Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2016 Vol. 63 No. 4

Top Ten Deadliest Tornadoes in Texas (since 1900)

Nothing embodies severe weather quite like a tornado, and no other state has recorded more tornadoes than Texas. On average 132 tornadoes touchdown in Texas every year. Although tornadoes are most common between April and June, they can occur at any time of the year. There have been off-season tornado outbreaks, particularly in December 2006 and as recently as 2015. The highest number of tornadoes in Texas in a single year is 232, which occurred in 1967, the same year Hurricane Beulah made landfall. The storm spawned 115 tornadoes in a five-day period. Here is the list of the ten deadliest tornadoes in Texas history as compiled by the National Weather Service.

NUMBER ONE - THE WACO TORNADO - MAY 11, 1953
The deadliest tornado in Texas history struck shortly after 4 p.m. on the day after Mother's Day in 1953. It touched down north of the town of Lorena and began moving north-northeast toward Waco. On a radar screen at Texas A&M University, the tornadic storm developed a hook shaped echo. Nearly a third of a mile wide, the massive F5 tornado crossed Waco on a path that ran almost south to north, killing 114 people and injuring 597. It destroyed around 600 homes and other buildings and damaged over 1,000, including 2,000 vehicles. Some of the survivors had to wait up to 14 hours for rescue.

Alico Building

Built as a showcase building in 1910, the ALICO building was about the only building in downtown Waco that survived the storm. The steel-framed building reportedly swayed several feet in the tornadic winds, but otherwise suffered only minimal damage. It is still a Waco icon.

As a result of the deadly Waco twister, Texas A&M University and the United States Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) organized the Texas Tornado Warning Conference in June 1953 to discuss tornado warning procedures and weather radar. The purpose of the conference was to use all available resources from the federal government, academic communities and the private sector to devise an efficient tornado warning system for severe weather. The future goal was to prevent death tolls like that of the Waco tornado.

The conference led to improved communications between numerous agencies, an early development of the SKYWARN storm spotter program and a national radar network.

NUMBER TWO - THE GOLIAD TORNADO - MAY 18, 1902
The second deadliest tornado in Texas killed 114 people and injured 250. It is believed to have touched down just before 4 p.m. near Berclair, about 15 miles southwest of Goliad, and moved on a track toward the northeast. About an eighth of a mile wide, the F4 tornado crossed the San Antonio River southwest of Goliad and moved into the town. Most of the deaths occurred in the west part of Goliad, where hundreds of buildings were destroyed.

NUMBER THREE - THE ROCKSPRINGS TORNADO - APRIL 12, 1927
The third deadliest tornado in Texas history, like the first and second, occurred well south of what is generally considered Tornado Alley. This F5 tornado touched down three miles to the northwest of Rocksprings, in Edwards County, and moved toward the southeast. Nearly one mile wide as it crossed Rocksprings, it destroyed 235 of the 247 buildings in the town. It killed 74 people and injured 205, almost a third of the population. Clearing Rocksprings, it continued southeastward at least 35 miles and perhaps as far as 65 miles.

NUMBER FOUR - THE GLAZIER-HIGGINS-WOODWARD TORNADOES - APRIL 09, 1947
The fourth deadliest tornado in Texas history also moved through western Oklahoma and dissipated near St. Leo, Kansas. Part of a family of deadly twisters, it touched down five miles northwest of Pampa and crossed just northwest of Canadian, nearly parallel to U.S. Highway 60. Its funnel was reported at times to be between one and two miles wide. Just before crossing into Oklahoma, it destroyed the town of Glazier and most of the town of Higgins. It killed 17 and injured 40 in Glazier; 51 were killed and 232 injured in Higgins. Final totals across three states were 181 killed and 970 injured.

1979 Wichita Falls tornado

1979 Wichita Falls tornado. Courtesy of NOAA.

NUMBER FIVE - THE WICHITA FALLS TORNADO - APRIL 10, 1979
One of the most infamous of Texas Tornadoes, this huge F4 first touched down about three miles northeast of Holliday, a town lying southwest of Wichita Falls, where it damaged homes and businesses. Crossing into Wichita Falls, it severely damaged Memorial Stadium, followed by McNeil Junior High and then entered the residential part of the city. It damaged a shopping center and numerous vehicles, then proceeded across U.S. Highway 287 where it destroyed additional vehicles. At times it was a mile and a half wide. It continued northeast from Wichita Falls, past the Red River and into Oklahoma where it dissipated north of Waurika. It killed 42 people in Wichita Falls, 25 of those deaths were vehicle related. It caused over 1,700 injuries, destroyed over 3,000 homes and left 20,000 homeless.

NUMBER SIX - THE FROST TORNADO - MAY 06, 1930
This F4 tornado touched down near Bynum in Hill County, crossed into Navarro County east of Mertens, struck the town of Frost, where it killed at least 25 people. Continuing toward the northeast, it caused additional deaths south of Rankin and south of Bardwell. It then crossed into Ellis County and killed citizens of Ennis. Its total death toll was 41, with over 200 persons injured.

NUMBER SEVEN - THE KARNES-DEWITT TORNADO - MAY 06, 1930
Tornado number seven occurred on the same day as the Frost tornado. It touched down three miles northwest of Kenedy in Karnes County. Moving to the east-northeast, it crossed three miles south of Runge and dissipated three miles south of Nordheim. Along its path, this F4 tornado encountered numerous weakly constructed homes and shelters that provided little safety. This is the reason the death toll was high, with 36 and 60 injuries.

NUMBER EIGHT - THE ZEPHYR TORNADO - MAY 30, 1909
Tornado number eight formed somewhere close to the town of Zephyr in Brown County near midnight and destroyed large parts of the town during the early morning hours, leaving little to view except vacant lots. Not much is known of the tornado path, except that most deaths occurred in the residential areas on the south and east sides of the town. Rated an F4, the tornado damaged nearly 50 homes, six businesses, two churches and a high school. It killed 34 and injured 70.

NUMBER NINE - THE SARAGOSA TORNADO - MAY 22, 1987
Tornado number nine touched down two miles southwest of Saragosa in Reeves County, and moved northeastward for three miles. A half-mile wide as it crossed over Saragosa, the F4 tornado destroyed more than 80 percent of the town, killed 30 residents and injured 121. Twenty-two of the deaths occurred at the Guadalupe Hall, where a group had gathered for a children's graduation ceremony. Most of these deaths were among the parents and grandparents who shielded children from the debris with their bodies.

TORNADO NUMBER TEN - THE JARRELL TORNADO - MAY 27, 1997
The Jarrell tornado is the last confirmed F5 tornado in the state of Texas. This tornado followed an unusual path, moving to the south-southwest and has revived studies on the role of gravity waves on thunderstorm initiation. This storm killed 27 people, injured 12 more and and killed hundreds of cattle. More than 40 homes were completely destroyed, some of which were completely removed from their foundations.

1970 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

1970 Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Courtesy Texas Tech University.

HONORABLE MENTION - THE LUBBOCK TORNADO - MAY 11, 1970
The Lubbock tornado formed over the southwest corner of the city and touched down just south of the downtown area. It tracked toward the northeast near U.S. Highway 87, just east of the Texas Tech University campus and continued for eight miles before lifting. It destroyed over 1,000 homes and apartment units, 10,000 vehicles and over 100 aircraft. It killed 26 people and injured 500. This tornado was studied and mapped in detail by Professor Fujita, and was an important key in the development of his Fujita Scale. It was rated F5 on this scale.


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