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Local History: Local History Stories

Telling the stories of Waco

Waco’s October 1981 Tornado

by Sean Sutcliffe on 2021-05-12T09:44:42-05:00 | Comments

What were you doing on October 13, 1981?  I was in Jana Lilly’s third grade class at St. Alban’s Episcopal School.  As best I remember (subject to the passage of 40 years), it was raining…a lot, or so it seemed to an 8-year-old.  The powers that be at school decided to have a tornado drill…except there was an actual tornado in Waco that day. 

Springtime in Central Texas is considered our “normal” tornado season.  Indeed, the May 11, 1953 tornado is the best-known tornado in Waco-area history and rightly so considering its impact in lives lost and damage, as well as the way in which it changed downtown specifically and Waco generally for years to come.  But other tornadoes have dropped in on the area over the years before and since.  Climatological history also reminds us that tornadoes can happen any time of the year given the right combination of ingredients. 

So it was that on Tuesday, October 13, 1981, the right combination of conditions conspired to cause what would eventually be classified as an F2 tornado to touch down in part of West Waco in the area around Cobbs, Bosque, and N. Valley Mills.  It was reported that ground clutter on the radar at the Waco National Weather Service office (which closed in 1993) at Madison Cooper Airport (now Waco Regional Airport) prevented meteorologists there from “seeing” the tornado.  One must remember that this was before the widespread adoption of Doppler radar.

Thankfully, the tornado killed no one, though it injured four people.  In addition to damaging several homes, it caused damage to Skaggs Alpha Beta grocery (later Albertson’s and now Harmony Science Academy) and the old Diamond Point Movie Theater at Valley Mills and Cobbs, and Lakewood Christian Church (now Renew Church) and First Assembly of God, both at Cobbs and Bosque.  Rev. Edward Willis, pastor of First Assembly, had been in Wichita Falls during the destructive 1979 tornado.  Because he knew a tornado was approaching, he took cover and avoided serious injury as the church received significant damage.

In recent years I understand that it is very possible that the teachers and principal knew we were not practicing for a possible tornado, but rather taking shelter due to an actual tornado warning.  I am sure they simply wanted to avoid causing panic among us students.  Forty years later I can still very much remember the heavy rain and dark skies of that day as we got down on the floor and took cover.



Bibliography and further reading

Burchett, Chet. “Onslaught scatters Wacoans”.  Waco Tribune Herald, 14 Oct 1981, p. 1A.

Copeland, Mike. “Tornado aftermath”.  Waco Tribune Herald, 15 Oct 1981, p. 1A.

Moore, Bill. “Twister hits Waco store, 2 churches”. Waco Tribune Herald, 14 Oct 1981, p. 1A

KXAS-TV (Television station : Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Clip: Waco tornado], video, October 13, 1981, 6:00 p.m.; Fort Worth, Texas. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1234851/m1/: accessed May 1, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Special Collections.

https://books.google.com/books?id=YWXVNEH8MWQC&lpg=RA9-PA17&ots=z0r0iaW6NH&dq=october%201981%20waco%20tornado&pg=RA9-PA17#v=onepage&q&f=false



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