One hailstorm is bad enough, but a trio of hailstorms striking three separate metropolitan areas in one night is virtually unheard of. Baseball- to softball-sized hail pummeled parts of Texas and Oklahoma Wednesday night, slamming places around Fort Worth, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, including Norman.
The cost will almost certainly exceed a billion dollars. Hail has historically been the most costly severe weather hazard in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, and Wednesday night’s storms illustrate why.
“It quickly became clear that we were almost certainly facing a billion-dollar event,” wrote Steve Bowen, head of catastrophe insight at Aon Insurance. “Unfortunately, we saw significant hail swaths impact highly exposed areas around San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Norman.”
Across Texas and Oklahoma, the National Weather Service received nearly three dozen reports of significant hail, of two inches or greater in diameter, and seventeen of baseball size or larger.
At least once instance of four-inch hail was observed in Hondo, Texas, west of San Antonio, from a prolific rotating thunderstorm that crossed into South Texas from Mexico.
Tornado watches were issued in Texas ahead of the severe weather, storms anticipated to spin with the risk of damaging winds, hail and a few tornadoes.
“Some of the hail [could] be significant (2 inches or larger diameter), especially in the Rio Grande to southern Hill Country area,” warned the National Weather Service. “Deep, well-organized supercells are possible with hailstones to near 4 inches in diameter.”
Rotating storms fired south of Abilene, Texas, starting around 2 p.m. Around sunset, they exploded in strength while ingesting more warm, moist air. That’s when they start to unload gigantic hail.
Quarter- to ping pong ball-sized hail first came down in rural Parker County, Texas north of Weathersford, more than 15 miles west of Ft. Worth. Hail size increased to that of golf balls or hen eggs as the storm crossed east of Farmer Road southwest of Azle. Three people were injured in Azle when their mobile home flipped in strong winds.
Hail the size of baseballs began falling as the storm reached the Jacksboro Highway, which leads northwest out of Ft. Worth. The hail then passed through Lake Crest Estates and Marine Creek Hills before moving over Business 287 and even Interstate 35 West. Hail production diminished after the storm crossed Keller.
That’s a roughly 20-mile track of destructive hail, some the size of a tennis ball. There were reports of smashed car windows and substantial damage to vehicles. The hail shredded trees and littered the ground in leaves, leaving a smell akin to freshly cut grass in its wake.
“When we were north of Fort Worth we decided to get right in the path of the core to document the large hail that was expected from the storm,” wrote Andrew Justin, a meteorology student at the University of Oklahoma who was chasing the storm, in a Twitter direct message. “We got off the interstate and parked underneath a Quik Trip overhang and all of a sudden golf balls starting falling out of the sky, pelting the cars that couldn’t get underneath the overhang at the gas pumps.”
While areas northwest of Fort Worth were getting pummeled, a second storm was raging in the Sooner State, and targeted parts of the Oklahoma City metro area south of downtown. One storm pulsed up in intensity southwest of the city and east of the H. E. Bailey Turnpike around dusk, growing into a monster as it trekked towards Interstate 35. Norman, where the University of Oklahoma is located, was in the direct path of baseball size hail.
Justin and his chase partner drove north, returning to campus right after the storm had blown through.
“We found a traffic light that was mangled on Robinson Street,” he wrote. “All of the streets were just littered with leaves, twigs, and branches. We went to a couple of car dealerships and nearly every car had a shattered windshield and was missing at least one window. This was a disaster for the city of Norman.”
The storm passed directly over where most of the meteorologists at the Storm Prediction Center and local National Weather Service office, as well as research meteorologists at the University, live. Though they forecast the weather, they’re not immune to it.
Evan Bentley, a forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center, measured three inch hail. It punctured through children’s toys in his front yard.
“Fortunately our cars were fine, and I was able to help a few neighbors get their cars in the garage in time, but a lot of neighbors were not so fortunate,” he wrote.
Though Bentley didn’t lose any windows, he was forced to replace screens. He tweeted that every vehicle in his neighborhood that was parked outside is covered in dents.
“[I]t’s not an exaggeration to say a majority of houses suffered damage, whether to windows, walls/roofs or their cars,” tweeted Tomer Burg, a meteorologist and PhD student at the University of Oklahoma.
The hail wasn’t just large - it was widespread. Two to three inch hail fell in a swath about 40 miles long. Winds up to 70 mph drove the hail into the side of buildings, damaging their exteriors.
Vehicle damage will quickly become pricy, racking up a pricetag well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“We’re pretty much at the point where billion-dollar U.S. thunderstorm events are a common occurrence,” wrote Bowen. “Hail is largely the main driver of annual thunderstorm losses. The explosive growth of population into high-risk thunderstorm regions is undoubtedly the primary driver of these increased losses.”
Bowen also noted the uptick in large hail days across the Lower 48 - a trend that science suggests will continue. He wrote that, least year alone, insurers paid more than $36 billion for weather-related losses in the United States.
The worst storms of the day were actually those in South Texas from the Mexican border east towards San Antonio. That stretch is among the most prolific in the world for enormous hail.
Just last year, Del Rio, Texas was hit by grapefruit-sized hail on April 11; they saw baseballs or larger Wednesday. Baseball-sized hail is practically an annual occurrence around the city.
The first severe thunderstorm warning in the South Texas corridor that got hit came at 3:42 p.m. for Val Verde County, along the Rio Grande northwest of Del Rio. A second supercell thunderstorm developed to the south and prompted a warning at 4:30. By 5 p.m., three inch chunks of ice - larger than baseballs - was crashing out of the sky.
Four-inch hail was observed in Sabinal and Hondo, Texas, from a towering storm that reached altitudes of 64,000 feet. It’s rare for a severe thunderstorm to exceed 50,000 feet. Multiple rotating storms merged into one giant 30 mile-wide supercell that rode along Highway 90, prompting tornado warnings. One tornado was confirmed.
In Sabinal, hail barreled through the roofs of homes, leaving craters in the ground as meteor-like chunks of ice shattered on pavement and burrowed into lawns. Near continuous thunder was heard, the storm producing over a thousand lightning strikes every ten minutes.
In Hondo, Texas, some houses reportedly lost all their windows with hail as large as grapefruits.
Hail the size of ping pong balls or larger fell in an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Doppler radar indicated large, tumbling hail, discernible in a product called “differential reflectivity.” The plot shows positive values when raindrops, which are wider than they are tall, are sighted. Hail, especially large to giant hail, appears spherical to the radar, with values near zero.
On radar, bats could be seen emerging from a cave at the Bracken Cave Preserve - a nightly occurrence - but then altering their path to flee east ahead of the storm.
The storm weakened as it approached San Antonio from the west, but additional storms continued to develop along Highway 90 west towards Del Rio even after midnight.
In the meantime, as the Southern Plains begin to clean up from the barrage of hailstorms, additional severe weather is in the offing. Strong to potentially dangerous thunderstorms will return to the forecast as early as Monday of next week.