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

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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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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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