Texas Times: Wild Winds, Texas Tornadoes

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn Apr. 3, 2008, 8:00am

A burst of wildflowers and green leaves across Texas point to a welcome change of seasons, but springtime also brings an unwanted weather visitor. Texas is hit by more tornadoes than any other state.

Texas anchors the southern end of "Tornado Alley," a wide swath of land that touches most states in America's midsection north to the Dakotas. Some 1,000 tornadoes hit the United States annually and an average of 139 per year strike Texas.

Since 1953, official records list 7,319 tornadoes hitting Texas, more than half in spring and early summer, the tornado "season."

May 11 marks the 55th anniversary of a destructive tornado in Waco that virtually mirrors another storm that struck Goliad, near the Gulf Coast, five decades earlier. Each caused 114 deaths. They're tied as the 10th most deadly tornadoes in United States history.

The Goliad tornado struck on a Sunday morning in May 1902, tearing through local churches-including one congregation where all the worshipers were killed. The same twister picked a train engine weighing nearly a ton and set it down about 20 feet away.

The 1953 Waco tornado ravaged the business district, putting permanently to rest an Indian legend about the city's immunity to tornadoes. As the downtown area collapsed amid showers of bricks, glass and wood, 196 buildings were destroyed, 2,000 autos were wrecked, and 850 homes were flattened or damaged.

Tornadoes have struck all across the map of Texas, writing history in a tragic and epic way in Wichita Falls, Sherman and Paris along the Oklahoma border, as well as Lubbock, Glazier in the Panhandle, and the West Texas communities of Saragosa and Rock Springs. Record casualties and destruction have been wreaked on large cities, including Dallas, and on smaller communities such as Jarrell, Bynum, Mertens and Frost.

As an act of nature, tornadoes fixate us with their random nature. For example, a rural homeowner in Higgins heard the deadly sound of an approaching tornado one day in 1947. As he opened his front door, the force of the storm lifted him into the air over the tops of trees, meteorologist George W. Bomar writes in his book Texas Weather. A visitor followed his friend to the front of the house and the same thing happened to him.

"After a few very anxious moments, both men were lowered to the ground several hundred feet away from where the house had originally stood � When they ultimately got back to the site of the house, they found nothing but the foundation. Sitting on the floor was a lamp and a couch containing the owner's terrified but unharmed wife and two children."

Because of public anxiety, U.S. weather authorities before 1950 actually banned use of the word "tornado" in forecasts. Today, Texans depend on tornado watches and warnings issued by the National Weather Service, as well as the efforts of other meteorologists, governments at all levels, storm spotters, emergency responders, and the news media.

Tornadoes continue to be a frontier we may never tame. But researchers now generate knowledge that can help us understand and cope with them. Two nationally known programs are here in Texas: Texas Tech University's Wind Science and Engineering Research Center and Texas A&M's Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

Adversity always produces the best in Texans. Neighbors help neighbors in the aftermath of tornadoes and other disasters, demonstrating regularly the best of the Texas spirit.

As the tornado season continues, we can take every precaution, watch the weather warnings closely and pay attention to every report about approaching twisters. Keeping alert can help make springtime in Texas a safer season.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Armed Services, Judiciary and Budget Committees. In addition, he is Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Border Security and Refugees subcommittee and the Armed Services Committee's Airland subcommittee. Cornyn served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice and Bexar County District Judge. For Sen. Cornyn's previous Texas Times columns: http://cornyn.senate.gov/column.

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