Blown Away

Ever since the 1953 killer tornado struck Waco, I’ve been fascinated with the awesome spectacle and horrifying history of Texas twisters.

I AM OFF TO FIND A TORNADO. BUT this has been a dry spring, a spring of intense solar radiation, grass fires, and almost no thunderstorms. So I decide to drive around Texas for a couple of days and visit the sites of some of the great ones—to go storm chasing through history, as it were. My ultimate destination is the northeast corner of the Panhandle and the path of the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1947, which, according to legend, completely destroyed the town of Glazier, leaving only the jail intact.

Being a Texan who spent most of his childhood trying to persuade his parents to dig a storm cellar, I have always believed Texas tornadoes are the greatest. The current Texas Almanac  says that more tornadoes have been recorded in Texas than in any other state and that tornadoes occur most often in the Red River Valley. Why is this? Why do people like me love tornadoes so much they are willing to drive hour after boring hour, just on the chance of seeing one? And, most important of all, will I see a tornado on this trip?

“The truth is out there,” as my brother, who is also a storm chaser, says. And who can doubt it? Just before I leave Austin, I see a new video in Blockbuster: Secrets of the Unknown: Tornadoes and UFOs. Your favorite flavors, together at last. But there is a common ground. When we chase tornadoes, we are chasing a phenomenon that, despite all the research, remains mysterious—but also seems to offer a glimpse of the great and final secret connections.

I LEAVE AUSTIN ON A WARM spring morning, with fast, low clouds racing just overhead. I could drive south to Goliad, the site of recorded history’s first great Texas tornado, but there is no chance of seeing any storms that far south. By 1910 tornadoes had already struck Sherman, Bellevue, Cedar Hill, Slidell, Zephyr, and Mobeetie, but the Goliad Tornado of May 18, 1902, horrified Texans because of its great loss of life. One hundred fourteen people were killed, including forty in one church, and the dead were buried in mass graves. At the time it was popularly believed that tornadoes were caused by electromagnetism, and the survivors reported that the town was covered with “a copper-toned metallic dust.” Survivors of the Savoy Tornado of 1880 described a “funnel-shaped cloud surcharged with fire” and large balls of lightning.

Anecdotes like these clung to tornadoes at the turn of the century, expressing a deep fear of electricity and the modern age as well as a profound uncertainty as to why they happened. Some suspected that tornadoes were caused by progress itself. The chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau wrote rather defensively in 1896, “I am satisfied that the number of these storms is not increasing, that the breaking of virgin soi …or the laying of iron and steel rails, has not materially altered the climatic conditions or contributed to the intensity or frequency of tornadoes.”

The press coverage of the Goliad Tornado set the tone for years to come and included all the basic anecdotes of tornado mythology. Victims died in mysterious and grotesque ways. One woman’s long hair caught on a barbed-wire fence, it was said, and the wind spun her around it until she died. The interior of the funnel is the locus, where acts of natural magic are performed. You’ve heard the stories. Beans blown into eggs. Babies picked up and carried for miles before being deposited unharmed in the tops of trees. Letters delivered across three states. It is almost impossible to convince people these reports are tornado mythology. (I have my own doubts about the tales of the Tri-State Tornado and the destruction of Glazier. Only the jail left? It sounds like more mythology to me.) These anecdotes are like the one about the water-skier who let go of his towrope and glided into a mating ball of water moccasins—an incident that is said to have happened on every lake in Texas. When they pulled him out of the water, he was swollen up big as a tractor tire, right?

In the aftermath of the Goliad Tornado, there were many stories in the papers about the heroism of the survivors and the rebuilding of the town, along with poems by those who had witnessed the storm. Tornadoes have probably inspired more newspaper editors to write bad poetry than any other natural phenomenon. In 1856, after seeing a tornado strike Cedar Hill, J. W. Latimer, the editor of the Dallas Daily Herald, wrote: “The strife of fiends is on the battling clouds, / The glare of hell is in the sulphurous lightning, / This is no earthly storm.”

Tornadoes defy description, and attempts to capture them in words only prove the poverty of language in the face of the phenomenon. A survivor of the 1957 Silverton Tornado wrote, “It dipped and popped and looked like red sand boiling and rumbling when it hit.” Others have described funnels as looking like a cow horn, a cow’s udder, a drum-stick, an eel, a flight of buzzards, and a balloon with a parachute swinging below. Tornadoes have usually been described as sound-ing like a freight train, but some have insisted they sound more like a bunch of cars honking, or—my personal favorite—like a Skilsaw in a wet board.

At noon I pass through Waco, the site of the great tornado of May 11, 1953. This tornado killed 114 people, equaling the death toll of the Goliad Tornado, and did $50 million in property damage. I was a child in 1953, but I can remember the day this tornado struck, the very moment I heard about it. There was something apocalyptic about a tornado’s striking Waco, which everyone knew was the home of Baylor University. But this was not what frightened me the most. Previously, tornadoes had seemed to strike only small towns. This one hit the downtown area of a city.

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