Survivors recall the terror of the first F5 tornado

It’s been 51 years since an F5 tornado—the most powerful category of twisters—last struck a major U.S. city. Lubbock, Texas, still bears the scars.

Two tornadoes struck Lubbock, Texas, on May 11, 1970. The second—a monster F5 twister—destroyed thousands of homes, devastated the city’s central business district, and killed 26 people.
Photograph via Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, USA Today

The perpetual high plains wind had suddenly fallen dead still, leaving the evening air hot and heavy over Lubbock, Texas. Impossibly dark clouds hung low in the sky.  

Standing in the yard outside her family’s trailer home, 12-year-old Cindy Keele saw the worry etched in her grandmother’s face. 

“Go in and put on your shoes,” Keele’s grandmother said flatly. “We have to get to the storm cellar.”  

The girl dashed inside. As soon as the screen door slapped shut behind her, hail began rapping against the roof. Above the racket, Keele yelled to her mother, on the phone with her husband in Oklahoma.  

“Grandma says we have to get to the storm cellar!” the little girl hollered. Her mom waved her off. Hailstorms are no strangers to West Texas.  

Then a hail stone the size of a softball smashed through the kitchen window. Another one punched a hole in the ceiling. Three more broke through the back wall.  

And then came the sound: the unmistakable, ear-splitting roar of an approaching tornado. 

“They say a tornado sounds like a freight train,” Keele tells me, her voice wavering a bit at the thought 51 years later. “But I disagree. Maybe more like a thousand freight trains. It’s a sound you never forget but can never describe.” 

May 11 marks the 51st anniversary of the 1970 Lubbock tornado, the first such storm ever to be classified F5—with winds of at least 200 mph, the highest possible intensity on the then-new Fujita Scale. To this day it remains the last F5 tornado to tear through the business district of a major American city.   

Five decades later, Lubbock still bears the scars of the storm that ripped a 1.5-mile-wide swath through its heart. Lubbock’s downtown—where 80 percent of all plate glass was shattered, where 220-mph winds twisted the 271-foot-tall Great Plains Life Building 12 inches—is still gamely striving to reinvent itself as a hotel, restaurant, and arts center. (Discover how tornadoes form and why they’re so unpredictable.)

In the path that was flattened all those years ago, a gleaming new $158 million theater complex has risen. And on the main road into town, workers are putting the finishing touches on a $4.7 million tornado memorial, somber and splendid, delayed a year by COVID-19, yet a timely reminder of the communal nature of disasters—and the recoveries that must follow them.

'Everything was just . . . gone'

Shouting to her husband above the clatter of hailstones, Cindy Keele’s mother was suddenly on the same page as her daughter. “We have to go to the cellar!” she exclaimed before hanging up. But getting herself, her three kids, and her mother to  safety was no simple matter—the shelter was at the opposite end of the trailer park. If they didn’t drive, they’d never make it.   

The five scrambled to the family car, ducking to avoid hurtling debris.  

“My mother was just 4-foot-10, but suddenly she seemed to have superhuman strength,” Keele says. “She tossed my four-year-old sister into the back seat. Then she went back to the house to get my nine-year-old brother. As she got to the car, he just started flying up into the air. My mother grabbed him by his legs, as if he were a kite, and pulled him back down.” 

At last, everyone was in the car.  

“My purse!” Keele’s grandmother blurted. “My purse is still in there!” 

With the impulsiveness only a 12-year-old could muster, Keele jumped out of the car and ran back into the house. She fetched the purse and dashed back into the maelstrom. She almost made it. 

“As I ran to the car,” she says, “an enormous hailstone hit me in the back of the neck. I’m told it was the size of a soccer ball.” 

The next few minutes were a blur for the girl. She recalls lying in the back seat of the car and seeing black forms streaking by the windows. The sounds of the persistent hail and the howling wind blended in a horrific, surreal soundtrack.  

Her next clear memory is of inside the shelter, a large underground concrete space that the trailer park owner had only recently excavated.  

“I guess there were 60 of us in there, plus dogs and cats,” Keele says. “The sound outside was deafening. And then, all of a sudden, it got quiet.” 

For a moment, it seemed like the storm had passed.   

“Hold on,” a man’s voice warned. And then all hell broke loose again. 

“The door to the cellar was metal, and it had been welded onto a metal frame,” Keele recalls. “It was held tight with two big slide locks at the top and bottom. But it still seemed like the suction from the tornado was going to rip it off.  

“The men told the rest of us to push up against the back side of the cellar, and eight of them pulled on a chain looped through the door, straining to keep it from flying open. My mother was screaming, ‘Somebody’s gonna get sucked out!’ But they were defiant men. They rode it out. They were gonna save their families.”  

After what seemed like an eternity of roaring, shaking chaos, as suddenly as it had started, the tumult outside stopped. Cautiously, the group emerged from underground.  

