The '53 tornado: When Indian legend proved a curse

By: John Young, Waco Tribune-Herald

It killed 114 people and tore out Waco's heart. It will be 50 years ago next Sunday, yet the pain still tears at so many.

Were it not for tragedy in waves, some of the ironies associated with the 1953 Waco tornado would have been worth a laugh for those who survived.

On May 11, 1953, Ed Berry, president of R.G. Dennis Department Store, suggested that banker Carroll Sturgis come over to talk business. Sturgis declined. "Looks like it's going to storm."

At 4:36 p.m that evening, the giant store disappeared into splinters, and 22 lives were taken, Ed Berry among them.

The day of the tornado, a newspaper reporter called then-Baylor University Department of Geology chairman James W. Dixon and tried out an Indian legend on him. The legend was that the Waco Indians chose this spot because, in a geologic recess, it was tornado-proof.

Dixon scoffed and pulled a response out of thin air. "It wouldn't take but one tornado going right across Fifth and Austin to prove that wrong." A few hours later he was made prophetic.

The next day, the reporter, who had prayed his way through the tornado under a table at the old Williams Drug at Fifth and Franklin, jokingly accused Dixon of causing the tornado.

"I kind of denied that I had anything to do with it," said Dixon, long retired and now living in Woodway.

Dixon explained to the reporter that Waco isn't in a geologic recess, at least the downtown part. It's on a limestone outcropping — though one carved for centuries by a river. Rather than protecting anyone from storms, the outcropping has a way of summoning the elements as air masses move along land, elevate and drop.

Rather than being immune from storms, the outcropping up and down the Interstate 35 corridor is somewhat of a storm machine.

The other night when thunderstorms in the middle of the night woke many Waco residents, including me, the color-radar picture on TV was one of geology as much as meteorology.

Along the escarpment

The red band of commotion was doing what it often does, laboring along I-35 from Dallas to Austin. And why? Not because that's where the cars are.

It's because that's where the fault is, the Balcones Escarpment, the uplifted line of a great upheaval millions of years ago. It's most obvious in the limestone cliffs of Cameron Park.

Baylor geologist emeritus O.T. Hayward, whose trademark phrase is "geology is destiny," points out that the uplift at the escarpment can give a big lift to dense air masses that bring rain with them.

"When the wind is saturated you get a sort of rising chimney of warm air right there at that scarp," Hayward said. "It could extend to 35,000 feet — a soft mountain of saturated air coming across the county."

It is well established that the altitude change at the escarpment helps precipitate weather along the I-35 corridor, which roughly follows the escarpment.

James Dixon doesn't think geology had anything to do with the 1953 tornado. But it is eerily illustrative that the tornado came up along the corridor from the south. And other tornadoes, including two killer twisters in Jarrell, have left their marks roughly as the I-35 corridor flows.

One thing is certain. Downtown Waco was never to be spared by its geology.

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