Texas Emergency Management ONLINE2013 Vol. 60 No. 5

LOOKING BACK AT THE WACO TORNADO OF 1953 AND THE LESSONS LEARNED…

Texas City disaster

Throughout history, Texas has a number of natural disasters and the aftermath that comes with the destruction.  One particular tornado in Waco stands out this month in history among the rest.  May 11, 1953 Waco tornado can almost be seen as a catalyst to help push creation of the first workable disaster plan. 

The Legend
According to an old Indian legend, the first Indians settled the Waco area because it was in a geological recess.  This means the town was protected by hills and bluffs, in essence, making the area tornado proof.  This town perception made it no surprise that on May 11, 1953 the residents in the town of Waco did not pay very much attention to the tornado warning from the National Weather Service.  Tornadoes just didn’t happen.

The Event
Austin freelance writer Hans Christianson describes the tornadic event in his research.

“The Waco Tornado was unlike anything that had ever happened to the city before. Nearly 1/3 of a mile wide, the F-5 rated twister produced winds up to 260 mph. The results were catastrophic. 114 people were killed, 600 were injured with survivors trapped under the wreckage for up to 14 hours in some cases. 2,000 vehicles and 1,000 homes and businesses were damaged along with 600 more completed destroyed. The final damage bill…around $50 million. Even today, it stands as the 10th deadliest tornado in the history of the United States.”

Texas City disaster

The Chaos
Since there had never been a tornado in the Waco area and none really were expected, organizing rescue efforts became a challenge.  Initially there was confusion, because no one really knew what had happened and there was no clear organization.  There was so much to do, but no one knew where to start. A local radio personality named Bob Walker from KWTX arrived with a loudspeaker attached to the top of his car. They used the loudspeaker to call out directions to the rescue workers. Eventually, additional help began to stream into the downtown area, including members of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, National Guard, Army and Air Force. Southwestern Bell also set up temporary telephone lines. In all, George Hutson ended up spending 72 hours straight underneath the broken Amicable clock, managing the communication effort.

The medical community was also in chaos.  The staff knew there had been a storm but knew nothing about the tornado.  Staff had no idea to the damage or loss of life.  One community doctor had previous wartime experience dealing with multiple injury casualties.  He quickly stepped in to try to organize one of the two hospital treatment efforts.  Stations were created depending on the scope of practice, beginning triage was implemented and vehicles were being outfitted into makeshift ambulances.

Lessons Learned
The Waco tornado came in the early days of Civil Defense planning.  Most people were more worried about the Cold War and the Russian than in natural disasters.  Once Waco finally coordinated its response to rescue and recovery efforts, it became a valuable lesson on what to do and not to do in a catastrophe.  The first workable disaster plans were created that meshed the work of civilian, government entities and facilities.  Waco’s tornado stated the state’s radar-equipped severe weather network.  Waco had to learn the hard way, but because they prevailed, others were able to implement those lessons learned. 


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