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Hole in dense forest could reveal past tornado activity

Judy Sheppard knows what she saw, and she knows what she heard. She also knows the clearing across the creek from her home on Ten Eyck Road wasn’t a clearing before August 1979.

Now overgrown with alder and blackberries, the area is 50 yards wide and at least as deep, and once and for all it could be the deciding factor in whether the violent storm from that month and year was in fact a tornado, or if a microburst laid the trees down near her home.

“That was all cedars,” she said, pointing to the clearing. “My kids were outside, and I remember calling them because I just felt like something wasn’t quite right. And then, boom.”

Sheppard said the sound she heard next was unlike anything she’d experienced.

“I can tell you there was a definite sound like a freight train or a jet engine,” she said.

The fallen trees, or at least a few of them, have since traveled downstream about 100 feet or so, and now lie in a jumble near a bridge. Sheppard said her family had used them to create a swimming hole on the creek after they’d been knocked down.

The interesting thing about Sheppard’s story is that the cleared area sits in a low spot, surrounded by dense forest, so there likely would be no chance for a sustained, lateral wind to lay the trees down, and probably not in such a selective manner. The wind had to have come from above. This is consistent with a microburst event.

A microburst is a sudden and concentrated column of sinking air that produces divergent straight line winds as it essentially ricochets off the ground. Microbursts leave a calling card through the knock-down pattern. Where the swirling wind of tornadoes will knock down trees in random directions, leaving them looking like a spilled box of matches, a microburst lays the trees down in divergent patterns, creating flattened trees that lay in one direction but fan out at varying angles.

Here’s the fun part. Underneath all that foliage are the remaining trees from August 1979. An expert eye would be able to recognize the pattern and determine what type of event knocked the trees down. An expert such as Ronald McQueen, the meteorologist who photographed the storm. Learning of Sheppard’s account, McQueen showed more interest in the tornado files.

“Evidence of circular damage 34 years later certainly would be impressive,” he wrote in an email. “I’ve never heard of anything that has survived that long, even here in West Texas, where only the powerful tornadoes are able to rip bark off a tree. I would be curious just what the evidence is.”

McQueen also said he’d like to meet with Sheppard next time he’s in town. Maybe then our investigation will be put to bed once and for all. Maybe not?