50 years later, Guadalupe barrio residents reflect on tornado
Fifty years after a devastating tornado hit Lubbock, people from the hardest-hit residential neighborhood said the tragedy transformed their barrio, but not the people who persevered through the challenge.
The May 11, 1970 tornado killed 26 people and injured more than a thousand others in Lubbock.
Two tornadoes formed that night. The more significant spiral touched near 19th Street and University Avenue around 9:30 p.m. For 30 minutes, it tore through northeast Lubbock, finally lifting near the airport. Research later showed the tornado reached an F5 on the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale, a scientific measurement influenced by the Lubbock weather event.
In its eight-and-a-half mile path, the tornado created over an estimated $200 million in damages, according to city archives. That’s more than $1 billion in modern money. Recovery efforts, and funds from the government, were robust. But the city was forever changed.
Hundreds of homes were leveled in the Guadalupe neighborhood, a historically Hispanic area of town. After the tornado, displaced residents temporarily stayed in the Lubbock Coliseum. They were moved to other subdivisions, mostly in north and east Lubbock, according to Lubbock Avalanche-Journal articles from the time.
A 1971 thesis from Texas Tech student Stan Carlson, available through the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, offers some insight into who lived in the neighborhood. About 400 homes were demolished by the storm. Carlson determined that 83 families remained in the area immediately after the tornado. He set out to gage their reaction to the government's response to the crisis. Three months after the tornado, residents felt like the city had forgotten about them and had an unfavorable opinion of local government.
The sample size of 71 respondents only represents a fraction of who lived in the neighborhood before the tornado, but Carlson notes in his research that U.S. Census data from the time did not seem to accurately represent the neighborhood.
The majority of those interviewed had lived in the area for at least 20 years. Three-fourths of those surveyed were U.S. citizens. Many residents were over age 50, and the median number of persons per household was five.
The barrio del Guadalupe was described in the thesis as a "small town inside of a big city."
A tight-knit community is how Lala Chavez remembers the neighborhood. Chavez was 12 in 1970. Her early childhood was spent in Lubbock. She remembers eating snow cones out of bowls, not just cups, and learning to ride her bike in the Guadalupe area.
Her family lived in California when the tornado hit, she said. They visited Lubbock often, and still had a house on North Avenue N that relatives lived in. They got calls about what happened.
“I remember dad and my mom getting us up and getting us ready, and we left that same night," Chavez said. "We drove all night long and got there in the morning, and all that was left of my childhood home was the foundation.”
Chavez may not have been there for the actual event, but she said she vividly recalls the aftermath.
“I remember all of the electrical lights on North Avenue N and throughout the neighborhood," Chavez said. "The wires were dancing on the street. You could see the sparks.”
“We went in the coliseum. All I could hear was the crying of people. I couldn’t stand it, I started crying. I told my dad I couldn’t stay there.”
Her loved ones were affected. Her aunt and uncle’s family that lived in her childhood home made it to the basement and survived. Another uncle had a closer call.
“My uncle who lived in the neighborhood, he was out driving that night, coming home back to his family," Chavez said. "The tornado picked him up, dropped him off at Mackenzie Park. He was a little disoriented, but that’s all that happened to him. No scratches, no nothing.”
Chavez said her family hoped to return to their Lubbock home. But then it was gone, along with family heirlooms that were in storage. Her father’s World War II memorabilia, her Native American grandmother’s artifacts. All lost.
District One City Councilman Juan Chadis was also not in Lubbock that night fifty years ago, but family members were. His grandparents' house was blown away. They survived by hiding in a central closet – the only part of the house that remained.
His grandfather, pounded by large hail, was one of the injured.
“He really looked like he’d been in a war zone. He was all beat up, black and purple. Bruised up really bad," Chadis said. "He was telling me that he tried to cover himself up with sheetrock, but the hail stones were so huge, it was breaking the sheetrock.”
Chadis and Chavez both said that rebuilding after the tornado was a hard and long process that improved the community. Before the tornado, the Guadalupe neighborhood was impoverished and often troubled. Now, the two community leaders said it’s a respectable, family neighborhood.
“We’re blessed. It’s a vital, strong neighborhood," Chavez said. "We all take care of each other.”
Still, scars remain. Christy Martinez Garcia, the publisher of Latino Lubbock who for years has worked to document these stories, said fifty years later, debris from the tornado remains in a neighborhood park. A light pole that was broken in half is still there.
She’s heard countless stories of survival and heartache. But the historian said there are common themes.
“When push comes to shove, we will gather," Martinez Garcia said. "There’s just something about family, faith and community when it comes to Hispanics. In that order – family, faith and community.”
Some never came back to the barrio. But others did, and have stayed for generations.
The Chavez family returned years later. Chavez’s dad built a new home in the neighborhood, and she returned, too. Her children now plan to build on nearby property. Chavez represents her district on the Lubbock ISD school board.
When Chadis moved back to Lubbock about 10 years ago, he said he bought Guadalupe land that has been in his family since 1918.
“The kids, the grandkids, the great grandkids – they keep coming back. There’s something magical about this neighborhood," Chadis said. "That’s what I call it.”