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Remembering the 1974 Super Outbreak

Including one tornado in our viewing area
Map of tornado tracks
Map of tornado tracks(NWS)
Published: Apr. 3, 2021 at 6:31 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - The April 3-4, 1974 Super Outbreak was one for the record books. This outbreak is currently the second largest tornado outbreak in total number of tornadoes, this behind 2011′s super outbreak. However, in 1974 the number of violent tornadoes (rated EF-3 and higher) far outnumbered 2011. Regardless, both outbreaks were absolutely tragic with more than 300 deaths during each outbreak.

The April 3-4, 1974 Super Outbreak Stats:

  • 148 tornadoes
  • Across 13 different states
  • 319 deaths
  • Nearly 6,000 injuries
  • Six of those tornadoes occurred in Virginia and 6 in West Virginia
  • Violent tornadoes: 23x F-4 tornadoes and 7x F-5 tornadoes touched down during this outbreak
  • Damage: Approximately $4.5 billion dollars
  • This was the first outbreak in recorded history with more than 100 tornadoes in a 24-hour period
  • Total tornado path length: About 2,600 miles

The outbreak cost $843 million dollars and at one point, 15 tornadoes were on the ground simultaneously. Hundreds of lives were lost, 315 people lost their lives while there were also over 5,000 injured.

Notable tornadoes in this event include the Xenia, Ohio tornado that was a F5 with max winds of 300 mph. As a result, 32 people lost their lives in this tornado and more than a thousand were injured.

Other notable tornadoes include the Brandenburg, Kentucky tornado, that was also a F5 and killed 31 people. Three other tornadoes that were rated F5 touched down in Alabama and each killed over 20 people.

Of the tornadoes that touched down closer to home, there was 1 death in southwest Virginia and 1 death in southeastern West Virginia. Both of these tornadoes were F3 strength (158-206 mph).

One of the six tornadoes in the state touched down in Augusta County. This tornado touched down near Swoope, crossed I-81 just north of Verona and finally lifted near Weyers Cave. No injuries or fatalities occurred with this tornado as it touched down at 6:30 am on April 4, 1974. The tornado was a F1 with estimated winds of 95 mph.

April 4, 1974
April 4, 1974(whsv)

In Mount Sidney, large barns and highway signs were blown over. A state trooper noticed the tornado and said it looked a half-mile wide. This was unlikely due to the amount of damage. The trooper was likely seeing the wall cloud, the rotating cloud that a tornado drops down from. Terrain may have made it look like that was the actual tornado. Here’s a clipping from the Newsleader from that day:

From the 1974 tornado in Augusta County- courtesy of the Newsleader
From the 1974 tornado in Augusta County- courtesy of the Newsleader(Newsleader)

The tornado knocked over a tractor trailer on I-81 near Weyers Cave. A chicken house was torn apart between Laurel Hill and Verona, and many trees were knocked down blocking roadways.

Damage across Augusta County was widespread. The city of Staunton was not impacted by the tornado.

As a result of this extreme outbreak, there were many lessons learned. Obviously the technology has improved in detecting tornadoes. One of the biggest impacts was improvements in communication and the warning system.

According to a National Weather Service report, tornado warnings were being issued so frequently, they could not be transmitted fast enough. This led to NOAA’s expansion of the weather radio network. This is the one still in use today and it’s still the best way to receive the important warnings. Ultimately with the National Weather Service modernizing technology, this also led to an improvement in lead times for tornado warnings and accuracy.

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