NOAA MARKS 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THIRD DEADLIEST YEAR FOR TORNADOES
May 5, 2003 — NOAA today commemorates the 50th anniversary of the third deadliest year for tornadoes in the United States. Killer tornadoes claimed 519 lives in 1953—a death toll exceeded only twice in United States history. Tornadoes killed 805 people in 1925 and 555 died as a result of tornadoes in 1936. (Click NOAA image for larger view of Beecher, Michigan, following the June 8, 1953, monster tornado that ripped through the region. Please credit “NOAA.” Photo date is June 9, 1953. Click here for high resolution photo, which is a large file.)
While 1953 saw less than half (422) of the annual average number of tornadoes, it did spawn some of the deadliest on record, including the last single tornado to kill more than 100 people. Of the 519 people killed in 1953, two-thirds of them died as the result of three powerful tornadoes that touched down in Waco, Texas; Flint, Mich.; and Worcester, Mass.
Texas: May 11, 1953
About an hour before the tornado struck, a research meteorologist at Texas A & M University picked up an isolated comma-shaped echo on his radar screen. Unaware of the severe weather bulletins posted for the area, the researcher did not give extra significance to the echo. A few minutes before the strike, the screen displayed five large echoes.
The following month, the first Texas Tornado Warning Conference was held at the university. In hindsight, conferees determined a coordinated plan and better communication between the academic and emergency management community and the Weather Bureau (predecessor to the NOAA National Weather Service) could have led to early warnings and a reduced death toll in the Waco disaster.
Some results of that conference included dispatching highway patrol cars to investigate when strong echoes were noted, improved communication with public safety department captains and educational programs for the public. The most important outgrowth was a contract between the Weather Bureau and Texas A & M to modify existing radar sets leading to the nation’s first closely knit network of radar stations dedicated strictly to storm detection.
Mich.: June 8, 1953
This tornado was one of ten that hit southeast Michigan and northwest Ohio that afternoon and evening. The others caused a total of 26 deaths and 449 injuries with damage stretching from Alpena, Mich., on the western shore of Lake Huron, to Cleveland, Ohio.
Severe storms developed over southeast Lower Michigan in the afternoon, when a moisture-laden warm front moving from the Ohio Valley collided with a strong cold front moving east across Wisconsin. The Flint-Beecher tornado touched down at about 8:30 p.m. (CDT) two miles north of Flushing, Mich., and tracked eastward across Genesee and Lapeer counties to about two miles east of Lapeer, Mich., clipping northern portions of Flint. The tornado destroyed approximately 340 homes and damaged 260. An additional 50 farmhouses and businesses were destroyed and 16 damaged.
At its greatest intensity, the tornado path was more than a half-mile wide, obliterating all homes for about a mile on both sides of Coldwater Road in Beecher. Of the 116 deaths, 114 occurred in this four-mile stretch of the damage path. As in Waco, the Weather Bureau issued severe weather bulletins highlighting the threat of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, rather than today’s tornado warnings that provide details about tornado location and movement. Damage from this monstrous storm was estimated to be about $19 million ($127 million in 2002 dollars).
Mass.: June 9, 1953
On the ground for nearly an hour and a half, the Worcester tornado left a 46-mile path of death and destruction. It killed 94 people, injured almost 1,300 and destroyed or damaged 4,000 buildings and hundreds of cars. The damage estimate for this tornado was approximately $52 million ($349 million in 2002 dollars).
The force of this enormous killer carried a huge amount of debris eastward. A music box, a three-foot aluminum trap door and a large piece of a roof were discovered on the grounds of an observatory 35 miles away. Debris was also found in Massachusetts Bay and out in the Atlantic Ocean.
A comparison of the Flint-Beecher tornado of 1953 and the Moore-Oklahoma City (F5) tornado of May 3, 1999, shows that both plowed through urban areas with similar population densities of about 2,000 residents per square mile. In that four-mile stretch in Beecher, 114 people died. In a 17-mile path through suburban Oklahoma City, the death toll was 23.
dissemination of long-range forecasts, severe weather watches and tornado
warnings provided residents of metropolitan Oklahoma City with ample time
to seek appropriate shelter. Public education programs gave them the knowledge
to understand what constituted appropriate shelter. That winning combination
saved many lives.