Columbus and Central Ohio Weather

Thunderstorms will return to the forecast Thursday, and the threat for some of those becoming strong to severe will increase to the slight category, which ranks a 2 on a scale of 1-5.

On April 3-4, 1974, a super outbreak of tornadoes caused widespread damage in 13 states and Ontario, Canada. At least 148 tornadoes touched down in 16 hours, killing 330 and injuring at least 5,484 people, including indirect storm-related deaths. At least a dozen tornadoes swept through western and southern Ohio.

The Xenia tornado on Apr. 3, 1974, was the strongest storm in the string of deadly tornadoes that touched down from Alabama to Kentucky, Ohio and southeastern Canada. An estimated 1,400 buildings, including seven schools, were damaged or destroyed in the storm that affected half of the city.

At 4:33 p.m. on April 3, 1974, a pair of funnels came together at Bellbrook in Greene County, about 70 miles southwest of Columbus, carving a half-mile-wide path of destruction through the heart of Xenia on a 32-mile march, before lifting in southwestern Clark County north of South Charleston.

The multiple-vortex tornado went on to strike the center of Xenia with deadly precision, with as many as five subvortices merging into one, captured on 8mm film by a 16-year-old Xenia resident, Bruce Boyd. The film was included in a famous NOAA documentary and preserved in the government archives.

The F5 tornado killed 33 and injured more than 1,300 people in Greene County. Most of the fatalities occurred in Xenia.

A motorist died on Route 42 as the storm continued northeast 50 mph, striking Wilberforce, where three people perished. Most of the buildings at Central State University were damaged, and 20 students were injured, though none died, according to Thomas Schmidlin, author of “Thunder in the Heartland.” Several structures were damaged at adjacent Wilberforce University.

Ned DeCamp, director of the Madison County historical museum, lived in Centerville at the time. He watched the formative tornado pass overhead, with baseball-sized hail falling from the storm.

45th anniversary of April 1974 Super Outbreak that spawned Xenia/London tornadoes
Credit: National Weather Service/Wilmington, Oh.

The supercell continued northeast across Madison and Franklin counties, spinning off two F2 tornadoes between 5 and 6 p.m.

A tornado linked to the supercell that ravaged the Xenia area traveled 15.7 miles was first spotted in southeastern Clark County and moved through Madison County. The funnel made intermittent contact with the ground and stripped the clock tower on top of the Madison County Courthouse, a structure dating back to around 1900.

The damage in downtown London was sporadic because the funnel apparently stayed slightly aloft, with a path width of 180 yards. There were no injuries.

Another touchdown occurred in New Albany a short time later, which damaged several homes — at a time when the population was significantly smaller when compared to today.

Vince Shuler, former president of the Madison County Historical Society, described what happened to a small sign (about 18 by 24 inches) torn off a grain elevator that ended up on the first farm north of Lake Erie in Ontario, Canada, traveling a distance of about 150 miles.

Shuler said, “The owner of the farm contacted Shaw Elevator, and sent it to them. The Shaw family donated the sign to the (Madison County) historical society.”

The 1974 Super Outbreak produced a record 30 F4/F5 tornadoes in 24 hours, resulting in more than $3 billion in total damages (2020 dollars).

Two Ohio Air National Guardsmen died in a fire on April 17 that tore through their temporary quarters in a local furniture store in town. Ohio National Guard soldiers and airmen aided were joined by the Red Cross to assist in the aid and recovery efforts in the weeks following the storm, along with volunteers from across the nation.

Another violent F5 tornado formed in southeastern Indiana around 5:30 p.m. and crossed the Ohio River twice, before striking the Cincinnati suburb of Sayler Park that claimed two lives. The storm traveled through a number of city neighborhoods, including Mack and Dent, gradually weakening.

Credit: National Weather Service/Wilmington, Oh.

Around the same time, a violent F4 tornado formed in the northern Cincinnati suburb of Elmwood Place and traveled into Warren County, killing one person. Another death in Hyde Park was attributed to a microburst. One hundred homes were damaged in Mason. One person died in a tornado that crossed Adams County around 8 p.m.

Xenia did not have tornado sirens in the spring of 1974. The National Weather Service office in Dayton issued the first of multiple tornado warnings at 4:10 p.m., based on hook echoes (strong circulations with rotation) that were evident on the NWS radar in Covington, Ky. The information was promptly relayed to the Dayton NWS office and local media for public dissemination.

Xenia 1974 tornado damage 2_1554393433264.JPG.jpg

A total of 38 deaths occurred in Ohio in the 1974 Super Outbreak. Three tornadoes crossed Paulding County in the northwestern part of the state.

As many as 47 people died in Indiana, where 21 tornadoes were recorded. A long-track cell traveled 121 miles from near Lafayette, Indiana, to north of Ft. Wayne, taking 16 lives.

Today’s National Weather Service spotter network and severe weather awareness programs were an outgrowth of the devastation incurred by the rash of deadly tornadoes on Apr. 3, 1974. Modern technology and high-resolution numerical forecast models, coupled with Doppler radar which detects storm rotation, have greatly improved the ability to get out early warnings that save lives.