On May 11, 1953, a destructive force tore through Waco and forever altered the face of the city. The tornado injured 600 people, took 114 lives, and damaged hundreds of businesses. The chaotic aftermath of this deadly storm left an indelible mark upon the Waco community.
On the morning of May 11, the New Orleans Weather Bureau issued a tornado warning for West and Central Texas. Yet life in Waco continued at its normal pace. Some Wacoans placed stock in the old Waco Indian legend that claimed that the hills and bluffs surrounding the city kept it safe from tornados. Others, such as Baylor geologist emeritus O.T. Hayward, argued that Waco was situated atop an an uplift on the Balcones escarpment (or fault line) served to precipitate severe weather along the I-35 corridor, which roughly follows the escarpment. Still, few took heed of the storm warnings issued by the National Weather Service that day, as the weather was the same as it had been for days: warm and muggy.
The weather grew severe as the day progressed. Thunderstorms developed, and many downtown shoppers and businessmen rushed into buildings in order to take cover from the rain. Around 4 p.m. the sky suddenly darkened and hail the size of baseballs fell. It seemed to many as though night had fallen. As the storm worsened, some tried to contact family and loved ones, only to find the phone lines had gone dead.
Around 4:30, a tornado touched down southwest of Waco and tore through residential areas. At 4:36, it struck downtown Waco. The F-5 tornado cut a swath nearly one-third of a mile wide with winds up to 260 miles per hour. After tearing through downtown, it exited the city and continued northeast for several more miles.
Many of the buildings in downtown Waco were not built with such a severe storm in mind. Only buildings with steel-frame structures, such as the Amicable (ALICO) building and the Roosevelt Hotel, were able to withstand the severe winds. Others, such as the R. T. Dennis building, collapsed, killing thirty of the people within and injuring several more. The tornado destroyed 196 buildings, and damaged hundreds of others so badly that they were later torn down. Some, such as the Dr Pepper bottling plant, withstood smaller amounts of damage which the owners later repaired. Outside of downtown, the tornado demolished nearly six hundred homes in East Waco.
The aftermath of the storm was chaotic, and confusion and disorganization characterized initial rescue efforts. The destruction was massive, and the city was entirely unprepared to handle such a disaster. Survivors served as the first responders, and as personnel from James Connelly Air Force Base, local and state law enforcement, Baylor University students, and others joined the work, an organizational system developed. Members of the Red Cross, Salvation Army, National Guard, army, and air force also arrived to aid in the rescue efforts.
Though estimates vary, approximately $51 million of property damages occurred. The city received around $9 million in order to aid recovery, including federal assistance, a grant from the Red Cross, and private donations collected by local civic leaders. Yet even this relief could not counter the serious blow the tornado dealt to the downtown business community. Some areas of the city never fully recovered.
Although this catastrophe, recognized as the deadliest Texas tornado since 1900, devastated downtown, it also brought the Waco community together. Countless hours of volunteer efforts poured into the recovery of the city. The aftermath of the Waco tornado also contributed to the development of an efficient tornado warning system for the entire nation, and promoted greater communication amongst relief agencies to better deal with future disasters.