Cedar Park remembers devastating 1997 tornado

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Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of a series of tornadoes that hit various cities across Central Texas, including an F-5—the strongest form—in Jarrell and an F-3 in Cedar Park. In all, 20 tornadoes were recorded.

The May 27, 1997 tornado in Jarrell killed 27 people and spanned three-quarters of a mile. In Cedar Park, there was one indirect death of a man who died of a heart attack. The storm, which moved throughout Williamson and Travis counties, caused property damage in the area of the storm.

Cedar Park City Council played a remembrance video and held a moment of silence during its meeting Thursday night.

“We wanted to take a few moments here to remember that event,” Mayor Matt Powell said.

Several citizens provided testimony during the video.

Cedar Park Fire Chief James Mallinger was a lieutenant at the time and said his team of three firefighters started their day in Lake Travis. At the time, there were only six firefighters and the chief on staff.

Mallinger said the team then received a call to head back toward Cedar Park because of inclement weather. As the team approached RM 620 and US 183, seven tornadoes touched down, he said.

“At that point, it was looking really nasty,” he said.

The goal was to pull the main firetruck out of the station so the crew could be mobile if needed, Mallinger said.

“We didn’t get a mile away before we were pelted with some debris from a house either from winds or a tornado,” Mallinger said. “We got a radio call that Albertson’s roof had collapsed and they needed both trucks to respond.”

The Albertson’s grocery store was located at 850 Bell Blvd., where Big Lots sits today. When crews arrived, people were starting to crawl out of the debris. Mallinger said the store manager, Larry Fore, had managed to get all customers and staff except the grocery manager into a cooler in the back of the store, protecting them from falling debris. The roof had caved in, windows  were blown out and shelves had tumbled over inside. The grocery manager was located and sent to the hospital with non-fatal injuries.

“[Fore] saved a lot of lives that day,” Mallinger said.

Leander City Council Member Jeff Seiler was a bagger at Albertson’s at the time and was the last one into the cooler.

“It hit right when we entered,” he said. “It sounded like a freight train coming through.”

Other damage in Cedar Park included a diesel tanker that was knocked over as well as damage to about 136 homes in the Buttercup Creek subdivision.

Juli Fuller, who at the time lived a few blocks away from Buttercup Creek, hid in a bathroom with her brother during the storm.

“It sounded like just growling outside,” she said. “People always say it sounds like a freight train but it was like a monster outside just growling and biting into the house. We could hear stuff ripping off the house.”

Angie Nolle, former Williamson County EMS Shift Commander, responded to the Jarrell tornado. She said one thing people noticed as they began to search through debris was that there were no couches, kitchen tables or other recognizable furniture.

“Everything had been just like it had been in a blender, so when you would look at the ground, it was like thousands of scrabble tiles,” she said in the video.

To watch the video, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfDkyEpk3_I.

The National Weather Service recognized the 20-year anniversary of this storm with a dedicated page about the events that occurred. Here is a map of the tornadoes that hit that day:

And here is a video summarizing the disaster:

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