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A Tale of Two Cities: Being Aware Before the Storm Hits

On this date in history one of the deadliest tornadoes in the history of Texas struck Waco in the late afternoon. It is a lesson in how far the warning process has come in the past 60 years. A storm like this would never strike without warning again. But would the death toll today be any different?

The U.S. Weather Bureau had refrained from issuing tornado forecasts (watches) for over 60 years before public and congressional pressure forced them to begin issuing tornado forecasts (watches) to the public in 1952.  On this date, the Weather Bureau Office in New Orleans, LA issued a tornado forecast (watch) at 9:30 a.m. for western and central Texas.  The alert was passed on to the Texas Highway Patrol, who began scanning the skies for telltale signs of tornadoes.  When a funnel was sighted forty miles from San Angelo, a warning was passed onto city and school officials.  The tornado struck the Lake View School at about 2:15 p.m.  Students were in their tornado drill positions and only slight injuries resulted, even though the school building was heavily damaged.  Eleven people died in San Angelo, but the warnings were credited with saving potentially hundreds of lives.

Meanwhile, people in Waco TX were unconcerned, because of a myth that their city was protected from tornadoes by hills that surround the city.  Around 4:30 p.m., a massive F5 tornado dipped from the clouds southwest of the city and cut a path through residential areas toward the heart of downtown. The image above is one of the few images of the actual tornado. There was no warning for the storm but once again there was a tornado forecast for the area.  The massive F5 tornado devastated downtown Waco as the tornado’s path went directly through the heart of downtown. As you can see the path was a worse case scenario for the city. 114 people were killed and nearly 600 were injured.  Many people in the downtown area took shelter in the business buildings that were downtown thinking they would be safe. Many of the buildings were not designed to with stand such violent storm. 30 people were killed in a six-story furniture store, which collapsed.  The tornado carved a 23-mile path through town, destroying over 850 homes. The tornado heavily damaged much of downtown causing $200 million in damage. The tornado still ranks as the deadliest tornado in the state of Texas since 1900.

We would like to think today with our Doppler radars, communications systems, spotter networks, computer models, skycams, weatheradios, siren systems and wall to wall television coverage that an unthinkable death toll like this would never happen again. It happened last May in Joplin. If the Waco tornado happened today, the death toll might be even worse than it was in 1953.

Always make sure you pay attention to any weather risk, including watches as they do give a heads up to the potential for severe weather. MyWARN does this, it provides the risk, watches, warnings and actions that the user needs to take depending on the threat level.

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