Warm and humid weather prevailed across Central Texas on the morning of May 11, 1953. The day before had been muggy and the day before that, too. The headline in the local newspapers was about a tornado in far-off Minnesota and Wisconsin the day before. At mid-morning the forecaster at the Weather Bureau office in New Orleans warned (as he had the day before) that there might be a few tornadoes in parts of Texas later in the day. (In the early 1950s, the New Orleans office issued forecasts for a very large part of the south central U.S., including Texas.)
Unfortunately, many people in Waco ignored the warning from that forecaster in New Orleans, possibly because of a local belief that Waco was immune to tornadoes. That belief was said to have originated with a Native American tribe (the Wacos) from which the city took its name. Others said the belief was based on topography, because Waco was located in a low area near the confluence of the Brazos and Bosque rivers. Adding to the false sense of safety that day was a pronouncement from a local Waco weather official, who shortly after noon said that there was ‘no cause for alarm’.
Around 4:15pm, a tornado developed near Waco, and that reassuring statement turned as ‘black as night’! The skies suddenly darkened and people scurried for shelter as hail and blinding rain began on the south and southwest side of Waco, then spread over the downtown area. Many people who were on foot in the downtown area took shelter from the wind and rain inside various commercial buildings. At 4:37 p.m., a “black wedge” in the sky struck a blow to Waco that would require decades to mend.
The absence of any photographs of the tornado and the reports from witnesses and injured people that a blinding rain preceded the tornado in Waco suggests that it was likely rain-wrapped as it reached the downtown business district. Many buildings were destroyed, filling the streets with debris as they collapsed, and trapping and killing people in automobiles parked along the downtown streets. The tornado caused the total collapse of some buildings, including the large five-story R.L. Dennis furniture store, where at least thirty people died.
Beyond downtown, the tornado crossed the Brazos River and continued northeast through east Waco and Bellmead, and finally dissipated near Mount Calm, in Hill County. In the aftermath of the tornado, Waco counted 114 dead and 597 others injured, many seriously. The death toll tied the number of dead in the Goliad tornado of 1902. The tornado path was at times almost 600 yards wide, and stretched for at least 21 miles. Martial law was declared in Waco and military troops aided in rescue and recovery efforts, as well as deterring looting.
Images Courtesy The Texas Collection, Baylor University
A little over two hours earlier and 175 miles west of Waco, a tornado at San Angelo had killed thirteen people and injured 159 others as it moved eastward through the Lake View area of San Angelo. The damage from that tornado was rated F4. The path width was up to 880 yards wide and the path length was 20 miles.
Clipped from Lincoln Journal Star, 12 May 1953, Tue, Main Edition, Page 1 via newspapers.com
There is an interesting question of how two devastating tornadoes formed within a couple of hours of each other, but 150 miles apart. For a program on the 50th anniversary of the Waco tornado in 2003, the late Al Moller, a senior forecaster at the N.W.S. forecast office in Fort Worth, researched weather data from that day in an effort to account for the events on May 11th. Unfortunately, it appears that only very small thumbnail images of his original maps now exist.
For this blog, I attempted to reconstruct those two map images, but with unsatisfactory results. Al’s two surface maps (one for 9:30am and another for 4:30pm) depicted an outflow boundary moving southward between Waco and San Angelo from earlier storms near Abilene and northward. His maps indicated that the boundary was very near San Angelo by early afternoon, which likely produced a backed (perhaps easterly) surface wind there. The outflow boundary remained west of Waco, allowing a prevailing southeasterly surface wind there. The flow aloft was from the southwest at 500mb and quite strong. A strengthening and veering wind flow with height above a backed low-level flow is a classic signature of potentially violent storms and tornadoes.
It is also worth noting that there now exists a discrepancy in the point of origin of the Waco tornado. For decades, the official account stated that the tornado developed a few miles north-northwest of Lorena, passed near Hewitt, and into Waco. The current ‘official’ track has the tornado developing on the south side of Waco. This disagreement in track detail, however, cannot obscure the horror that struck that afternoon.
So far, this blog has focused on the two deadly tornadoes in Texas on May 11, 1953, but don’t overlook that 1953 was a terrible year in terms of tornadoes in the United States. By midnight on May 1st, 63 people had already died as a result of tornadoes. It was certainly unforeseeable that over the ensuing six weeks, the death toll would rise to a horrendous level, with an additional 406 deaths occurring in widely separated parts of the country. Tornadoes on May 1st and 2nd killed 13 people in Alabama and Tennessee; 30 people died on May 9th and 10th in a zone that stretched from Nebraska to Minnesota and Wisconsin; and on May 11, a total of 127 people died in the two events discussed above. The severe weather pattern abated somewhat between May 12th and June 6th, with only five deaths reported (one in Iowa and two each in Michigan and North Dakota). And then ‘all hell broke loose’ again! On June 7th, eleven died in Valley County, Nebraska; on the 8th, 142 died in Ohio and Michigan, including 116 deaths at Flint, Michigan; and on June 9th, 90 died in a tornado that moved through the area near Worcester, Massachusetts. The balance of 1953 saw an additional fifty tornado deaths, bringing the annual total for the year to 519 dead, with more than 5,100 people injured.
Lon Curtis Bio: Although educated as an attorney, and serving 24 years as a Texas prosecutor, Lon Curtis pursued his passion for weather as a serious avocation before realizing his dream of becoming an on-air meteorologist at KWTX-TV (Waco) in 1997. That opportunity came about, in part, because of his role in storm spotting during a tornado outbreak in May of 1997, including the tornado at Jarrell that killed 27 people. Lon is a member of the American Meteorology Society and the National Weather Association, and holds the AMS Certified Broadcast Meteorologist certification (on inactive status since his retirement from broadcasting in 2011). Lon authored a peer-reviewed research article published in the AMS journal Weather and Forecasting (2004), on mid-level dry air intrusions as a factor in tornado outbreaks associated with landfalling tropical cyclones. Since retiring, he has continued his research interest in severe convective storms, and is building a database of all tornadoes in Texas since 1880 that have caused one or more deaths. He also maintains a personal website on weather conditions and hazards affecting Central Texas.