SUPER OUTBREAK DEATH TOLL
Three of the past century's largest tornado super outbreaks claimed hundreds of lives in the tri-state area. The largest death toll from a single tornado came on March 18, 1925, during the "Tri-State Outbreak" that contained a storm that killed 695 people as it tore a 219-mile-long path through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
March 21, 1932
332: All states
April 3, 1974
310: All states
April 27, 2011
316: All states
Source: National Weather Service and other source
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — People who lived in the tri-state region on April 3, 1974, probably remember exactly where they were during the super outbreak of tornadoes that killed 150 people in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia.
Historical images of that outbreak were discovered recently by Scott Worsham and Chris Reed -- both Madison County, Ala., Emergency Management Agency officers -- in an old filing cabinet at the EMA headquarters in Huntsville.
The cabinet came from the old Madison County Civil Defense office downtown when operations were moved.
National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Troutman said the 81 black and white, mostly aerial photographs of 1974 tornado damage shed more light on the super outbreak that happened 40 years ago and could help forecasters in the future.
Along with the photos, Troutman has been collecting new data and documents and reviewing a collection of films related to the 1974 super outbreak.
The primary area of focus of Troutman's study lies in North Alabama and South Central Tennessee, about the same storm footprint as the deadly tornadoes that killed four people in that area late Monday night and early Tuesday.
"None of this has really been seen until this year," Troutman said, flicking through the copies of those old photos on his computer. "They'd been laying in a file cabinet for 39 years."
The Alabama Civil Air Patrol conducted photo flights on April 7, 1974, to document the damage. Air Patrol personnel used the old photos and drew on their memories to pinpoint locations.
"A lot of folks in our area here -- they can tell you without a doubt if they were above the age of 5 -- where they were on April 3, 1974," Troutman said.
"An event of that magnitude, like when we had then and on April 27, 2011, it leaves a lasting imprint on the region."
Both outbreaks killed more than 300 people each and bore some similarities.
Historically speaking, super outbreaks are relatively rare, said Bill Bunting, chief of operations at the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma.
"All of the central and eastern U.S. east of the Rockies is vulnerable to outbreaks, and certainly the Southeast has had their share going back to the earliest parts of the 20th century," Bunting said.
The new data and photos beefing up documentation of the 1974 storm damage around Huntsville can help forecasters understand "what happened and what's possible in the future," he said.
The super outbreaks of 1974 and 2011 "had a very large number of tornado-producing storms and many of those tornadoes were strong or violent," Bunting said. "They hit in somewhat different areas but with some overlap. I think the similarities are most important."
Warning coordination meteorologist Greg Carbin, also at the Oklahoma office, said the only outbreak that compares with 1974's outbreak is the one that struck the area in 2011.
"We can hope that the return signature is 35 or 40 years," Carbin said.
"The outbreaks in '74 and 2011 are as bad as they get, let's hope," he said. "They really do set the bar for anything else."
The super outbreak of April 3, 1974, spawned 148 tornadoes in 13 states during the afternoon and evening from Central Alabama to the Canada border, weather service records show.
The weather system produced three convective bands of tornado-producing storms during the outbreak. There were 28 tornadoes in 19 counties in Tennessee, eight tornadoes in 16 counties in North Alabama, and seven tornadoes in 13 counties in North Georgia.
More than 1,600 people were injured in the three states -- almost 5,500 people were injured in the 13 states hit in the outbreak -- with the three states suffering nearly $100 million in damage.
The first twisters in Tennessee hit Southeast Cleveland around 2 p.m. on April 3. By the time the outbreak was done the next morning, 56 people had been killed in the Volunteer State, 17 in Georgia and 77 in Alabama -- a total of 310 in all states affected.
The 2011 storms killed 25 in Tennessee, 14 in Georgia and 249 in Alabama -- 316 overall.
Troutman said weather service officials and local EMA and geographic information system officials matched up the newly found information with archived 1974 radar data from the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., that came from 1974 radar stations at Old Hickory, Tenn., and Centerville, Ala.
Now Troutman and other meteorologists are combining the "brand new" old photo data with what is already on the record.
"We're going to be doing some further research with Dr. Greg Forbes to look at the storm track of the tornadoes to try to document anything that hadn't been documented before," Troutman said.
The photos aren't the only "brand-new, old" information from 1974.
WJMW AM Radio in Huntsville made a two-hour recording of its coverage of the super outbreak as it happened.
"They had just purchased a brand-new Norelco cassette recorder," Troutman said. "As they did their coverage, they would time-stamp everything."
Troutman said those live accounts have been "priceless."
On the tape, on-scene reporter Bill Dunnavant gives accounts of the damage he sees as he's driving through areas in the path of the storms. Callers relay information to the station about where the tornadoes are and where they're headed.
Along the way Dunnavant gives exact locations to fellow reporter Mike Davis back at the station who relays the information to listeners.
Troutman says these accounts are now part of the growing historical record for the 1974 tornado outbreak and help tie storm data to the photo collection.
A comparison of the April 3, 1974, outbreak with April 27, 2011, shows some similarities, but that work is just beginning.
"We really need to prove those similarities if there are some," he said.
Both outbreaks had three separate events that occurred, three waves of storms that dealt out deadly twisters, he said.
In 1974, the storms started in the afternoon and continued throughout the night. The 2011 storms started early in the morning and continued through the afternoon into the evening.
In 1974, "from what we can tell based on radar looking back at the event, there may not have been nearly as many tornadoes that were documented in '74 compared to April 27, 2011," he said.
Records show "several more" tornadoes documented in the 2011 outbreak, partly thanks to 40 years worth of technological advances, he said.
Troutman wants to keep building the 1974 file.
"It's our belief that social media and asking for pictures and anything related to the April 3, 1974, event has resulted in allowing some of these rare, historical weather gems to be found," he said.
"We felt now would be a good time to go back and try to grab some more historical data before it's too late."
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...