The Lakeview Tornado

May 11, 1953

Since 1950, West Central Texas has experienced 6 violent tornadoes (rated as F/EF-4 or stronger on the Fujita scale.  However, none have had as much impact on the area as the Lakeview Tornado that affected northern San Angelo during the afternoon hours on May 11, 1953. This tornado ultimately resulted in 13 fatalities in Tom Green County with 159 injuries attributed to the storm making it the deadliest tornado within the National Weather Service (NWS) San Angelo County Warning Area (CWA) since 1950.  This storm was also a part of a larger complex that produced the F5 Waco tornado a few hours later.  When all was said and done, May 11, 1953, went down as the deadliest tornado day on record for the state of Texas and contributed to the nationwide statistics of 510 tornado fatalities (for 1953).  This stood as the benchmark for most tornado fatalities since 1950 until being surpassed in 2011 with 550 deaths.

In 1953, forecasts and warnings were not what they are today. Many of the tools forecasters use today such as the computer forecast models, weather satellites, and the Doppler radar network had not yet been developed. The biggest asset that forecaster had were weather balloons that were sent up twice a day across the country, much like they still are today. It is amazing that even today, the weathe balloons are still very important to forecasters, and possibly even more so for the forecast models. From these observations, forecasters knew there was a chance for tornadoes across the area. Unfortunately, the observations could only indicate that conditions were favorable, not that storms would form or become severe in San Angelo.

Surface anaylsis from Forth Worth at 9:30 AM Sufrace analysis from Forth Worth for 4:30 PM

Surface Analysis from 9:30 AM

(Courtesy of NWS Fort Worth)

Surface Analysis from 4:30 PM

(Courtesy of NWS Fort Worth)

At approximately, 2:15 PM, the tornado struck the Lakeview School. On a normal school day, the elementary students would have been dismissed around 2:30 PM, and would have been boarding buses when the tornado struck if it had not been for the middle school principle Mr. Snodgrass having the elementary students come back into the school. Instead the elementary students would go home with the big kids. The tornado tore as 20 mile path from 17 miles northwest of the city to somewhere just east of Robert Lee Road, now Armstrong Street. At its widest, the damage path was over a half mile. Within San Angelo, the tornado severely damaged 15 sq. blocks.

Photo from the San Angelo Standard-Times showing damage at the Lakeview school. Photo from the San Angelo Standard-Times showing aerial damage near south of the school.

Damage from the tornado at the Lakeview school.

(Image from San Angelo Standard-Times)

Aerial damage near south of the school

(Image from San Angelo Standard-Times)


With that, it destroyed 288 homes, damaged over another 200, and destroyed 172 vehicles. The total damage totaled $3.4 million in 1953, today it would be $29.6 million. To the Lakeview school alone there was $500,000 worth of damage, today $4.4 million. A total of 13 fatalities and 159 injuries were caused by the storm, however, nearly 1000 staff and students were at Lakeview at the time of the storm, and only minor injuries occurred. The storm damage was so extensive that the Texas Education Agency allowed the Lakeview school distric to cancel the remained of the year. Based on reports from the time, as the Fujita scale had not yet been developed, the Lakeview tornado was rated an F4.

Due to the staggering amount of damage from the Lakeview and Waco tornadoes, Texas A&M and the National Weather, then known as the Weather Bureau, held first Texas Tornado conference, along with Texas Department of Public Safety, University of Texas, Oklahoma State University(then Oklahoma A&M), the Air Force and Navy, and private industry. Out of the conference came the beginnings of the SKYWARN program and and the national radar network. The Weather Service had a number of surplus aircraft radars (APS-2) from the Navy, but the radars need to be modified for meteorological use. Texas A&M and the Weather Service created the Texas Radar Project, where the Department of Electrical Engineering at A&M would retrofit the radars and the Weather Service would install and operate the network across the state. This was the beginnings of what would in 1957 become the Weather Surveillance Radar (WSR) network.  Through the years Congress has approved upgrades and expansions to the national radar network culminating in the current 140 Dual-Pol Doppler radars across the United States and its territories.

The forecasting tools are not the only thing that has changed since the 1950's. Communications have dramaticaly change. Once, only way people had to find out about a tornado was radio broadcasts. Over the years, the Weather Service added a teletype system to relay messages to radio and television station in real time as warning's were issued. NOAA Weather Radio was added so that the general public had a direct way to get information and warnings from the National Weather Service. Today, not only are commercial radio and television and NOAA Weather Radio available, but there are now cell phone applicications and social media. Office are now able to interact with the public unlike any time before.

Though, even with this improved communications, people still need to stay prepared for not only tornadoes, but also flash floods, extreme heat and cold, and hurricanes. No matter where you live, tornadoes and other severe weather can strike. Make sure you have multiple ways to get warnings from the National Weather Service, whether that is from a favorite radio station or tv station, online, or NOAA Weather Radio. Also, make sure you know what to do in the event of severe weather.







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