Remembering the
May 11, 1953

Waco Tornado

"The Deadliest Tornado
in Texas 
since 1900"

Tornado Track Map showing tornado path through Waco.

All Pictures Copyright & Courtesy: The Waco Tribune Herald

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

Morning Surface Analysis showing warm front over Central and Northern Texas












         Surface Analysis @ 930 am

By 9:30 am, a muggy spring morning was already taking shape across much of central and eastern Texas. Temperatures were in the mid 70s from Dallas to Waco to Austin, with lower 80s along the Gulf Coast. Breezy southeast winds were ushering rich, Gulf moisture into the region, with dewpoint readings in the lower 70s across southern and central Texas.

Early morning storms across the Big Country, from Abilene to Junction, produced outflow boundaries, or pools of cooler air, as they dissipated. It is thought that these boundaries played a role in tornadic development across Texas later in the day.

Surface Analysis showing cold front/warm front over Central and Northern Texas

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surface Analysis @ 4:30 pm

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

Picture of Waco after Tornado Hit on May 11, 1953The 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.

Picture of Waco after Tornado Hit on May 11, 1953 Picture of Waco after Tornado Hit on May 11, 1953 Picture of Waco after Tornado Hit on May 11, 1953
     

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.

Picture of Waco after Tornado Hit on May 11, 1953

Texas Tornado Warning Conference

As a result of the deadly Waco twister, Texas A&M University and the United States Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) organized the Texas Tornado Warning Conference in June 1953 to discuss tornado warning procedures and weather radar. The purpose of the conference was to use all available resources from the federal government, academic communities, and the private sector to devise an efficient tornado warning system for severe weather. The future goal was to prevent death tolls like that of the Waco tornado.

The conference led to improved communications between numerous agencies, an early development of the SKYWARN storm spotter program, and a national radar network.

Present Day

Today there are 158 weather radars operated by the National Weather Service, Federal Aviation Administration, and the Department of Defense. Furthermore, all National Weather Service offices offer yearly storm spotter training, and work closely with local law enforcement and public safety agencies, academic communities, and private sector partners to effectively communicate tornado warnings in a timely manner.

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.


References:
Significant Tornadoes by Thomas P. Grazulis

Additional Links:
Top 10 Deadliest Texas Tornadoes, courtesy of NWS Amarillo:
http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ama/?n=top10_tornadoes

NOAA news story commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Waco Tornado:
http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories/s1135.htm

NOAA news story on the Texas Tornado Warning Conference:
http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories/s1163.htm

 


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