Remembering the 1974 Super Outbreak and the local damage from the tornado
Including one tornado in our viewing area
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.
Tornado number 145 out of 148 was right here in our area. This tornado touched down in Augusta County. The path was 15 miles long and it was rated an F1 with winds of 90-112mph. However hearing first hand of some of the damage at the Persinger farm, it’s likely the winds were actually stronger. It’s possible there could have been F2 damage. At this point it’s hard to say with certainty. (The detailed image of the path is at the bottom of this article)
A tornado watch was issued by the National Weather Service that was valid from 5 am local time, to 11 am. In fact a tornado warning was issued but this was also 1974, this was before doppler radar. In fact our local radar coverage in 2023 is still not perfect because of distance to the radar site and the terrain.
A local State Trooper reportedly spotted the tornado that morning per a newspaper report. It’s most likely that his report led to a warning being issued, after the tornado had already lifted. So while a watch and a warning were issued, it doesn’t help if no one receives the alerts.
The Augusta County tornado started near Swoope, closer to West View and moved to the northeast. It crossed I-81 just north of Verona impacting Fort Defiance and Mount Sidney, and finally lifted near Weyers Cave. No injuries or fatalities occurred with this tornado as it touched down at 5:40 am on April 4, 1974.
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. However his report of the tornado was likely what led to the National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning that morning because a warning was issued.
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.
There was damage to the Fort Defiance high school. One man we spoke with was in 8th grade at the time, and was the first person at school that day. He remembers the noise, the damage and describes that early morning.
Fort Defiance Damage
Hear the story from a Fort Defiance student, who was the first one at the school that day.
Damage across Augusta County was widespread. The city of Staunton was not impacted by the tornado.
This map is hand drawn by Theodore Fujita, a.k.a. Mr. Tornado. Not only is it hand drawn, it’s to scale and numbered.
If you have any photos, stories or memories that you would like to share with our Chief Meteorologist Aubrey Urbanowicz, you can send an email to email@example.com
SURVIVING THE TORNADO
Ron Perry lived in Verona in 1974. He describes having a hard time sleeping during the overnight hours from April 3-4 because the storms were so loud.
Then suddenly, the noise stopped.
Perry had no idea that a tornado was about to destroy part of the family home.
Perry remembers, “It was eerie enough that I got up and started walking toward what was in our kitchen. The big roar, all the noise you’ve heard about. The violence and the crashing. It knocked me to the ground.”
Perry was stunned, but the family survived. Thankful the tornado didn’t touch the side of the home with the bedrooms, where everyone else was sleeping.
Now, trying to figure out what just happened.
“As we were exploring and seeing how much damage their was, we started worrying about cattle, about livestock, and trying to go find them.”
Many farm animals didn’t make it.
However one bull, had a great story of survival and boy was he patient.
“He was in this little structure, everything fell around him in the middle. I remember taking a chainsaw and cutting out part of the floor so we could drop food to him.
The bull was stuck in the massive, historic barn, that was destroyed in seconds.
Aubrey Urbanowicz asked Perry if the bull made it.
Perry replied, “Yes! He stood there, for like two weeks in his spot.”
His grandfathers farm, Mr. A.W and Effie Persinger, the farm almost unrecognizable. Debris spread out across 100 acres
Perry describes some of the incredible damage.
“There were 2x4s driven into telephone poles. Big timbers from the barn., lofted hundreds of feet away.
“Eighteen inch beams from the barn, thirty feet long, that probably weighed 1500 pounds. They were driven into the ground like a toothpick.
The devastation happening in just minutes, but the cleanup lasting years with damaged equipment, buildings, and debris all over the ground.
“It took us forever just to get the field cleaned up to grow hay again. With the debris and wood, tools all stuck into the ground.
It took a good 10 years, it changed our lives.”
Thank goodness Mennonite relief systems showed up and helped us. I can’t express enough how much the family appreciated their help”
Perry urges everyone to pay attention when severe warnings are issued.
“In 1974 we didn’t have warnings through phones.”
Now we have better technology to detect tornadoes and to alert you with severe weather.
Perry says, “My big tip would be, when the Weather Service issues those warnings, believe them, do something about it. Get to a safe place”
Amazingly no one was even injured locally.
The path was 15 miles long through Augusta County.
The incredibly large barn on the Persinger farm was destroyed, a smaller barn was built to replace it, but the silo remained untouched and still stands today.
In addition to the tornado, the line of storms also created additional damage in the area. The National Weather Service report states that in Augusta County, there were 90 barns with “light to heavy damage and two destroyed.” Three to four homes were also damaged in addition to a school and numerous trees and power lines down.
- 148 tornadoes
- Across 13 different states
- 335 deaths
- More than 6,000 injuries
- Six of those tornadoes occurred in Virginia and 6 in West Virginia
- Violent tornadoes: 23 rated F-4 tornadoes and 7rated F-5 tornadoes 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
A paper of the tornado outbreak stats written by Ted Fujita: CLICK HERE
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.
Of the tornadoes that touched down in Virginia and West Virginia, there was 1 death in southwest Virginia and 1 death in southeastern West Virginia. Both of these tornadoes were F3 strength (158-206 mph).
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. NOAA weather radios will still transmit when cell towers go down, when the cellular signal is interrupted or if a cell tower is hit by a tornado.
The best advice for severe weather? Pay attention to changes with the local weather, have multiple ways to receive weather alerts. Pay attention to those alerts when and if issued and have a plan. Prepare yourself and your family. It’s easy to make a plan, and hope that you never have to use it. You can download out WHSV weather app to stay up to date on the latest local forecast that is customized for our area, from the Meteorologists who live here.
Copyright 2021 WHSV. All rights reserved.