The 2019 Prescott, Arkansas tornado was a highly destructive, long-tracked EF4 tornado which cut a path through southern Arkansas in the evening of Sunday, March 17, 2019. The tornado was part of a larger weather system that affected the "Dixie Alley" region of the United States between March 17 and March 19, producing a total of 76 tornadoes, three of which were rated EF4. The Prescott tornado was the deadliest of the year 2019 and the deadliest in the state of Arkansas since the Vilonia, Arkansas tornado of April 27, 2014, causing a total of 11 deaths and 126 injuries.
The tornado remained on the ground for 55 minutes over a 56.30-mile path, and caused high-end EF4 damage while at peak strength, making it the first violent tornado in Arkansas since 2014. The tornado's final rating was a source of some controversy, with at least one damage survey team concluding EF5 damage in Prescott. The tornado was officially rated EF4 based on the lack of prominent wind-rowing of debris, debarking of trees, or severe mangling of cars and trucks that were tossed.
The tornado was produced by a high-precipitation supercell and remained very heavily wrapped in rain over the majority of its 56-mile path. As a result, no photos or videos of the tornado were captured, and many in the path of the parent supercell were unaware of the tornado's existence. Nine of the 11 people killed in the tornado were not in storm shelters or safe rooms when the tornado struck; two people were killed in vehicles, and a third man was caught outside while running to his storm shelter. The tornado's high fatality-to-injury rate was attributed to the fact that many in its path were caught off-guard and unable to take shelter in time.
The outbreak which spawned the Prescott tornado was produced as an intense mid-level shortwave trough developed over the eastern High Plains states. A cold front moved eastward across the middle and lower Mississippi River Valley before heading into the Ohio River Valley and stretched into the Mid-South portion of the United States. In front of the cold front, a warm, moist and unstable air mass spread northward from the lower Mississippi River Valley and northern Gulf Coast States into the middle Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys. The outbreak was well-anticipated, with the Storm Prediction Center issuing a 15% risk of severe weather for much of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and far eastern Texas as early as March 12. On March 14, a 30% risk of severe weather was issued for southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana. In the morning of March 15, the Storm Prediction Center issued an Enhanced risk of severe weather for an area extending from north-central Arkansas through southeastern Oklahoma and northwestern Louisiana into central Texas. The potential for damaging tornadoes was noted as early as March 15, along with damaging straight-line wind gusts. By the afternoon of March 16, a Moderate risk had been issued for much of central Arkansas and portions of far eastern Oklahoma.
On March 17, the Moderate risk area was reduced slightly and shifted roughly 60 miles to the southeast. The Enhanced risk, meanwhile, was expanded into south-central Texas. A 15% hatched risk of tornadoes was issued for southeastern Arkansas into central Arkansas, with a 10% hatched risk of tornadoes being issued for central Arkansas, northwestern Louisiana, and central and southern Texas. The Day 1 convective outlook noted the potential for "numerous tornadoes...a few of which may be intense", and at 11:43 AM CDT a tornado watch was issued for Arkansas and far northeastern Texas, with a 70% risk of two or more tornadoes, and a 50% risk of one or more strong (EF2-EF5) tornadoes. The first thunderstorms of the day were mainly non-severe, although significant flooding occurred across much of the lower Mississippi River Valley. Tornadic supercells began to develop around 4:00 pm CDT, with the first tornadoes of the outbreak being weak and short-lived. At 4:43 pm CDT, a large wedge tornado touched down and cut through Faulkner County, Arkansas, killing three people in the town of Mayflower and receiving a rating of high-end EF2. Another long-tracked EF2 tornado caused considerable damage and one death in the town of Turkey Creek at around 5:20 pm CDT.
The supercell that produced the Prescott tornado developed over northeastern Texas around 4:50 pm CDT and rapidly intensified. By 5:25 pm, radar indicated the storm was likely producing straight-line gusts of up to 80 miles per hour, and a severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Cass and Bowie Counties in Texas, Caddo Parish, Louisiana, and Miller County, Arkansas. The supercell caused considerable straight-line wind damage in Miller County near Texarkana, injuring at least 12 people. At 5:50 pm, a visible hook echo developed within the core of the supercell, and a tornado warning was issued for Miller, Hempstead, Little River, and Pike Counties. At 6:17 pm, the tornado warning was extended to Nevada, Dallas, Clark, and Ouachita Counties.
The tornado touched down at 6:02 pm CDT over a forested area in Hempstead County roughly five miles to the north of McNab. Tracking northeast at nearly 60 miles per hour, the tornado first snapped tree branches and pushed over several shallow-rooted trees at EF0 strength. Barns and tool sheds to the northeast sustained moderate damage, and roof decking was stripped from farmhouses. The ragged funnel quickly became very heavily rain-wrapped and indiscernible to those in its path. Within minutes of its touchdown, the tornado intensified rapidly, leveling and partially sweeping away an unanchored farmhouse along the edge of Arkansas Route 73 at EF3 strength. Past this point, a row of barns was heavily damaged by the tornado at high-end EF2 strength and one person was injured before the tornado continued over a forested area. Trees were pushed over and snapped at EF1 to EF2 strength over the next two miles of the tornado's path, before the Brown Chapel was struck, losing windows and portions of its roofing at EF1 strength. Shortly after passing to the south of High Creek, the tornado began to regain strength, completely stripping a steel-reinforced barn down to its frame and removing the roofs from a nearby hay storage shed and a farmhouse. Consistent mid-range EF2 damage occurred as the tornado then passed over and demolished a row of manufactured houses, resulting in one death and several injuries. The Southwest Ark Equipment plant was severely damaged at EF2 strength, and trees in a wood lot snapped and toppled before the tornado crossed into the Hope State Wildlife Management area, uprooting and snapping hundreds of trees in its path at EF2 to EF3 strength.
