The Waco Tornado on May 11th, 1953 tops the list as the deadliest tornado in Texas since 1900. The violent and deadly twister ripped through the downtown area, killing and injuring hundreds.
Severe Weather Develops
During the afternoon hours, scattered storms developed along a dryline extending from the eastern Texas Panhandle to Midland to west of Del Rio. One supercell produced a tornado in San Angelo at approximately 2:30 pm, after likely interacting with an outflow boundary from morning storms. This tornado was rated F4, killing 13 and injuring 153. The 20 mile path resulted in the damage or destruction of 519 homes, 19 businesses, and 150 cars.
As the San Angelo storm dissipated, another storm developed in southwest McLennan County. Taking a closer look at the surface chart from 4:30 pm, winds at Waco were from a more east-southeasterly direction than winds at surrounding observation sites. This additional turning of the winds in a localized area was likely the result of a nearby outflow boundary, and may have enhanced the tornado potential of the storm.
The Skies Darken
The tornado touched down around 4:10 pm southwest of Waco, near the town of Lorena in McLennan County. After destroying a home north of Lorena, the tornado moved north-northeast toward Waco.
The tornado was approximately one-third of a mile wide and wreaked havoc through the downtown area. Eyewitness reports indicated very heavy rain falling at the time of the tornado, making it difficult for people in downtown Waco to see the twister coming and take appropriate action.
Although radar data at the time was primitive compared to what is available today, the eyewitness accounts of heavy rainfall suggest the tornado was spawned by a high-precipitation (HP) supercell.
The twister continued plowing northeast of Waco, finally dissipating near the community of Axtell after a 23 mile-long path of destruction.
The Deadliest Tornado in Texas History
Killing 114 and injuring 597, the Waco tornado holds the somber title of the deadliest tornado in Texas history since 1900. Striking the heart of the downtown area at the end of the work day, many people were caught unaware of the impending severe weather. 30 people were killed when a 6-story furniture store collapsed, while 5 others were killed in their cars. The destruction was so massive, survivors waited up to 14 hours to be rescued and some bodies could not be recovered for several days following the disaster.
The F5 twister destroyed over 600 homes and businesses and damaged over 1000, including the Dr. Pepper bottling plant, which still stands today. 2000 vehicles also sustained damage. Monetary damages topped $41 million in 1953, equating to over $310 million in 2006 dollars.
As a note, the Goliad, Texas tornado on May 18, 1902 also killed 114 people, the same as the Waco twister. However, the Goliad tornado is rated the second deadliest twister in Texas history since 1900 being that it injured 250 people, nearly 350 less than the Waco storm.
However, despite the most accurate and timely tornado warnings, it is up to you and your family to enact a plan and take precautions to stay safe.
NOAA news story commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Waco Tornado:
NOAA news story on the Texas Tornado Warning Conference: