“Super Outbreak” may sound like a 1980s video game or the sequel to that epidemic disaster thriller from the ‘90s, but the name actually refers to one of the most memorable, and tragic, weather events of the late 20th century.
On April 3rd and 4th, 1974, a record number of tornadoes — 148 in all — swept through the center of North America, leaving a swathe of destruction and death 2,600 miles long. It was the worst recorded tornado event in North America, both in terms of the sheer number and severity of tornadoes, and in the amount of destruction left in its wake.
Earlier that week, an unusually powerful low-pressure system developed across much of the Midwest and Central Canada, ushering in several days of severe weather, including a storm that dropped baseball-sized hailstones on St. Louis. In the days leading up to the outbreak, a handful of F2* and F3 tornadoes touched down from the Ohio Valley as far south as Alabama. Meteorologists were expecting a second, and larger, outbreak to follow, but had not calculated anything approaching the severity of what actually occurred.
The first tornado of the outbreak hit Morris, Illinois, at around 1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 3. This minor F0 tornado had a path less than half a mile long and resulted in no deaths or serious injuries. Over the following few hours, though, the storm moved southeast, and more than three-dozen tornadoes touched down between Ontario and Ohio, quickly increasing in size, duration and intensity.
The thirteenth tornado began near Monticello, Indiana, and was the first truly destructive one of the storm, responsible for 19 deaths and 362 injuries. This F4 tornado had the longest path of the breakout, at 121 miles. Not long after, at 4:40 p.m., the first F5 tornado of the outbreak, and the most devastating, struck the city of Xenia, Ohio. This tornado killed 34 people, injured another 1,150, and severely damaged or destroyed more than half of the city. The total property damage of that one tornado alone amounted to more than $100 million, or about $435 million in today’s dollars.
During the following day, five more F5 tornadoes developed in Depauw, Ind., Sayler Park, Ohio, Brandenburg, Ky., Tanner, Ala., and Guin, Ala. Thirty-one people were killed in Brandenburg, and 58 more people died in Alabama’s two F5 tornadoes.
At the same time, dozens of other storms, ranging in intensity from minor F0 funnels to killer F4s, continued to form across the entire range of the storm. In all there were 23 F4s, 35 F3s, 30 F2s, 31 F1s, and 23 F0 tornadoes. At one point, a total of 15 tornadoes were on the ground at the same time, and meteorologists in Indiana took the unprecedented step of placing the entire state under a tornado warning.
By the time the final tornado of the Super Outbreak— an F2 with no fatalities or major injuries — hit Baton, N.C, at around 7 p.m. on April 4, a total of 315 people had been killed, and 5,484 injured. More than 35 years later, it remains the largest and deadliest tornado system to hit North America.
*For more information about tornado intensity see the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale Chart.