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TORNADOES

TORNADOES. Most tornadoes (also called cyclones or twisters) in the United States occur along a belt skirting the eastern edge of the Great Plains from Iowa to Texas. They are most frequent in Texas during April, May, and June. Between 1916 and 1963, 1,505 tornadoes caused 865 deaths and considerable economic loss in the state. During 1957, 145 were observed touching the ground; in 1967, 232 were recorded; and in 1972, 144 tornadoes were observed in Texas. Tornadoes often appear suddenly and inflict great damage in one brief blow; towns have been flattened and families wiped out in minutes. One tornado hit White Deer, Higgins, and Glazier in April 1947, cut a trail 1½ miles wide, and traveled a total of 221 miles across parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The tornado cloud has a twisting tail, or funnel, which operates like a suction tube. The funnel moves erratically across the ground, smashing some buildings, skipping others, and changing directions. Thus in the tornado aftermath there are inexplicable mysteries that are recounted until they become folklore. Among the oddities and freakish sights related in Texas tornado tales appear live plucked chickens, straws driven into posts, corn cobs imbedded in tree trunks, houses intact but shifted from foundations, whole large roofs displaced a few inches, and heavy equipment carried great distances. According to one account, a tornado in the Cedar Creek community in May 1868 "blew cattle into the air, lodging them in trees, sucked all water from the Brazos River for a short distance and dumped a fifty-pound fish on dry land." The destructive potential of tornadoes has increased as Texans have become more urbanized. Two tornadoes simultaneously swept through different portions of Austin on May 4, 1922, inflicting damage of $350,000 and killing thirteen persons. A thoroughly photographed tornado moved slowly through Oak Cliff and West Dallas on April 2, 1957. It damaged 574 buildings, mainly homes, injured 200 persons, killed ten, and caused economic loss of $4 million.

May 6, 1930, was a day of tornadoes. For about twelve hours massive turbulence occurred from West Texas to deep East Texas and as far south as Kenedy in Karnes County. That morning windstorms struck Austin, Spur, and Abilene; from noon until 9:30 P.M. at least sixteen other places suffered severely. There were at least three separate tornadoes. At mid-afternoon tornadic winds ravaged Bynum, Irene, Mertens, Frost, and Ennis, killing forty-one persons, injuring many more, and doing $2 million damage to crops and buildings. Frost was left in ruins, the jail being practically the only building that withstood the assault. Later in the evening another tornado struck Kenedy, Runge, and Nordheim, resulting in thirty-six lives lost, thirty-four injuries, and $127,000 in damages. Finally, a nighttime tornado at Bronson in Sabine County caused additional damage and two deaths. Spur, San Antonio, and Gonzales also reported deaths because of the storm. A total of eighty-two persons lost their lives in the turbulence of May 6, 1930, and damage totaled almost $2.5 million. A large part of Goliad was destroyed in four minutes on Sunday, May 18, 1902, by a tornado that struck without warning. In a strip about two blocks wide and a mile long in the western part of town, 100 houses were ripped into rubble, as were a Methodist church, a newly constructed Baptist church and parsonage, and a black Methodist church filled with worshipers. Damage was estimated at $125,000. Several hundred persons were injured, and 114 people died, almost all of whom were buried in one long trench, for there was no time to dig separate graves or conduct individual funerals. For decades to come, this was noted as the state's worst tornado catastrophe. Among the long-remembered oddities wrought by the strong wind was the fact that no pieces of steel from stoves or other household implements were ever recovered. Neither was any trace found of a long steel bridge. Not until May 11, 1953, would a single tornado kill so many Texans again. This time there was a warning. The weather bureau announced that tornadoes were a possibility somewhere along a line extending from San Angelo to Waco. Early that afternoon a tornado swept through three miles of small houses in the Lake View portion of San Angelo, and later another funnel twisted through five miles of Waco. At San Angelo eleven persons were killed and 159 were injured; the damage amounted to over $3.25 million. At Waco-immune to tornadoes, according to an Indian legend-losses were much greater. In a two-mile square of downtown Waco, buildings were lifted by the funnel and dropped in masses of broken bricks, splintered wood, and crushed plaster. Tons of glass flew through the air. Within seconds the business district was wrecked, left in a pile of debris. Some 196 business buildings were demolished, 376 others were damaged to the extent that they were unsafe, 2,000 automobiles were damaged, 150 homes were destroyed, 250 other homes were seriously damaged, and an additional 450 homes were less seriously damaged. Total damages cost $51 million. A total of 1,097 persons were injured and 114 perished, the same number as in Goliad half a century earlier.

