When the twister hit: History of natural disasters in Oak Cliff

The three biggest storms to ever hit Oak Cliff

Two deadly twisters and a devastating flood damaged our neighborhood in the 20th century. Nothing like that has hit Oak Cliff since. Take a look at the natural disasters that terrorized Oak Cliff.

The 1908 flood

May of 1908 was rainy from Montana to Mexico. Floods hit Kansas and Oklahoma that spring, and when April came, the Trinity River flooded.

But that was just a prelude. It rained 15 inches on May 25, 1908. And the next day, the river crested at 52.6 feet, a record that remains today.

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The flood killed five people and left 5,000 people homeless out of a total population around 90,000. The total cost of the destruction reached about $2.5 million, which would be almost $65 million in today’s dollars.

In West Dallas, “…scores of families with scarcely more than their night clothing upon their bodies perched upon the roofs of their submerged houses, patiently waiting through the long hours of Monday morning for rescuing parties,” a newspaper reported at the time. From the rooftops, they could see looters at the edges of the floodwater stealing their “pigs, chickens, ducks and pet dogs.”

Most of the city was without power and water. Sewers were overflowing. Fires broke out. Trains couldn’t run. West Dallas, Downtown and the McKinney Avenue area were under water for days. But in West Dallas, the destruction and devastation to one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods was overwhelming.

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The magnitude of the flood brought to light how poorly planned the city was.

Three years later, the city adopted a master plan known as the Kessler Plan, some of which was implemented over the following 10 years, to include levees, street improvements and rail facilities. The original east and west levees were built in 1928.

The 1933 tornado

Sunday afternoon, July 30, 1933, was warm and windy.

Eyewitness W.O. Reed of 2726 Ivandell told a newspaper reporter that he didn’t see a funnel cloud. He said storm clouds were black and swirling with a terrible roar.

The tornado that day hit at South Hampton and the old Santa Fe Railroad line, near what is now Wright Street, and cut a path about 30 feet wide and about 2-miles long through Oak Cliff and Cement City.

It destroyed about 30 houses and damaged another 45. Hitting without warning, in the days before tornado sirens and weather radar, it also killed four people and seriously injured another 30.

The first home hit, at 1536 S. Hampton, belonged to the Searcy family. Onetime Sunset High School football star I.G. Searcy, 22, was killed after running to the home’s second story to rescue his ailing mother. The house collapsed on them. The son was killed immediately, and the mother died three days later at the hospital. A nearby street is now named Searcy Drive.

Other casualties were a 70-year-old man who died of a heart attack during the storm and an 86-year-old woman on West Brooklyn whose house collapsed on her.

The tornado caused a number of oddities. For example, it lifted one house off its foundation and placed it in the middle of Twelfth Street virtually undamaged. It lifted a piano out of a house and left it standing upright in someone’s front yard. It pulled a man out of his house and onto the lawn; he survived with minor cuts and bruises.

In all, the tornado left about $500,000 in damage and left a scar on the neighborhood for years to come.

The 1957 tornado

“Death rides over Oak Cliff” was the headline with a standalone photo, by Dallas Morning News photographer Joe Laird, of the twister that hit our neighborhood the afternoon of Tuesday, April 2, 1957.

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It was the deadliest tornado in Dallas’ history, killing 10 people, including three children from one family. It also injured 200 people and caused about $4 million in damages (about $33.9 million in 2016 dollars).

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It started at South Polk Street and streaked through Winnetka Heights and West Dallas. It traveled 16 miles in about 40 minutes.

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“At the time it was one of the most photographed tornadoes,” says Dallas historian Mark Doty.

Photographs of the tornado helped lead research in understanding and forecasting tornados, he says.

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About 125 people photographed the slow-moving tornado, and others captured video footage.

Old theories held that debris from a tornado was sucked into the funnel and spit out the top. Photos from the ’57 twister disproved that, showing that things were lifted off the ground along the edges of the cyclone.

Evidence from the tornado contributed to the formation of the Fujita-Pearson Scale, which measures the intensity of tornadoes, beginning in 1971. The Oak Cliff tornado retrospectively was rated an F-3.

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