Two days from now will be the 10th anniversary of the "famous" tornado which struck Salt Lake City on August 11th, 1999. This wasn't some pantywaist "desert dust devil"; it was a serious weather event causing property damage, injury, and even one death.
According to this Deseret News story, on that day 10 years ago, thunderstorms formed over the Oquirrh Mountains on the west side of the valley as colder air from Nevada moved into Utah and met with warm, southerly winds. One of the storms formed a funnel cloud as it moved towards Salt Lake. By 12:41 P.M., the tornado was over 1340 West and 400 South, generating wind damage. By 12:45, the F2 storm actually touched down and moved downtown. By 12:55, it was gone, the total time on the ground only 10 minutes.
But what a "10 minutes". In that brief time span, three hundred buildings and homes were damaged, 34 left uninhabitable. Eighty people were injured, some critically. The one fatality was 38-year-old Allen A. Crandy, a Las Vegas resident in town for the Outdoor Retail Convention. He was struck by flying debris. Damage estimates hovered around $170 million. You can read the National Weather Service's final report on the event HERE. KSL Channel 5 has an anniversary story HERE; news video embedded below:
Here's a good video showing clips from several local media outlets during that day:
And here's another video, shot from the University of Utah further to the east, which provides a better perspective, showing a time lapse sequence:
According to this Salt Lake Tribune story, there was no advance warning of the tornado issued by NWS forecasters. They did know that severe thunderstorms were possible from reports of one-inch hail in Herriman to the southwest, and were preparing to issue a severe thunderstorm warning when they turned on the T.V. and saw live footage of the tornado. What made forecasting the tornado difficult was the fact that, unlike most of the more common Midwestern classic twisters, which develop from rotation in a thunderstorm and descend downward, the Salt Lake funnel cloud started from the ground up. In addition, tornadoes in Utah are comparatively infrequent; from 1950 through 2005, only 121 tornadoes have touched down in Utah, and they tend to be much smaller and shorter-lived than the monsters of the Midwest.
Weather radar capability is now improved. While the Salt Lake NWS office uses the same radar in place in 1999, the displays offer more details and more frequent updates. Radar capabilities have doubled since the tornado, allowing forecasters to see more of what is going on in the Salt Lake Valley below 10,000 feet. Data is higher resolution, which allows scientists to see more detail in thunderstorms and winter storms. The rate at which radar data can be seen has increased, allowing for more frequent updates. Forecasters also have access to the Doppler radar system used by the Federal Aviation Administration at Salt Lake International Airport.
The Deseret News is also soliciting public comments from witnesses, which they will combine into another story in the next couple of days. Here's a small sampling of some of the more descriptive comments:
Jeanne L. | 5:42 p.m. July 31, 2009
I remember that day very well. At the time, I worked at a business located at 5600 W. California Avenue. I was outside of the building on break when I looked to the northwest and said to a fellow worker, "I wouldn't be surprised if a funnel cloud dropped out of that cloud mass." We went back inside and a while later another employee's wife called and said there was a tornado that had just hit downtown.
msgelter | 5:52 p.m. July 31, 2009
I had just walked out of the Expo Center with a group of business associates. As we rounded the corner toward the parking lot between the Delta Center and the Doubletree Inn where our van was parked, we were hit in the face with strong winds and debris. We hustled toward the van and jumped inside just as the electrical transformers at the Delta Center began to explode. The van began rocking violently, and I was the only person in the van to WATCH what was passing directly overhead. (Everyone else had their heads down in their laps!) As a native of Ohio, I have watched many a tornado pass close by, but this just didn't seem strong enough! However, after the cloud of debris blew by, I caught sight of the funnel cloud moving away. We hightailed it out of there (not wanting to get caught in traffic), and noticed that the back docks of the Salt Palace were now littered with clothing and wooden crate pieces (from the Outdoor Expo). Then the cell phones started ringing . . .
Mark Petersen | 9:58 p.m. Aug. 1, 2009
I was headed back to work from lunch and was right in front of the Delta Center on 300 West and in the middle of the tornado! I stopped when I saw a metal newspaper stand hurling through the air headed right for my front windshield so I ducked down and then right at that moment all the windows in my Ford Bronco blew out from the tremendous air pressure. My truck was still drivable but quite damaged from all the debris. Looking around I saw the windows on the Delta Center falling to the ground and a lawn crew's trailer behind me had been tipped over and gasoline was spilling all over the place. The driver of that truck and myself ran over to help a parking lot attendant out of his booth that had tipped over, stepping over live power lines (not even thinking). What struck me was how quiet it was after it passed and then we heard sirens from everywhere. It was an experience I will never forget! I felt lucky to get out with only a damaged truck and a ripped shirt.
Anonymous | 12:05 p.m. Aug. 2, 2009
We had just returned to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building from lunch, the inside of the building became very dark and people were coming in to escape the wind. We thought just another storm, but at the 4th floor Family Search Center, we looked out the windows to see the devastation all around, dust and debris all over,curtains flying out broken windows of the Wyndam Hotel on South Temple, trees and limbs flying through the air, the temple appeared intact but later found out the sweetheart tree by the temple was torn down. It was very hard to return to our apartment on 1st North and West Temple because of the downed trees and debris. Some of the cars in our parking lot had dented roofs because of the limbs of large trees falling. On the way home we noticed a hugh air conditioner stuck high up in a tree.
PA RN | 11:37 p.m. Aug. 2, 2009
In a Southwest plane coming from Vegas...started circling around Provo and told we couldn't land in SLC due to weather, but the sky was blue! Circled a few more times, then told we would land. We entered black sky, white knuckle gripped the seats, took a roller coaster ride (yes, my behind left the seat a few times!) and finally landed. The pilot was applauded when he touched ground...I'm sure he'll never forget. I still struggle to fly to this day after that experience!
John Herbst III | 7:28 a.m. Aug. 3, 2009
I was in the Salt Lake Temple doing Baptisms for the Dead. I just remember the lights flickered in the Temple and the officiator told us not to worry about it, it was just the construction outside. Little did we know a tornado went over us. I just remember getting out of the Temple and all the yellow tape all over. I had no idea it was a tornado until I heard on the radio that there had been one. I had already got on the freeway and was headed home to Ogden. It was one of the weirdest days of my life.
Utah Native | 9:29 a.m. Aug. 3, 2009
My husband and I were in Centerville [about 15 miles north of SLC] headed south when we noticed the sky near SLC had become a thick greenish-gray, a color of sky I had never seen. We headed back home and were astounded by the news. I begged my husband not to go on his scout campout that night in the Uintahs in tornado weather, but he did anyway. Learning from the news that the tornado had gone up her street, I called my sister who lived on 2nd North in a basement apt, just south of the capitol. She had been asleep napping when she thought she heard people getting out all their power tools and lawn mowers, it was so noisy. When she emerged, trees were down and the damage was visible up and down the street.
As of this post, there are 80 comments appended to the Deseret News story. Nearly all are worth reading.