I now discover that today the event is called 'The Red River Valley Tornado Outbreak'. It occurred on 10 April 1979 and involved a total of 13 tornadoes. At the time, we lived in in the red river valley, very near to Wichita Falls. The 3 Tornadoes that hit Wichita falls (they came together to form one massive cell and basically marched through town), left 20,000 people homeless, injured 1,700, and killed 45 people. 10 more people were also killed by the Vernon tornado, and 3 in by the Lawton tornado.
Online there is, of course, lots of good information, an amazing map,unbelievable pictures, entire websites devoted to the event, and even a 2005 AP article describing the impact of the inspection of the Wichita Falls ruins on future Tornado safety.
My own memories are obviously filtered through the eyes of a 7 year old. We lived in a farmhouse at the end of a dirt road surrounded by mesquite trees and cows. Nearby was Electra, TX, current population 3,000 and couldn't have been much bigger back then. At that point in my life, then, Wichita Falls was 'the city', the place you went to buy things, the place with lots of traffic and street lights and noise and people. And this event equated in my head to the total destruction of that place. What imprinted itself in my head were NOT the pictures of the Tornadoes themselves, as I had seen lot of dark black funnel clouds in my life - dashing from the house to the cellar was a routine affair at that time. But the pictures of the devastation afterwards, of block after city block of houses simply gone aside from 1 closet or a bathroom - that was something I just couldn't grasp. And more than the pictures, I still remember all the stories that circulated afterwards: the near misses, the missing persons, the coke bottles blown through someone's leg, the 2x4 through someone's arm...
I also remember how badly the event messed up the adults. In small towns near small towns, everybody knows everybody, and therefore everybody had friends or friends of friends who were directly affected by the tornado (loss of home, loss of life, often both). I vividly recall an event some months after the 13 tornado catastrophe: as was usual for the time, my parents were at a huge party at the house of friends who also lived out in the country. A tornado came through, so we all crammed into the cellar, the bathroom, etc., and waited for it to pass. It rattled the windows and passed by without causing damage. Afterwards, there was some new girlfriend of someone at the party who was studying psychology and had learned something (a little knowledge is dangerous) about trauma and children, and therefore she wanted to 'interview me' about my feelings/emotions/thoughts about the event so that she could match up my reactions and her observations with what the textbook said. I remember being very conscious at the time of the fact that it was she who was fucked up and scared to death, and also of the fact that she couldn't see that I was a reflective conscious being in this process - that I could see what she was doing, and was not merely a passive object to be observed. I wasn't mad at her, but it made me worry that this long after the the big tornado the adults still didn't have it together.