The high death toll, 114, and the other high costs were partly due to the rarity of powerful tornadoes in the Waco area of Texas, and a lack of readiness for the unexpected According to local folklore, tornadoes could not touch down in Waco. Most storms in the area, it was said, travel from west to east and split around the Waco area, making tornadoes and extreme weather rare.
All of that thinking changed when the F5 Waco tornado hit the city on May 11, 1953, with circulating winds of more than three hundred mph; 114 people lost their lives, 597 were injured, and damage to property added up to $50 million. Over half of the deaths occurred in a single city block bounded by 4th and 5th streets and Austin and Franklin avenues.
In the afternoon of May 11, the tornado formed three miles north of Lorena and leveled a home there. It moved up the I-35 corridor and at 4:30 P.M. entered the city limits of Waco from the southwest traveling at a rate of 30 mph. The funnel cloud was two blocks wide and it made a direct hit on the downtown area of the city. Because it was daytime there was some advance warning. Many people crowded into local business offices and stores for shelter but few of the buildings were constructed sturdily enough to withstand the winds, and they collapsed almost immediately.
Even a six story structure, a furniture store, collapsed and killed the thirty people inside. A few buildings with steel reinforcements were still standing when the storm had passed. Five people were killed in two cars that were crushed by falling debris. Bricks from the collapsed structures piled up in the street to a depth of five feet. Some survivors were trapped under rubble for four- teen hours, and several days were needed to remove the bodies. Over six hundred homes and other buildings and 2,000 cars were seriously damaged.
This tornado remains tied with the 1902 Goliad tornado as the deadliest in Texas history and the tenth deadliest in U.S. history. It was one of the primary factors spurring development of a nationwide severe weather warning system. Within the city of Waco it had long-lasting effects on the city’s economy. Waco’s population was approximately 85,000 in 1953 but it failed to grow substantially in subsequent years while nearby cities like Austin greatly increased in size. In 2003, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the third deadliest year for tornadoes in the United States.
Killer tornadoes claimed 519 lives in that year, a death toll exceeded only twice in U.S. history. While 1953 saw less than half of the annual average number of tornadoes, it spawned some of the deadliest on record, including the last single tornado to kill more than one hundred people. Of the 519 people killed in 1953, approximately half of that number was caused by two tornadoes, Waco and Flint.