May 3, 1999 — The Bridge Creek–Moore Tornado

“If you haven’t gone to the cellar, you really need to go now. This is a huge circulation. There are vortices everywhere. This is extremely dangerous, so you folks in the path of this tornado, get below ground. If you can’t do that, get in the center part of your house, a closet or bathroom. Get on the east or north wall. Lots of pillows and blankets. Get in the bathtub. Put the kids in the bathtub, get on top of the kids. This is extremely dangerous.

The words reverberated across Central Oklahoma, amplified by television sets and radios stretching from Tulsa to the Texas border. The voice, as familiar to Oklahomans as the rustling of wheat fields or the boom of thunder, belonged to KWTV News 9 Chief Meteorologist Gary England. It was the moment he’d been steeling himself for since June 8, 1974, when a devastating tornado killed 14 people with little warning in and around the town of Drumright.

It was a tragic event, but Gary understood that it was nothing compared to a potential worst-case scenario. In fact, he was certain that one day, a massive, violent F5 tornado would drop from the wide-open prairie skies and tear a path of unprecedented destruction right through the increasingly populated heart of the Oklahoma City Metro. The carnage of such an event was almost too much to imagine.

There had been plenty of close calls over the years, plenty of urgent cut-ins to implore viewers and listeners to take shelter and keep themselves safe. Still, the city at the heart of Tornado Alley usually escaped with little more than glancing blows. But on this day — this warm, humid Monday afternoon in May of 1999 — the state’s seasoned weather sage knew that Oklahoma’s luck had just run out.

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April 5–6, 1936 — The Tupelo–Gainesville Outbreak

Note: I’m trying something a bit different for this article: many of the photos have been colorized. In addition to the visual impact, I think adding color can help bring out details that might otherwise go overlooked.

The 1930s was a decade of turbulence, ushered in by a devastating worldwide financial crisis and bookended by the onset of the most calamitous war in human history. The high spirits and irrational exuberance of the Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt in the final days of October 1929, as the prosperity and dynamism of the Jazz Age were consumed in the fiery crash of the American economy. 

Beginning on October 23, a flurry of profit-taking on Wall Street caused a sharp decline in stock prices. The next day, the widespread sell-off reached a frenzied pitch. By October 29, Black Tuesday, the stock market was in a tailspin and panic had set in among investors. From the dizzying heights of an unprecedented decade of optimism and wealth, the most powerful economy on Earth suddenly and irrevocably collapsed into ruin.

Within two weeks, the stock market had lost 40 percent of its value. At a time when the entire federal budget of the United States was just over $3 billion, investors had lost a staggering $35 billion. The effects were swift and devastating. Ordinary citizens, panicked and losing faith in the entire financial system, rushed to empty their bank accounts while they still could. Without cash reserves, the banks soon failed. Those who didn’t withdraw their money quickly enough lost their entire savings.

With no banks to lend them money, businesses cut back their workforce or closed altogether. With fewer jobs and less money to go around, consumer spending fell rapidly. Shops closed their doors, factories incurred massive layoffs and wage reductions, and unemployment skyrocketed. By the bleak and dreary winter of 1932, a full quarter of all American workers — nearly 13 million people — found themselves without a job.

In the primarily agricultural midsection of the country, a region normally insulated from the far-off financial troubles of the East Coast, the situation was exacerbated by the worst drought in the history of the United States. Many years of poor farming practices had left the land vulnerable, and the extreme drought turned much of the central United States into a crippling Dust Bowl. 

Clouds occasionally appeared in the brittle blue skies, drifting over the desiccated landscape and seeming to promise some small break from the heat and dirt and dust, but the rains rarely came. The land cracked, crumbled and blew away with the winds, sending massive, billowing clouds of dust across the country’s midsection. Billions of tons of once-rich topsoil were scoured from millions of acres of land. The crops withered and died, and with them, the hopes of the nation’s desperate farmers.

