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Blown Away

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

By July 1996Comments

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. Worse, it knocked down the Dennis Building, which collapsed onto the Joy Theater next door, burying several children under an avalanche of bricks. This was the real horror of the Waco Tornado, and it gave me a new nightmare—of being in my father’s office, on the eighth floor of the Staley Building in Wichita Falls, when a tornado hit; feeling the whole structure begin a sickening fall toward the street below. The notion that a tornado might bury me in a movie theater was especially terrifying. After Waco, whenever I was sitting in a movie theater and heard a rumble of thunder, I jumped up and fled.

Actually, the Dennis Building was very old, with a wooden frame under brick veneer, and could not have met modern building codes. The Amicable Building next door, which had a steel framework, withstood the impact of the funnel. It is still standing, as I pass it on Interstate 35, a moderately famous example of early twentieth-century architecture in a city now crowded with the usual modern glass boxes.

The Great Waco Tornado followed the pattern. First, the tornado itself, a punishment sent by God or nature, struck without warning; then, the accounting of miracles, the writing of poetry, the rebuilding of the town. But at the exact time the tornado was destroying downtown Waco, its “hook echo,” or radar signature, was being watched by a professor at Texas A&M in College Station, 85 miles away. The research that would eventually enable meteorologists to understand and forecast tornadoes had begun.

Before 1948, the Weather Bureau considered attempts to forecast tornadoes a waste of time. No one could understand tornadoes, much less predict where they were going to strike. Then there was the prevalent belief that if one did predict them, the result would be a mass panic worse than the tornado itself. This cold-war thinking persisted into the seventies.

But in 1948 two Air Force meteorologists at Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City—Major E. J. Fawbush and Captain Robert Miller—found that they could forecast tornadoes. This happened through a stupendous coincidence, but then coincidences are part of tornado lore. On March 20  Fawbush and Miller watched a tornado cross Tinker field and took careful note of the conditions. Only five days later, an almost identical cell approached Tinker. It looked the same on the charts—so they called a tornado alert. Sure enough, another funnel crossed the field in exactly the same place.

Encouraged, Fawbush and Miller began forecasting tornadoes for the military. (The public was still left in the dark.) By 1952 they had the basic scenario down—a convergence of moist and dry air flowing into a low-pressure area with the jet stream overhead—and had made 52 successful predictions. On March 17 of that year, the Weather Bureau issued a forecast based on their scenario for the first time. The watch box was so big it included Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. But tornadoes did strike that day (near Wichita Falls, of course), and the forecast was considered a success.

I remember the anxiety of those first forecasts. I was in the third grade, and one morning our teacher sent us home, although the sky was cloudless. As we played in a vacant lot on our block, we were constantly aware that we were under a tornado alert. Big cumulus clouds began rolling out of the west. Their shadows raced across the lot toward us, and for a moment we were in cool shade and heard the singing of grasshoppers. Then the sunlight poured down again, drenching us in heat and glare. Finally—with a pang of fear but a strangely pleasurable sense of anticipation—we saw the anvil top of the big storm appear on the horizon. It looked exactly like the cloud of a hydrogen bomb.

Details of the tornado that struck Fort Worth on Labor Day in 1952 still remain military secrets. About a hundred of the Strategic Air Command’s B-36 bombers were at Carswell Air Force Base getting retrofitted with jet engines. The tornado crossed the base, smashing one bomber to pieces and severely damaging the others. According to tornado lore, a nuclear bomb may have been destroyed and its plutonium core scattered. This incident probably inspired the Air Force to get into the tornado-chasing business. A squadron of F-100 Super Sabres who styled themselves the Rough Riders began flying around storms, collecting data. On one occasion, a pilot (who must have been insane) tried flying through a supercell. Hailstones shattered his canopy instantly, and he barely got back alive.

But for my money the greatest aerial tornado chaser of them all was James Cook, a Jacksboro rancher and former Army Air Corps pilot. Cook owned a P-51D Mustang and volunteered his services to the Weather Bureau. Cook’s P-51D was at Love Field in 1957 on the day of the Great Dallas Tornado and was destroyed. He got another surplus airplane—a twin-engine P-38 Lightning—and kept right on chasing. He flew more than one hundred sorties over Tornado Alley, a severe-storm corridor that runs from Texas through Oklahoma and Kansas to Nebraska, taking meteorological readings. This was a risky business. As Cook told the papers: “If you play too close, sooner or later you’ll plow up a snake. That’s not for me.” Cook was right down there “in the clag,” as storm chasers say, flying beneath the supercells. The real danger was from microbursts, sudden downdrafts, which could have slammed him to the ground in seconds. But nobody knew about microbursts then. His exploits must have far outdone movie storm chasers. James Cook, would that you were still around!

NOW IT IS LATE AFTERNOON. WACO AND Dallas are behind me, and I am crossing the Red River Valley. Tornado signs are everywhere. I see sheet metal still wrapped around a utility pole. Every parking lot has a car peppered with big hail dents. Gift shops in the area sell Pet Tornadoes—plastic tubes of starch and water that, when spun, form a funnel of bubbles. The Memphis High School football team is called the Cyclones, and their mascot is a funnel with a strangely benign face, like Casper the Friendly Ghost’s.

