Remembering April 3, 1974…

| April 3, 2010 @ 12:44 am | 38 Replies

Weather maps on the morning of Wednesday, April 3, 1974 gave clear indications that a major outbreak of severe weather was likely across a wide part of the United States. About 4 a.m., the forecaster at the Severe Local Storms Center in Kansas City issued the 24 hour severe weather outlook. It was a masterful forecast. It called for “scattered” severe thunderstorms. This was a higher category than the usual “few” severe storms listed in the forecast. It would be the equivalent of a moderate risk outlook today.

It was warm and muggy when I awakened that morning. Oh, no. Tornado weather. Again. I was quite weary of severe weather events back then. Weather was definitely a very real fear, not a fascination for this 12 year old that was growing up in Huffman. We had just dodged a bullet on Monday night as April Fool’s Day tornadoes ripped through the state, killing a Huntsville man.

At 7 a.m. on that Wednesday morning, it was 71F with a dewpoint of 70F. Skies were cloudy. There was a southerly wind gusting to 15 mph already. My aneroid barometer read 29.75. All bad signs for early April. The Today Show broadcast the SELS Severe Thunderstorm Forecast each morning, calling it the SKYWARN map. It looked ominous.

The sun made occasional appearances through the morning hours, even as temperatures soared into the 80s and winds gusted to over 30 mph. I was in the 6th grade, and my wonderful teacher JudyThornton, decided we should have class outside. She caught me standing off to the side watching the low cumulus clouds racing northward in the strong winds. She commented that it was a beautiful day. I shook my head. It was going to be bad, I told her. How so, she asked. Tornadoes, I said. She chided me for being a worrier. It wasn’t going to do anything, she said. I felt those gusting winds and knew better. My dad brought my lunch that day, and he told me that a tornado watch had been issued. I had a strong feeling of foreboding.

My mom picked us up from school at 3 o’clock. Storms were building. By the time we got home, tornado warnings were being issued for Jefferson County. A tornado did touch down near Concord, west of Birmingham, but the storms passed our home in northeastern Jefferson County and I breathed a sigh of relief. But that relief would be short lived. A new tornado watch was issued at 5:45 p.m. for a large part of Alabama. It looked like it was going to be a long night of severe weather in Alabama. We had no idea…

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Bill Murray is the President of The Weather Factory. He is the site’s official weather historian and a weekend forecaster. He also anchors the site’s severe weather coverage. Bill Murray is the proud holder of National Weather Association Digital Seal #0001 @wxhistorian

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  1. Aaron says:

    What was the equivilent of a high risk back then?

  2. Ken Smith says:

    I was nine years old and lived in Decatur, AL. Our pastor asked us the whole congregation to move from the chapel to the fellowship hall that was in the basement. No one new why. To shorten the story, my mother and two other brothers spent the night on the concrete floor. Someone had brought a TV to watch the storms, but radar was primitive at best compared to today’s technology. Over the years I always knew how much that event changed emergency planning.

  3. Aaron, if memory serves me correct, back in those days the term “numerous” severe thunderstorms was used on rare occasions (isolated, few, scattered, numerous).

    Fascinating recollections Bill; mine are very similar (I was also 12 years old at the time). It was definitely an unusual day….even though the sun was shining brightly here just west of Atlanta, Georgia, the gusty south wind and very muggy, oppressive feel to the air gave notice bad storms were on the way (it was definitely “tornado weather” as my late grandmother and uncles called it).

  4. JC Post says:

    I work at 3M guin 11 To 7 that night…I try to sleep that day but is was hot and muggie…When to work about 9pm the night … was clam you could see for miles…Got to Guin meet a worker outside of guin and he said Guin was a war zone..Made it to work and it look like war could here people houling and chain saw running.

  5. Jenny Ellison says:

    I was living in Cottondale and it was a muggy day. I remember the wind blowing high up in the pine trees and them swaying back and forth. My 2 year old daughter thought the wind was great. I didn’t….