By the mid-1930s, the Dust Bowl stretched as far south as Texas and as far north as the Canadian Prairies. For many, suffocating dust storms were a part of daily life. The gritty, wind-whipped palls turned day to night, reducing visibility to a few feet and infiltrating every crack and crevice of every prairie home. So large and intense were the black blizzards that dust-choked rain and snow fell in muddy slurries as far away as Vermont and New Hampshire.


By 1936, the crushing burden of the Great Depression had slowly begun to ease. The Dust Bowl, however, continued to ravage the Great Plains and parts of the Midwest. Experts estimated that the total affected area had spread to encompass more than five million acres, with nearly a billion tons of topsoil lost in the previous year alone. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, battered and broken by their futile efforts to wrest a living from the barren land, packed up and headed west toward California, Oregon, and Washington.

Drawn by the promise of a better life, so many people joined the migration that authorities in California organized border patrols in an attempt to keep out the invading “Okies” — so-called because so many had come from hard-hit Oklahoma. Those who succeeded in making the trip often became itinerants, drifting from place to place in search of any work they could find.

“Migrant Mother,” one of the most indelible images of the 20th century, was taken in March of 1936. The subject, Florence Thompson, was a widowed migrant worker at a camp for out-of-work pea pickers in Nipomo, California.

Unfortunately, debilitating drought and lingering economic depression were not the only problems plaguing the nation in 1936. In a remarkable display of climatic volatility, the weather swung wildly from one extreme to another throughout much of the country. Beginning in December 1935 and continuing through the end of January, virtually the entire country was locked in the grips of freezing weather. Parts of the Southeast and Upper Midwest experienced record cold while the Pacific Northwest, Southeast and Eastern Seaboard saw record or near-record precipitation. Significant snowfalls were recorded as far south as Montgomery, Alabama.

Niagara’s American Falls frozen solid in early February, 1936.

From late January through February, another wave of bone-rattling cold spilled down from the Arctic and invaded much of the United States. Blizzard after blizzard rolled across the northern half of the country, dumping feet of snow in great swaths from the Northern Rockies all the way to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The Niagara Falls froze solid for more than a week, forcing the hydroelectric power plant to shut down for the first time in its history. Back-to-back blizzards brought more than a foot of snow and hurricane-force wind gusts to the Eastern Seaboard, crippling the New York and Washington, DC metropolitan areas.

Snowfall and temperature records fell in dozens of states as the historic cold spell intensified. Snow drifts reached the roofs of two-story homes and completely shut down transportation in many areas throughout the northern half of the country. Snowfall totals for the winter ranged from 15″ to as much as 60″ above normal. In some places, the average daily high temperature for the month of February fell well below zero. In North Dakota, the monthly average temperature was a record-shattering -14.1° F.

A fierce nor’easter on January 19 battered New York City with hurricane-force winds and more than a foot of snow, bringing traffic to a standstill and stranding streetcars along 7th Avenue in Times Square.

By the time February mercifully came to an end, the national monthly average temperature registered just 25.23° F, nearly 10° below normal. It was the coldest month in United States history. With a string of hard-hitting blizzards and temperatures that rarely peaked above freezing, snowpacks throughout much of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were running anomalously high.

As the calendar turned to March and yet another furious snowstorm blanketed the region, the stage was set for the first in a historic, unprecedented string of disasters.


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March 4-5, 1899 — Cyclone Mahina

Note: This story takes place in an area that’s probably unfamiliar to most people, so I’ve put together a map that provides an overview of key features and locations. You can refer to it here.

On the evening of Friday, March 3, 1899, H.P. Beach watched from his veranda as the sun slipped below the horizon, scattering rich hues of amber and crimson across the sky. The indigo waters of the Torres Strait lapped gently at the rocky beachside below, reflecting the last fading rays of the day. As the sunset ebbed and faded into darkness, a still more vivid display flared to life. A distant, rhythmic strobe illuminated the inky blackness of the far eastern sky, the scattered reflection of lightning from some faraway tempest looming just over the seam of the world. A look of concern spread across Beach’s pale, furrowed face.