I stop at the Medicine Mounds, four little caprock mesas in the valley of the Pease River that were the center of the universe for Quanah Parker, the son of a white captive who became a great Comanche war chief. From a distance, they have a dark, solemn aspect and seem always in shadow. Up close, they are smaller than I thought and covered with scrub cedar. As a boy I was secretly thrilled by the thought of being a white child captured by the Comanche. Then I could have lived the life I was meant to live—ranging over the plains, going on vision quests, finding wives, and killing my enemies. I could have done the things a man really wants to do! But now that I’m here, all I can do is wonder: How could the Comanche have lived in this country without sun block? There is such latent hostility in this terrain. It seems to be telling me to give it up and go home.

Then, far to the north, I see translucent cumulus domes. There are some storms trying to get started up there after all. The jet stream must be moving in this direction. Feeling much better, I drive on through the Quartz Mountains, a green and pleasant country that seems to have had some rainfall, and stop for the night in Sayre, Oklahoma. In a motel, I watch the Weather Channel and see one of those storms blow up and roll northeast all the way to Kansas. The forecast for tomorrow now gives us a 20 percent chance of storms.

Precise forecasting is the motive for all the research. If tornadoes can be forecast, lives may be spared. The Great Dallas Tornado of 1957—the first tornado to be photographed extensively—gave meteorologists a great deal of new information. Hundreds of feet of film were shot by Maurice Levy of NBC, which instantly found its way onto the national news. It was spectacular footage—clouds of flying shingles, whole roofs rising and tumbling slowly through the air. We watched it, I remember, in the same silence as we watched the footage of atomic explosions blowing houses apart on the Nevada Proving Ground.

I WAKE TO A STRONG WIND BLOWING clouds up from the south, humidity increasing, a 30 percent chance of storms here today. Still not very good odds. On the Weather Channel, I see commercials for the movie Twister, which opens the next day, and hear the mayor of Beatrice, Nebraska, a town hit by tornadoes the night before, say, “We’re all plains stock, and we’ll all pull together.” This is arid country, covered with eons of sand blown from the beds of the Red River, the Canadian, the Pease. The wind has been blowing here forever. There are groves of shinnery, or blackjack oak, exposed beds of red clay, and yellow grass.

Just to the west is the 100th meridian, which is also the Texas-Oklahoma border. It has been called the beginning of the Great American Desert, for beyond it, the country averages less than twenty inches of rainfall a year. On a precipitation map, the contrast is startling. On one side of the meridian there is rain; on the other, almost none. This is also where the dry line usually forms—the line along which great storms are born, the ones that then roll on to hit Childress, Vernon, Benjamin, Crowell, Wichita Falls, and Dallas, all prime tornado targets. Today I have a feeling about the meridian, and storm chasing always seems to come down to intuition. Anyway, the ruins of Glazier are out there, so I drive on. The day has gotten hotter, and now there are no clouds at all.

On April 10, 1979, came the great Red River Outbreak. Big tornadoes struck Seymour and Vernon that day, but the worst hit Wichita Falls. The almanac calls this tornado, which killed 42 people and did $400 million in property damage, the worst in Texas history. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed (two entire subdivisions) and 20,000 people were left homeless—so many that the federal government brought in fleets of trailers for them to live in.

The Wichita Falls Tornado was a monster with multiple vortices—each one as big as an ordinary tornado—and the diameter of the funnel at times exceeded a mile. The footage is enough to terrify even the most seasoned storm chaser. I know of a great photograph of this tornado that hangs in the Branding Iron, a local restaurant where I sometimes eat. The vortices are wrapped around each other, and it looks like…a mating ball of water moccasins.

I saw several tornadoes in Wichita Falls when I was growing up. In 1958 a big funnel came spinning up the Wichita River, a mile from our house. My mother refused to seek shelter. “I’m frying pork chops,” she said. In 1964 a tornado sucked up a local man, and he found himself traveling like Dorothy through the vortex of the funnel. Above him was a spinning house trailer with a woman standing in the doorway. A mattress flew by, and he thought: “If I could just reach that, I’d go to sleep.” Then he lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital. For years afterward he haunted the downtown, telling his story to anyone who would listen.

The 1979 Wichita Falls Tornado was forecast. By that time, research had identified the supercells that can develop into tornadoes, and meteorologists were able to track tornadic cells accurately on radar. There were reports on the tornado that struck Seymour, sixty miles away. The local spotters were out, the sirens blew. Everyone should have known what was going to happen.

My brother lived in Wichita Falls, and when he saw the tornado coming, he threw his family into the car and took off. This was not a good idea, but my brother was already a storm chaser, and this was the first thought that came into his head. The tornado followed him all the way across town. What he remembers most clearly are the people who were not seeking shelter. As he passed a shopping mall, he saw scores of people standing in the parking lot, watching the tornado approach. He met other cars and blinked his lights at them—they kept driving right into the funnel. He passed people mowing their lawns, painting their houses, going about their business with death right on top of them. Ninety-four years after the Goliad Tornado, we can pinpoint almost exactly where they are going to strike. But it seems to make little difference.