In the spring of 1970 a series of tornadoes spread havoc across the South Plains. On April 17 and 18 a group of twisters hit across the country from Whitharral to Clarendon, injuring 150 people and killing twenty-three along two 175-mile-long corridors. Plainview, reputed to have more tornadoes than any other place in the United States, suffered heavy damage, and sixteen people were killed when a funnel touched down at the resort village of Sherwood Shores on Greenbelt Lake. On the night of May 11, seventeen years after the Waco disaster, a tornado swept through the business and residential districts of Lubbock. The winds turned vehicles into missiles and toppled brick buildings. When it was over, a swath eight miles long and a mile wide had been cut through the city. In a fifteen-square-mile area, designated as the storm area, 8,800 structures were damaged, and 250 businesses and 1,040 houses were destroyed. Façades were blown off buildings of fifteen and twenty stories. In addition, at Texas Tech University-not included in the storm area assessment-widespread "minor" damage occurred, which amounted to a half million dollars. Altogether, twenty-six people were killed, 2,000 were injured, and property damage of over $200 million was sustained. On April 10, 1979, three tornadoes spawned by a massive storm system in North Texas killed fifty-four, injured 1,807, and caused $42 million in damages. The first tornado crashed through Vernon in Wilbarger County in the afternoon; in ten minutes it destroyed or damaged several hundred homes, killing eleven and injuring sixty. The second, with a continuous ground track of almost sixty miles, hit the town of Harrold, causing one death and extensive damage. That evening a massive tornado whipped across eight miles of residential area in the southern sector of Wichita Falls, in a 1½-mile-wide swath. In less than thirty minutes forty-two people died, and 3,000 homes were demolished and 600 others heavily damaged. Half of those killed were in cars the twister lifted, spun, and crushed. The storm continued into Clay County, where it caused forty more injuries and another $40 million in damage. A lone twister roared through the isolated West Texas community of Saragosa on May 23, 1987, devastating the town and killing twenty-nine residents. Another 121 were injured. Eighty percent of the town was laid waste, and all of its public buildings were destroyed. Most of the death and injuries occurred in the community hall, when the walls fell in on a kindergarten graduation ceremony attended by more than 100 residents.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

George W. Bomar, Texas Weather (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985). Catherine Young Clack, "The Bellevue Tornado of April 26, 1906," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 63 (April 1960). Snowden D. Flora, Tornadoes of the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1953). Goliad Advance-Guard, June 2, 1960. Howard C. Key, "Twister Tales," in Madstones and Twisters, ed. Mody C. Boatright et al., Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 28 (Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 1958). Derwood Lane, Saragosa: The Town Killed by a Tornado (Austin: Eakin Press, 1989). The Lubbock Storm of May 11, 1970, prep. by J. Neils Thompson et al. (Washington: National Academy of Science for the National Academy of Engineering, 1970). Harry Estill Moore, Tornadoes over Texas: A Study of Waco and San Angelo in Disaster (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958). Frederic Simonds, The Austin, Texas, Tornadoes of May 4, 1922 (University of Texas Bulletin 2307, Austin, 1923). Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Texas Collection, July 1964. Texas Almanac, 1964–65, 1990–91. Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin (Saragosa, Texas).

Roy Sylvan Dunn

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Roy Sylvan Dunn, "TORNADOES," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ydt01), accessed September 18, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.