On This Day: historic Texas tornadoes

Weather Blog

May 11th. A historic day in Texas for all the wrong reasons. Two deadly tornadoes, 17 years apart, that changed how we communicate and forecast tornado threats today.

May 11th 1953 – Waco, Texas

A muggy and warm spring morning across Texas turned into a violent afternoon of strong, tornadic storms. Early morning storms in the Big Country left behind pockets of cooler air, thought to have helped set the stage for stronger storms later in the day. Afternoon storms began firing along a dryline sinking southeast from the eastern Texas panhandle to Midland. One of the first supercells of the afternoon (2:30PM) produced a F-4 tornado in San Angelo, that killed 13 people and injured 153.

Just after 4PM, another tornado touched down in Lorena, a small town just southwest of Waco, destroying a home there before moving north/northeast towards the city. At about 1/3 mile in width, the tornado tore through downtown Waco. Eyewitness accounts report heavy rain at the time of the tornado, suggesting the storm that produced the tornado was a high-precipitation supercell (rain-wrapped and difficult to see). As a result, 114 people were killed, making the Waco tornado of 1953 the deadliest tornado in Texas history since 1900. Another 597 people were injured, some survivors waiting up to 14 hours to be rescued due to the massive amount of damage delaying emergency response.

Damage in downtown Waco after 1953 tornado | COURTESY: the Texas Collection, Baylor University

The 1953 Waco tornado remains the deadliest tornado in Texas history to this day.

Damage through downtown Waco | COURTESY: the Texas Collection, Baylor University

The Waco tornado was later given an F-5 rating, destroying over 600 homes/businesses and damaging +1000. The damage was said to be estimated at $41 million in 1953 (likely to be well over +$300 million today).

The silver lining: the Texas Tornado Warning Conference was held in June of that year. It is there where meteorologists, university professors and government officials discussed tornado warning procedures and ways to improve efficiency in communication. Out of that conference, the early foundation of the SKYWARN storm spotter program and national radar network network was born. As of today, there are 160 radars in use across the U.S. operated by a combination of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Defense (military bases) and the Federal Aviation Administration (airports).

For more information on the 1953 Waco tornado, click here.

May 11th 1970 – Lubbock, Texas

Just before 7PM, a strengthening thunderstorm was detected just south of the city of Lubbock. At 7:45PM, a Severe Thunderstorm Warning went out for Lubbock and surrounding counties. Around the top of the 8PM hour, reports of golf ball, egg-sized and grapefruit sized hail were coming into the Weather Bureau (current day National Weather Service). The first tornado formed just south of the airport and touched down near what is currently Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in Lubbock. A Tornado Warning then went out at ~9PM. A second tornado touched down at 9:35PM near 19th Street & University Avenue. This tornado caused major damage throughout the city, including knocking out two of the three main city power plants and hitting the Weather Bureau Office, halting all further communication of weather warnings from there. (The Lubbock Fire Department was then transmitting messages of weather warnings via the two-way radio.)

Map of tornado path | COURTESY: Weatherwise magazine via NWS Lubbock

The second tornado would later be rated a F-5. Sadly, it claimed the lives of 26 people, seriously injuring 255 with another 1,500 sustaining minor injuries. Over 1,000 homes were destroyed and +8,500 damaged in the tornado. It is estimated that the storm caused more than $140 million in damage.

The Great Plains Life Building (now the Metro tower) – second tallest known building to have survived a direct hit by an F-5 tornado

The silver lining: more advancements in weather forecasting, including a scale to measure tornado intensity (the Fujita Scale) followed the deadly twister event.

For more information on the 1970 Lubbock tornado event, click here.

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