Waco residents are growing more optimistic about their city’s image following the Mount Carmel siege and fire, according to a poll taken Tuesday through Friday.

Just over 83 percent of Waco residents said they thought Waco’s national image would be the same or better than it was before the Mount Carmel siege started, according to the poll, sponsored by the Tribune-Herald, and taken by the Baylor Center for Community Research.

That’s an increase over a similar poll from before the fire that destroyed Mount Carmel on Monday. In that poll, 79.7 percent of Waco residents polled said they thought Waco’s national image would be the same or better than it was before Feb. 28, when authorities tried to arrest cult leader Vernon Howell on weapons charges.

The poll, Waco Opinions on Mt. Carmel: Waco Area Attitudes After the Fire, was released Saturday. It included 550 Waco area people. Results were tabulated late Friday.

Larry Lyon, one of the poll’s three directors, said he had expected residents would think Waco’s national image would be worse after the fire, which four national television networks broadcast live during the noon hour Monday.

Lyon said townspeople may be trying to present a united, positive front to outsiders. He said many people may criticize their hometown, but will get upset if outsiders do so.

The specific question was, “A year or two after Mount Carmel, do you think Waco’s image across the nation will be better, worse or about the same?”

Before the fire, the results were:

  • Better: 12.2 percent.
  • About the same: 67.5 percent.
  • Worse: 19.8 percent.

After the fire, the results were:

  • Better: 16.3 percent.
  • About the same: 66.8 percent.
  • Worse: 16.9 percent.

The poll found that younger adults are more likely to think Waco’s image is going to be worse. A fourth of people under 30 were of this opinion, contrasted by 7 percent of residents 65 or older.

The numbers taper down with age — 19 percent of those in their 30s, 15 percent of those in their 40s, and 11 percent of people 50 to 64 felt that the image of Waco is going to be worse.

Lyon said that’s to be expected.

“If you’re 22 to 25 years old, you think ‘my gosh, this is a big event,’” he said. “If you’re older, you’ve lived longer — and you’ve seen a lot of big events.”

The poll also shows that 82 percent of Waco residents think the FBI did the right thing by trying to end the standoff by pumping tear gas into the compound. Less than 12 percent thought it was the wrong thing to do. By contrast, the earlier poll found that only half the residents thought the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had done the right thing by raiding the compound on Feb. 28.

Some things, however, remained the same. For example, the earlier poll showed that minorities are less supportive of the ATF’s decision to conduct the Feb. 28 raid and women were more supportive. The same relationship of support for the FBI’s decision to take action Monday to end the raid was demonstrated by race and by sex in the more recent poll.

Are Waco residents following the news? Yes, the poll found.

Fully 489 people — 88.9 percent of those surveyed — said they had heard or read “a lot” about Mount Carmel. Another 10.4 percent said they’d heard or read “a little.” Only four people, or 0.7 percent, said they’d heard or read “nothing at all” about the raid and standoff at Mount Carmel.

Therefore, the poll found, knowledge and visibility of the Mount Carmel situation have continued to increase from already high levels that existed prior to the Monday morning FBI assault.

Lyon said that percentage of people informed about the situation is a whopping 99 percent.

“This would be as an informed group of people on public opinion as you can get,” he said.

And interest in the poll was high, he said Saturday. An overwhelming number of local people, phoned randomly, agreed to answer pollsters’ questions.

“This was the lowest refusal rate we’ve ever had in 46 Waco polls,” which are usually conducted once every six months, Lyon said. He said the refusal rate was only 2 to 3 percent. “You do good if it’s 20 to 30,” he added.

Out-of-towners seeking inside information on the cult probably sought out Waco residents, even though most probably don’t know much about the Branch Davidians.

Lyon said this poll was echoed in one of his Baylor classes, in which he teaches 140 students. After the fire, he said, he asked the class how many students had received long distance phone calls concerning the day’s news — and almost everyone raised a hand. When asked how many people had any links to Vernon Howell’s cult, or knew any of the members, no one did.

The poll also found that Americans still turn to Waco to learn about the Mount Carmel situation. In the past week, the poll estimates, 37 percent of local residents have been asked by someone outside Waco about Mount Carmel and the fire. While this number is actually lower than the two-out-of-three local residents asked about the ATF raid, it may be because not as much time has elapsed. Poll 45 began over a month — 44 days — after the ATF raid on Feb. 28, but the latest poll occurred within a week of the event.

Pollsters found that younger adults and residents with higher income — people most likely to have contacts beyond the local community — are even more likely to be asked about Mount Carmel by curious people living elsewhere.

Lyon said he blames the news media for causing distortion of knowledge as to the relationship between cultists and townspeople. Often, out-of-town media would call the followers of Vernon Howell the “Waco cult,” implying that they had close ties to the city.

The poll seems to prove the contention of the image of Waco Foundation that the opinion and perception of people outside of Waco regarding the relationship between the cult and population of Waco is different than the actual situation.

“Only 5 percent of Waco people even know anybody out there,” Lyon said in the interview. “But the outside perception of Waco is that the cult is in town.”

He noted that Howell recruited more members from London, England, than he did from Waco.

“A cult has to be isolated and removed from the community to maintain control over its members,” he explained.

The earlier poll demonstrated a low level of personal knowledge of the cult, and a low level of perception of danger from the cult. But the latest poll shows that more than two out of every three people asking Waco area residents about Mount Carmel still expected them to have personal information about the compound. It also showed that more than one in every five people outside of Waco feared that the Waco resident they knew was in danger during the FBI attack.

The cult standoff is no doubt the biggest news of Waco the outside world has heard since the 1953 tornado, but Lyon noted the difference between the two events.

The 1953 tornado closely affected most people in Waco. “Everybody knew someone who had died,” or had once been in a building which was destroyed, Lyon said.

By contrast, few people were directly affected by Howell’s religious compound.

“The cult was not a part of Waco until the media linked it,” he said. “They established the link between the cult and us.”

Lyon said he disagreed with the box the Tribune-Herald has been running called “About the Name,” which explains why this newspaper calls the cult leader Vernon Howell, who changed his name to David Koresh.

“It says ‘people in Waco know him as Vernon Howell,’ but that’s wrong,” Lyon said. “People in Waco don’t know him, period.”

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part 2 appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.

Federal officials left the compound site in late May 1993. As identifications of bodies continued, questions about the survivors, the compound and the cult itself began to emerge.

As the world began to take a critical look back at the events and legal proceedings continue, the ATF's bombshell report forces a shakeup at the top after the raid gone "tragically wrong."

In 1994, the surviving Davidians went on trial in San Antonio. Over six weeks, more than 140 witnesses testified, with the verdict coming just two days prior to the anniversary of the ATF raid.

The Rodenville shootout and the 1988 trial, the end of the world in 1959 and more stories from deep in the Trib archives.