April 11, 1965 — Palm Sunday Outbreak

[Note: Click photos for larger versions.]

Across the upper Midwestern United States, March of 1965 was cold, snowy and miserable. The month began with blizzard conditions across the region on March 2, bringing heavy snow and a biting 50mph wind. Another, more significant blizzard would follow on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. Several feet of snow buried the region, while 60mph winds whipped the landscape and blew the powdery snow into vast drifts tall enough to bury cars along the streets. In many locations, 1965 ranked among the top-20 coldest and snowiest Marches on record. A respite would not come until the first week of April, when a surge of warm air brought unseasonable warmth and temperatures into the low 70s. The warmth would not last long, however, as another arctic air mass settled over the region on the 8th with temperatures slipping back to the 30s and 40s.

St. Patrick's Day Blizzard.

St. Patrick’s Day Blizzard. March 17, 1965. [Via Minnesota Historical Society.]

By Palm Sunday weekend a weak low pressure system was edging toward the area, drawing in warm, humid air from the Gulf Coast and pulling a mass of cold and extremely dry air behind it. A 25 knot southerly low-level jet combined with stretches of clear skies and sunshine to rocket temperatures into the mid-70s across the warm sector. With widespread dewpoints in the 60s, residents throughout the region headed outside to enjoy the first beautiful spring day of the year. In some areas, the heat grew to become oppressive. In the words of retired police chief Warren Hale of Milan, Michigan; “The day was so warm and wonderful. The family and I decided go on a picnic in the Irish Hills, because it was too stifling in the house. The heat and humidity drove us crazy so we had to just get away from it all.”

Unknown to all outside the meteorological community, a nearly unprecedented atmospheric setup was approaching from the west-southwest. The U.S. Weather Bureau had been tracking a large, complex storm system moving toward the middle of the country from the Pacific Northwest. When weather offices throughout the Southwest and Central Plains released their morning weather balloons on Sunday, the rawinsonde data that they received was disconcerting. Winds near the 500mb level, about 18,000ft., were exceptionally strong. Stations across a broad swath of the Midwest reported winds well in excess of 100kts. An absolute maximum of 159kts — 183mph — was detected over Dodge City, Kansas. By the time all observations had been taken, analyzed and prepared into charts, the larger picture had fully come into view. An extremely strong jet stream was digging into the heart of the Midwest, and rounding its base was an extraordinarily intense jet streak with a core of 135-knot winds.

A chart showing observed wind speeds at the 500MB level on April 11, 1965. Note the intense jet streak located  over the Midwest.

A chart showing observed wind speeds at the 500MB level on April 11, 1965. Note the intense jet streak located over the Midwest, with an absolute maximum of 140kts over west-central Illinois.

 

Hand-analyzed surface map for 12am on April 11, 1965.

Hand-analyzed surface map for 12am on April 11.

The low pressure system, rapidly deepening in response to the exceptional upper-level winds, drifted eastward toward central Iowa. Hand-analysis charts revealed a warm front extending from the low eastward across central Illinois and central Indiana, eventually reaching as far as South Carolina. Trailing behind the low, a cold front was draped south across the Ozarks and southwestward to Texas. By 10:45am CST, forecasters at the Severe Local Storms Center, a forerunner of today’s Storm Prediction Center, began to suspect that conditions were setting up for rough weather. The intense jet streak, along with very strong, veering winds throughout the atmosphere, provided abundant rotational energy for any storms that managed to fire. Shortly before noon, a Severe Weather Forecast was issued mentioning the possibility of isolated tornadoes from northeast Missouri to central Illinois and north-central Indiana.

By the time the Severe Weather Forecast was issued, thunderclouds were already growing in the skies over the Iowa towns of Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. Strong, gusting winds were followed shortly by a spattering of rain and small hail. At 12:45pm CST, a funnel descended from the clouds and began snapping and debarking trees outside of Tipton, Iowa. The tornado ripped through more than two dozen farms, flattening many structures along its path and carrying large pieces of debris from one farm house more than a mile. The tornado would later be rated F4, traveling 91 miles through three counties and killing one man as he ran for his storm cellar. Unaware of the destruction in Iowa, concern nevertheless began to rise at the Severe Local Storms Center. A second Severe Weather Forecast was issued at 1pm CST, mentioning the possibility of “one or two” tornadoes:

Special Weather Statement Number 68

Severe Weather Forecast Number 68, issued at 1pm CST by the Severe Local Storms Center. The area of concern is outlined by a polygon.

 

SEVERE WEATHER FORECAST NUMBER 68

ISSUED 100 PM CST APRIL 11, 1965

EXTREME SOUTHERN WISCONSIN
EXTREME EASTERN IOWA
PORTIONS OF NORTHERN ILLINOIS

A FEW SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS WITH LARGE HAIL DAMAGING WINDS AND ONE OR TWO TORNADOES ARE EXPECTED FROM 1 PM UNTIL 6 PM CST THIS SUNDAY AFTERNOON AND EVENING IN AN AREA BOUNDED BY THE POINTS 40 MILES SOUTH OF BURLINGTON IOWA TO 50 MILES WST OF LONE ROCK WISCONSIN TO MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN TO 40 MILES SOUTH EAST OF CHICAGO ILLINOIS BACK TO THE POINT 40 MILES SOUTH OF BURLINGTON IOWA.

WOOD … 1906Z

The next killer tornado touched down in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, just west of Jefferson. The F3 tornado caused damage to a number of farms before crossing U.S. Route 16 near Piperville, where it ripped two cars from the roadway and tossed them several hundred feet, mangling the vehicles and killing three occupants. A further 28 people were injured along the tornado’s half-mile wide, 24-mile path, including 12 in one home. South of Watertown, several additional farms were struck and a number of buildings were demolished. The tornado may have been at or near F4 intensity at this point, as evidenced by the fact that some destroyed buildings were reportedly reduced to “piles of rubble.”

Radar operators at the US Weather Bureau office in Chicago — one of just two offices in the affected area with access to the somewhat more modern WSR-57 radars — monitored their screens with nervous anticipation as several small, white blotches began to grow in size and number. Explosive thunderstorm development had begun across Iowa, Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois. Unknown to the operators at the time, multiple tornadoes were already in progress and causing damage through largely rural areas of Iowa and Wisconsin. Forty were injured when a tornado destroyed more than 100 buildings at Monroe, Wisconsin. Trailers and barns were shredded by another tornado east of Evansville. At 3:27pm, another violent tornado dropped from the sky in McHenry County, Illinois.

Severe Damage at Crystal Lake

Aerial photograph of a devastated subdivision in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Three people were killed (A) when a truck was thrown into their basement, and one woman (B) was killed while removing laundry from her clothesline.

The tornado’s path began on the southwest side of the town of Crystal Lake, near a public golf course. The sky turned a sickly olive-green color as the vortex began to wrap up and extend earthward. Deputy Sheriff Glen Roberts noted the unsettling appearance in the skies to his west. “Everything seemed so strange and eerie, like the clouds were a spinning wheel coming at me,” he would later recall. “I had seen newsreel footage of a killer tornado in Udall, Kansas when I was 16 and the way the clouds were moving made me feel really fearful that this storm was going to be similar.” He scrambled for his radio as the violent tempest began tearing across the south side of town, ravaging dozens of homes in a number of subdivisions and devastating the Lake Plaza Shopping Center, lofting large chunks of debris high into the air. In Colby Holmes subdivision, three people were killed when a truck was thrown into the basement in which they were taking shelter under a heavy table. Just yards away, another woman was killed as she was unwittingly removing laundry from her clothesline. Her home was one of 45 that were completely swept away in high-end F4 fashion. By the time the tornado lifted 11 miles later, 155 homes were damaged and six people lay dead.

Three occupants were killed while sheltering in this basement. This truck was thrown on top of the table under which the homeowners had taken shelter.

 

The outbreak, however, had scarcely begun. High in the atmosphere above the Wisconsin/Illinois border, the jet stream had split into a northern and southern branch. In the area surrounding the split, the already powerful atmospheric dynamics had become even more dangerous, providing additional lift to areas already undergoing explosive thunderstorm development. Supercells dotted the screens of the Weather Bureau’s spotty network of aging WSR-1 and WSR-3 radars, many sporting the textbook hook echoes indicative of intense tornadic rotation. In northwestern Indiana, the mid-day sky had turned an odd, vaguely ochre hue. While concerning to some who had heard news of the incoming bad weather, most continued about their day without a second thought. Unknown to observers at the time, the strange color had been produced by fine particles of topsoil, scoured from the Earth by the tornadoes to the west and carried aloft by the swift winds of the jet stream.

Finally beginning to realize the extent of the developing tornado threat, the Chicago weather office issued a “Tornado Forecast” at 4:35pm CST for an area 60 miles either side of a line from Detroit, Michigan to Lafayette, Indiana. Along with the tornado forecast came the warning that strong storms had begun developing over northwestern Indiana. Despite the limited technology and paucity of available information at the time, this tornado forecast would prove to be exceedingly prescient — nearly every significant tornado during the remainder of the outbreak would occur within the bounds of this forecast area.

Officials and Weather Bureau personnel in the South Bend area sprang into action to prepare for the arrival of the storms. Additional personnel were called into the Weather Bureau office to assist in tracking the storms and issuing warnings. Emergency managers began preparations for the damage that was sure to follow. Indiana State Police, who had recently taken a cue from their brethren in the Great Plains and held three-hour “Severe Weather Surveillance” training programs, scrambled into position to track the incoming storms. They would not have to wait long. Just ten minutes after the tornado forecast was issued, at 5:32pm EST, another call from the Chicago office indicated that a rapidly intensifying thunderstorm had been spotted in northwestern Indiana. Less than 15 minutes later, the first of a violent wave of tornadoes touched down in Starke County, southwest of Hamlet, Indiana.

The La Paz tornado moments before Robert Candler's famous "white funnel" photograph.

The La Paz tornado just outside of town, facing west. This photograph was taken approximately two minutes before Robert Candler’s famous “white funnel” photograph.

 

The famous "white" funnel captured by Robert Candler on US-31 north of La Paz, IN.

The famous “white” funnel captured by Robert Candler on US-31 just north of La Paz.

After crossing US Route 30 on a northeast heading, the slender funnel traversed nearby Koontz Lake as a violently rotating waterspout. Upon reaching the shore of the lake, the savage winds ripped through a cluster of cottages. At least a hundred cottages were damaged or destroyed and one man was thrown more than 600 feet to his death by the winds. As the tornado crossed US-31, Indiana State Trooper Robert Chandler took one of the most famous photographs from the outbreak. Taken from just a few hundred yards away, the funnel appears a brilliant white due to the reflection of the bright sun against the dark, stormy background. Continuing northeast at speeds in excess of 60mph, the funnel appeared wide and gray as it barreled into the northern edge of the community of La Paz. Six homes were leveled and a church was destroyed before the tornado moved on toward the town of Lakeville. A local high school still under construction — the jewel of the community because of its beautiful new gymnasium and basketball court, a point of pride in basketball-crazed Indiana — was flattened to the ground. The F4 tornado would ultimately kill ten along its path.

Just northeast of the La Paz tornado, a half-mile wide wedge began tearing through the town of Wakarusa in Elkhart County, Indiana. Soon after, the tornado would become a part of history as it was captured in perhaps the most famous tornado photograph in history. After snapping and uprooting trees in the countryside, the large tornado approached US Highway 33 northwest of Goshen. Paul Huffman, a reporter for the local Elkhart Truth newspaper, was on his way home from church with his wife Elizabeth when they noticed what appeared to be smoke billowing into the air. Pulling off the side of the highway to take a closer look, they noticed that the “smoke” was, instead, a massive tornado. Grabbing his camera, Mr. Huffman snapped a series of six photographs as the tornado approached his location.

The second in Paul Huffman's series of six shots, this photo shows the massive tornado approaching the Midway Trailer Court.

The second in Paul Huffman’s series of six shots, this photo shows the massive tornado approaching the Midway Trailer Court near Goshen, Indiana.

 

The third photograph in the series, showing the massive tornado bearing down on the trailer court and the highway.

The third photograph in the series, showing the massive tornado bearing down on the trailer court and the highway.

 

One of the most iconic tornado photographs ever, the multivortex structure of the tornado appears as two separate tornadoes rotating about a center. Debris can be seen around the left vortex as it obliterates a trailer.

One of the most iconic tornado photographs ever taken, the fourth of Huffman’s shots shows a multivortex structure which appears as two separate tornadoes rotating about a center. Debris can be seen around the left vortex as it obliterates several trailers. Headlights from several vehicles can be seen at the far end of the road near the tree.

 

The fifth photo in Paul Huffman's series clearly shows the multivortex structure of the massive wedge tornado. Large chunks of debris can be seen lofted around both sides of the tornado.

The fifth photo in Paul Huffman’s series clearly shows the multivortex structure of the massive wedge tornado. Large chunks of debris can be seen lofted around both sides of the tornado.

 

The violently rotating multivortex tornado slammed into Midway Trailer Court just after 5:15pm EST. Two massive vortices swirled around a common center, obliterating trailers and throwing debris into the air. As Mr. Huffman braced himself against the strong inflow winds, a car — still airborne after being thrown by the tornado — crashed to the ground nearby. It would later be determined that the automobile was airborne for at least a full three-quarters of a mile. Although the tornado was officially rated at F4, this incredible feat of strength indicates that the tornado may in fact have attained F5 intensity. Eighty of the 100 trailers at Midway were destroyed and ten people were killed. An airplane wing from Goshen Airport, where planes were tossed and ripped apart, was eventually found more than 35 miles away in Centerville, Michigan. The tornado killed another three in Middlebury, where several homes were completely leveled and swept away. The tornado ultimately killed 14 along its 22-mile path.

At approximately 5:40pm CST, just as the F4 that chewed through the Midway Trailer Court dissipated, a second violent multivortex tornado formed just southeast of the first. Beginning as an ephemeral, wispy waterspout over a small lake south of Goshen, the tornado intensified quickly as it crossed State Road 13 and destroyed a number of farms. The tornado thundered toward the Rainbow Lake area, completely demolishing a dozen homes and sweeping them away. Seventeen were killed in the area, where damage was so intense that an F5 rating may have been warranted.  Onlookers described the tornado as initially having the appearance of serpents writhing around a central point, eventually evolving and expanding into a massive, malevolent wedge with “octopus-like appendages” reaching out horizontally. The tornado continued on for another 20 miles, killing two while they sheltered in their home in Ontario. By the time the tornado ground to the end of its path around 6:00pm CST, the outbreak had reached a ferocious peak.

In the northeast corner of Indiana, one of the most devastating events of the outbreak began to unfold. A slender gray funnel began causing damage about two miles west-southwest of Lake Pleasant. As it approached the lake, the tornado widened and rapidly intensified. Damage along the eastern shore of the lake was extreme, with several structures reduced to rubble piles. Trees in the area were almost completely debarked and denuded, with many snapped and twisted close to ground level. The tornado crossed the Michigan border and roared across the landscape toward Coldwater Lake, leaving a damage path more than a mile wide. On the lake shore, several homes were “exploded” and reduced to their foundations. A mile south of Manitou Beach, six members of one family were killed when the tornado obliterated their home. The local Baptist Church, where 50 people were attending evening services, was struck and destroyed. More than half of those inside were trapped under the rubble for several hours, and at least one man died from his injuries.

Image from Detroit's WSR-57 radar showing the supercells which produced tornadoes along virtually the same path in southern Michigan.

Image from Detroit’s WSR-57 radar showing the supercells which produced tornadoes along virtually the same path in southern Michigan.

Approximately 35 minutes after the first tornado had touched down, a second tornado crashed to the earth and began to follow nearly the exact same path. The paths of the two tornadoes were so similar that, in most instances, it was impossible to tell the two apart. The combined damage path width of the two tornadoes ranged from one to more than three miles, and the second tornado leveled many of the structures left damaged by the first. At least 19 were killed in Branch County, Michigan. A further 11 were killed in Hillsdale County. The two tornadoes ultimately left 44 dead along paths totaling 90 and 75 miles, respectively. At least 600 homes and a number of other structures were destroyed along the damage path. Both tornadoes were rated F4, though the first was likely the stronger of the two.

As the first tornado passed north of Tecumseh, Michigan, it encountered an anemometer located on a tower at Mayers Airport. Despite being several miles from the core of the tornado, the anemometer recorded an extraordinary wind gust of 151 miles per hour. As the second tornado approached about an hour later, a wind gust of 75 miles per hour was recorded on the outer fringe of the circulation. According to Dr. Theorode Fujita, who used this valuable data to estimate the wind velocity, direction and structure inside and around the tornado, the core flow of the tornado itself likely had winds ranging from 180 to 240 miles per hour at the time the measurement was taken.

Wind trace from the anemometer near Tecumseh, Michigan. Peaks of 151 and 75 miles per hour can be seen with the passage of each tornado. This graph is read from right to left.

Wind trace from the anemometer near Tecumseh, Michigan. Peaks of 151 and 75 miles per hour can be seen with the passage of each tornado. This graph is read from right to left.

 

In Indiana, the outbreak continued with undiminished ferocity. About eight miles south of South Bend, yet another violent tornado began tearing up soil and vegetation. Traveling just north of the track left by the multivortex funnel that demolished the Midway Trailer Court, the tornado roared into the town of Dunlap. The subdivisions of Sunnyside and Kingston Heights were left in ruins, with many homes reduced to their foundations. After killing 28 at Dunlap, the tornado took a further six lives as it leveled a truck stop and a well-built home at the intersection of Highways 15 and 20. This tornado would prove to be the deadliest of the outbreak, taking 36 lives in all.

The tornado was originally rated F5, but was later downgraded to F4. However, contemporary reports of “leveled” homes and several mangled vehicles suggest the initial rating was probably appropriate. Amid the flurry of activity, the beleaguered South Bend, Indiana office of the Weather Bureau became overwhelmed by the massive influx of tornado reports. Exasperated meteorologist Larry Burns issued an ominous, unprecedented blanket warning covering the office’s entire jurisdiction:

“Reports of tornadoes and funnel clouds have become so numerous that it is impossible to keep track of them. Warnings should therefore exist throughout the central northern portion of Indiana. The problems have been intensified by telephones being out in many areas and it is impossible to notify many people.”

More than 90% of downtown Russiaville was destroyed, with several buildings leveled to the ground.

More than 90% of downtown Russiaville was destroyed, with several buildings leveled.

By 6:25pm, between seven and nine violent tornadoes were simultaneously scouring the earth across Indiana and Michigan. A mile-wide tornado that began in Crawfordsville, Indiana obliterated more than 50 homes in and around Lebanon, killing six members of one family and another five nearby. Another four were killed when the tornado ripped two vehicles off the road and threw each of them more than 100 yards. Ten more were killed in Sheridan. One of the more damaging tornadoes of the outbreak began just west of the small community of Russiaville. As the tornado churned through the center of town, more than 90% of the buildings were damaged or destroyed. So complete was the destruction that one National Guardsman would later describe the scene at Russiaville as “like a city that has been bombed and burned.” The funnel widened to nearly one mile as it engulfed the town of Alto. At least 100 homes were leveled as the tornado rampaged through Alto and into the south side of Kokomo. The well-built brick buildings of Maple Crest Apartments were damaged to varying degrees, with at least one leveled to its basement.

The Russiaville tornado reached its peak intensity near the community of Greentown. The tornado tore at the soil and left cycloidal scour marks across the fields to the west of town. These marks would come to serve an important role in the research of Dr. Fujita, who would later explain the source of their origin as narrow, particularly intense suction vortices within the main circulation of the tornado. The tornado maintained its intensity while tearing through Greenville, where 80 buildings were razed and ten people were killed. The tornado struck with such violence that it scoured the grass from the backyards of many homes and completely debarked and denuded many trees in the area. A number of fatalities occurred in cars which were lifted and tossed several hundred yards by the furious winds.

Intense damage in Alto, Indiana.

Extensive damage in Alto, Indiana.

 

A home along Wigger Street in Marion, Indiana reduced to its foundation by the Alto tornado.

A home along Wigger Street in Marion, Indiana completely demolished by the Russiaville tornado.

 

A photograph of the Alto tornado as it approached the south of Kokomo.

A photograph of the Russiaville tornado as it approached Kokomo.

 

Probable F5 damage in Greentown. Several homes have been leveled and intense wind rowing is evident.

Probable F5 damage in Greentown. Several homes have been leveled and extensive wind rowing is evident in several places.

 

For a brief time, the skies were nearly quiet. Several weak tornadoes spun up and sputtered out just as quickly. Beginning at approximately 7:20pm a violent F4 tornado tore a 55-mile path of destruction through eastern Indiana and western Ohio. Just south of Willshire, Ohio, nearly a dozen homes were demolished and six were swept from their foundations. A mother and son were killed as they sought shelter from the storm. Another brief period of relative quiet followed, but it would not last long. Shortly after 8:30pm, a pair of F4 tornadoes touched down just minutes apart in Ohio. The first began doing damage just northwest of Lima. The half-mile funnel did moderate damage until it approached just north of Cairo, where a number of structures were said to have suffered “explosive” damage. At least one vehicle was thrown several dozen yards.

The second tornado began a path of destruction in northwest Toledo. For 33 year old Paul Smith, a foreman for the Norfolk & Western railroad, the approaching twister was preceded by spasmodic rain and pounding hail. Before leaving his home in the recently-built neighborhood of Fuller’s Creek Addition, he hesitated a moment and turned back to reassure his fearful wife and children. Moments later, a nearby window shattered and sprayed shards of glass through the room. Wind and rain lashed the siding and roof. The tornado thundered through Fuller’s Creek with tremendous force, tearing many homes from their foundations and scattering the debris hundreds of yards away. Paul was thrown in the air, as if being “swept away in a vacuum.” When he came to his senses, he found himself face-down in what remained of his neighbor’s garage with multiple cuts and bruises. His wife was found dead several blocks from the site of their home.

Dozens of homes in Toledo were completely obliterated.

Dozens of homes in Toledo were completely obliterated.

 

This photograph allegedly shows the Toledo tornado illuminated by an unexplained electrical phenomenon.

This photograph allegedly shows the Toledo tornado illuminated by an unexplained electrical phenomenon.

The damage path continued with nearly undiminished violence for 18 miles before moving on to Lake Erie, but the most intense damage was found in Fuller’s Creek. A large DuPont paint factory was demolished, as were at least two other industrial buildings. More than 50 homes, some well-built, were swept cleanly from their foundations with possible F5 intensity. A bus was ripped from Interstate 75 and lofted through the air before being crushed upon landing, killing five occupants. The Toledo tornado took a total of 18 lives, 16 in Ohio and five at Fuller’s Creek Additions. Nearly 250 more were injured. A photograph taken during the storm allegedly shows the tornado as two broadly spaced, glowing cylinders. While some have speculated that the photo shows the tornado glowing as a result of some static electrical phenomenon, the picture remains open to interpretation.

Just over an hour later, the last violent tornado of the outbreak began to fill the skies over Pittsfield, Ohio filled with bits of timber, furniture and vegetation. Virtually the entire town was destroyed, and six homes were damaged so badly that they reportedly “vanished into thin air.” Those who emerged from the wreckage remarked that nothing in the town was left standing, with the exception of a Civil War memorial statue. Seven of the town’s 50 residents were killed, as were two motorists who were caught in the storm while passing through town. Twenty miles later, the town of Strongsville also bore the full fury of the tornado’s winds. Fifty homes were irreparably damaged and as many as 20 were leveled completely. Witnesses again testified that several homes “literally vanished.” A total of 18 were killed between the two communities. This tornado was rated F5 and later downgraded to F4, though the initial rating was likely correct.

Although there have been larger outbreaks in terms of raw numbers, the Palm Sunday Outbreak of 1965 still stands as one of the most intense in history. In the span of just 11 hours, 47 tornadoes killed 271 people. Twenty-one of those tornadoes took at least one life, and 38 were rated F2 or higher. Nineteen F4 tornadoes raked five states in the span of nine hours. Of those, as many as five produced damage that may have warranted an F5 rating. When normalized to adjust for inflation and other changes, the Palm Sunday Outbreak still ranks as the most destructive single day on record.

The outbreak also stands out for another, equally tragic reason. The extremely high death toll is owed in part to the twin failures of personnel and equipment. At the U.S. Weather Bureau office in Lansing, Michigan, a burnt circuit left the teletype machine out of commission. At the height of the event, warnings and bulletins from Fort Wayne and South Bend fell on deaf ears as the Lansing office was unable to receive them. In Muskegon, the WSR-3 radar was rendered useless by a failing vacuum tube. With no radar coverage, both Muskegon and Grand Rapids were left to rely on spotty communication that, in many cases, did not come until far too late. In Grand Rapids, further problems came in the form of human error. The staff was caught completely off-guard by the developing outbreak and was unable to issue timely warnings.

Further issues arose because officials in Michigan lacked a single agreed-upon radio frequency on which to communicate. Communication between fire, police, emergency management and other officials within a county became extremely difficult, and contact with personnel out of county or out of state was virtually nonexistent. Additionally, when Weather Bureau offices did manage to identify and comprehend the threat, they failed to pass the information along to offices downstream. The days and weeks that followed brought finger-pointing from all parties, but eventually led to a number of changes to facilitate faster, easier communication during future events.

29 comments on “April 11, 1965 — Palm Sunday Outbreak

    • Yep, I posted some of the research I’m working on for new posts and others posted some great stuff as well. There’s a surprising amount of information available for several historical outbreaks, actually, just takes a bit to track it down. Thanks for visiting John!

  1. Those two tornadoes that affected Manitou Beach in Michigan is something that I honestly have never read of before…I have heard of multiple tornadoes in a row striking communities with closely parallel paths (Tanner and Cordova, Alabama, for instance) but not a virtually identical one. If it wasn’t for that anemometer, I doubt there would have been any way for us to know which of the two was stronger (not that the difference was that much). And they say lightning never strikes twice!

    P.S. I also find it an interesting coincidence that four major outbreaks in this country have all occurred on Palm Sunday. Man, the weather must not take kindly to religious people.

    • Well the anemometer reading wouldn’t be much evidence as to which is stronger – the first could have been weaker (hypothetically) but have passed directly over the site, whereas the second could have been an F5 at a distance.

      I’ve always been surprised this outbreak continues to have no official F5′s, particularly considering the frequency of questionable F5′s in the 70′s.

      I never knew there were three fatalities in the basement in Crystal Lake. That photo always stood out to me in Significant Tornadoes – incredible destruction.

    • lol.. Palm Sunday has definitely had its share of tornadoes. I suppose that’s what happens when you have a holiday that falls anywhere between late March and late April. I plan to do a post on the ’94 event sometime. The Ohatchee/Piedmont tornado was pretty impressive, and of course tragic considering the United Methodist Church in Goshen.

      And I agree extreme, I don’t know how the several potentially F5-worthy tornadoes weren’t rated as such when we have so many other F5s that almost certainly shouldn’t have been. I sure wouldn’t want to have to use the historical record for any sort of risk-assessment.

  2. The “double funnel” photo of the Goshen tornado is very similar to the tornado that occured at Tushka, Oklahoma. The Tri-State is also reputed to have been a “double funnel” at certain points in its life. I wonder if that’s something else entirely, because when I think of subvortices, I think of narrow, cylindrical funnels rotating around a common core within a large vortex, not too wedges. Man, amazing how complex the atmosphere is, and how we understand it less then we seem to understand flying into space!

    • Yeah, there have been a few tornadoes that have exhibited a similar “double funnel” structure, at least briefly. Other examples slip my mind at the moment. It’s actually the same phenomenon as multiple vortices, though. It depends on something called “swirl ratio.” It’s a little complicated, but it’s basically a measure of the ratio between the tangential velocity of the flow near the bottom of the tornado and the strength of the updraft within. As that ratio increases, the updraft is no longer able to lift that flow near the bottom (increased velocity = increased mass) and it breaks down into multiple vortices. The number of vortices is influenced by the swirl ratio, and if the ratio’s just right you can end up with just two large, Goshen-esque vortices. It’s really neat stuff.

  3. You are an extremely gifted writer. What got you fascinated by tornadoes? This is the best blog I’ve ever seen dedicated to such enigmatic phenomena.

    • Thanks Ricky! I used to be scared of tornadoes as a kid (which is totally unwarranted since I lived in Pennsylvania), and eventually I decided the best way to overcome my fear was to learn more about them. I don’t know why, but I just got hooked. Been fascinated with severe weather and tornadoes ever since.

      If you have any particular events you’d like to see covered, feel free to make a request. This post I’m working on now is taking forever, but it ought to be done shortly.

  4. Do you believe that tornadoes have the ability to exceed 318mph winds? Could it actually be possible for a tornado to have winds way in excess of that number?

    • I don’t see why not. Velocities of 302 +/- 20 mph were found in the ’99 Bridge Creek – Moore tornado, of course, and there’s nothing to suggest that was anomalously intense as compared to many other F5 or EF5 tornadoes. The problem is we’ve only observed a very, very small fraction of tornadoes, and even when we have observed a tornado it’s often only been for a relatively small portion of its lifetime. Aside from that the only method we have to infer intensity is damage, and that’s a pretty poor way of doing it.

      There was actually a paper released in 2002 that speculated there may be very brief wind gusts to transonic velocities (about 600–760 mph) on a small scale in the corner flow region of the tornado. That’s basically where the core of the tornado meets the surface and the surface inflow begins being lifted upward. It’s pretty interesting, but I don’t think we have any way to prove or disprove it at this point.

      Here’s the paper: https://ams.confex.com/ams/pdfpapers/46933.pdf‎

  5. if those wind speeds were proven, could that mean that certain tornadoes would be able to destroy literally anything in their paths if those winds hit it (I don’t think any tornado shelters can withstand 600 mph winds). That is very fascinating, thank you for the link

    • You’re welcome. It’s hard to say, if those winds exist they’re likely very brief and isolated to an extremely small scale, so I don’t think they’d be responsible for much damage. I’m just speculating though, I don’t think anyone really knows. If we had mobile radar data for more of the most violent tornadoes I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them have max velocities well above 300 mph.

      I believe I’ve seen papers dealing with the theoretical “speed limit” of tornadoes, I’ll see if I can dig some of them up.

  6. What do you think of the Ivanovo tornado outbreak of 1984? I’ve heard some amazing things such as total destruction of steel reinforced concrete buildings and very heavy objects being thrown long distances (construction cranes and water tanks) but how accurate is all that and could such amazing feats actually happen if these were inaccurate reports?

    • They’re amazing reports, but I’m skeptical. If we could find photos or some other sort of reliable documentation that confirmed these things, I think you’d have to consider the Ivanovo tornado one of the most violent on record. But I very much doubt we ever will, so I suppose it’ll remain something of an enigma. Maybe the Enigma Outbreak Pt. II, haha.

      I do think it may be possible for a tornado to produce some of the damage claimed, though I think it’s quite likely some of it was exaggerated or outright fabricated. Kind of the same way initial tornado reports here in the US sometimes say buildings have been “leveled,” only to find later that it was moderate EF3 damage.

  7. Do you have another link for the report that you posted on transonic gusts. Whenever I click it, it doesn’t work. Thank you! Also do you think that we’ll eventually be able to prove such high wind gusts exist in certain tornadoes and do you believe that they actually do?

    • Whoops, sorry. It’s a PDF, so you’ll have to right click the link I posted above and then “save link as.” You should then be able to open it wherever you saved it to, but if you can’t, you’ll need to download something like Adobe Reader.

      http://get.adobe.com/reader/ (Uncheck “Yes, install McAfee..” before downloading.)

      You can also change your settings to open PDFs in your browser by default instead of downloading, but the above method is simpler.

      As for your other questions, I’m not sure. The math seems to support it, at least theoretically, but it’s way too far over my head to work through it myself. My instinct is that it’s possible since, again, it would only be on extraordinarily small temporal and spatial scales. And given that, I’m not so sure we’d be able to record them directly. Any proof would probably have to come from mathematics and computer simuations.

      I think it’s more likely that we’ll eventually observe that tornadoes are capable, at least briefly, of wind speeds well in excess of the ~300mph we currently think of as a general “maximum.” This would probably only occur in the most exceptionally violent tornadoes (4/27/11 Smithville/Hackleburg, 5/24/11 El Reno, etc..), but I think there’s a decent chance we may see that eventually. We’ve only ever observed an extremely small sampling of violent tornadoes, and even then only portions of their life cycles and generally 30-50+ meters above the surface, so we really don’t have much data on maxi tornadoes at peak intensity.

  8. Saw an interesting commentary comparing this outbreak to the one that just occurred in IL, IN and adjacent states last Sunday (Nov. 17):

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mike-smith-the-invisible-successes-of-meteorology/2013/11/19/42520ad4-5142-11e3-9e2c-e1d01116fd98_story.html

    In addition to both outbreaks having occurred in roughly the same region (the ’65 outbreak was centered about 100-150 miles farther north and the town of Lebanon, IN, was hit in both outbreaks), and both occurring on a Sunday (though the ’65 outbreak peaked much later in the day) the Nov. 17 outbreak also seems to have had a disproportionate number of strong tornadoes — a lot of EF-2s and EF-3s with a scattering of EF-4s. If this outbreak had occurred in mid-April or May under similar wind shear conditions but higher instability, I imagine we would have seen many more violent tornadoes.

    Of the 24 tornadoes in IL on 11/17, 14 were rated EF-2 or higher: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/images/ilx/pdf/Illinois%20Tornadoes_Nov%2017-2013.pdf
    I suspect that the Washington IL tornado barely missed an EF-5 rating since its peak wind speed was pegged at 190 mph by the NWS, just short of the 200 mph EF-5 threshold.

    Also, both outbreaks seem to have occurred on the heels of slightly off-season cold snaps and snowfalls. Some areas of central Illinois hardest hit last week had recorded their first measurable snow the previous Tuesday, about 2-3 weeks earlier than average.

    The main point of the article above is that if you compare the death toll of the 1965 outbreak (270 deaths) to that of the 2013 outbreak (8 deaths), it gives you a general idea of how many lives have been, and continue to be, saved by the advances in weather technology and warning communications in the last 50 years.

    • Yeah, I saw that a couple days ago. I think his point is mostly good – the NWS/SPC, and to a lesser extent local news and the private sector, do a great job and rarely get the credit they deserve – but his premise is misguided at best. The Palm Sunday outbreak was among the most intense on record, with 22 strong (F3+) tornadoes, 17 of which were violent (F4+). Of those 17 violent tornadoes, as many as five arguably could (and in some cases should) have received an F5 rating.

      Last week’s outbreak was a very significant one, and likely the largest one-day November outbreak in the modern record by many metrics, but it doesn’t compare to the Palm Sunday outbreak in any meaningful way other than the general area affected. The total tornado count (74 at last check) exceeds the official Palm Sunday count (61), but it’s likely that many other weak, short-lived tornadoes went unrecorded in 1965. Both outbreaks have the same number of significant (F2+) tornadoes with 32, but this event currently has just nine strong and two violent tornadoes. That’s still a major outbreak in its own right, especially for the time of year, but it’s not comparable to Palm Sunday.

      That wouldn’t be particularly relevant if it weren’t for the fact that Mike makes a false equivalence by explicitly comparing these outbreaks and their resulting death tolls to support his point. The warning process has continually improved and we’re undoubtedly better prepared to protect people than ever before, but that was only one factor, and probably not the biggest, in last Sunday’s low casualty numbers. If the Palm Sunday outbreak were to occur again today verbatim, although I don’t think we’d see 271 fatalities, I suspect the death toll would still be very high, possibly into the triple-digits. In some ways, the Palm Sunday outbreak was the Midwest/Ohio Valley’s version of 4/27/11, with multiple large, violent, long-track tornadoes occurring over a relatively small spatial area. We saw how 4/27 turned out.

