Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak

From Academic Kids

36 people were killed by the "double tornado" that hit the Sunnyside Subdivision in Dunlap, Indiana.
36 people were killed by the "double tornado" that hit the Sunnyside Subdivision in Dunlap, Indiana.

The first (and more famous) Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak occurred on April 11, 1965. Forty-seven confirmed tornadoes hit the Midwest, making it the second biggest outbreak on record. In the midwest, 271 people were killed and 1,500 injured (1,200 in Indiana). It was the deadliest tornado outbreak in Indiana history with 137 people killed.1

The tornadoes were nearly relentless, occurring in a 450-mile swath west-to-east from Clinton County, Iowa, to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and a 200-mile swath north-to-south from Kent County, Michigan, to Montgomery County, Indiana. The outbreak lasted 11 hours.

This is the third deadliest day for tornadoes on record, trailing the Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974, which killed 315 and the outbreak that included the Tri-State Tornado which killed 747. It occurred on Palm Sunday, an important day in the Christian religion, and many people were attending services at church, one possible reason why some warnings were not received. There had been a short winter that year, and as the day progressed, the temperature rose to 83° F in some areas of the Midwest.

A second Palm Sunday tornado outbreak occurred on March 27, 1994, in Alabama, killing 42: see Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak II.


The moving storm

At around 1 P.M., the first tornado of the day occurred in Clinton County, Iowa. It was an F4 on the Fujita scale of severity. It was spawned from a thunderstorm cell first detected near Tipton in Cedar County, Iowa around 12:45 P.M. by a radio news reporter at the WMT Stations in Cedar Rapids, some 50 miles northwest of Tipton. The station was equipped with a Collins Radio aviation radar that was mounted on the roof of the station building and used to support severe weather reports on local and regional newscasts. After detecting the strong and very tall thunderstorm, the reporter called National Weather Service offices in Waterloo (which had no radar) and Des Moines to alert them to the storm. His call was to become the first solid evidence obtained by the Weather Service on the growing severe storms that spawned dozens of tornadoes over the next 12 hours.


One of the most famous tornadoes of the day occurred at Crystal Lake, Illinois, where it destroyed several subdivisions and a golf course. It grazed a junior high school then destroyed several homes in a community called Colby's Home Estates. 145 homes were damaged -- 45 beyond repair. Five people were killed. The tornado slid down a hill and destroyed the small community of Island Lake, killing one more person before ascending back into the clouds at 3:42 P.M. This was one of a handful of F4 tornadoes that occurred during this outbreak.


Later in the day, the tornadoes started to become more intense. By the time the storm system got to Indiana, there were several series of tornadoes, some of them lethal. The first touched down at around 5:30 P.M. in Koontz Lake, Indiana. This massive F4 killed 10 people and injured 180. This tornado then moved northeast toward La Paz and Lakeville where it destroyed a high school that was just being built. The tornado then moved into Wyatt and destroyed twenty homes. The already small population of Wyatt was cut down even further.

The first of two F5 tornadoes of the outbreak formed near the St. Joseph County-Elkhart County border and moved east-northeast, first hitting Wakarusa, Indiana, where it killed a child. Then it moved toward the towns of Nappanee, Goshen, and Dunlap (this is the tornado pictured above right between Elkhart and Goshen). This was the infamous "double tornado" that killed 33 people in the Midway Trailer Court. This picture is arguably one the most celebrated tornado pictures of all-time. It was taken by then-Elkhart Truth reporter Paul Huffman. The Palm Sunday Tornado Memorial Park now exists near this location, at the corner of County Road 45 and Cole Street in Dunlap.

One-half hour later, a second tornado devastated the Sunnyside Housing addition and the unoccupied Sunnyside Mennonite Church. The death toll from the Sunnyside tornado was over 20 people. Most of the 36 people killed in the double tornado had no warning because the high winds had knocked out the telephone and power grids. For the first time in the U.S. Weather Bureau's history, all nine counties in the northern Indiana office's jurisdiction were under a tornado warning. This is called a "blanket tornado warning."

Michigan and Ohio

With the telephone lines down, emergency services in Elkhart County, Indiana, could not warn the people in Michigan that the tornadoes were headed their way. In Michigan, tornadoes hit as far north as Allendale, in Ottawa County, Michigan, just west of Grand Rapids. Out of the southernmost counties of Michigan, all but three (Berrien, Cass, and St. Joseph counties) were hit.

A mile-wide tornado hit in Milan, Michigan, near Detroit. It destroyed the building of Wolverine Plastics (the top employer in Milan), completely removing the roof.

Twenty-five people were killed by an 800-yard wide tornado hitting near Kokomo, Indiana. Marion, Indiana, and Alto, Indiana, were severely impacted as well. More tornadoes moved into Ohio from Indiana, wreaking devastation as they came. A double tornado was sighted near Toledo, Ohio.

At around 11 P.M., a tornado touched earth in Lorain County, Ohio. The tornado slammed into Pittsfield, killing seven. The tornado became stronger, causing F2 damage to homes in Grafton. By the time the storm got to Cleveland, Ohio, the storm "appeared to have split into two paths about a 1/2 mile apart." Large trees laying 50 feet apart were felled lying in different directions. The storm displayed F5 damage near Strongsville where homes literally vanished. This tornado killed 18 people.

The last tornado of the day occurred at 12:30 A.M. on April 12. It moved along a 30-mile path south of Columbus, Ohio, causing F2 damage.

The aftermath

The U.S. Weather Bureau later investigated why so many people died in this event. Radar stations were few and far between in 1965, so tornadoes were identified by the characteristic shape of "hook echoes", but the danger in this storm was identified in plenty of time. The real answer was simple: the warning system failed. The Bureau disseminated the warnings quickly, but the public never received them. Additionally, the public did not know the difference between a Forecast and an Alert. Thus the current Tornado watch and Tornado warning program was implemented because of the terrible death toll from the Palm Sunday outbreak. 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.

Technology has grown tremendously since 1965; warnings can now be spread via cable and satellite television, PCs and the Internet, solid-state electronics, cell phones, and NOAA Weatheradio.

Suction vortices

Dr. Ted Fujita discovered suction vortices during the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak. It had been believed the reason why tornadoes could hit one house and leave another across the street completely unscathed was because the whole tornado would "jump" from one house to another. However, the actual reason is because most of the destruction is caused by suction vortices: small, intense mini-tornadoes within the main tornado.

See also

External Links


1 King, Marshall (April 10, 2005). "One for the books". The Elkhart Truth, The Elkhart Truth Online Edition (


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