When spring tornado season rolls around, John Nystrom pays attention to forecasts, listens to sirens and stays tuned to his radio and television. He prepares to crawl into the bathtub with a mattress at a moment's notice.
He wasn't always so wary. As a young bookkeeper working at a downtown Waco office supply store 56 years ago Monday, he learned the news about the deadliest tornado in Texas' history by glancing out the window.
"I saw bricks flying west down the street, and then they came back, flying east," recalls Nystrom, 84, a retired printer. "My boss said, 'Hit the floor!' "
Moments later, the Henson Office Supply store at 411 Franklin Ave. lay in ruins. He and his shaken co-workers were sitting in rubble, all lucky to be alive, protected by a single steel beam in the store's balcony. Then the phone rang in the rubble, and Nystrom was astonished to hear the voice of his wife, Marillyn, who had just weathered the tornado in a vault at the courthouse a few blocks away. He crawled out a window and waded through flooded streets to find her.
One hundred and fourteen people died in the F-5 tornado that plowed through downtown Waco on May 11, 1953 , a date engraved in the memories of a generation of Wacoans.
No one can say for certain that a tornado of that size couldn't hit Waco again and do tremendous damage. But meteorologists and emergency management officials say there's reason to believe the human toll would be much lower today, thanks to modern storm-preparedness systems that can be traced back to the awful tornado year of 1953.
"That year was the last year we had a tornado with more than 100 fatalities," said Bill Bunting, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service office in Fort Worth. "It was a watershed year that helped focus attention no only on the need to protect people from tornadoes but on tornado forecasting."
A year for tornadoes
There were 422 tornadoes in 1953 that resulted in 519 deaths, including 115 deaths in Flint, Mich., and 94 in Worcester, Mass., both in June.
On June 24, 1953 , Texas A&M University hosted the first Texas Tornado Warning Conference, bringing together military, public safety and federal meteorology officials to get serious about storm readiness. They agreed that Waco's death count was needlessly high and agreed to improve interagency communication and develop public warning procedures.
They also agreed to expedite a plan to retrofit 100 military radar sets and distribute them to Texas cities, thus creating the first radar-detection network in the United States, according to interviews with officials involved in that project.
Help from technology
Since then, forecasting technology has become much more sophisticated with the help of computer models, and Bunting predicts breakthroughs in tornado forecasting in the next few years.
Emergency communications have also improved vastly, Bunting said. New technologies such as cell phones, NOAA weather radios, televised satellite maps and real-time Internet information have made it easier to warn the public.
Early this decade, Waco replaced and expanded its outdated outdoor-siren system, and the Heart of Texas Council of Governments recently created a "reverse 9-1-1" system for McLennan and surrounding counties that will automatically call phone numbers in an area threatened by an emergency.
Frank Patterson, director of Waco-McLennan County Emergency Management, said volunteer storm spotters, equipped with shortwave radios, have also helped authorities keep track of tornadoes on the ground.
Patterson and his team staff a command center at City Hall whenever the National Weather Service warns of possible severe weather.
Patterson said tornadoes sometimes drop out the sky too quickly for authorities to warn residents, as was the case with a small tornado on Kendall Lane in spring 2006. But when a stronger tornado hit southwest Waco the next week, Patterson's team had time to sound warning sirens and send out media warnings.
Patterson and Bunting said the public is generally educated nowadays about how to take shelter, though some myths persist, such as the idea that a motorist should get out of a car and get under an overpass. In fact, drivers are urged find shelter in an enclosed structure. There's still debate in emergency management circles as to whether drivers without that option should lie down in a ditch or remain in the car.
In general, residents should seek a strongly reinforced, windowless room, such as a basement or bathroom, on the lowest floor and cover up with a mattress. People in spaces with large roof spans, such as big-box stores or gyms, should seek smaller rooms.
Dangerous folk wisdom
Public awareness of tornado safety in Waco was weak in 1953 , when many people believed supposed Indian lore that Waco was insulated from storms because it was in a valley.
Marillyn Nystrom said she grew up with that folk wisdom, and she wasn't worried about a tornado until she saw the sky turn black and green and football-sized ice chunks falling from the sky.
"It was getting black as night, as I recall," she said. "It got very still, and the heat was very oppressive. You could hardly get your breath."
The 23-year-old was working as a secretary for County Engineer Manton Hannah, in an office on the alley side of the courthouse. As the storm approached, he ushered his staff into a metal vault.
One employee ran to close the doors to the County Commissioners Court, but the glass in the door shattered and pelted him with shards.
Weather Bureau officials had issued a thunderstorm warning early in the day, warning of possible tornadoes in West Texas, but a local weather official lifted the warning at 1:30 p.m., saying there was "no cause for alarm" in Waco. By the time the tornado hit the Central Business District around Austin and Franklin avenues at 4:39, the tornado had been on the ground for about 10 minutes, wrecking miles of farms and homes in Hewitt and South Waco.
After the storm
After the tornado had passed, Marillyn Nystrom emerged and saw downtown Waco covered with bricks and rubble. She picked up the phone and somehow got her husband on the line, though phone lines were down all over town.
"He crawled out that window and walked all over that debris," she said. "He walked down the street, around the corner and to the courthouse. I saw him coming through water thigh deep. I was so scared because there were electric lines all over the ground."
More good news came that afternoon. Marillyn Nystrom's teenage brother, who was working part time in a downtown store, escaped unharmed.
The couple returned to their home in North Waco to find their children safe with a relative. They would go on to raise eight children and own a successful Waco printing business.
But the Nystroms have never forgotten how close they came to death that day and how many were not so fortunate.
"It makes me conscious of the weather up to this day," John Nystrom said. "When it's real stormy, I get real nervous. You live through something like that, and it puts the fear of the Lord in you."