NEARING BORGER, I SEE A LITTLE white curl of vapor in the sky, almost directly overhead. It twists and turns and expands. By the time I have passed through Borger, it has become a little cumulus with a strange yellow color, as if I were seeing it through thick glass. This looks like it might become a storm. I drive across the breaks of the Canadian River and down a dirt road to the site of the Battle of Adobe Walls. Here, in 1874, a handful of “hide men,” or buffalo hunters, held off more than five hundred Cheyenne and Comanche warriors for four days. The site is on a bend of the river. There are a few tortured cottonwoods, caliche bluffs all around. On the ground is a depression—all that remains of the saloon where the buffalo hunters made their stand. There is a monument to the hide men placed there by the whites; a monument to the Indians was recently placed there by the Indians. “They fought for what makes life worth living,” the legend says. Meaning, I am sure, freedom. I can see nothing else here worth fighting for.

I am now on the other side of the 100th meridian, and this country looks just like Wyoming. I hear a thin cry. A figure is walking across the caliche bluffs, more than a mile away, followed by a dog. He waves at me, and I wave back. Then I hear three flat rifle shots. It doesn’t sound like the rifle is pointed directly at me, but this is a little disconcerting. Now I can hear him singing. I look through my binoculars. He is a young man who wears a denim shirt with the sleeves cut off. He carries his rifle on his shoulder. Once he staggers and falls down, drunk as a lord. I go about my business, looking at the old foundations. He keeps singing and occasionally firing his rifle. He seems to express all the brooding menace of this lonely terrain.

But the cumulus to the south is blowing up, building into a beautiful storm. I feel the quiet exhilaration I always feel in the presence of a storm, and this storm has a good presence. Another begins building to the north, and now we have a whole line of cells, a great wall of storms marching off across Oklahoma. It all happens as quickly as if I’m seeing it in time-lapse. I am at the center of things after all, the locus where today’s energies concentrate. Now it is time to try to catch that storm, and perhaps see a tornado.

On May 22, 1987, another monster tornado struck the small West Texas town of Saragosa. This, the most recent of the great Texas tornadoes, killed 30 of the town’s 183 inhabitants. Witnesses described it as “a very dark wall a half-mile across” and reported that two clouds collided and began “spinning like a girl doing a Spanish dance.” Why did the victims not seek shelter? There was a watch that day, and there was a warning for the cell that produced the tornado. Everyone should have known it was coming, but the victims tell us they did not. Perhaps they were hypnotized by the funnel, as a bird is said to be hypnotized by a snake. The sight of a funnel is spellbinding. First of all, nothing that big should be moving. That in itself is enough to scare the pants off you. And the motion is uncanny—funnels look organic, as if the storm were alive and aware, and the sight freezes you with instinctive dread.

But I think the truth is that many people just do not believe the warnings. They forget the power of severe weather until it is too late. They think they have time to finish their coffee before they head to the storm cellar. Perhaps that will change. With the advent of the camcorder and the Weather Channel, tornadoes have become something else—entertainment. Now there is Twister. Who can doubt that after seeing it, scores of would-be tornado chasers will take to the road?

I suppose everything in America must become entertainment sooner or later. But I do not think this interest in tornadoes will last forever. In the world of Twister the funnels are everywhere. In reality, storm chasing means eating road food and driving for hour after hour without seeing anything—and, as my brother says, “Your butt gives out long before the storms do.”

I will keep chasing storms because I have been fascinated with them since I was a child. First, there was fear—when the rumble of thunder could send me running to the front hall closet to hide among the laundry bags. Then there was dread—when I was afraid but somehow drawn to my fear, which was the strongest emotion I had ever felt, and a great relief from the boredom of childhood. Now I love these storms because they make me love Texas more. The plains are a hostile terrain, but somehow they look better when seen from a moving car with a storm on the horizon. These storms make some part of Texas manifest that is ordinarily invisible, and I cannot imagine chasing storms in Illinois or Indiana. It would not be the same.

I DRIVE EAST ALONG U.S. 60, the biggest cell just to the south of me. Now I hear tornado warnings on the radio. There is a funnel on the ground out there, and if I get close enough, I can see it. Soon I meet a red Mazda with a whip antenna, storm chaser decals, and three teenage boys leaning forward in excitement. But they are going in the wrong direction. Fine—I want this storm all to myself.

Ahead are the Boundary Mounds, more little caprock mesas on the 100th meridian. I am following the path of the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1947. But the plains are endless and seem even more so in the dying light. Out here, the most incredible fact of all seems to be that the Tri-State Tornado could have hit the only town in hundreds of square miles of nothing.

I hit the brakes and pull over. Standing by the side of the road is a cube of pebbly gray concrete with barred windows and an iron door. The Glazier jail. It seems to stare back at me. I feel a warm sense of renewal that has no logical origin but is simply an emotion of faith confirmed: The legends are true after all.

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