Head Postmaster of Far North Queensland’s Thursday Island by trade, Beach was also an observant and skilled meteorologist. He took a particular interest in the tropical disturbances that occasionally troubled Australia’s northern coast in the late-summer months, and he recognized warning signs when he saw them. The dazzling, brick-red sunsets. The stifling heat, still oppressive even hours after night had washed over the region. The utter stillness, which seemed to suck the very life from the air and the sea. The distant lightning, flaring beyond the horizon as if to send silent signal of an approaching malevolence.

It was too hot for sleep, so Beach slumped heavily into a wicker chair on his veranda. Taking in the clues nature had laid before him, he felt an uneasy apprehension wash over him. A storm was coming, and soon the deceptively calm tropical seas would rise, whipped to great and terrible heights by a cyclone more violent than the humble postmaster could ever have envisioned.

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April 9, 1947 – The Woodward Tornado

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The morning of April 9, 1947 dawned cool, breezy and decidedly gloomy across the Southern Plains. Thick fog descended like a blanket, reducing visibility to near zero in some locations. Patchy drizzle broke out from low, sullen clouds and fell as a fine mist over the expansive fields of sorghum and winter wheat. Farmers and ranchers rose before first light, thankful for every drop of rain that could be coaxed from the sky after several months of drought. The animals, like the weather, seemed to be unsettled. Cattle huddled together as if for protection from some unknown menace. Horses whimpered and fidgeted uneasily. Milk cows protested and balked at the prospect of their morning milking. To old timers, these behaviors seemed to portend a storm. Still, April was always a fickle month, bringing radiant warmth, biting cold and booming storms to the Southern Plains in seemingly equal measure. With temperatures struggling to reach 50 degrees and a dense stratus deck choking out the morning sun, the conditions hardly brought to mind the “tornado weather” that a lifetime of living in Tornado Alley had taught residents to fear and respect. However, unknown to the people below, the vast, chaotic machinery of the atmosphere had already set into motion a series of events that would culminate in perhaps the greatest storm in the region’s long and bitter history.

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June 7-9, 1953 — The Flint – Worcester Outbreak

[Click photos for larger versions.]

Note: I’m trying something a bit different with this article. I’ve added endnotes for references and comments that don’t fit in the article itself, clicking any of them will take you to the bottom of the page. Clicking on the circumflex (^) next to each number should bring you back to the appropriate spot. If you encounter any problems, please let me know.

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It was a time of buoyant optimism in the United States. Less than a decade after the American industrial machine first roared to life in a bid to help vanquish the Axis forces in World War II, the baby boom was well underway. Though the spectre of an apocalyptic nuclear war with the Soviet Union loomed ever-present and the Korean War continued to drag on, the country was thriving. The middle class had expanded rapidly, thanks in part to the strength of domineering unions, and consumerism and conservatism came to dominate much of American life. Scientists Francis Crick and James D. Watson prepared to unveil the double-helix structure of DNA. The first production Corvette – a sleek white convertible with red interior and a black canvas top – rolled off the production line at the iconic General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan. The manufacturer’s 50 millionth car, a golden-hued 1955 Chevy Bel Aire Sport Coupe, would be produced at the same plant in November of the following year. In December, Marilyn Monroe’s nude figure would be immortalized in the first issue of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine.

The bomb test codenamed "Climax" resulted in a tremendously powerful explosion in the Nevada desert.

The “Climax” bomb test resulted in a tremendously powerful explosion.

The Cold War was never far from the surface, however. On the arid, sandy Yucca Flat in the eastern portion of the Nevada Test Site, the U.S. Military conducted a frenzied series of atomic bomb tests in a never-ending effort to keep a leg up on the Soviets in the developing nuclear arms race. In the predawn hours of June 4, a Convair B-36 Peacemaker rumbled down the runway at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico and took to the dark skies 40,000 feet above the test range. As the first Air Force plane capable of delivering any nuclear device in the military’s arsenal without modifying its bomb bays, the B-36 quickly became the go-to choice for delivering a nuclear payload. As the doors to one of the plane’s bomb bays eased open, a relatively small, 30-inch fission bomb released and plummeted toward earth. At approximately 1,500 feet, a brilliant white flash and a gigantic, churning fireball burst into the sky. The bomb, codenamed “Climax” and a part of the curiously named “Operation Upshot-Knothole” series, was the most powerful ever tested on United States soil at the time, releasing a staggering 61 kilotons of explosive energy. The blast could be seen from Los Angeles and felt more than 500 miles away in Oregon, where it reportedly rattled windows and knocked items off shelves.

