Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Perspective on the 35th anniversary of the West Memphis tornado

[ This blog post was originally posted on the 25th anniversary of the West Memphis tornado of 1987. I am resurfacing it ten years later, on the 35th anniversary, for multiple reasons. 1) It was a significant and deadly event, which could have MUCH worse had the tornado hit the dog track packed with spectators. 2) And as the first in a triplicate of major weather events in a roughly two-week span, it also sparked the flame in me that continues to burn to this day, resulting in a career in aviation weather that has been fruitful and rewarding, as well as a side business that provides another outlet to exercise my passions for weather, making a difference by keeping people safe and informed, and giving back by mentoring the next generation of successful meteorologists. Thanks for reading! /EP ]


A quarter-century ago, I had been living in the Memphis area for just over a year and was in middle school when an event occurred that I now believe was the first spark that started the fire, igniting a passion that lives in me to this day and likely determined my future career path.

The West Memphis Tornado of 1987

On Monday, December 14, 1987, at 9:40pm, a major twister touched down just southwest of West Memphis, AR and moved rapidly northeast at 60 mph, tearing a path through the city across the Mississippi River from it's namesake, then blew across the Mighty Mississippi (thus disproving the myth that the river and bluffs protect Memphis and Shelby County) and into Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park in northwest Shelby County before lifting just west of Millington, TN.

Track of the F-3 tornado that passed through West Memphis, AR and crossed the river into Shelby County, TN

By the time it was done, F-3 damage was recorded in both Arkansas and Tennessee along a 25-mile path, six people were dead, and 121 others were injured.  Damage estimates were approximately $35 million [1987 dollars], including 235 homes, 35 businesses (many along Broadway street in downtown), and a school in West Memphis and 88 homes in the Northaven development west of Millington that were destroyed or heavily damaged.  In all, 1,500 people, or roughly 5% of the population of West Memphis, were left homeless.

According to Associated Press archives, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton sent in the National Guard and additional state troopers to put a halt to looting in the central business district following the tornado.

The tornado also struck several high voltage power lines, including two 500,000 volt lines and three 161,000 volt lines, leaving much of Crittenden County, AR without electric power. Those killed included a woman in her mobile home, an elderly man in a boarding house, a teenager in a grocery store parking lot, a one-year-old child in an apartment building, a person in a vehicle that was thrown on I-40, and a person in a truck stop parking lot.

As bad as it was, the destruction could have been much worse.  At the time of the tornado, 7000 spectators were at Southland Greyhound Park dog-racing track in West Memphis, which the twister missed by just one-quarter mile. Video below is courtesy KATV meteorologist Todd Yakoubian (@KATV_Weather on Twitter).

Meteorological setup

From a meteorological perspective, the tornado appeared to form just behind a warm front that lifted through the area.  From observations taken at Memphis International Airport (the closest recording station to the tornado), it was 50 degrees at 7pm with wind from the east at 6 mph and dense fog being reported. An hour later, the temperature had climbed to 66 degrees (after dark) and wind shifted to the southeast at 21 mph with fog lifting. Between 9:00-10:15pm, the temperature was 70 degrees and wind gusted from the southwest at up to 40 mph as pressure bottomed out at 29.38".

Surface map valid at 9pm with the surface low moving by just west of West Memphis.  The map indicates that it was 70 at Memphis Int'l and 40 in Jonesboro, AR with heavy snow falling in the Ozarks.

By 7am the next morning, the temperature had fallen back to 32 degrees following a night of westerly wind that gusted between 35-48 mph.  Weather maps show a potent upper-level disturbance moving by just west of the area and a rapidly-strengthening surface low moving through AR that evening.

Daily weather map for the morning of December 14, 1987. Low pressure over south TX lifted rapidly north and strengthened, reaching Chicago the next morning. The track of  the low through AR put the Mid-South in prime position for wintertime severe weather.

Upper level weather maps from December 14, 1987 at 6pm. Upper left: a strong jet stream over the Mid-South. Upper-right: an upper-level disturbance moving by to the west. Lower-left: low pressure at 5,000' over southern MO. Lower-right: surface low pressure over AR moving rapidly north, placing the Mid-South in the storm's "warm sector."

A triple case of bad luck

Unfortunately, the tornado was just the first event in a series of cases of bad luck dealt by Mother Nature. The town had not recovered from the tornado when parts of it flooded from 12" of rain eleven days later, on Christmas Eve night, leaving 1000 homes flooded and another person dead. Then, 7-10" of snow fell on January 6, another 11 days after the flooding rains. As snow melted, it added to the already existing misery caused by the flood and the destruction caused by the tornado.  Oddly enough,  West Memphis became the first U.S. city to be declared a federal disaster area twice in a two-week period due to this string of events.

A personal note

Many times, when a meteorologist is asked what triggered their interest in weather, it is a singular event that had an impact on their life. For many years, I was unsure of what that event in my life was.  However, I knew that my passion began in the middle school years, shortly after I relocated with my family to the Memphis area. There is no doubt now though, as I now vividly recall the destruction of the city upon driving through it with my parents within a few days of the tornado, that the West Memphis tornado of 1987 was THAT event in my life. I find it hard to believe that it was 25 years ago!  Perhaps that is also why I am so passionate about making sure people are informed and taking precautions when severe weather strikes, which has resulted in the services offered by and our mobile app-based weather alert system - StormWatch+.

Do you have more than a passing interest in weather, even if you're not in the profession?  What event triggered your  interest?  If you've lived in the Mid-South for a quarter century, what do you recall about this event? I'd love to see your comments below!

Erik Proseus
MWN Meteorologist

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Nick S said...

My interest in weather came from my parents. They would always watch The Weather Channel and when it stormed they would be sitting on the front porch no matter how bad it was. I guess after all the years I have turned into them!! I love all aspects of weather, from storms to snow and even hurricanes. I really would have liked to become a met, but never went to school for it. I am in the process of getting a personal weather station for my house.

Robert Hughey said...

,I remember a tornado that came through West Memphis on the night of April 7, 1980. It touched down at Hamilton Schultz field and damaged the bleachers. From there, it followed Broadway Street leaving damage along the way. I was a sophomore at Wonder High School, we had classes in the dark-no lights. My English classroom had one window knocked out, and the desks were covered with dry sand. Mrs. Wilhite asked us to write a paragraph about our experience about the storm. Mine turned into a 15-page report! Another tornado hit West Memphis about the same time in 1985. In was attending mid-week services at First Baptist Church when it passed right over the sanctuary. No damage, but the force of the wind caused rainwater to seep between the pieces of stained glass. It did, however, destroy a Fina station just up the street from the church. After we left church, the sun was back out and the most beautiful rainbow.

WxMayor said...

I really can't recall any single event that caused me to follow the weather so closely. I recall in the 60's seeing the grayscale weather radar on television for the first time and was so fascinated by it. I recall the first time I heard about a severe thunderstorm warning on the radio. Yes, I did say.. the radio. I have always been intrigued with why the weather does what it does. I also recall when I asked for a "weather station" for Christmas when I was about 10 years old. It was a simple weather van, a chart to determine wind speed, a mercury thermometer and a sling psychrometer. Included also, was one large nationwide daily weather map created by the Weather Bureau. I kept that map for a very long time. I really wanted to receive these maps daily so that I could analyze them but never did. Fast forward to 2006, which was a long time... I decided to enroll in Mississippi States Distance Learning program to obtain a Certificate of Broadcast Meteorology. I completed that study in 2009 and am very glad that I did.