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04/03/2013

Iconic Images from April 3, 1974 - The Super Outbreak

The forecast for Wednesday April 3rd, 1974 was for windy and warm conditions with a chance of showers.  Needless to say, forecasters got the windy part right!  

Xenia, Ohio Tornado of the Super Outbreak

40 years later, the Super Outbreak of April 3rd 1974 still stands alone as the most widespread and violent tornado outbreak in recorded history.  

In terms of total number, path length, and total damage, the massive tornado occurrence of April 3-4, 1974, was more extensive than all previously known outbreaks.

The overall scope of the event has been recently rivaled by the Dixie Alley Outbreak of April 25-28, 2011 only in terms of shear number of tornadoes.  However, as Marc points out, the strength of the tornadoes that occurred during the '74 Super Outbreak remains unparralled.  

Xenia high schoolSchool buses rest on the remains of the high school where they were tossed in Xenia, Ohio on April 5, 1974. (AP)

Although tornado outbreaks are a regular occurrance across the Central and Eastern United States, scientist who have studied this event suggest that one of this magnitude would only occur on the order of once in every several hundred years!

Some of the ingredients that came together for such a massive storm system include extremely strong jet stream winds that were diving out of the Rocky Mountains and into Southern Plains.  

Ahead of these vigorous upper level winds, a southerly wind at the surface had pulled up an unseasonably warm and moist (almost tropical) airmass into the lower levels of the atmosphere.  

120410-wiki-1974jetSynoptic Weather Chart during the morning of April 3, 1974

In between these fast paced upper level jet stream winds and the low level "tropical" airmass was a dry layer of air that had been pulled over the region from the Desert Southwest.

This dry layer of air acted as a "lid" and initially suppressed the developement of clouds and showers.  This lid, also known as a "cap", allowed energy to build at the surface with daytime heating and an increasingly moist flow out of the south.

Finally, the energy in the low levels became too much and the cap broke with a sudden release of energy in the form of explosive thunderstorms during the afternoon hours on April 3rd.

 Satellite_Super_Outbreak_1974-04-03_21_GMTInfrared Satellite Image from 5 pm ET showing the scope of the storm system. The southwest to northeast oriented bright white plumes are lines of tornadic thunderstorms stretching from the Lower Great Lakes through the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys and into the South.  

As these storms thrusted through the atmosphere, they were quickly invigorated by the force of the upper level winds causing them to rapidly rotate.

 Just about every storm that went up went on to produce a tornado!  

Whio_74The radar screen at WHIO-TV in Dayton, Ohio showing the F5 tornado that would devastate the town of Xenia.  Notice the pronounced "Hook Echo" approaching Xenia.

In total, the event spawned a staggering 148 confirmed tornadoes that impacted 13 states across the Eastern US from New York and Michigan all the way down into parts of Alabama and Mississippi.  One twister even crossed into Windsor Canada!

OutbreakmaplargeThis map was produced by Dr. Theodore Fujita (Creater of the F-Scale for Tornadoes) from the University of Chicago showing individual tracks of all 148 tornadoes.  They are numbered in chronological order. 

It wasn't just the shear number of tornadoes that made this outbreak stand out as one of a kind.  It was the strength and longevity of these storms.  In total, 64 storms reached at least F-3 in intensity with 23 F-4's and and unbelievably six achieved F-5 status!  

To put this into perspective, the United States on average sees less than one F-5 (EF-5) each year, and on this day there were SIX of them!!!

Tornado stats

Many of these monsters had very long tracks too.  21 tornadoes produced continuous tracks of at least 30 miles and three had tracks that covered more than 100 miles!  You can see a complete list of the April 3, 1974 tornadoes here.

While the outbreak affected a huge chunk of real estate that covered much of the East-Central United States, Kentuckiana was caught in the middle of it.  

Mapillinois

In total, 37 tornadoes struck Indiana and Kentucky that day including the Louisville F-4 that touched down on the south part of the city and ripped through the East End.  

