Remembering the Worst Tornado Outbreak

April 3rd, 1974 is in the weather history books as the worst tornado outbreak to ever affect the Cumberland Plateau. We weren’t alone, 148 twisters touched down across 13 states in less than 24 hours. Remarkable, indeed.

Nationally, this outbreak produced fewer tornadoes than the super outbreak that would come on April 27th, 2011 but the 1974 outbreak produced more F-5 tornadoes. In fact, we’ve never seen an outbreak produce more F-5s than the 1974 outbreak. For perspective, it’s been nearly eight years since the U.S. has seen an EF-5. Need less to say, the worst of all twisters is a very rare event. Tennessee has only had one EF-5 in all of our state history (April 16, 1998 in southern Middle TN).

Thankfully, we didn’t have to deal with that level of catastrophic destruction here on the plateau, but we were affected by three violent F-4s on the plateau that day and night, which is mind boggling. Imagine the twister that hit Baxter last March having a much longer path and there being three of those across the plateau. Yes, remarkable, indeed.

You may wonder how anything could be worse than the Baxter storm. Keep in mind an EF-5 destroys everything AND then carries the debris away. Sometimes, even concrete foundations are scraped by the winds of an EF-5 and look like a big cat sharpened its claws on them. Farmland is plowed and up to a foot or more of topsoil carried away. There’s a reason they describe an F-5 in the movie Twister as “the finger of God.”

Pictured below is a map with all the mapped paths of the tornadoes and their intensities of the 1974 outbreak. Notice how the plateau was swarmed with twisters. Cumberland County had an F-3 twister roar into Pleasant Hill, then Mayland, then the Woody community at around 11:00 pm. That was several hours after Jamestown and Cookeville had been hit. The tornado lifted shortly after crossing Highway 127 near the Plateau Rd/Potato Farm intersection. Years afterwards, hunters would find other tornado paths from this twister on Catoosa. Those paths were never documented.

On the map above, counties with fatalities are highlighted. Thankfully, we had no deaths in Cumberland County, though it’s an absolute miracle. Many folks were literally blown out of bed that night in Cumberland County. Putnam, Fentress, and Pickett Counties weren’t so lucky. Between those three counties, more than two dozen people were killed.

This outbreak was the product of a very warm and humid early-April airmass. Spring had come very early that year and some trees even had leaves. Then, a very active jet stream started screaming overhead and at least three rounds of supercells developed. So, this was not a line of storms, but a series of those isolated storms that tend to spawn the most intense tornadoes we see. This is why I always put you all on guard for these isolated storms that may form ahead of the main lines. Most of the time nothing happens, but sometimes …….

Nationally, this tornado outbreak took 335 lives and injured another 6,000! But, the good news is that this weather event really changed things at the National Weather Service. The watch/warning system was revamped and the weather radio stormed onto the stage as one of the very best ways to get warnings. This outbreak was the first to feature on-air meteorologists staying on the air to cover tornado warnings. This was before Doppler radar, so many warnings relied on the public spotting the tornado. Warning lead-times were terrible compared to what we have today. Consider the image below. That’s the kind of radar we had at that time. Forecasters were baffled at the number of storms with “hooks”, indicating possible tornadic activity.

I could talk about this outbreak all day and night. It truly was an incredible event that is unlikely to be experienced again…..at least we sure hope so. Every meteorology school program talks about this outbreak and they always will. One thing to note is that populations have increased dramatically since 1974 and where tornadoes once moved across open country, there are now very populated communities. That’s frightening.

So, this was my topic for the papers this week and I’ll share that with you now.

A Unforgettable Outbreak

The Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974 remains unmatched by any other tornado outbreak across the Upper Cumberlands. There has never been a more destructive outbreak of tornadoes in our region.  

There’s a reason it is called a “super outbreak”. By the time the outbreak had ended, at least 148 tornadoes had hit the ground in 13 states across the eastern US. Of all those tornados, the last significant tornado of that outbreak struck northern Cumberland County in the Woody community. The F-3 twister crossed highway 127 at the Plateau and Potato Farm road intersection. 

The outbreak was the result of numerous supercells, those isolated thunderstorms that spin out some of nature’s strongest tornadoes.

One supercell produced a violent F-4 tornado just south of Cookeville. The twister then moved northeast into southern Overton County. The twister lifted as it passed over the Wilder community of Fentress County. The tornado touched down again southwest of Jamestown and quickly exploded into an F-4 once again. The storm leveled four subdivisions, killing seven people near the intersection of Highways 127 and 52. 

Fentress County nearly had two F-4s in this outbreak, which is remarkable. The second F-4 skirted the Fentress and Pickett County border. That twister leveled Moodyville, killing five people. 

The Moodyville supercell had produced an F-3 tornado that moved through Overton County, passing just west of Livingston. That twister killed three people, with all of them being in mobile homes. 

April 3 is the only time Fentress County has ever recorded a twister as violent as an F-4 tornado. 

Even today, it’s hard to imagine three F-4s and two F-3 across the Upper Cumberlands from one tornado outbreak. In all, there were nine tornadoes in our region and 25 deaths. 

That outbreak was said to be a generational event, but we hope another generation never sees anything like that again.

[The map below shows the tornadoes of the Upper Cumberlands that day, with the numbers corresponding to the order in which they occurred in the national outbreak of 148 tornadoes.]

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