      That said, I do think watches, warnings, etc. played a role in keeping people safe. In particular, I think the SPC’s decision to go HIGH Risk right from the 6z outlook was a great decision. And yes, if the instability had been higher/more widespread across the warm sector we could well have been looking at an historic outbreak. There was a small bubble of enhanced instability in north/central Illinois (~2,000 j/kg CAPE), and the Washington EF4 was likely a direct result of that. The amount of helicity across the warm sector was unbelievable; in some areas the 0-1km SRH was peaking at 500-600 m²s²! It’d be unusual enough to see 0-3km that high, but that sort of low-level helicity is downright scary. If you take the same magnitude of shear and helicity as was present across most of Indiana and parts of Illinois and bump the instability up to even 2,000-2,500 j/kg, you’re looking at an atmosphere that’s as impressive as any you’ll see, including April 27, 2011. A 110-120kt jet streak will do that for you.

      Also, Re: the Washington rating, I initially thought EF5 when the first aerial photos came in. A few dozen homes appeared to be swept cleanly away, and there was intense wind rowing evident (similar in appearance to the Andover tornado, in fact). Looking at ground-level photos of the houses, though, I think high-end EF4 is the right call. Many of the subfloors remained intact, suggesting the walls weren’t well-anchored. They actually looked like they were hardly anchored at all. Nearby grass and low-lying shrubs also appeared undamaged, which indicates EF4 rather than EF5. That’s not to say the tornado didn’t reach EF5 intensity at some point (I think many EF4s likely do), but 190 mph EF4 looks appropriate from what I’ve seen.

  9. These write-ups are fantastic and very well done. Nice selections too. Red River Outbreak would be a great candidate. Wichita Falls was the nightmare tornado from my youth that I was always afraid would hit Tuscaloosa when I was growing up there. Sadly, it finally happened. I was just there for the holidays and the damage path is still awful and shocking to see. My grandmother watched the 1932 Northport AL tornado from the backyard as it ripped through downtown Northport just north of her (Tuscaloosa and Northport are separated by the Black Warrior River and essentially the same town). She was terrified for the rest of her life at the first sound of a civil defense siren.

    • Thanks! I do plan to tackle the Red River Outbreak at some point, hopefully soon. I got my hands on some photos of the Wichita Falls tornado that are fairly rare. The Seymour, Vernon and Harrold/Grandfield tornadoes were all very large and likely very intense as well.

      That must have been a terrifying sight for your grandmother. The 1932 Deep South outbreak is fascinating to me and I planned on covering it after I finished the Enigma Outbreak, but I ran into a few dead ends in my research so I moved on to other events. I’ve been meaning to come back to it. It’s a shame that it doesn’t seem to be as well-documented as some other events of that period.

      One interesting tidbit I found in a contemporary newspaper was that of a man from Sylacauga, AL, named Luther Kelley. His home was destroyed and his second wife killed by a tornado that day. In 1917, his first wife was also killed by a tornado when their home was destroyed. Talk about bad luck.

  10. Also, I have an old hardback copy of THE MIGHTY WHIRLWIND that documents this outbreak. Middle section contains nice reproductions on the entire series of Huffman shots, including after he drove up into the damaged area.

    • Thanks for the heads up, I’ll have to buy a copy of that book. I’ve heard good things about it but I’ve never actually read it. I wish there were some place that archived tornado photos; it often takes me a lot more work to track down photos than it does information, and I think it’s a shame that it’s so difficult to find good photos of important historical events.

  11. I was told by my parents on this tragic and devastating day the only good thing to come out of it!!! was me! “Their Tornado Baby” out of all the bad and sad things for others that day!!! They had tears sad and happy!!! tears for others who were lost on this day!!!But tears of joy they were blessed with me!!!

  12. Pingback: Twin tornadoes in Nebraska: chilling multimedia from apocalyptic scene

  13. I had no idea Toledo was apart of this historic outbreak! By any chance do you know what side of town? I love researching tornados and this by far the best blog I have found. Thank you so much for your thorough work!

    • Hi Amber, thanks for the kind words! The short answer is that it formed on the west side and tore through the north side of town. The longer answer is that the tornado began somewhere near the intersection of Monroe St. & Secor Rd. It then tore a northeasterly path through the north side of the city, passing near the intersection where US-24 becomes Telegraph Rd., and then crossing the Toledo Expressway on the curve just north of the SR-184 exit. There it devastated the Fuller’s Creekside subdivision between Suder Ave. and Summit St. before crossing over the Michigan border into the Lost Peninsula and demolishing several homes along Edgewater Dr. From there it continued on over Maumee Bay and presumably dissipated somewhere over Lake Erie. Incidentally, this all occurred only a few miles south of the violent Temperance, MI tornado, which also continued on over Lake Erie as a massive waterspout.

  14. I was 18 when the tornado hit Fuller Creekside Addition at about 9:35 pm. We lived on Vistamar Drive in home built on a concrete slab. The house was completely destroyed but we all made it through. Several weeks later we received a receipt in the mail with our address on it from a resident’s farm land in Wheatley, Ontario, indicating the path the tornado took across Lake Erie.

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