Twister-1974 courtesy Courier Journal over 65 438pm

There were also two F-5's that occurred in the viewing area that afternoon.  

The storm pictured here near Depauw Indiana in Harrison County was very unusual in that it had no apparent visible funnel for portions of it's track, yet it was a mile wide at times and was at F-5 intensity at the time this photo was taken.  

B-W2Photo taken from New Salisbury looking west towards Depauw.  Despite the lack of a visible condensation funnel, the storm produced F-5 damage.

This storm went on to destroy both my parent's and grandparent's homes in Palmyra Indiana.

After briefly lifting, the storm reformed as it quickly traveled northeast leveling parts of Hanover and Madison Indiana.  

Torrnadoonmainstreet madisonTornado approaching downtown Madison, IN

Brandenburg was hit harder than anyone as the town of 3,000 was completely leveled by an F-5. The extremely violent storm killed 31 people while sweeping much of the town into the Ohio River.  

Brandenburg-after-f5-tornadoAerial view of destruction in Downtown Brandenburg following 1974 tornado.  

When all was said and done, 315 people lost their lives that day and another 5,000 were injured by the unprecendented outbreak.   Hopefully, we don't have to see anything like this again anytime soon.  

Here are some more iconic images from that fateful day... 

F4 tornado Approaches Parker, City Indiana. Photo by Mick Deck F-4 tornado approaches Parker City, IN.  Photo by Mick Deck

 

Tor74m2 near Cincinnati Andrew MacGregor     Tornado crosses the Ohio River near Cincinnati, OH.  Photo courtesy Andrew MacGregor.

 

Pauldouglas_1301800781_Xenia     Xenia F-5 nearing peak intensity.  Photo by Paul Douglas.

 

RichmondKY20740403ce2 F-4 near Richmond Kentucky at night.  Photo by Mike Schwendeman

 

Here's a rare video of the Xenia and Parker City tornadoes... 

 

For more on THE SUPER OUTBREAK click here!

 

Here are some of my other favorite links on the subject...

April31974.com

19 tornadoes tore through Kentuckiana

NOAA's 25th Anniversary of Super Outbreak

NOAA Technical Report - Synoptic Analysis of '74 Outbreak

 

Meteorologist Jeremy Kappell

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Email me at jkappell@wdrb.com

 

Comments

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This is what I remember back on this day in 1974! I was 13, I saw this thing , Face to Face!!! I'll never forget it!!

I turned 16 on April the ninth. I was in the girls locker room changing. I was waiting for a friend and looking out of the window when it struck. I saw it pick my brothers house up and explode it. about that time a teacher ran to us and told us to get into the hall. I remember I had a tennis ball in my hand when we went up. I kept telling them I needed to get to my brother. They made us get on the school bus that was an activity bus and go home. I got off at my hometown of Payneville and ran into the store and asked them to take me home since we were an hour early. I ran into the house and screamed at mom and dad that curtis and his whole family were dead. Mom and dad did not know that Brandenburg was blown away. It was the next day that we found out about my nephew Larry Jupin, and I am not sure how Long it was before we found out about Peggy Williams my niece . Both dieing. It took a long time to find the rest. Each day mom and my brothers search all the hospitals and morgue for my family. All were hurt seriously, that did not die. No one had a clue. No one had a chance. No one had warning. Nature can be so cruel. Thank you for listening to me. If you would like to talk the contact me at cshaw458@yahoo.com

I remember my dad was really freaking out, so we were scared too. I was 6 then, so thats about all I remember. That picture of the one that crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati looks like a mushroom cloud.

Sharon, that is a very tragic testimonial. I'm so sorry to hear about the loss in your family. Sounds like you were very lucky to have survived. A terrible storm it was, especially for Brandenburg.

Here's an interactive visualization of the Super Outbreak: http://www.brendansweather.com/?post=Mapping_the_Super_Outbreak_of_1974 Thoughts?

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