DALLAS -- A pair of violent twisters pummeled towns around Dallas on Tuesday, flattening homes, flipping tractor-trailers and grounding flights but not causing widespread injuries or deaths.
David Lowe carries his daughter's dog after it was rescued from the rubble of a destroyed home on Tuesday in Arlington, Texas.
Starting at around 1:30 p.m., severe thunderstorms caught residents by surprise and continued for more than two hours, according to the National Weather Service. The agency counted at least two tornadoes touching down around the Dallas-Fort Worth area and received 12 reports of tornadoes throughout Texas.
As of late Tuesday afternoon, Dallas County, at the center of the barrage, had reported no injuries or deaths, despite buildings completely squashed and neighborhood streets lined with destroyed homes.
The city of Lancaster, 20 miles south of Dallas, was the worst hit, absorbing "extensive damage," said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who heads the County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
In the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, a Speedy Oil Change and Tune-Up shop was completely destroyed and other buildings damaged.
Residents were warned early Tuesday of the possibility of severe weather, he said. But the bad weather spun off tornadoes with such violent ferocity that they caught most everyone by surprise.
"The people who got hit first got little warning," Jenkins said.
Local television footage showed 14,000-pound tractor-trailers in Dallas caught in wind funnels and being flicked high into the air like matchsticks. Social media sites also lit up during the storm, as users reported scrambling to bathrooms and basements for safety. One woman described riding out the storm in a food cooler at a Costco store with dozens of other customers.
American Airlines took the rare step of shutting down all flights at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, airline spokesman Tim Smith said. Workers had to inspect 68 American Airline planes and 33 American Eagle planes for hail damage. Overall, 370 departures were cancelled - nearly half of all departures on a typical day, he said. More delays and cancellations were expected today.
"The variable we really don't know is how fast we can get the inspections done and, second of all, what level of potential damage we find that must be repaired," Smith said.
Severe thunderstorms were forecast for the lower Mississippi Valley and Tennessee Valley today, according to Weather Channel meteorologist Kevin Roth. The states at greatest risk for severe storms, according to the Storm Prediction Center, include Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and western portions of Tennessee. Large hail and strong winds are the greatest threat, but tornadoes are also possible.
Tuesday's storms occurred when a high-level trough of cold air collided with surface warm air that had been floating over Texas from the Gulf of Mexico for days, said John Nielsen-Gammon, Texas' state climatologist. Forecasters predicted severe weather for that area, but the region wasn't prepared for the intensity and severity of the storms, he said.
"They've always known the risk of tornado but they're generally not the super-intense ones," Nielsen-Gammon said.
The area is in the southern rim of what is known as "Tornado Alley" and has had its share of destructive twisters in the past, he said. A massive F5 tornado that hit Waco in 1953, killing 114 and injuring 597, still holds the state record for deadliest tornado, according to the National Weather Service.
An F5 in Dallas could be even worse, Neilsen-Gammon said.
"Along the list of worst case scenarios for severe weather is for an F5 tornado to hit Dallas," he said. "It's the largest metropolitan area that has the great significant risk for that type of tornado."