The terrible tornado of 1970 certainly scarred Lubbock’s face, but it failed to shake the city’s faith.
In the days following May 11 of that year, residents were dazed and confused, but in the tragedy’s rubble, a spirit of resiliency and cooperation was pervasive.
“I came to Lubbock in 1962, so I had been here eight years when the storm hit,” said Sam Estes, pastor emeritus at Cumberland Presbyterian Church. “One of the greatest things about that whole event was the upbeat outlook of the citizens of Lubbock.
“They did what they had to do.”
The task ahead was daunting. More than 20 had been killed and another 1,500 were injured. Hospitals were filled, utilities were down, the downtown infrastructure was crippled. The amount of work to be done was incredible, yet no one saw the situation as hopeless.
Many credit Jim Granberry, the city’s newly elected mayor, with being a primary rallying force in the days immediately after the tornado hit.
“Jim Granberry did a great job of pulling everyone together,” Estes said. “He was very aggressive in the way he got everyone together and in approaching restoring the city.”
Estes said the spirit of working together was contagious and swiftly spread throughout Lubbock.
“Every organization fell in line,” he said. “There was no adversity about it, no reticence about plunging in and taking responsibility.”
Cumberland Presbyterian was located at 10th Street and Avenue O at the time of the tornado and was dealt a devastating blow by the storm.
“My daughter and I got in the car and drove down to open our fellowship hall,” he said. “We wanted to fix coffee for people who had been impacted by the storm or who were helping. But when we got there, the electrical lines were down in the water, and sparks were flying everywhere.
“We couldn’t get to our own fellowship hall for all the debris and water. Our church sanctuary had been destroyed. They later found parts of the pews from our church on Fourth Street.”
Estes said the tragedy and the ensuing days became defining moments for Lubbock.
“Because of that, Lubbock became a great city,” he said.
|First Cumberland Presbyterian Church was destroyed during the Lubbock tornado of May 11, 1970.
Jimmy Kemp, a former longtime Lubbock firefighter, was on duty the night the tornado hit and had a frontline view of the storm’s incredible power.
The east wall of the fire station where I was blew out,” said Kemp, who was on duty at the Fourth Street and Avenue K location. “All of us came out of that episode with no one hurt too badly. We had one injury, a dispatcher who suffered a cut thigh when the glass blew in.”
Kemp was among those who worked long hours in the days ahead when Lubbock was struggling to find its footing.
“Our crew went out and searched houses,” he said.
“One of the biggest problems was we had a lot of flat tires because there were so many nails. It was one of those things where if you were in a position to live through it, you were lucky if you made it.”
Estes said the city turned challenge into an opportunity to showcase those characteristics that make Lubbock a special place.
“Another thing that became apparent after the storm was the great oneness of spirit among the churches of the city,” he said. “They opened their doors in a compassionate way and ministered to the people.
“Even in our own devastation, we opened a clothes room in our education building, which was separate and not damaged so much. We opened that clothes room for people who had lost everything. The churches were ministering to people daily every way they could.”
And a lot of help was needed. People were hurting, homeless and, in some cases, virtually helpless.
“As bad as it was, we were very fortunate,” Estes said. “More could have been killed. Compared to today, when something like that happens, it seems like more lives are lost.”
Many also were without basic necessities such as electricity and water.
“I know LP&L was knocked out for a good long time,” said Bill Dean, executive vice president and CEO of the Texas Tech Alumni Association. “SPS seemed to survive somehow. We had several neighbors who were on LP&L who brought their frozen food over to our house to put in our freezer.
“The water was off for several days. None of the TV stations were off the air, probably because their towers were located south of town. For some reason, they were unaffected by the storm. KFYO was the only radio station on the air; it was the emergency broadcast station.”
Also escaping the tornado’s fury was a cross at Cumberland Presbyterian.
“The only thing left of our church was the back chancel wall, and the beauty of that was we had a cross in the wall,” Estes said. “That wall was not destroyed, although the cross suffered some damage.”
Estes said the cross was refurbished and is part of the church’s present location on South Indiana Avenue.
“Lubbock received a lot of outside help,” he said. “The military moved in for safety. The Small Business Administration was a lifesaver for a lot of small businesses that needed help.”
Indeed, assistance came from many sources, and heroes were silently working overtime.
Next week: They (Re)built this city.
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