow
                        across northern Old Mexico and lee troughing in Eastern New Mexico. But persistent upslope flow behind the central/north
                         Texas overnight MCS resulted in  surface high pressure across central and east Texas. Thus the pressure gradient was
                        increasing across West Texas with strong ageostrophic flow. The rain cooled air over central and north Texas was being forced
                        upslope by pressure falls to the west and resultant ageostrophic flow. This cool wedge of air did not budge during the morning
                        of April 21 as can be seen on the 1830 UTC surface map. Dense fog was still noted at Lubbock. However, the airmass just
                        north of  the boundary around the Lubbock area was becoming strongly unstable by afternoon with strong easterly to
                        east-northeast winds per 2230 UTC surface map. With increasing mid-level flow, the shear profile was starting to improve
                        around Lubbock by late on April 21. By late afternoon, the shear and instability were favorable for tornadoes in west Texas.
                        Any storm that developed along the boundary was destined to slowly move north into the highly sheared environment north
                        of the boundary with low dewpoint depressions. But would the storms strengthen fast enough along and just north of
                        the boundary so that once they moved into the capped environment they wouldn't die(they would already be supercells)? Once
                        a storm aquires supercell characteristics, it can still move into a capped environment and survive(with laminar appearance
                        below the LFC). But if a developing storm moves into a strongly capped environment too quickly, then survival chances
                        quickly diminish.

                        The 03 UTC upper air charts show stronger mid level flow than at 15 UTC, with 25kts 500mb at Midland and Amarillo.This is
                        not that strong, but  the 90 to 110 deg of directional turning in the lowest 2 to 3 km makes up for the weakness. The Amarillo
                        sounding was probably convectively contaminated though. The high level flow was still fairly strong and the low level winds
                        were still very strong and backed. The 0030 UTC surface map still showed strong upslope flow with high dewpoints at Lubbock.
                        Also of note were the strong 850mb winds(40kts at MAF). The combination of 500mb temps at -15C and surface dewpoints
                        at 64F at 3300ft elevation is quite telling.  Experienced storm chasers don't even need a skewt to know that this combination is
                        volatile. Then add 30kt backed winds north of a surface boundary and 50kts at 250mb from the southwest, and this leads to 
                        quite a storm environment.


                        500mb charts


                        15 UTC April 20 500mb 

                        03 UTC April 21 500mb

                        15 UTC April 21 500mb

                        03 UTC April 22 500mb

                        700mb charts

                        15 UTC April 21 700mb                         

                        03 UTC April 22 700mb

                                           

                    850mb charts

                        03 UTC April 22  850mb

                        250mb charts

                        15 UTC April 21 250mb                         

                       
                        03 UTC April 22 250mb

                        The 700-500mb winds were very weak at 15Z (10kts at LBB and AMA). By 03Z the mid level winds increased  to 25kts.
                        The high level winds were about 45 to 50 kts from the southwest. Thus the high level storm relative flow was quite good(50kts).
                        The follwing are surface maps leading up to and including April 21: under construction

                        1730 UTC April 20

                        0030 UTC April 21

                        0630 UTC April 21

                        1230 UTC April 21

                        1830 UTC April 21

                        2230 UTC April 21

                        0030 UTC April 22



                        When one thinks of upslope flow on the high plains, west Texas is usually not the first place that comes to mind. I tend to the
                        McCook-Sidney-Cheyenne-Scottsbluff corridor southward into northeast Colorado. But upon inspection of a topographic map,
                        one can readily see that southeast to east to northeast low level flow in the Lubbock area is definitely upslope. In fact, upslope
                        flow in west Texas can have a dramatic impact on weather conditions. Air that flows westward from Hall, Cottle, King, Stonewall
                        and Childress counties onto the "Caprock" has to ascend about 1200-1500ft in 25 to 50 miles.  The elevation gradient is not
                        as great in the Texas panhandle to the north and Edwards Plateau to the south. This can lead to higher surface pressures, cooler
                        temperatures and higher dewpoint temperatures in west Texas. Despite the "coolness" of the air, when the sun breaks out along
                        the southern edge of such an airmass it can become very unstable.With lowering surface pressures to the southwest due to
                        downslope flow and intense daytime heating in the clear air, the ageostrophic low level flow can become very strong.                       

                        A similar setup(at upper levels) occurred on May 10, 1991. A strong tornado moved northwest near Pep, TX.

                        Approximate sounding for Lubbock for 00z April 22  1957