NOAA and 1974 Tornado Outbreak

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Louisville Forecaster Recalls April 1974 Tornado Outbreak


LOUISVILLE - When Russell Conger reported for his 4 p.m. to midnight shift as a forecaster intern at the National Weather Service Office in Louisville on April 3, 1974, he didn't know
he'd get an up-close-and-personal look at a tornado minutes later - or that he was seeing the start of one of the worst tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.

"Severe weather was beginning to break out near Louisville as I reported to work for the 4 to midnight shift," Conger said recently, "but not to the extent that it occurred. My duty was to record weather observations. Little did I realize I was about to witness one of natures most spectacular events."

Barely 37 minutes after starting his shift, Conger and his fellow forecasters got a much closer look than they'd have liked of a tornado that would snake through the city, leaving 900 severely damaged homes and millions of dollars of property damage in its wake. Using a World War II surplus radar, the Weather Service crew watched storms develop rapidly, according to Conger.

"Our MIC (meteorologist in charge) was at my desk talking to a local radio station," Conger said, "when the electronics technician stuck his head out of the radar room and yelled there was a tornado about 2-1/2 miles away. Ignoring our own safety warnings, we all ran to the windows to look.

"There were a lot of low-hanging clouds, but no rotation. The low clouds seemed to be converging and then the anemometer on the runway complex began to pick up - first a steady 40 knots, then 50, then 60, then 70. Finally, rocks started flying off the roof and hailstones started hitting the window. We all ran for cover."

The forecast crew emerged from cover seconds later to see the tornado over the airport parking lot. "Everything happened so fast, we didn't really have time to be scared," Conger said. "When we looked out the window again, the tornado was right there. It had picked up enough debris to be visible and had a large circulation pattern. Obviously this was the beginning of the Louisville tornado."

Fortunately, for Louisville residents, Conger and his workmates were able to issue a tornado warning 37 minutes before the tornado hit.

Records show the tornado formed at 4:37 p.m. at Standiford Field "before the eyes of the National Weather Service meteorologist in charge (Mr. John Burke)."

The Weather Service crew watched the tornado form and descend to the roof of the airport terminal building, in which the Weather Service occupied a top-floor office. Along with rocks, the tornado tore loose and equipment shelter that ended up dangling in front of the office's window and threw a steel I-beam from the roof into a car in an adjacent parking lot.

The next targets hit by the tornado were the Kentucky State Fair and Exposition Center and Freedom Hall on the University of Louisville campus. Then it moved through the city, doing extensive damage to three elementary schools and other structures. The tornado then moved into the Northfield Subdivision before heading out of the city.

By the time the tornado dissipated, it left a damage path 660 feet wide and 22 miles long - covering that distance in 21minutes. More than 900 homes had been damaged beyond repair.

And Louisville residents would never forget this day.

For more information contact Pat Slattery at (816) 426-7621.