On April 3 – 4 1974 an event occurred over 13 states and at least one Canadian province unlike any event that has occurred before. It was an event so unpredictable and so devastating that many believe it will not happen again for at least 500 years. When it was over 148 tornadoes had been confirmed. There had been confirmed six F5 tornadoes and numerous F4 tornadoes. There were 330 deaths and over five thousand people were injured. Billions of dollars worth of damage had been incurred. The entire way in which tornadoes behaved was rethought and many tornado myths were destroyed. The way in which the weather service worked and issues tornado warning changed. While many people do not even remember this even to those who study weather this event has become known as the Tornado Super Outbreak of 1974.
The Day Begins
April 3 1974 dawned with very mundane predictions of what the weather would be throughout most of the Midwest. Showers were predicted for many cities along the East coast and there was a general prediction of thunderstorms for states across the Midwest. In April of 1974 the country was experiencing and event now commonly known as La Nina which involves unusually warm water in the ocean affecting the weather over much of the planet but particularly North America.
When it comes to meteorological terms what happened that day was that way up in the atmosphere a disturbance was occurring. Meanwhile a jet of cold are from the polar regions was being funneled into the same space thus creating instability. This caused a low pressure region just east of the Rocky Mountains to strengthen. As this region continued to move east it began to spin in a counter-clockwise manner. It began to spin faster and the spinning motion began dragging warm and moist air out of the Gulf of Mexico. This caused the air to get warmer and move higher but it was blocked from getting into the upper atmosphere by warm dry air from the southwest. Where the lower wet air met with the upper dry air the dry air began to sink into the lower wet air. This air caused a lid to slam on the lower moist air. This prevented the lower moist air from rising and dissipating. The sun came out and began heating all of this air and you now had so much unstable air with nowhere to go and you had an stirring pot ready to explode in storms and tornadoes over a wide area. (www.april31974.com)
Of course there is more that is involved in creating a tornado. In many locations rotation began to occur. Once you have rotation the recipe is perfect for a tornado. What was unique about this particular situation was that the atmosphere was perfect for tornadoes to occur in 13 states across the Midwest and South.
It took some time for the atmosphere to reach the level where tornadoes would occur. The first tornado happened at about 1pm in Morris, Illinois. In fact thirteen tornadoes touched down in Illinois. Most of these tornadoes were of the F0 or F1 variety. Five of them reached F3 status and there were two deaths; one in Champaign and one in Macon. The tornadoes in Illinois injured about twenty people. Illinois may have benefited from the fact that it was under clouds for much of the day. As the system began moving east, however, the states that had been in the sun all day began to experience a nightmare.
Indiana experienced the worst outbreak of the state’s history. One tornado was an F4 that hit Monticello. The length of the tornado path was 121 miles. This was the longest path for a single tornado throughout the entire outbreak. It was now early afternoon and tornadoes were popping up all over. The weather services at the time were unable to cope with the reports.
Back in 1974 the weather services did not have things like Doppler Radar. The radars they had displayed hard-to-read greenish blobs on the screen. It was extremely difficult to use the radar to detect the telltale hooks that often indicate rotation and tornadoes. This meant most weather services relied on eye witnesses. Of course, in order to have an eye witness the tornado needs to be on the ground and by then it is almost too late. The report had to come in via phone or radio and then the meteorologist had to type up the warning and send it to media outlets via a teletype. What this meant was that by the time many tornado warnings were issued the tornado was already on top of people.
Even by today’s standard and with modern equipment keeping up with the tornadoes occurring on that day would have been difficult. It probably could be done using modern technology but it would have been very difficult because so many were erupting at once.
In Indiana, during the afternoon and evening hours over fifty tornadoes erupted. Forty-seven people were killed and over eight hundred were injured. 39 counties in Indiana had damage. Twenty separate tornadoes killed 49 people. The first tornado touched down at about 2:20 in the afternoon of the 3rd and the last touched down around 8 p.m. Most of these tornadoes moved between 50 to 60 miles per hour and many were reported with multiple funnels. There were 27 F4 tornadoes and eight F5 tornadoes.
Of course at that time and not long ago the Fujita or F-scale for documenting tornadoes had come into play. The scale is named after Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita from the University of Chicago and was introduced in 1971. The scale is determined by looking at the damage caused by a tornado. The more the damage the higher up the scale the tornado is categorized. Tornadoes in the F0 range cause light damage. F1 tornadoes have winds between 73 – 112 mph. F2 causes considerable damage and has winds between 113 – 157 mph. F3 means severe damage such as roofs and walls from well-constructed houses being torn off, trains are overturned and trees are uprooted. Winds are between 158 – 206 mph. F4 is devastating. Well-constructed houses are leveled and homes with weak foundations blown away at considerable distance. Cars become missiles and large objects can be tossed great distances. The winds in an F4 tornado are 207 – 260 mph. The F5 tornado is the most-powerful ever seen and recorded. The devastation is incredible. Strong-framed houses are lifted from their foundations. Trees can be denuded and reinforced concrete buildings are badly damages. Wind speeds in an F5 are 261 – 318 mph.