  6. Karen King says:

    On April 3, 1974, I was a teenager living with my family in a large student apartment complex in Louisville, KY. We had moved there from Alabama so that my dad could attend seminary. Late in the afternoon, as we were preparing for dinner, a loud roar was heard outside, and my dad spotted a tornado headed toward us from an adjacent field. He told us all to get down, and my mom, brothers and I layed on the floor as he stood in the kitchen door and watched the tornado come closer, then ‘jump’ over the building we were in. Another seminary student saw the storm coming, left her car running in the street and ran straight in to our living room just in time. The storm knocked down over 50 trees in our apartment complex but leveled homes just down the street. Even 36 years later, it remains the worst storm I’ve ever experienced, and April 3rd will always be “tornado day”.

  7. RCBev says:

    I was 14 in 1974 and lived in Northern Indiana. Remember that day fairly well — not so much the time in school. Just remembered it was warm, breezy and partly cloudy with breaks of sun. It was what happened after school and early evening that I REALLY remember. The constant tornado warnings, us staying in the “under the stairs” half bath and my Dad and I going outside to look. It was dark aa we looked to the North and East. JUST by the light of the lighting and by the weird look of the clouds, we KNEW those clouds where producing tornados. To this day, I still remember what my Dad said 36 years ago like it was yesterday as he pointed, “that is where the tornadoes are”. And he was right. About 3 weeks later, we went on a family picnic to the lake and I walked to the other side to take pictures of storm damage. I still have those pictures.

  8. Chuck says:

    I was 7 and in second grade in Huntsville in 1974. I remember the day starting out warm and calm. After school I remember playing outside until the rain started. I also remember just before diner time the all of the adults gathering in our neighbors carport and discussing the really strange green sky. A few hours later we were huddled in our hallway bathroom with me and my mother laying in the bath tub as our radio sounded tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings for hours. I also remember our toilet bowls draining without being flushed. (strange things we remember) The next morning I remember the sun shining as we drove first to my aunts house, which had been moved off the foundation, and then to Athens to check on my grandparents, since their phone was out. I remember the TVA high voltage lines down across HWY 72 and the huge metal supports twisted like wet noddles. I am amazed to this day that no one in Huntsville was killed that night.

  9. Mike McGinnis says:

    I was the Resident Adviser for a men’s dormitory at Walker College(now Bevill State, in Jasper, Alabama. A tornado blew through Jasper that evening and uprooted most of the large trees on campus that evening. I remember the afternoon before the tornado. It was a clear day but the white clouds were streaming across the sky faster than I had ever seen. Just after sunset, I was standing on the front steps of the dorm overlooking the campus. Lightning was flashing continuously and the sky was an odd looking color. Everything was eerily calm and quiet. Then, a distant roar grew louder and several of the students and I ran inside my apartment and laid on the floor. The building shook with us. It was over in a few seconds. When we looked outside, we saw trees down everywhere and cars were moved and destroyed. The tornado had destroyed several building in downtown Jasper. We learned later the tornado lifted up just before getting to Walker College and it moved on with other tornado’s which destroyed many towns and lives that night. I’ll always feel blessed to have experienced and survived that April night in 1974.

  10. Tom says:

    I’ll never forget this particular day as long as I live. I was 9 years old at the time living in Sumiton, which is about 15 miles east of Jasper. I have never in my life been afraid as much as I was that day. I remember the storm that struck Jasper as Mike described. From Sumiton, all we could see is a series of lightning flashes with essentially no interval between the flashes. You could read in my backyard if you wanted. For a few years, I was scared of storms, but then I started studying them and became an amateur meteorologist. On November 10, 2002, I was living in Fayette at the time, I saw another storm with that same pattern of flashes and I thought to myself that it was going to be a tragic night. It turned out to be the storm that hit Carbon Hill, in which eleven people lost their lives. That night was the only time since the 70s that I felt fear regarding a storm.

