Waco Tornado of 1953
The Waco Tornado endures as one of the worst and deadliest tornadoes in recorded Texas history. As the only F5 tornado in a series of 33 tornadoes that broke out over a three-day period in 1953, the May 11th tornado that struck Waco delivered substantial damage, destroying much of the city and killing 114 people (out of the total 144 deaths caused by the 33 tornado outbreak). An old Huaco legend claimed that tornadoes could not touch down in Waco, and the bluffs surrounding the Brazos River made tornado touchdown very unlikely. At around 4:30pm on May 11th, an F5 tornado touched down southwest of Waco and began tearing through residential neighborhoods and moving toward the downtown area. In addition to the deaths, the tornado injured 600 people, destroyed 196 buildings, destroyed 150 homes and damaged 700 more, and damaged or destroyed 2,000 cars. The worst destruction, including 61 dead, occurred on the block between 4th and 5th streets and Austin and Franklin avenues.
Backstory and Context
Timeline of the May 11th Tornado
Reports from the National Weather Service, especially of the tornadoes on May 9th and May 10th, went unheeded by Waco locals. Throughout the day, the weather progressively grew worse and a few tornados appeared in other parts of Central Texas.
Near 4:30 pm, however, a large and aggressive tornado touched down southwest of Waco. It was moving in a north-northeast direction. The sky had darkened and baseball-sized hail was falling from the sky.
Reports claimed that by 4:36 p.m., the F-5 tornado had become 1/3-mile wide and was producing winds up to 260 miles per hour. At this time, it was also tearing right through the heart of Waco. Eventually, the tornado dissipated a few miles northeast of the city.
The only buildings that could survive the 260 mph winds were those with steel frames, and therefore buildings such as the R.T. Dennis building collapsed in the storm (in this case, the building collapse killed 30 people). Personnel from James Connelly Air Force Base, local and state law enforcement, Baylor University students, and many others began rebuilding immediately after, and estimates show that about $51 million in damage transpired.
The Waco tornado is tied with the 1902 Goliad tornado as the deadliest in Texas history, and it is the 11th deadliest in US history.1
One of the most disastrous tornadoes in Texas history swept through downtown Waco on the afternoon of May 11, 1953, killing 114 people, destroying 346 buildings and creating property damage in excess of $50 million. Some of the worst devastation occurred at this site, where 32 employees of the R.T. Dennis Furniture Company died when the building collapsed. Aid to the city came in the form of volunteer and military rescue forces and donations totaling over $9 million. The rescue and restoration efforts that followed reflected Waco's strong sense of pride and community spirit.2