AUSTIN (KXAN) — What was the top weather story in Central Texas in 2021? No doubt, the February winter storm immediately comes to mind, but we also saw tornadoes, flash flooding, record heat and much more. Here’s a look back at a wild year of weather.
February winter storm
We might as well start with the elephant in the room. February’s winter storm was historic and record-breaking in so many ways. The National Weather Service calls it “an unprecedented and historical eight-day period of winter weather.” Texas endured not one, not two, but five separate storm systems. At one point on Feb. 14, the entire state of Texas was under a Winter Storm Warning.
The NWS office in Austin/San Antonio also issued its first Wind Chill Warning ever. Austin’s Camp Mabry — the official weather reporting site for the city — remained at or below freezing for 144 hours, breaking the previous record set in 1983. The results were disastrous.
Unprecedented demand led ERCOT, the operator of the state’s power grid, to mandate power outages across the state. Initially meant to be rotating outages, millions of Texans remained without power for hours, and even days. According to PowerOutage.us, more than 4.4 million electric customers were without power the night of Feb. 15. In a meeting the week after the storm, ERCOT officials said the system was four minutes away from total collapse, which could have meant no power for weeks.
According to official state data, 210 Texans lost their lives between Feb. 11 and March 5 tied to the winter storm. Most of the deaths were from hypothermia, but deaths were also caused by car crashes, carbon monoxide poisoning, falls, fires and chronic illnesses made worse by the cold. The Texas Department of State Health Services tells KXAN a final report into the death toll is under review, so it’s possible the total could increase further.
Officially at Camp Mabry, Austin received 6.4 inches of snow during the storm, making it the fourth-largest snow event in Austin history. The city did break a record for the most consecutive days with more than 1 inch of snow on the ground. Snowfall totals of 6-8 inches were common in the Austin metro area. Our eastern counties typically saw 4-6 inches of snow, while the Hill Country saw 3-4 inches generally.
You may not remember this one, because it was completely overshadowed by February’s storm, but parts of Central Texas received several inches of snow back in January 2021. The winter storm brought 1.5 inches of snow to Camp Mabry on Jan. 10. While many locations received more than 2 inches, the bullseye was in northern Travis and southern Williamson Counties. Parts of Round Rock, Leander, Pflugerville and Jonestown all received more than 4 inches of snow.
Had the February storm not happened, January’s snowfall event would have jockeyed for the position as Central Texas’ top weather story of 2021. While 1.5 inches of snow may not seem like much in comparison to February, it’s actually a big deal for the area. According to the National Weather Service, the Austin area can expect to see more than an inch of snow only once every eight years on average.
March saw four straight days of severe weather in the KXAN viewing area. Two upper-level disturbances swept cold fronts through the area, triggering thunderstorms, and even a tornado just south of the area, near Canyon Lake.
A microburst was responsible for severe damage in Bertram on the night of March 22. A century-old building collapsed, and several other buildings were damaged. The National Weather Service estimated wind speeds at 75 mph, but said there was “no direct evidence” of a tornado.
“Oh my God, what are we gonna do? It’s tough,” Amanda Powell, owner of Bertram Blend and Boutique, which was heavily damaged, told KXAN at the time. “COVID was tough. I mean, this is definitely going to be another hurdle to cross. Hopefully we’ll be able to do it.”
Austin’s ‘hail curse’ continues
Golf ball-sized hail was reported in parts of Blanco and Hays Counties on March 23, and another storm system on March 24 brought a lowering wall cloud and some minor wind damage to Richland Springs in San Saba County.
On March 25, Austin’s “hail curse” continued. The three costliest hail storms in the city’s history have all occurred on the date — in 1993, 2005 and 2009. This year, hail up to size of limes fell in parts of central and northeast Austin.
The next month, on April 12, hail the size of baseballs fell in Llano County, shattering several car windshields. Bette Hoy shared the view from her porch:
Just three days later, tennis and baseball-sized hail pummeled parts of the Austin metro area, making it the fourth hail event in four weeks with hail larger than 2 inches in diameter. And on April 28, hail of a similar size fell in San Marcos.
“All of a sudden I heard what sounded like bowling balls on the roof and glass shattering,” San Marcos resident Jesse Pert told KXAN. “I was just trying to call my parents to tell them I loved them, in case anything happened.”
Fayette & Bastrop County tornadoes
The bulk of this year’s severe weather occurred in May. The month saw seven Tornado Warnings issued in the KXAN viewing area, as well at 50 Severe Thunderstorm Warnings and 10 Flash Flood Warnings.