“Everything was just…gone,” says Keele, the dread awe of the moment alive in her voice. “The temperature had dropped, I’d say, 40 degrees. The rain was pouring and lightning flashed. Houses were gone. Cars were gone. Houses were upside-down on top of what was left of other houses.  

“My mother started running straight for our street. A man ran to stop her—he’d just come from there and he knew what she would find.”

What she found was—nothing. 

“The place where our house had been, there were pieces of houses there, but not pieces of our house. I don’t think our house was ever found. 

 “I’d never seen my mom cry,” Keele recalls softly. “But she was on her knees. She was broken that night.” 

 Earlier that evening, another twister had swept across the southeastern end of Lubbock but didn’t cause major damage. The F5 funnel cloud started near the sprawling campus of the present-day Texas Technical University, damaging Texas Tech’s landmark stadium. It tore through downtown, devastated Cindy Keele’s trailer park, virtually wiped out the historic neighborhood of Guadalupe, and finally hit the airport, obliterating 119 aircraft. A 26,000-pound fertilizer tank was hurled nearly a mile through the air. (After tornados and COVID-19 devastated their town, these Alabamians turned to faith.

In all, 8,800 living units were damaged or destroyed. Some 26 people died and 1,500 were injured.

Long road to recovery

There have been tornadoes more deadly than Lubbock’s, but the storm’s path through a city of 150,000 made it one of the most-studied twisters of all time. Not only did the University of Chicago’s Ted Fujita, the father of tornado studies, make intensive in-person measurements that led to the refinement of his revolutionary F scale—but a young Texas Tech civil engineering professor named Kishor Mehta, along with a handful of colleagues, also began studying the damage, attempting to learn more about windstorms and their power.  

“There wasn’t really that much known about tornadoes in 1970,” says Mehta, who’s still a professor at the university. “But we realized that by studying the different kinds of damage suffered by the wide variety of buildings that were hit, we could learn a lot.” 

Their work led to the creation of the university’s National Wind Institute, now among the world’s most important wind science facilities. Research from the center has led to the design of state-of-the-art wind resistant buildings. Mehta also headed the team that developed the Enhanced Fujita scale, adopted in 2005, an even more accurate measure of tornado strength.  

“It all came out of the 1970 Lubbock tornado,” he says.  

 After 51 years, a memorial to the Lubbock tornado is rising at the north end of town. Like the calamitous whirlwinds they represent, the two 22-foot-high, undulating walls of polished black granite are at once strikingly beautiful and darkly ominous.  

Stretching in roughly parallel paths across a four-acre site, the walls carve their way northeast a few hundred feet across a grid map of Lubbock. With awful randomness, they trace the two tornadoes’ paths of devastation. (Science is still unlocking these tornado mysteries.)

There’s a stubborn, Texas-style determination in Lubbock’s five-decade struggle to emerge from the disaster of 1970. Just as the city was working to revitalize its downtown after the storm, the rise of suburban shopping malls started killing even thriving central business districts. Lubbock’s never had a chance. Now, downtown Lubbock is casting its lot with a focus on boutique hotels, a growing arts district, and gourmet restaurants like The Nicolett—recently opened in a century-old home by chef Finn Walter, a West Texas native who has returned from stints in Napa Valley and Paris to introduce what he calls High Plains Cuisine. 

Most dramatically, the formerly leveled path of the tornado is crowned by the recently opened Buddy Holly Performing Arts Center, designed by the same architect who recently created Russia’s first major opera house in 100 years. The complex is named for rock and roll pioneer Buddy Holly, the 1950s Lubbock native who died in a plane crash at age 22. As if to merge the city’s two most grievous losses, the arts center’s logo, a stylized “BH,” is reminiscent of a swirling funnel cloud.   

Likewise, ascending through the concert hall’s soaring lobby is a four-story, white helical staircase, a twisting, strikingly beautiful echo of the ugliness that once wreaked havoc on this very spot.   

“I was standing here on the balcony with the architect before we opened,” says Tim Collins, chairman of the non-profit Lubbock Entertainment and Performing Arts Association. “I asked him why there was a tear in his eye. 

“He pointed to the stairs and said, ‘I was sure that would be the first thing to go from the budget.’” 

But sometimes the best way to process a dark memory is to confront it. Cindy Keele learned that after her parents put her into therapy after the tornado. In fact, her entire life since 1970 seems to be a saga of confronting tornadic demons: She enrolled in meteorology classes at Texas Tech. Then she spent about five years as a storm chaser. Finally, she took an administrative job at the National Wind Institute.  

It is healthier to chase tornadoes, she tells me, than to feel chased by them.  

As we say goodbye, I can’t help but bring up the tornado that haunted my childhood: the very fake, yet terrifying, one in The Wizard of Oz. Surely, I suggest, the annual broadcast of that 1939 classic must have sent chills up her spine. 

“It’s funny,” she says, “I think I was more frightened by the Wizard of Oz tornado before 1970.” 

It’s a final twist on the twister that nearly killed Lubbock. 

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