Forty years after an F4-strength twister blasted Louisville, killing two people, hurting 200 others and causing millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses the scars and memories remain.
It was one of 148 deadly twisters across the Midwest on April 3, 1974, 20 of them in Indiana and 26 in Kentucky. Together, the tornadoes, which meteorologists call the "super outbreak" — the largest such event on record — killed 330 people and injured 5,484.
They also led to major changes at the Weather Service, including development of technologies like Doppler radar and tornado training for meteorologists.
"Back then, you had little or no warning" of an impending tornado, said John Gordon, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Louisville. "Now, with the Doppler, we're averaging 12-14 minutes' warning nationwide on tornado warnings."
The super outbreak also challenged beliefs about the best ways to prepare for a tornado.
"People were told to open their windows in 1974, to equalize the pressure," Gordon said. Now, forecasters tell residents in the way of a tornado to get as far away from windows as possible, he said, having recognized that, "It's flying debris that kills people."
A dreadful warning
At 4:10 p.m. on the day of the outbreak, 20 minutes before the tornado hit Louisville, an F5 tornado ravaged the nearby town of Brandenburg, Ky., tearing up entire residential neighborhoods and leveling buildings on the small town's Main Street.
"If everything worked like it does today, Brandenburg might have had three to four minutes' warning," said Dave Reeves, who watched the storm approach on Korean War-era radar as a meteorologist at the National Weather Service station at Standiford Field that day. "But they didn't."
At that time, hourly forecasts from Washington came over a telefax machine and were pinned up on the wall. Meteorologists could recognize the distinctive hook-shaped clouds that indicated a "supercell" with potential to become a tornado, but had very little ability to predict when or where a tornado would form.
"In 1974, there were no webcams, there was no lightning detection system, the observations were mostly at the airports," said Gordon.
By contrast, Kentucky now has a network of weather spotters feeding information to the Weather Service, as well as satellites and advanced computer models for predicting and analyzing weather.
One of the biggest changes since 1974 was the development of Doppler radar, which can detect the speed of movement toward and away from a radar tower. That gives meteorologists a clear picture of a storm's rotation — one indication that a tornado might be forming.
Using current radar and computer technology, meteorologists can model a storm in three dimensions to look at the internal characteristics that can herald a tornado, like the distinctive core of hail high aloft in a supercell storm.
The 1974Brandenburg tornado killed 31 people and injured 150. Reeves and the other Weather Service meteorologists heard state police reports of the damage, letting them know the severity of the storm that was on its way toward Louisville.
"Had we not got that state police report, it would have been just a few minutes' warning instead of 18 minutes' warning (for Louisville)," Reeves said.
Sirens not effective
As the storm approached the city, meteorologists picked up the red phone to the Fire Department to turn on the city's Civil Defense sirens. Unfortunately, according to Reeves, the area about to be hit by the tornado had poor siren coverage.
"We had nothing compared to what we have today as far as (siren) coverage," said Reeves, who retired in 1992. "Basically, the path that the tornado took was up an alley that had little coverage."
At 4:35 p.m. on April 3, 1974, Weather Service meteorologist John Burke watched the sky around Standiford Field from the second-floor office while on a phone interview with WHAS. Burke reported that the winds were very high, but he initially didn't see a tornado.
Then he did. "Good gracious sakes alive," Burke said, according to a WHAS transcript. "Hear it? I'm going. Goodbye!"
The unceremonious ending of Burke's interview suggested the seriousness of the situation. "That was more effective than any other thing," Reeves said. "It got attention."
Eyes in the skies
Candace Medina, who was 14 at the time, had come home from school that day, and made dinner plans with her father, WHAS traffic helicopter pilot Dick Gilbert, before he left for the airport.
She recalls that as she settled in to watch TV, the news cut in. "They came on and said we have a severe thunderstorm warning and it's looking bad," she said. "I went outside and looked and ... (the sky) was just absolute pitch black. It kind of looked like it was boiling."
Medina gathered a radio, flashlight and the family dog and was heading into the basement when she heard the sound of her father's helicopter coming over the trees.
"I ran out in the front yard," she said. Gilbert's Bell helicopter hovered about 100 feet over the ground. "I could clearly see him, and he was saying 'Get in the basement!' "
Like countless others that afternoon, Medina huddled in the basement, listening to her father on the radio as he tracked the massive tornado tearing through the city on a diagonal from the state fairgrounds to Oldham County.
"The power transformers have been blowing regularly in the path of this thing — big, large explosions of blue-white light that help clock it pretty well," Gilbert told listeners as the tornado moved through the Highlands, according to a transcript.
Both Gilbert and WAVE's Captain Dick Tong gave Louisvillians aerial descriptions of the storm's destruction and helped direct traffic around blocked-off roads. Gilbert's work that day earned him a commendation from then-President Richard Nixon.
"The tornado really demonstrated our reliance on radio," said Keith Runyon, a former Courier-Journal editor who was a cub reporter in 1974. "People who didn't have electricity still had transistor radios."
The tornado formed over what is now the Kentucky Exposition Center, tore off parts of Freedom Hall's roof and squashed eight out of 10 horse barns on the property, snapping their supports like toothpicks with winds of up to 250 mph.
