It didn’t dawn on me until today, but what for many is a true pivotal moment in their lives is getting to be a REALLY old event. Wednesday is the 45th anniversary of what is still arguably the greatest tornado outbreak ever recorded, or certainly at least for Kentucky. What is amazing now is that unless you’re at least 50 years old, you truly have no recollection of that day because mainly you weren’t born yet or just too young, and most people’s ‘history’ begins when they’re born. This is not going to be a piece rehashing that day. That gets done every year in many different places. We’re going to look at this historic day a bit differently, through the lens of time.
If you want to look at an equivalency for me, it would be like a meteorologist at that time trying to explain to me the importance and significance of a weather event from the 1920’s…something like the Tri-State Tornado. Yes I can understand it from a book or abstract perspective, but in practicality it might as well be ancient history. Even with our young meteorologists here, to them The Super Outbreak is just an event that happened in a meteorological history book.
For perspective, I was 10 when it happened and in Mrs. Good’s 4th Grade class. My memory of the day from Oswego, Illinois was how dark it got. I can still picture the blackness outside the school and then Mrs. Good telling us to get into the hallway. Being the junior weatherguy even then I asked to go to the back of the school to watch for a tornado. She made me get down in the hall with everybody else. The first tornado of the 148 that would form happened well south of Oswego, but the day was just beginning. I do also have a very vague memory of hearing about the town of Xenia, Ohio on the newscast that night ( and yes I DID watch news at that age).
Over the next 18 hours a record number of tornadoes were spawned, and what was even more amazing is how many of these tornadoes were big ones, F-3s, 4’s and 5s. There were 65 large tornadoes, or nearly 45%, of the total outbreak. Statistically, Kentucky’s ‘threat’ from F-4 tornadoes is still skewed by this one day. You can see all the purple lines on the map below. In fact, there have only been 9 days total since 1950 that have produced F-4 tornadoes in Kentucky.
Here is the National Weather Service office in Louisville’s page on the event. Unfortunately over time some of the links have gone dead.
What is interesting is listening to some of the stories from folks that were adults when that happened, but these folks are in their 60’s, 70’s and more now. Each town that was hit will have folks that can tell you the stories, and many of these towns still revere and honor that day…for lives of friends and families lost (71 deaths in Kentucky) and for towns that were changed forever.
Our technology has changed dramatically. In most cases the loss of human life is much lower in weather events because of this. However, as we saw earlier this year there are still tragic exceptions. Still, with our live radar, what is now almost real time satellite info, plus a plethora of computer models, data and information make us much better informed, but still can’t prevent all tragedies. Sometimes with storms of this magintude, if you’re not underground or in a true storm shelter, if you take a direct hit the results can be catastrophic.
Hopefully, we won’t have any historic weather touchpoints for people to talk about in future years or decades to come. However, we do know they will happen again, someday. Learn the lessons of history and be prepared so we can all share those stories someday.
All the best…