A series of storms that blew through South and Central Texas early Monday caused at least six tornadoes — one of which overturned a line of rail cars in Williamson County — adding to storm damage that snapped 300-year-old oaks at an East Austin organic farm and managed to knock over El Arroyo restaurant’s 600-pound sign.
The National Weather Service confirmed that two of the tornadoes hit near Thrall, in southeastern Williamson County. At least four ripped through the San Antonio area.
The weather service was still surveying the damage Monday afternoon. No one was killed, but the winds and lashing rain — which could mark the beginning of Central Texas’ storm season — did cause tens of thousands of Central Texans to lose power. Wind gusts of up to 80 mph impaled a corrugated metal roof on a power line pole in Butler, a scene Bluebonnet Electric Co-Op lineman Kyle Kasper photographed.
“We do have some more damage paths to survey,” said Brett Williams, a National Weather Service forecaster, adding that teams will probably be out in the field again Tuesday.
Almost 2 inches of rain fell across the Austin metro area over a few hours, while parts of the San Antonio area were doused with more than 3 inches.
That said, Central Texas is probably in for some relief, with forecasts calling for clear skies and warm temperatures over the next few days.
The storms hit mostly between 11 p.m. Sunday and 1 a.m. Monday. They were surprising in part because the moisture level in the atmosphere suggested something less intense, said Troy Kimmel, a University of Texas meteorologist and instructor. But the atmospheric instability created by a system that came out of the Pacific — a particularly dynamic system, Kimmel said — was like a hot pepper that gave a pot of chili an extra kick.
Some of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the severe weather late Sunday were in southeastern Williamson County.
Near Thrall, home to about 900 people, a tornado derailed a dozen train cars carrying motor vehicles off U.S. 79.
Near Taylor, a piece of the back porch of Jeff Ripple’s house was blown off during the storms early Monday and ended up entangled in trees in the front yard. Ripple, pastor of the Christ Fellowship Church in Taylor, said he heard the sound of strong winds and “popping,” and that he thought it was hailing. But during a flash of lightning around 12:30 a.m., he saw the back porch of his house on County Road 446 had been blown away.
Ripple’s son, Spencer, who lives next door, said he saw the piece of roof fly over his father’s house. No one was injured, but the pastor said, “It was really scary.”
Roger Seggern, a farmer who lives on County Road 446, said a $3,000 bull he had just bought was struck by lightning and killed during the storm. The winds also ripped his three metal grain bins from their foundations and slammed them across the street into his neighbor’s pasture, where they lay crumpled on Monday. Seggern said he estimated the gusts during the storm were at least 110 mph because the bins were built to withstand the 104-mph wind that destroyed bins during a storm in 2001.
Paul Wilson, another southeastern Williamson County resident, weathered the storm in a renovated chicken coop with his wife. Wilson said the storm caught them camping out in the chicken coop and was blowing the coop’s door open. Wilson, a plumber, had to hold the door shut during the storm, which he said seemed to last “an eternity.” When he stepped outside after the mayhem, he saw that the backside of the chicken coop and a garage had been blown away.
Williamson County officials said early Monday that about 20 homes in the area sustained damage from the storms.
In Bastrop County, a small trailer in Cedar Creek flew 8 feet off its cinder blocks and landed in the piney brush. The Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management was assessing damage in the region. Emergency Management coordinator Mike Fisher said damage was concentrated in Elgin and the western part of the county, affecting mainly fences, barns, carports and trees.
On Decker Lane, on the eastern edge of Austin, Katie and David Pitre estimated the storm caused $130,000 in damage to Tecolote Farm, a community-supported agriculture program started in 1994 that sells directly to chefs. The Pitres sent a message to supporters that read: “Halves of 300 year old oak trees on the ground. Lightning hit some trees. Big branches on house roof. Half of barn roof gone, including a good portion of our solar array and rainwater gutters. Solar array was not yet insured. Thought barn was still insured but turns out not. Dang. Picking up pieces.”
In downtown Austin, those expecting a chuckle as they drove down West Fifth Street were met with a rare disappointment. The El Arroyo parking lot sign, one of Austin’s most durable icons, was knocked over by the high winds — leaving passers-by unable to enjoy the sign’s latest punch line: “I don’t believe in political parties, but I believe in parties.”
Storms like Monday morning’s are unusual for this time of year, Kimmel said. Storm season typically starts weeks from now, in spring, which will arrive March 20, according to the astronomical calendar. But the storms seem to have confirmed the theory to which thermometers have been attesting for weeks: Winter has come and gone in Central Texas.
“It looks like winter is over,” Kimmel said. “These temperatures are what we expect to see a month down the road.”
The last freeze in Austin was in early January. Of the 50 days since 2017 started, 35 have topped 70 degrees at Camp Mabry. On Monday, daytime temperatures hit the high 70s, about 10 degrees warmer than the norm of 66 degrees for Feb. 20.
More springlike weather is on the way. The weather service expects clear skies as high temperatures rise into the mid-80s by Thursday and remain in the 70s at least through Saturday.
The return of spring is generally cause to grin and break out the flip-flops. But it also means a greater risk of thunderstorms and floods — and atmospheric moisture that could make a storm like Monday morning’s even worse.
“If we have a system like this one a month or two down the road,” Kimmel said, “we could have some very severe weather.”