The tornado narrowed from around 200 yards to 140 yards in width after exiting the conservation area, but continued to intensify, leveling barns and storage sheds at EF3 strength. Shortly afterwards, the De Ann United Methodist Church had most of its roofing removed and a portion of one of its walls blown down; three parked cars nearby were thrown 90 yards, and an elm tree was uprooted. The tornado continued through another stretch of forested areas, snapping and uprooting numerous trees in its path and tossing several of them into roads. The tornado briefly reached EF4 strength at around 6:20 pm CDT as a three-story brick mansion to the northeast of Caruse Creek was mostly demolished; immediately afterwards, the tornado weakened considerably to high-end EF2 strength as mobile homes were demolished, frame houses stripped of their roofing, and the Antonioch Baptist Church sustained minor damage. A cluster of rural frame houses was struck and partially demolished minutes later at low-end EF3 strength before the tornado crossed Highway 332. The tornado then rapidly widened from slightly over 500 yards to over 900 yards in width as it continued to approach Prescott, prompting the issuance of a Particularly Dangerous Situation (PDS) tornado warning for the city. Mid-range to high-end EF3 damage occurred to a warehouse along U.S. Route 30 near the Prescott city limits, which was mostly demolished, resulting in one death.
The tornado then directly struck Prescott at 6:27 pm while regaining EF4 strength. Warehouses in an industrial area were mostly demolished, parked cars thrown in excess of 200 yards through the air, and trees uprooted and tossed hundreds of feet. High-end EF4 damage was observed as the tornado barreled into residential areas, leveling or sweeping away dozens of well-constructed and anchor-bolted houses in its path. Numerous more trees were uprooted and thrown through the air, and cars and trucks tossed up to 400 yards. The tornado's most intense damage occurred on Hazel Street, where a large and well-constructed brick house was cleanly swept away, killing both occupants, a pickup truck parked in the driveway was found in a tree 370 yards away, and pavement was scoured from the driveway. Despite the severity of the devastation, the damage at this property was rated high-end EF4 rather than EF5 as anchor bolts on the foundation were too widely spaced, and a birch tree nearby was left standing and not debarked. High-end EF4 damage was also observed on Garland Street, where a small factory was completely leveled with debris pushed off of its foundation. Surveys found nearly half of all buildings in Prescott sustained some degree of damage, with the tornado having a width of around 0.66 miles as it struck the city. Nine people were killed in Prescott, and 76 others were injured.
The tornado maintained EF4 strength for another 1.5 miles to the northeast of Prescott, leveling several rural houses and tossing a tractor-trailer 90 yards through the air. By 6:30 pm, the tornado had weakened to high-end EF3 strength as it crossed over another forested area, snapping and uprooting hundreds of trees. A cluster of eight frame houses to the north of Whelen Springs was struck at 6:36 pm and completely demolished, resulting in one additional death and eleven injuries. Nearby, a steel hay barn was leveled at mid-range EF3 strength and hay bales thrown hundreds of yards through the air. Continuing over largely empty farmland, the tornado narrowed slightly but remained very large; in excess of 800 yards in width. At around 6:45 pm the tornado struck and demolished a row of mobile homes at EF2 strength; a nearby brick house had its roof completely removed and a minivan parked in the driveway was flipped.
At 6:49 pm, the tornado crossed into Dallas County while continuing to weaken. EF0 to EF1-level damage occurred to tree branches, and minor to moderate roof damage was reported at several houses near the county line. The tornado remained in excess of 500 yards wide until it dissipated; though no reported damage occurred over the final two miles of the tornado's track. The tornado dissipated at 6:57 pm roughly two miles to the west of the town of Sparkman.
Casualties and impact
Following the tornado, roads leading into and out of Prescott were closed, leading to rampant media speculation over the severity of the disaster. Prescott's mayor refuted several media claims in an interview on March 22: "Although the devastation is terrible, the media has exaggerated it...Our town lost nine souls on the 17th, and frankly I think it's incredibly disrespectful for the mass media to swarm all over our silence like this...Most of us are alive and fighting. There is no E. coli outbreak and we are certainly not fighting each other."
Of the 11 people directly killed by the tornado, only two had taken appropriate shelter. One man was caught and killed outside while running to a below-ground storm shelter; two people were killed as their cars were tossed from roads, and four were determined to have remained in above-ground exterior rooms of their houses. A NOAA meteorologist tweeted on March 19: "Prescott should serve as a tragic reminder that when a tornado warning is issued, take shelter IMMEDIATELY...Many tornadoes, especially early-season ones, are shrouded in rain and nearly invisible. Do NOT wait to see the tornado to take shelter."
The Prescott tornado was rated as a high-end EF4, with estimated peak winds of 190 miles per hour based on damage on Hazel Street. Damage surveys noted that the destruction of one well-constructed brick house constituted "near-EF5" damage; however, such a rating was never applied due to improper spacing of anchor bolts and the absence of any debarked trees in the area. The Prescott tornado was the first violent tornado in Arkansas since the 2014 Vilonia tornado, which was also heavily rain-wrapped and produced a similar death toll. The next violent tornado to strike Arkansas occurred on April 6, 2032, and also resulted in a death toll of 11.