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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May 27, 1997 — The Jarrell, Texas Tornado

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Nestled in the Blackland Prairies at the edge of Central Texas’ Hill Country lies the small community of Jarrell. It’s a land of contrasts, with a small-but-developing town center carved into the low, rolling hills and patchy farmland. Clumps of Indian paintbrush and Texas bluebonnet provide blotches of color against the muted greens and browns of shortgrass and crop fields. A sharp, black, six-lane ribbon of asphalt bisects the town, carrying drivers between the metropolitan areas of Dallas, Waco and Austin.

If the town of Jarrell is divided by that flat, sun-baked stretch of Interstate 35, so too are its people. To the east of the interstate, the march of progress has taken hold full-force. A brand new water tower glints in the midday sun, rising more than 200 feet above its surroundings. Newly elected mayor Dewey Hulme talks excitedly about his plans for a reinvigorated Jarrell, one in which the new water tower and a sprawling 46-acre town center — planned out on a vast 153-acre parcel of land near the interstate — will begin to attract the kind of commercial and residential growth that could transform the town.

To the west of I-35, there is no water tower. There are no freshly built developments and new businesses. There is no talk of transformation. Instead, there is the stark land surrounding County Road 305. There is a park with a small community center, flanked by two emerald-green baseball fields. There is a simple memorial plaque, white lettering etched into sepia-toned granite, and a semicircular entrance ringed by trees – 27 of them. Most of all, there is the ever-present memory of the day nature conspired to wipe 50 homes and 27 of Jarrell’s mothers, fathers, children, friends and neighbors from the face of the Earth.

Jarrell Memorial Park

The Jarrell Memorial Park, with several of the 27 trees planted to honor tornado victims.

 

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