  11. Becky Martin Hutto says:

    I remember that night very well. I was at church and the electricity went off. We were supposed to have choir practice and the music minister decided to let us go home. When we got home, we too had no electricity. My Daddy was not usually one to worry about storms, but for some reason he seemed concerned about the weather. He had me and my brother go downstairs to the basement. I was worried about reading for my next day class at Walker College so I took the flash light! My Mother, Aunt and Cousin were visiting my Grandfather at UAB hospital and when they got home, they told us about the many tornadoes and what they had heard on the car radio. They had heard that Jasper had been damaged. My Grandmother was in a nursing home there and my Dad, who worked for Alabama Power, but was not on call, left for Jasper. They had a road block and my Dad put his Alabama Power hat on and the police let him in. He got to the nursing home and everyone was fine, they had a generator and had electricity. My Grandmother was asleep and did not know about the storm. My Daddy drove to downtown Jasper and saw what had happened. He came home and told us about it. Needless to say, I didn’t have to worry about my reading assignment for the next day. We did not have classes at Walker College.

  12. Russ In Georgia says:

    Yes, it was a night I will never forget. “Black Wednesday” it was called. I was only 5 yrs. old in Huntsville, I remember how WAAY 31 in Huntsville had their radar zeroed in on the storms (no color radar here). My dad took us to the primary classrooms in the basement at the East Huntsville Church of Christ. I remember watching the women in the church come down first as Bible classes were interrupted. It was bad news for HSV that night and the Tennessee Valley.

  13. John Knox says:

    I was 9 years old and living in northeast Birmingham, like Bill. We’d just escaped the killer F3 tornado that went over our house and hit Center Point the previous May, so we had our ping-pong table tornado shelter ready to go in the SW corner of the basement like we were supposed to (oops). I spent the whole night of the 3rd and the next morning under the ping-pong table, utterly convinced that the world was coming to an end. I think we skipped school on the 4th, drained from the previous night. (Also, our hero Hank Aaron was about to break Ruth’s record that day [a day game in tornado-ravaged Cincinnati, thanks to meddling Bowie Kuhn], and that was the really big deal in our household.)

    That summer of 1974, we went to Louisville, KY for the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly that happened to be held there; my dad went to seminary in Louisville, so it was a big deal for the family. I remember we saw a vendor on the street selling a book about the Louisville/Brandenburg/etc. tornadoes. I think we were in the car, in fact, and the guy was hawking the book to the passengers! I begged and begged my dad to spend a princely $5 (which I think went at least partly to charity) so I could get the book. He relented. That book, “Tornado!,” by the Louisville Courier-Journal, is one of my dearest possessions. What a gripping narrative and photo account of the tornadoes in KY/southern IN! It was the Courier-Journal at its Bingham peak, pre-Gannett. You can find the book in some libraries, it’s that good. I memorized it as a child, and use the book when I teach about tornadoes in my atmospheric science classes at the University of Georgia.

    Here’s a snippet I wrote about the 1974 Superoutbreak for my intro meteorology textbook:

    “Recently, research meteorologists calculated that more violent tornadoes developed on the one day of April 3, 1974 than during any 4-week period during the past 130 years. The ‘Superoutbreak’ was probably a once-in-a-millennium event, and is the single most extreme weather event we discuss in this textbook.”

  14. Shawn Jones says:

    Wow really enjoyed reading these stories. I was only 3 @ the time but I can remember lot of places damaged in Cullman AL.& remember my Dad on his cb that night talking other guys bout all that was happening.

  15. Matt G. says:

    Thanks for posting . . . always love to hear from people who lived through that. My great-grandmother said you could have walked from Saragossa to downtown Jasper without a flashlight that night. And my parents said the lightning was greenish at times. You know people say that now a lot of TV folks hype every severe event like, “The Four Horsemen are saddling up.” Well, this was one time it really needed to be hyped up . . . and that forecast may not have alarmed a lot of people who weren’t wary of the weather, especially with such less technology than we have today. I wonder, if this happened again, a big outbreak like this, how would things go? Would the right message get out, and would people know what to do or (just as importantly) have a safe place to get to? I’ve never seen anything like this in my lifetime and may never . . . but I just have to wonder if a similar outbreak happened today, how would we all handle it? Frankly, I’m amazed at how well the meteorologists in that era DID handle it! No Doppler radar. No internet. No crazed storm chasers. And a lot of it happened at night. WOW.

