2.2 Lessons We Must Learn—Deadly Tornadoes in Central Texas

Monday, 8 January 2018: 10:45 AM
Room 2 (ACC) (Austin, Texas)
Lon Curtis, Private Meteorologist, Round Rock, TX
Manuscript (531.1 kB)

Since January 1, 1880, at least 1,855 people have died as a result of tornadoes in Texas. The two deadliest tornadoes in Texas history both occurred within 100 miles of Austin. In 1902, 114 people died and over 250 were injured at Goliad, 97 miles south-southeast of Austin. In 1953, 114 people died and 597 were injured at Waco, 84 miles north-northeast of Austin. Retrospective surveys found that F5 damage occurred in the Waco storm and F4 damage in the Goliad storm. An examination of historical records of tornadoes in Texas found that many other significant deadly events (more than 20 deaths) have occurred within 150 miles of Austin: Edwards County, 1927 (74), Hill-Navarro-Ellis counties, 1930 (41), Karnes-De Witt counties, 1930 (36), Brown County, 1909 (34), Limestone County (and eastward), 1946 (30), Williamson County, 1997 (27), and Eastland County, 1893 (23). While the frequency of deadly tornadoes in Central Texas has decreased in recent decades, there is no scientific evidence suggesting that significant tornado events will not occur again. In fact, as the population of Central Texas continues increasing rapidly, and as population density does likewise, the potential for increased casualties from significant tornadoes surely looms as an important public safety issue. Any strong or violent tornadoes in the future may well expose many hundreds (perhaps even thousands) to the threat of serious injury or death. In this context, an event that occurred in Austin on May 4, 1922, is instructive and deserves close examination. Two simultaneous tornadoes developed and moved from north-northeast to south-southwest across parts of Austin. The respective tracks of the tornadoes were separated laterally by less than four miles. One tornado developed just southeast of the State Capitol near 9th Street and Comal, and the other developed five to six miles to the northwest of the State Capitol, in what was then a rural area. Retrospective analysis produced a damage rating of F4 for the "eastern" tornado, and F2 for the "western" tornado. Twelve people died as a result of the "eastern" tornado; there were no known deaths associated with the "western" tornado. The total number of injured from both tornadoes combined was approximately sixty. The population of Austin in 1922 is estimated to have been about 37,000. Today, the city's population is approaching 1,000,000, and while the geographic limits of the city have expanded, the population density has increased dramatically compared to previous eras. A significant tornado following either of the May 4, 1922 tracks today would pose the threat of a death toll in the hundreds, perhaps higher. Indeed, in an interview published in 1970 in the Austin American-Statesman, David Barnes, a meteorologist at the local National Weather Service office, speculated as follows: “If you think what could have happened if that tornado had hit this year, the death rate might have easily been 10 times as great.” Today, a much larger multiplier than 10 is almost certainly appropriate. The famous words of George Santayana are echoing here: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
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