1953: Year of killer tornadoes


SILVER SPRING, Md. – This year – 2003 – marks the 50th anniversary of the third deadliest year for tornadoes in the United States.

Killer tornadoes claimed 519 lives in 1953-a death toll exceeded only twice in United States history.

Tornadoes killed 805 people in 1925 and 555 died as a result of tornadoes in 1936.

While 1953 saw less than half (422) of the annual average number of tornadoes, it did spawn some of the deadliest on record, including the last single tornado to kill more than 100 people.

Of the 519 people killed in 1953, two-thirds of them died as the result of three powerful tornadoes that touched down in Waco, Texas; Flint, Mich.; and Worcester, Mass.

Waco, Texas: May 11, 1953. A powerful (F5) tornado ripped through downtown Waco at 4:10 p.m. May 11, 1953, killing 114 people and injuring nearly 600 more.

More than 600 businesses, 850 homes and 2,000 cars were destroyed or severely damaged for an estimated loss of $41 million ($275 million in 2002 dollars).

The deadliest tornado in Texas history and the tenth deadliest in the nation, the twister touched down about 10 miles south of the city. By the time it reached Waco, the tornado was moving almost due north, cutting a path of destruction a third of a mile wide through the heart of the city.

Holes in communication. About an hour before the tornado struck, a research meteorologist at Texas A & M University picked up an isolated comma-shaped echo on his radar screen.

Unaware of the severe weather bulletins posted for the area, the researcher did not give extra significance to the echo.

A few minutes before the strike, the screen displayed five large echoes.

The following month, the first Texas Tornado Warning Conference was held at the university.

In hindsight, conferees determined a coordinated plan and better communication between the academic and emergency management community and the Weather Bureau could have led to early warnings and a reduced death toll in the Waco disaster.

The most important outgrowth was a contract between the Weather Bureau and Texas A & M to modify existing radar sets leading to the nation’s first closely knit network of radar stations dedicated strictly to storm detection.

Flint, Mich.: June 8, 1953. Less than a month after the Waco tornado, another F5 monster ripped through portions of greater Flint, Mich., on June 8, killing 116 people and injuring 844 along a 27-mile path.

Named the Flint-Beecher tornado, it is memorable for being the last tornado in the United States (as of this writing) to claim more than 100 fatalities.

The Flint-Beecher tornado is rated as the ninth deadliest twister ever recorded in the United States.

Ohio hit, too. This tornado was one of 10 that hit southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio that afternoon and evening. The others caused a total of 26 deaths and 449 injuries with damage stretching from Alpena, Mich., on the western shore of Lake Huron, to Cleveland, Ohio.

Severe storms developed over southeast Lower Michigan in the afternoon, when a moisture-laden warm front moving from the Ohio Valley collided with a strong cold front moving east across Wisconsin.

The Flint-Beecher tornado touched down at about 8:30 p.m. two miles north of Flushing, Mich., and tracked eastward across Genesee and Lapeer counties to about two miles east of Lapeer, Mich., clipping northern portions of Flint.

The tornado destroyed approximately 340 homes and damaged 260. An additional 50 farmhouses and businesses were destroyed and 16 damaged.

Deadly stretch. At its greatest intensity, the tornado path was more than a half-mile wide, obliterating all homes for about a mile on both sides of Coldwater Road in Beecher.

Of the 116 deaths, 114 occurred in this four-mile stretch of the damage path.

As in Waco, the Weather Bureau issued severe weather bulletins highlighting the threat of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, rather than today’s tornado warnings that provide details about tornado location and movement.

Damage from this monstrous storm was estimated to be about $19 million ($127 million in 2002 dollars).

Worcester, Mass.: June 9, 1953. The last of the deadly 1953 trio, a massive (F4) tornado, touched down in Petersham, Mass., at 3:25 p.m. June 9, and set its sights on Worcester, 30 miles to the southeast.

Described as a “huge cone of black smoke,” the funnel intensified quickly and moved southeast at 35 mph. through Barre (two killed), Rutland (two killed), Holden (nine killed) and into northern Worcester, where 60 people died.

Cutting a path one-mile wide, the tornado then tracked east from Worcester through Shrewsbury (12 killed), Westborough (six killed) and on to Southborough (three killed).

On the ground for nearly an hour and a half, the Worcester tornado left a 46-mile path of death and destruction. It killed 94 people, injured almost 1,300 and destroyed or damaged 4,000 buildings and hundreds of cars.

The damage estimate for this tornado was approximately $52 million ($349 million in 2002 dollars).

Far-flung debris. The force of this enormous killer carried a huge amount of debris eastward. A music box, a three-foot aluminum trap door and a large piece of a roof were discovered on the grounds of an observatory 35 miles away.

Debris was also found in Massachusetts Bay and out in the Atlantic Ocean.

Come a long way. Tornado detection and warnings have improved significantly since 1953.

In the decades following the Waco, Flint-Beecher and Worcester tornadoes, advances in technology, communications and public education have helped the National Weather Service, emergency management agencies and the media effect significant improvement in the protection of life and property during severe weather.

A comparison of the Flint-Beecher tornado of 1953 and the Moore-Oklahoma City (F5) tornado of May 3, 1999, shows that both plowed through urban areas with similar population densities of about 2,000 residents per square mile.

In that four-mile stretch in Beecher, 114 people died. In a 17-mile path through suburban Oklahoma City, the death toll was 23.

Wide-spread dissemination of long-range forecasts, severe weather watches and tornado warnings provided residents of metropolitan Oklahoma City with ample time to seek appropriate shelter.

Public education programs gave them the knowledge to understand what constituted appropriate shelter. That winning combination saved many lives.


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