From there, the twister crossed I-65 and continued through the Audubon Park neighborhood, destroying one wing of the Audubon Park Elementary School and ripping up trees in George Rogers Clark Park, then headed toward Eastern Parkway moving at 50 mph.
The storm hit two-thirds of the houses on Stevens Avenue before turning on the 1500 block of Bardstown Road, smashing windows and scattering cars and utility poles as it went.
Ann Teaford was looking after her four children and one of their friends at her house on Baringer Avenue. Hearing the warnings, she headed to the basement. "My youngest child was an infant and he was sleeping, so I grabbed him off the couch," she said.Her husband, Richard, arrived home from work just before the tornado hit.
The Teafords' house lost its chimney and a large part of the roof, as well as the upstairs windows. Like many residents across the city, they lost power, water and phone service for days in the wake of the storm. For years afterward, their youngest child would have trouble sleeping because of the trauma of that afternoon.
'Cherokee Park was gone'
From there, the tornado roared through Cherokee Park, destroying around 2,000 trees, many of them dating to establishment of the park 80 years earlier. Photos of twisted limbs heaped around the Daniel Boone statue at the Eastern Parkway entrance to the park later became emblematic of the storm's impact.
Touring the damage the next day in her father's helicopter, Candace Medina looked down at the park in disbelief. "Cherokee Park was gone," she recalled. "These trees are a hundred years old — they're just matchsticks laying down there."
Mayor Harvey Sloane took a similar helicopter tour, after rushing back to the city from a skiing trip in Quebec. "It was like a lawnmower had gone over it," Sloane said of the park.
After hitting the park, thetornado turned toward Crescent Hill, smashing houses on Grinstead Drive, Bayly Avenue, Birchwood Avenue, Kennedy Avenue, Crescent Court and Stiltz.
Former Alderman Allan Steinberg was on his way home from his job as a counselor at Jefferson Community College downtown. "I remember hearing on the radio the helicopter person — Dick Gilbert — saying 'I'm over Cherokee Park and I see nothing but toothpicks,'" Steinberg said. "My heart just sank."
When Steinberg reached his house on Peterson Avenue, weaving through roadblocks caused by wreckage and downed power lines, he was relieved. "The electricity was gone and my house just lost a few shingles from my roof," he said.
The tornado struck at the Louisville Water Co.'s property on Frankfort Avenue and the Crescent Hill Reservoir, inflicting major damage to the city's water supply. After the storm, there was a water shortage for 24 hours, and a boil water advisory in place due to the lack of filtration.
It leveled a wing of Chenoweth Elementary School and continued through the upscale neighborhoods across Brownsboro Road.
Indian Hills received a direct blow. Judge Smith Haynie was a teenager at the time and recalled cutting short a basketball game on Indian Hills Trail when the goal started bending in the wind. At that moment, a couple in a Mercedes came crashing through the bushes.
"This man and woman ran out of the car and yelled, 'Run to the basement!'" Haynie said.
After the storm passed, Haynie and his friends emerged from the basement. As they walked down the street, they saw the scale of the destruction. "It was Hiroshima," he said. "There was nothing left. Everything was just completely blasted."
Haynie recalled surreal sights, like a shrine to the Virgin Mary standing untouched in the yard of a house that was destroyed, and sheets of paper embedded in trees like shrapnel.
The tornado flattened the newly built Dunn Elementary School, near the Watterson Expressway.
Leigh Ann Jaggers Ackerman, who was 7, had taken the day off school to go shopping with her mother and two older sisters. Sherecalled seeing the skies "as dark as can be" from the ground floor of Stewart's department store. Driving home to Northfield and turning off Interstate 71, the family became increasingly nervous.
"It looked just like a lumber yard," Ackerman said. "It was like a bomb had gone off. It was just horrific."
Their home, on Stannye Drive, was demolished, along with many others in the neighborhood. Ackerman's mother and sisters, in shock, began sifting through the debris to find possessions. "Mom looked down and found her original engagement ring in all the rubble," she said.
As Ackerman screamed in distress, a teenaged friend of her sister's came to comfort her. "I didn't know him," she said. She still doesn't know his name. But she remembers his kindness, holding her and telling her it was all right to be frightened.
A photo of the anguished little girl ran on the front page of The Courier-Journal the next day, and summed up the shared sense of shock and loss for the entire city.
Reporter Matt Frassica can be reached on Twitter, @mattfrassica.
1974 Louisville tornado by the numbers
$110 million damages
$200 million damages*
13 states damaged
$600 million damages
*All information from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration except cost of damages in Indiana. That information is from "Engineering Aspects of the Tornadoes of April 3-4, 1974."
What: National Weather Service memorial events for survivors of the 1974 tornadoes
When: Thursday at noon in Madison, Ind.; 4 p.m. in Brandenburg, Ky.; 6 p.m. in Frankfort; 7 p.m. (central) in Bowling Green
What: Panel discussion on the 1974 tornado, with Candace Medina, Keith Runyon, former WAVE-TV meteorologist Tom Wills and former Louisville Water Co. president and CEO John Huber
When: 6 p.m. Thursday
Where: Main Library, 301 York St.
Info: www.lfpl.org/events or (502) 574-1611