  16. James/Jim (Tuscaloosa) says:

    Wasn’t it during these storms that Southern 242 was damaged and crashed?

  17. Ronala says:

    That was probably the worst and scariest day I’ve ever known weather-wise. I was 11 years old back then and living just outside Jasper. I remember being at school that day and how warm and windy it was. I remember seeing dust-devils kick up over and over on the playground. It was an extremely windy afternoon and I remember being afraid. You could just “feel” that something wasn’t right..

    That night around 6:00 pm, things started to happen and it really got bad. We were just about 5 miles north of Jasper and in a storm celler. The lightening was continuous and a really weird color. Some folks came to our neighbors house (who’s celler we were in) to check on her parents. They had heard that a tornado had just hit Jasper and were terrified. I remember that we were listening to WARF radio and because it was Wed. night, they had a program on called “Open Mike”. It was a program where anyone could call in and talk about anything they wanted. One guy called in and said, “I am in Jasper and it’s eerily quiet right now.” Just then the radio went off the air. I believe that is when the tornado struck downtown Jasper just after 8:00 pm.

    We had to stay in the storm shelter all night long and even though we went into school the next day, they sent us right back home because there was thought to be more tornadoes on the way. Thankfully nothing more happened. I remember my aunt was working at a drug store in downtown Jasper and she tried to go into work. I rode with my grandmother to take her there but we could not get into downtown. The roads were blocked and debris was everywhere. A day or two later, we went in with an 8mm camera and took some movies of the damage. It was really scary and terrible to see. I still have the movie to this day.

    One thing I remember is that a boy in Guin had put a tape recorder in the window of his house and taped the tornado. I heard that tape at a Boy Scout expo that my brother went to the following year. I will never forget how scary that was and the sound of the tornado. You could hear people yelling on the tape..the wind whistling and then the tornado hitting the buildings. It sounded like a bowling ball hitting the pins in a bowling alley. And the tornado itself sounded like some huge growling monster. I felt so lucky that we were spared where I lived..only 5 miles from where the tornado touched down in Jasper.

    We didn’t really have good TV coverage back then but the radio kept us aware of all the watches and warnings. I’ll never forget that day. I hope I never see another one like it!
    Ronala Turner

  18. Jeff Ogden says:

    I was about 14 and growing up in Madison, IN. With the tornado warnings, we went to the basement. At one point, my dad went upstairs and looked out the window “There it is.” But it didn’t look like a tornado.

    An F4 tornado ripped through our home — roof was gone, parent’s bedroom walls smashed and the door bashed in on a truck after getting hit by the room.

    We were declared a federal disaster areas and lived in a house trailer while our home was rebuilt.

  19. in 1974 my mother said she was goin on 19 years old she talks about it all the time she said she was working at walker rehab jasper alabama.and she said she was heading toward town stop at winn dixie.before heading home and she said as she approach toward town something told her to go home do’ not go town she said she turned around and went home as she said when she got home the television was on telling people to get to a shelter imed.ever 15 minutes it was a special news bulliton. about a storm all over the state of alabama or may be the southeastern portion of united states but he said the state of alabama ever 15 minutes i called my sister she was working at the telephone offices i called her every time news breaks .so my brother was here to keep mann until my sister got off within an hour so mama went on to work for a couple of hours because she was the cook .as of now she told us about the storm of 1974 all the time little bit before 740pm mama came in she stop by my sisters house as she got sister came down to house earlery to pick mann up he was goin on 3 so my brothers was here.i lelf with her . to make the long story short i will never forget the storm with all the thundering and lighting flashing i have never seen an electralical storm like that she said mama. said mama stoped by my sister house 10 minutes before the tornadoes hit 10 minutes/ every time it storm she tells her kids about 1974 we all grown now but she still talks about the night of the storm of 1974.

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