Four Tornado Warnings were issued on May 18, more than any other day this year. An EF1 tornado touched down near the community of Swiss Alp in Fayette County. The National Weather Service estimated winds as high as 100 mph, causing “significant damage” to a cattle farm, roof damage to several buildings and minor tree damage. The tornado was on the ground for more than 3 miles and was four football fields wide at its maximum width.
Meanwhile, parts of Fayette County were inundated with flooding rains. More than 9 inches fell in parts of the county, especially near Flatonia, leading to at least five high water rescues.
“I was watching the rainfall gauge, and in 20 minutes time, we had an inch and a quarter — in just 20 minutes,” Charles Aschenbeck told KXAN’s Nick Bannin.
The region’s second tornado of the year occurred 10 days later, in Bastrop County. On the evening of May 28, an EF0 tornado struck the community of Red Rock. Initially thought to be the result of a microburst, the storm caused significant damage to the Red Rock General Store. The roof was ripped off, and the store’s owners said water then poured inside the building, damaging the inside and a lot of inventory.
Another microburst on July 28 brought destructive winds to the Georgetown area. KXAN viewers reported the automatic doors at a Best Buy were blown off their tracks, tree limbs littered neighborhood roadways, and an RV was even blown onto its side. Thankfully, no injuries were reported. Cody Holder shared the following video with KXAN:
Flash Flood Alley lives up to its name
May was Austin’s wettest month of the year. More than 7 inches of rain fell at Camp Mabry, more than 2 inches above normal for the month. Meanwhile at Austin’s airport, the monthly total was 12.27 inches, making it the fourth-wettest May on record there. The airport’s May rainfall total was 7.27 inches above normal.
Parts of the Texas Capitol building were flooded Aug. 15 after torrential rains fell in downtown Austin. In less than two hours, 4.92 inches fell at 12th Street and Shoal Creek Boulevard. The State Preservation Board called it a “fluke,” saying the flooding was caused by a clogged storm drain pipe that filled up the gutters, pushing water into the building. Gregory Gym, on the nearby UT campus, also flooded.
Heavy rain on Oct. 1 forced organizers of Austin City Limits to delay the festival opening time by three hours, cancelling the sets of several bands. “Crushed is the feeling right now,” said vocalist Kelly Barnes of the band Darkbird.
In October, remnants of Hurricane Pamela, combined with an upper level trough, brought the region’s most significant rain event since May 2019. Rain totals topped 8.5 inches near La Grange — most of which fell in a 3-hour span — prompting the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office to make five water rescues. The county’s chief of emergency management, Craig Moreau, said several homes in the county were flooded, and some residents had to be evacuated.
Meanwhile, in Hays County, crews with the San Marcos Fire Department and STAR Flight had to evacuate people from under the Highway 80 bridge over the Blanco River. Oct. 13 was officially Austin’s wettest day of the year, with 2.45 inches recorded at Camp Mabry. Close to 3 inches fell at the airport the same day.
Another round of storms moved through the morning of Oct. 27, bringing wind gusts higher than 50 mph. Multiple reports of downed trees came in from North Austin, one even falling on a car. Thankfully, no injuries were reported.
Temperatures: A tale of two halves
For the most part, 2021 was split in half when it comes to temperatures. February and the summer were cooler than average, while temperatures since September have been warmer than average.
Unsurprisingly due to the winter storm, Austin’s temperature was 7.8 degrees cooler than average in February, despite temperatures in the mid 80s on two days. A high temperature of 25 degrees on Feb. 15 was 42 degrees colder than the average high for the date. Feb. 16 was 41 degrees colder than average, and five other days ran at least 30 degrees below average.
In February, six days saw high temperatures in the 30s, and Camp Mabry didn’t climb out of the 20s on two days. Meanwhile, low temperatures dropped to the single digits twice: 8 degrees on Feb. 15 and 7 degrees on the 16th. The month ended up ranking as Austin’s 10th coldest February on record.
Summer 2021 was also cooler than normal. Over the past 30 years, the city of Austin has hit 100 degrees an average of 29 times per year. This year, Camp Mabry hit the century mark only 12 times. In fact, by the end of August, we had only reached 100 degrees five times. The months of May and July were 1.7 degrees cooler than average, and August ended 0.5 degrees below normal.
By contrast, the last four months of the year were warmer than average. September saw 7 days at or above 100 degrees. Both of the hottest days of the year — 102 degrees — occurred in September, on the 5th and 20th. The month ended up ranking as the tenth-warmest September on record, with temperatures 2.1 degrees above average. October also ended up more than 2 degrees warmer than average, making it the ninth-warmest on record.
