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April 11, 2024

Incredible Aftermath Photographs From the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak

On April 10–12, 1965, a historic severe weather event affected the Midwestern and Southeastern United States. The tornado outbreak produced 55 confirmed tornadoes in one day and 16 hours. The worst part of the outbreak occurred during the afternoon hours of April 11 into the overnight hours going into April 12. The second-largest tornado outbreak on record at the time, this deadly series of tornadoes, which became known as the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado outbreak, inflicted a swath of destruction from Cedar County, Iowa, to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and a swath 450 miles long (724 km) from Kent County, Michigan, to Montgomery County, Indiana. The main part of the outbreak lasted 16 hours and 35 minutes and is among the most intense outbreaks, in terms of tornado strength, ever recorded, including at least four “double/twin funnel” tornadoes. In all, the outbreak killed 266 people, injured 3,662 others, and caused $1.217 billion (1965 USD) in damage.

At around 12:55 P.M., the first tornado touched down in Clinton County, Iowa. It was rated F4 on the Fujita scale and spawned from a thunderstorm cell first detected near Tipton in Cedar County, Iowa, around 12:45 P.M. by radio news reporter Martin Jensen. He was stationed at the WMT Station in Cedar Rapids located some 50 miles (80 km) northwest of Tipton. The station was equipped with a Collins Radio aviation radar mounted on the roof of the station building and was used to support severe weather reports on local and regional newscasts. After detecting the severe thunderstorm, the reporter called National Weather Service offices in Waterloo (which had no radar) and Des Moines to alert them about the storm. The phone call became the first hard evidence for the Weather Service regarding the growing threat of severe storms which spawned dozens of tornadoes over the next 12 hours.

The U.S. Weather Bureau investigated the large number of deaths. Although Radar stations were few and far between in 1965, the severe nature of this storm was identified with adequate time to disseminate warnings. But the warning system failed as the public never received them. Additionally, the public did not know the difference between a Forecast and an Alert. Thus the Tornado watch and Tornado warning programs were implemented. Pivotal to those clarifications was a meeting in the WMT Stations studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Officials of the severe storms forecast center in Kansas City met with WMT meteorologist Conrad Johnson and News Director Grant Price. Their discussion led to establishment of the official “watch” and “warning” procedures in use since 1965.

As technology has advanced since 1965; warnings can be spread via cable and satellite television, PCs and the Internet, solid-state electronics, cell phones, and NOAA Weatheradio. Dr. Ted Fujita discovered suction vortices during the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak. It had previously thought that the reason why tornadoes could hit one house and leave another across the street completely unscathed was because the tornado would “jump” from one house to another. However, Dr. Fujita discovered that the actual reason is most destruction is caused by suction vortices: small, intense mini-tornadoes within the main tornado.


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