Little Bits of History

Tornado Outbreak

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 28, 2013
Damage from a tornado

Damage from a tornado

March 28, 1920: Palm Sunday’s dawn broke with the beginning of a series of shattering storms and within nine hours, eight states were pummeled by 38 significant tornadoes. Early in the morning, severe thunderstorms began to develop in Missouri. The storm cell moved rapidly in a northeasterly direction. The first tornado struck southeast of Springfield, Missouri in the pre-dawn hours and left five injured.

While there were 38 documented tornadoes during the day, there is a very high likelihood that there were far more smaller tornadoes that were never reported. At the time, aerial surveillance searching for damages was not available to the National Weather Service. Few states in the US “Tornado Alley,” central states that see the most tornado activity, kept accurate records. In most states and certainly at a national level, record keeping was sporadic at best. There was no uniformity for data storage across the country.

While the Perfect Storm was brewing, in 1920 there was no forecasting equipment such as Doppler radar, no mass communication network such as television and radio was spotty, and there was no Severe Storm Warning system in place. Weather prediction came from vague information in the daily newspapers of the previous day. The word “tornado” was actually banned because it might cause fear and panic. All the local meteorologists were expecting was rain showers with possible thunderstorms.

Tornadoes are measured using the Fujita scale (F-scale) with F0 being a weak storm and the extremely rare (0.1%) F5 being the strongest. Two-thirds of all tornadoes are F0 or F1. There were none of these weaker storms reported that day. An F2 storm has winds up to 157 mph and causes “considerable damage.” There were 14 reported. F3 storms have winds up to 206 mph and cause “severe damage.” There were 11 F3 storms. Only 1.1% of tornadoes reach F4 class causing “devastating damage” with winds up to 260 mph and yet there were 13 of them that day. Over 380 people were killed and 1,215 were injured in these combined storms.

“There is a muscular energy in sunlight corresponding to the spiritual energy of wind.” – Annie Dillard

“For the man sound in body and serene of mind there is no such thing as bad weather; every day has its beauty, and storms which whip the blood do but make it pulse more vigorously.” – George Gissing

“Any proverbs about weather are doubly true during a storm.” – Ed Northstrum

“There is little chance that meteorologists can solve the mysteries of weather until they gain an understanding of the mutual attraction of rain and weekends.” – Arnot Sheppard

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: The National Weather Service (NWS) is a part of the federal government of the US. It was formed in 1870. Both houses of Congress passed the formation of the agency and it was signed into being by Ulysses S. Grant. It was, at its inception, for military strategy and not for civilian issues. However, that changed in 1890 when it became part of the Department of Agriculture. Later, in 1940, it came under the Department of Commerce. In 1966 when the Environmental Science Services Administration was formed, it moved there and finally in 1970 it came under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The weather over land and sea is monitored and a number of warnings and watches are in place to help warn us of impending storms.

Also on this day: Ragnar, the Viking – In 845, Ragnar sacked Paris.
Three Mile Island – In 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown began in Pennsylvania.
He Changed the Way We Live – In 1897, Victor Mills was born.

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