December 2021 was by far the warmest December on record in Austin. An average temperature of 65.1 degrees was 11.5 degrees warmer than normal. Seven days made it into the 80s at Camp Mabry — including 83 degrees on Dec. 31, which was 21 degrees warmer than the daily average. This makes the date the most above-average day of the year in terms of high temperatures. Meanwhile, Austin officially hit a high of 79 degrees on Dec. 25, making it the fifth-warmest Christmas Day in recorded history.
Other regional/national weather headlines
Atlantic Hurricane Season: For only the third time in history, the National Hurricane Center exhausted all the names on the list in this year’s Atlantic hurricane season. In total, there were 21 named storms, seven of which strengthened into hurricanes. Ida was most notable, making landfall in Louisiana on Aug. 29 as a Category 4 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph. The National Weather Service office in New Orleans issued its first-ever Extreme Wind Warning as the storm came ashore. The storm also went on to cause catastrophic flooding in the northeast. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ida caused $64.5 billion in damages and was responsible for the deaths of 96 people.
December tornado outbreak: More than 30 tornadoes wreaked havoc from Arkansas to Kentucky Dec. 11 and 12, as a strong cold front moved across the middle of the country. An EF4 tornado was on the ground in Tennessee and Kentucky for more than 165 miles, and did particularly catastrophic damage in Mayfield, Kentucky, including at a candle factory. Another EF4 destroyed a nursing home in Monette, Arkansas. In total, at least 90 fatalities were confirmed throughout the outbreak, making this the deadliest December tornado event ever recorded in the U.S.
Midwest derecho: Just days after the deadly December tornado outbreak, another massive storm system swept across the nation. A line of severe storms and tornadoes on Dec. 15 was the result of a derecho, the first on record in December. The National Weather Service defines a derecho as a “widespread, long-lived wind storm that is associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.” Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota took the brunt of the damage.
Pacific Northwest heatwave: A 1-in-1,000 year event. That’s how climate experts described a deadly heatwave that baked Oregon, Washington and other parts of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada in June. The town of Lytton, British Columbia hit 121 degrees on June 29, setting a record for Canada’s hottest temperature ever recorded. Meanwhile, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, hit all-time highs on June 28: 116 degrees and 108 degrees respectively. These temperatures are the statistical equivalent of Austin hitting 130 degrees (Austin’s all-time record is 112 degrees). The heat was blamed for more than 100 deaths in Oregon alone, according to the state’s medical examiner.
Largest wildfire in California history: On July 13, the Dixie Fire broke out in Northern California, eventually spreading to 963,309 acres in size, the largest single wildfire in the state’s history. The town of Greenville was almost entirely leveled. The fire “burnt down our entire downtown,” Plumas County Supervisor Kevin Goss wrote on Facebook. “Our historical buildings, families’ homes, small businesses, and our children’s schools are completely lost.” The fire was finally 100 percent contained on Oct. 25.
Most destructive wildfire in Colorado history: The year came to a close on a heartbreaking note for hundreds of families in Colorado. The Marshall Fire, which sparked on Dec. 30, destroyed at least 580 homes in Superior, near Denver. Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said no deaths and only one injury have been reported as of Dec. 31, but that he wouldn’t be surprised if fatalities are reported because of the fire’s path through heavily-populated areas. At last report, the fire has burned at least 6,200 acres. Authorities say it may have started when strong winds knocked down power lines. Gusts as strong as 115 mph were reported.
Texas’ largest hailstone on record: A supercell thunderstorm on April 28 dropped the largest hailstone in state history near Hondo, west of San Antonio. The hailstone broke the record in four metrics: diameter (6.416 inches), weight (1.26 pounds), volume (40.239 cubic inches) and circumference (19.730 inches). The same storm produced an EF1 tornado southeast of Hondo and localized rainfall totals of up to 8 inches.
World’s hottest temperature ever?: Death Valley may have broken the record for the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth, reaching 130 degrees on July 9. The same location — Furnace Creek — hit 129.9 degrees on Aug. 16, 2020. The World Meteorological Organization awards the all-time temperature record to a 134 degree reading taken in Death Valley on July 10, 1913, but experts dispute the measurement, saying it was not possible from a meteorological perspective.
So what does 2022 have in store?
According to the latest outlooks from the Climate Prediction Center, Central Texas is likely to be warmer and drier than normal through the rest of the winter. This doesn’t mean that we won’t see any cold or wet weather, but on the whole we’re likely to be warmer and drier.
Beyond that, we’ll have to wait and see. Chief Meteorologist David Yeomans and the rest of the KXAN First Warning Weather team will be there every step of the way. Bring it on, 2022!