While Fujita’s scale also has a listing for an F6 tornado this damage and this designation has never been seen. The winds for this tornado would be 319 – 379 mph. Essentially there has never been an F6 tornado.
Needless to say this event was becoming something unlike anyone had ever seen before just by looking at Indiana alone.
The States After Indiana
The next state to experience tremendous damage was Kentucky, which nestles just below Indiana. The first tornado touched down at 3:40 p.m. on April 3. The region experienced tornadic activity from that point until roughly midnight. Twenty-six vicious and devastating tornadoes were reported in Kentucky. In Kentucky the first storm to touch down was the worst and most deadly.
The funnel touched down about five miles southwest of Hardinsburg in Breckinridge County. The storm began to grow as it began to move. By the time it reached the town of Brandenburg in Meade County it was spinning at F5 level. The path of the funnel was 500 yards wide. It hit Brandenburg full-on and devastated the community. 31 people were killed and many of them were children evidently caught in the funnel while out playing. 18 people were killed in a single block of Green Street in Brandenburg.
Things began to move incredibly fast at this point. No sooner had the funnel devastating Brandenburg when five more tornadoes were reported. A pattern formed with development in the far south and east portions of the state and the tornadoes moved rapidly northeast. Tornadoes from Louisville to Simpson County near the Tennessee border were reported.
A tornado touched down in Louisville at around 4:37 p.m. The National Weather Service had an office nearby and the funnel touchdown was witnessed by many employees of the weather service. The tornado reached and intensity of F4 as it moved through the city. Three people were killed in this tornado directly with other deaths attributed to heart attacks. Over two hundred people were injured. Some outstanding footage from the time still exists as it was covered by WHAS, an ABC affiliate.
Beneath Kentucky is Tennessee and it was experiencing its own devastation. Starting at almost exactly the same time as the tornadoes began to touch down in Kentucky Tennessee began reporting touch downs. Between early afternoon, sometime around 2 in the afternoon, and one in the morning more than 28 tornadoes touched down throughout the state of Tennessee. When it was over 50 people were dead and 635 injured. There was an estimated $30 million worth of damages.
The first tornado touchdown in Tennessee was reported in the Eastern half of the state. This was tornado 100 of the entire outbreak. It moved through Cleveland and Bradley counties and damaged property but did not kill anyone. Soon a second tornado hit Cleveland County. This time a mobile home was hit and killed someone inside and injured over 100 people. The same tornado moved into the city of Etowah and killed two more people and injured 50 more. Much of the town business district was destroyed.
The storm system began to shift from the Eastern portion of the state to the middle part of the state. At 5:18 that evening a tornado touched down in the Edge O’Lakes subdivision near Nashville. There was a lot of property damage but no casualties were reported. Two more tornadoes touched down in quick succession near Nashville resulting in injuries and property damage but no fatalities. As the sunset there were many in Tennessee who hoped they had seen the worst of it. They were very wrong.
Once the sunset and just before April 3 turned into April 4 18 tornadoes were reported in a very narrow strip only about 50 miles wide. At around 8:45 p.m. a powerful storm crossed from Alabama into Tennessee. This tornado soon spawned a second one which traveled along with it. This tornado killed eleven people and injured 121 more in Lincoln and Franklin counties. Another tornado ripped through Putnam County leaving 9 people dead in its wake. A tornado in Fentress County took 7 lives. Five more people died as twin tornadoes tore through Moodyville and the Caney Creek area. In Overton County just around 11:00 p.m. a tornado killed 3 more people. More people died just after midnight.
Meanwhile just below Tennessee the state of Alabama was experiencing some of the longest and most intense storms of the outbreak. Alabama experienced eight storms but their length and destructive power made for higher death tolls than other states. When it was over eighty-six people were dead and over nine hundred were injured. The property damage in Alabama was estimated in excess of $50 million. The counties in the northern part of the state were hit the hardest.
In Alabama the storms started at 4:40 that afternoon. A small tornado touched down near Concord but caused only minor damage. Before an hour had gone by another tornado hit near Jacksonville which caused some power-line damage. By 6:30 a third tornado touched down in Cherokee County and injured about 20 people.
