Bent Not Broken

 Bent Not Broken

Deadly tornado ripped through Xenia 45 years ago

By Val Beerbower

“There was a big, boiling, black cloud.”

It was April 3, 1974, a day that will forever be emblazoned in the memories of those living in the Miami Valley—particularly Xenia and Greene County.

“We looked up into the trees and it seemed like all the birds just went silent.”

It was on that day a series of intense, violent tornadoes literally ripped the community apart.

“My brother and I stared out the back window and we saw three funnel clouds that were becoming one, big tornado.”

In their wake, the storms left thousands injured, inflicted roughly $250 million in damages and claimed the lives of 34 people.

“The noise was so loud. You heard metal scraping, glass breaking. And then it just stopped.”

This year marks the 45th anniversary since that massive storm devastated the region. But along with the tragic losses, hope sprang from the debris in the form of renewed focus in advancing meteorological sciences and the demonstration of one town’s grit and community spirit.

The Xenia tornado was part of a larger storm system that swept through the Midwest and eastern portions of the country in 1974. According to the National Weather Service, this “Super Outbreak” produced 148 tornadoes in a 24-hour period and devastated more than 13 states, including Ohio, and caused more than $600 million in damages and the deaths of 335 people.

No sirens or advanced warning systems existed that spring afternoon in 1974.

But thanks to the efforts of quick-thinking community members more lives were likely spared. Richard “Dick” Strous, 86, then co-manager of a downtown grocery store, says he had just a few minutes to herd as many customers as he could into the basement from the time he spotted the funnel cloud.

Stous didn’t make it to the basement; he barely took cover in the frozen foods section as “glass was hitting me in the back while I was running down the aisle,” he says.

Kenneth Riggsby, 57, who is now the fire chief for Xenia but was just 12 years old when the ’74 tornado blew through town, remembers looking out of the window of his family’s home and pondering how so many birds could be flying through such an intense storm. “Then I realized it wasn’t birds; there was so much debris and it was all swirling around in the sky,” Riggsby says. “It was pretty astounding.”

Catherine Wilson, Greene County Historical Society executive director, recalled having only a few moments to seek shelter in their family’s home, which didn’t have a basement. “We all climbed into the bathtub—me and my sister squeezed next to each other and my mother on top of us,” she says.

Several meteorological events converged that April to produce such powerful storms. Jana Houser, assistant professor of meteorology at Ohio University, says a volatile low-pressure system pulling in warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico met a huge, vertical channel of cold, dry air that descended from Canada. Mix in strong changes in wind speed from the jet stream and “that’s really what fueled the outbreak of tornadoes on that particular event,” she says.

It’s difficult to predict whether another “Super Outbreak” will happen again in the near future, but scientists say with increasingly troubling climate indicators, more severe storms are not just possible but likely.

“People think (the tornadoes of ’74) are a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but we still tell people today that it can and will happen again,” says Kenneth Haydu, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Wilmington. Haydu was a college student in 1974 when the storms broke out and he says many improvements in technology and communication were direct results of the storms.

Just a few years prior to the Xenia storms Tetsuya Fujita developed his eponymous scale that rates tornado intensity. The tornado that struck Xenia in 1974 has the dubious distinction of being rated as an F5—the highest intensity on the Fujita scale—out of that particular system with wind speeds recorded as high as 318 mph. Data collected from Xenia and other towns where the tornadoes traveled contributed to Fujita’s work and provided important information to new research layering in the effects of climate change.

A Florida State University study published in 2018 compared casualty producing tornadoes between 1994 and 2016. The study estimated a tornado’s destructive output using physical area, median wind speeds and the Fujita scale. “I think the study itself is pretty unique,” says Tyler Fricker, lead researcher for the study in FSU’s Department of Geography. “The use of energy dissipation is novel.”

Calculating the area of a tornado’s path against its average wind speed put each of those severe weather events on a relatable scale, which allowed the researchers to observe other influences on tornadoes, like climate change. “There is a clear upward trend in tornado power over the past few decades that amounts to 5.5 percent per year,” Fricker says.

“Part of the trend can be attributed to long-term changes in convective storm environments involving dynamic and thermodynamic variables and their interactions,” Fricker says. Translation: Climate change introduces more energy into the atmosphere. More energy means an increased potential for violent storms.

Other advances include National Weather Service equipment. Haydu described radar systems used in the 1970s as “hand-me-downs” from the U.S. military. Following the ’74 tragedy additional funds were pumped into the National Weather Service and supportive networks, boosting capabilities at tracking and predicting storm systems.

In addition to evolved technology, the National Weather Service has recruited thousands of extra eyes to watch the sky. “We work with local emergency management services and amateur radio partners, hosting free Weather Spotter classes in the areas we serve,” says Brandon Peloquin, warning coordination meteorologist at National Weather Service Wilmington. “Weather Spotters are an important resource to help us get the word out about severe weather.”

Knowing severe weather will strike again is impetus enough for pretty much any meteorological scientist to emphasize the importance of awareness and practice during a tornado. Sirens are now incorporated into Xenia’s public safety infrastructure, which helped keep people safe in 2000 when the town was hit by yet another severe tornado.

While the addition of sirens and tornado shelters are beneficial Riggsby says education is still an important tool. “Sirens are mostly to warn people outdoors, to let them know they need to take shelter immediately,” Riggsby says.

“The important thing to remember is when a tornado warning is issued you need to take shelter in place right away,” Riggsby says.

Houser says practicing an emergency plan is the second step in an ideal preparation strategy. “It doesn’t matter how much advanced planning you have done you still need to practice,” she says. “You might have to make a decision in high-emotional moment and you want to fall back on that rehearsed habit.”

In addition to all the advances in science and technology, Xenia residents can rely on the safety net of their close-knit community. The lone neighbor on the block with a basement that sheltered Riggsby’s family and others; the casual work acquaintance that helped Wilson’s family rebuild their house; and people like Strous who spring to action in times of distress are all part of the communal fabric that stretches and bends, but doesn’t break.