And despite a relatively quiet start to the year, the weather had been making the news as well. Just before 4:30pm on May 11, one of the deadliest tornadoes in the nation’s history tore a path through the heart of Waco, Texas. The six-story R.T. Dennis furniture store collapsed under the violent force of the wind, crushing 32 people inside. The same story repeated as pedestrians scurried inside several other large downtown buildings to escape the pounding rain, only to be killed when the structures gave way. Still others were crushed while trying to escape in their vehicles. When the dust settled and the victims had finally been extracted from the massive piles of rubble, 114 people had lost their lives. Another 13 were killed further to the west when more than a dozen blocks on the north side of San Angelo were obliterated by an extremely intense tornado. Though no one could have known at the time, it was about to get much, much worse.

This drawing, originally sketched by Truman Caldwell and completed by Waco Tribune-Herald artist Dick Boone, illustrates the tornado as Caldwell witnessed it while driving home toward the city.

This drawing, sketched by Truman Caldwell and completed by Waco Tribune-Herald artist Dick Boone, illustrates the tornado as Caldwell witnessed it while driving home toward the city.

 

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March 18, 1925 — The Tri-State Tornado

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Deep in the Ozark Mountains, in places scarcely changed through nine decades, there are legends of a monster. Though few, if any, still live to tell the tale first-hand, the tradition persists, straddling the line between fact and myth. In the Shawnee Hills of Southern Illinois, too, old-timers pass on the legend. Indeed, across three states and more than 200 miles, folks of a certain generation recall harrowing accounts by those who witnessed death drop from the sapphire sky one balmy pre-spring afternoon in 1925. Over three and a half hours, the Great Tri-State Tornado roared through the southern portions of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, wiping town after town off the map as it ripped through forests and farmlands, over peaks and hollows, and across the mighty Mississippi River at speeds sometimes exceeding 70 mph. When the greatest tornado disaster in recorded history finally came to an end some 219 miles later, 695 people laid dead and more than a dozen towns and hundreds of farmsteads were left in splinters.

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July 6, 1893 — Pomeroy, Iowa

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The air was oppressive, clinging like a hot, damp blanket draped across the heartland of the United States. Despite a cooling rain the previous night and a thick blanket of clouds through the morning, midday sunshine pushed temperatures past 90 degrees by early afternoon in northwest Iowa. After a warm and dry beginning to the summer, rain was a welcome sight for the many farmers who wrested a living from the fertile prairie soil. As towering thunderheads began to burst into the muggy afternoon skies, however, concern began to grow. A stiff breeze picked up, blowing from the south and east with enough force to rustle trees and hold flags at attention. This, long-time residents knew, was cyclone weather.

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May 22, 2011 — The Joplin Tornado

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“Get the sirens going, get the sirens going, I’m telling you!”

The sense of urgency, bordering on panic, was palpable. The brilliant blue springtime skies had become a malevolent, roiling mass of charcoal grays and diffuse blue-greens. The murky clouds heaved curtains of rain and a spattering of hail as storm chaser Jeff Piotrowski pulled alongside a police cruiser near Seventh Street and Black Cat Road on the south side of Joplin, Missouri. The doppler radar inside Jeff’s vehicle indicated an extremely intense circulation just minutes from town, but one look to the southwest left no doubt. Lowering from the sky to engulf the horizon was a massive, billowing cone of clouds. A scattering of debris soon followed, prompting Piotrowski to issue his desperate plea. By the time the sirens wailed to life, the single deadliest tornado in more than six decades had already begun its path of devastation.

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April 11, 1965 — Palm Sunday Outbreak

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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. March 17, 1965.

St. Patrick’s Day Blizzard. March 17, 1965.

 

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.

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