The two most-destructive storms to hit Alabama were yet to come. The first one touched the ground near the city of Newburg at 6:30. The storm began to move northeast. This storm stayed on the ground and continued in the same direction for nearly 85 miles and then crossed over into neighboring Tennessee. Damage was high and the storm ripped through the cities of Tanner, Harvest and Hazel Green. No sooner had this tornado crossed into Tennessee and across the Tennessee River when a second tornado touched down striking the same communities again. This tornado stretched twenty miles in length and its damage path at times was only a block over from the other damaging tornado. These two funnels alone killed 55 people and injured over 400.
The night was not yet over for Alabama. Just before nine o’clock that evening a tornado touched down north of Vernon in Lamar County. This tornado also moved to the northeast. The storm grew into an F5. This one funnel cloud killed 23 people in a town called Guin. In the city of Delmar 5 more people died. The tornado lifted just after destroying property and trees in Bankhead National Forest but no sooner had this storm disappeared and another touched down and slammed into Huntsville. Twenty-eight people were left dead after these two tornadoes alone.
The state of Georgia was hit by seven tornadoes that hit in two waves throughout the afternoon and evening. They took 17 lives with them and caused 104 reported injuries and $15 million damage. The first one came down at 2:00 p.m. This first storm injured five people and caused significant property damage but no fatalities.
There was a break at this time and many figured the worst was going to pass them by. Another tornado was not reported in Georgia until 6:00 p.m. One death was reported as this tornado crossed Haralson County. As this tornado was still creating its strange twisting path another tornado touched down near Sugar Valley. This storm went through Resaca and Whitfield and Murray Counties and left 9 dead and 54 injured.
At 7:30 p.m. another tornado was spotted. The counties of Pickens, Cherokee and Dawson were hit. Six people were left dead from this tornado and 30 people were left injured. After that two more tornadoes touched down in Georgia. One of these traveled out of Georgia into North Carolina where it killed a resident of Murphy.
Other states were hit as well including North Carolina where 6 people were killed and 37 were injured. The property damage there was estimated over $25 million. North Carolina had two waves much like Georgia with the first wave coming between 8 and 10 p.m. Three tornadoes caused death and destruction during that time. By the next morning at around 9 a.m. more tornadoes were reported causing more property damage but no more deaths.
West Virginia was hit in the early morning of April 4. Between 4 and 5 a.m. the area around the town of Beckley was hit by a number of tornadoes. The tornadoes left 32 injured and 6 dead. Virginia was also hit by four tornadoes widely spread apart. These also hit in the early hours of April 4. The first tornado hit around 3:30 in the morning and the last one was reported at about 5 in the morning. Two people were killed and there was extensive property damage.
The entire storm system was very large. This meant a state like Michigan also experienced some tornadoes but also had to deal with strange weather throughout the state such as heavy snow in the upper peninsula. Tornadoes entered the state from Indiana in most cases and left three dead and numerous injured. One of the storms in Michigan crossed over into Windsor Ontario where it killed eight people.
Mississippi had severe storms but only one tornado was reported. No deaths resulted from this tornado. Even New York had a tornado because of this outbreak. The tornado was very small and touched down in Frewsburg where it caused only minor damage to some businesses.
There was one state that came to symbolize the destruction more than all of these others. There was one state with one tornado that turned out to be the most devastating of the entire outbreak. One entire town was pretty much wiped off the map in this state and because this tornado was so notorious many still talk about the Xenia tornado. This state was Ohio.
Ohio and Xenia
The tornadoes that hit Ohio were some of the most devastating and intense of the entire outbreak. Most of the activity took place during a fairly narrow window of 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. on April 3. The first in this state, just as in Kentucky, was the most devastating. This was the monstrous F5 tornado that roared through the town of Xenia at 3:30.
The tornado touched down in Greene County which is right near Dayton. The tornado was small to start with and began moving northeast at about 50 mph. Photographs from passing motorists showed this funnel moving along the highway. At one point a film shows two tornadoes merging with this initial tornado.
A tape recording by a resident of Xenia was made. This resident simply hit the “record” button and left the audio tape to record. The tape was made public after the tape was found in the devastation. What you hear is eerie beyond measure. You hear birds chirping and the sound of a train whistle. You can hear traffic. Then you hear the wind and you hear thunder. Huge cracks of thunder are heard. Then comes the roar. At some point the resident simply drops the microphone and seeks shelter (he survived). The wind becomes deafening and the roar gets closer. The tape ends when the tornado hits and destroys the building and tape recorder (http://www.xeniatornado.com/audio.htm).
