Moment of Indiana History

Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak

Nearly 50 tornadoes cut a swath from Iowa to Ohio, leaving 271 people dead and more than 3400 injured. In Indiana alone, the death toll was 137, 1700 injured.

“It was dark–deathly dark — there was the terrible roar, there was the initial tinkle of glass as thousands of windows broke, there was an almost explosive sound as the air rushed in and out the windows, there was a ripping and tearing sound as the air rushed out of the windows, there was about a minute of the most awful sounds one can imagine. The time was now 7:29 and the roar was getting to be less and less, the noises had stopped and there was an almost visible silence. The time was 7:30, Russiaville [pronounced: ROOSH-a-vil] was gone.”

The Kokomo Morning Times printed that account of the 1965 Palm Sunday Tornado on April 12, the day after the deadliest tornado outbreak in Indiana ‘s history wreaked its trail of devastation. A system of nearly 50 tornadoes cutting a 450-mile-wide swath from Iowa to eastern Ohio left 271 people dead and more than 3400 injured in its wake. In central and northern Indiana alone, the death toll came to 137, with 1700 injured and 30 million dollars in property damage incurred. Ninety percent of all buildings in the town of Russiaville were damaged. The double-funnel documented in the well-known photograph by an Elkhart Truth reporter took 33 lives in the Midway Trailer Court alone.

Positioned between the Great Plains and the southeastern United States, Indiana occupies a prime spot along Tornado Alley, where climate and topography conspire to produce most of the country’s tornadoes from March through June. The southwestern corner of the state was not exempted from the ravages of the Tri-State Tornado of 1925, in which almost 700 lives were lost nationwide. Though no tornado in American history exacted a higher death toll than the 1925 event, the so-called “Super Outbreak” of April 1974 can be considered the twentieth century’s most destructive tornado system. In Indiana alone, 47 people died as a result of some twenty-one tornadoes that swept through 39 counties. The Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak of 1965 caused a record number of deaths in Indiana , but was also notable for having brought about a sea-change in the weather-related emergency notification system. Although radar was able to pick up the characteristic hook-echo pattern characteristic of a tornado in this instance, there was a failure to get the message out. The difference between a forecast and an alert was not clear to the public. As such, the National Weather Service introduced the distinction between a watch– meaning conditions are conducive for a tornado to develop — and a warning –meaning a tornado is imminent.

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