The tornado hit Xenia dead-on. Houses and buildings were completely destroyed. Apartments buildings were reduced to rubble. Homes and businesses were shorn to their foundations. Churches and schools were hit and train cars were blown over. The Arrowhead subdivision was hit the hardest hit of all with many houses so destroyed that they disappeared.
The tornado passed through Xenia and continued its course of destruction. Next was Wilberforce where the university there was heavily damaged. The tornado continued on to Clark County where it finally lifted. The tornado had been on the ground for 30 miles and its maximum width was one half of a mile and that happened as it passed through Xenia.
In Xenia 30 people were killed. Over 1,100 people were injured. Over 1,000 homes were completely destroyed.
Before an hour had passed more tornadoes touched down in Ohio. Three more tornadoes struck in quick succession in the western and northern areas of greater Cincinnati. At least one of these was an F5. In several occasions twin funnels were reported with these storms. Once they had left four more were dead.
Weaker tornadoes causing more property damage but no further deaths touched down between 7 and 7:30 p.m. In all 41 people were killed in Ohio. Over 2,000 people were injured. There were 7,000 homes damaged or completely destroyed.
The Aftermath and the Totals
There were six F5 tornadoes reported during the approximately twenty-four hours of the outbreak. These occurred in Xenia, Ohio, Depauw, Indiana, Sayler Park, Ohio, Brandenburg, Kentucky, Tanner, Alabama and Guin, Mississippie and into Alabama. There were 23 F4 tornadoes reported during the outbreak. There were 35 F3 tornadoes reported. There were 30 F2 tornadoes. There were 31 F1 tornadoes and there were 23 F0 tornadoes.
There were at least 18 hours of continuous tornado activity. The final tornadoes were reported on April 4 and ended about 7:00 a.m. The death total is not solid but reported between 315 – 330 people. Those people died in 49 of the 148 tornadoes reported. Statistics state somewhere around 5,484 people were injured. The estimated property damage is 3.5 billion dollars in modern day dollars.
The town of Xenia was declared a disaster area. It took months just to get around to cleaning up the debris. The town had no tornado sirens during the outbreak but afterwards several were installed.
In addition to the tornadoes severe thunderstorms and heavy rain wreaked havoc on other states and places that were not hit by tornadoes. Just before the first tornadoes were spotted the city of St. Louis, Missouri was hit by a severe thunderstorm and hailstones the size of baseballs were reported along with high winds. 25 people were injured and there was a reported $45 million worth of damage.
At one point during the storm there were 15 confirmed tornadoes on the ground at one time. This is the most for any one time and it is a record that has yet to be broken. All combined the total damage path for all of the tornadoes was over 2,500 miles over 11 states and into Ontario.
Some of the tornado myths that were debunked because of this outbreak:
- Opening windows will prevent a house from being destroyed – this is not true. Homes are not destroyed in a tornado because of the change in air pressure. They are destroyed by the high winds. In Xenia it would not have mattered had anyone left their windows open. The winds were near 300 mph and ripped apart the buildings and homes regardless of windows.
- Go to the southwest corner of your basement during a tornado – actually this has nothing to do with surviving a tornado. You should go into a basement and hide beneath have furniture or the stairs to protect from debris. If you do not have a basement use an interior closet or the bathroom and cover yourself with a mattress or something soft to protect from debris.
- Tornadoes do not strike cities – This was debunked when tornadoes ripped through Louisville and Cincinnati along with numerous smaller cities throughout the outbreak.
- Tornadoes cannot cross rivers, go into steep valleys or travel over steep hills or mountains – This was definitely disproven. Tornadoes during the Super Outbreak crossed water, rivers, mountains and tore through deep valleys.
In the aftermath changes began to happen within the weather service. It was very obvious that the radar and satellite imagery available at the time was woefully inadequate. The move was made toward Doppler Radar technology. This technology is now standard. Doppler waves can penetrate a storm and send back detailed color images that can pinpoint storm rotation and forecast a tornado.
Methods for meteorologists to get warnings to communities were improved. Before the Super Outbreak it could take up to thirty minutes just to get a warning out. By that time many communities were already destroyed. Throughout the length of the Outbreak it was reported that no warnings were given and sirens were not sounded.
Many communities that did not take tornadoes seriously or did not have tornado warning systems installed them after the Super Outbreak. The town of Xenia had them installed. In the year 2000 another severe storm and tornado struck that town and the death toll was much less (1 dead) most likely due to the advanced detection methods and the warning systems installed.
The people at NOAA state that such outbreaks do occur and have occurred since then. However, nothing of the magnitude that happened on April 3 -4, 1974 has ever been seen. To this day it stands as the largest outbreak in the history of the United States. Meteorologists warn that this could happen again, but such widespread devastation is so rare it may not be seen again for 500 years.