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Tony's Blog: Wheelersburg Twister of 1968

Notorious Tornado Anniversary

Part I: The Meteorology

I have worked at WSAZ for 20 invigorating years now. Along the way there have been blizzards and floods, heat waves and cold snaps. Most of these big events created discomfort for us, a few have turned tragic. But none compares to the fury of an event long before I moved here.

As I piece together the weather on April 23, 1968, a rather typical spring day in the Ohio Valley was underway with strong southerly winds and rapidly warming afternoon temperatures. What was unusual about the weather that day was that the winds in the heavens above were in an especially chaotic mood.

The warmth at ground level here on earth compared with the growing chill at jet airplane altitudes above. This combination set up a highly unstable atmosphere, one that would easily support towering cumulus clouds that could grow quickly into thunderheads.

But, as is common on a spring day, the winds aloft were contorted, which is a fancy way of saying they were not only increasing with altitude, but also changing direction with height.

In a typical severe weather afternoon in the Ohio Valley in spring, the southerly wind on the ground would blow hard all the way up to 5,000. As a storm cloud bubbled up in the day's heat and ascended to the 10,000 foot level, the winds would have changed direction to the southwest and the air temperature would freeze water into ice (hail). Finally, the air which would have started out in the 70s at ground level would have chilled to near zero degrees at 20,000 feet.

This setup would have helped turn any thunderstorm into a severe hail and wind storm. And that is exactly what happened in Wheelersburg Ohio on that fateful day, April 23, 1968.

After dinner, I will detail the fury of the monster tornado that ripped thru the Burg on this the 40th anniversary of the big tornado.

Part II: The Sociology

This qoute is from Tom Swartzwelder, a kid playing ball back in 1968 near the tornado.

"We were not at home at the time. We were instead one mile east at the Little League field. I recall warming up my brother prior to his game. Everything was calm. My brother threw the ball toward home plate...suddenly tremendous and I do mean tremendous wind hit the entire area. This may seem foolish but the ball stopped in mid-air then moved sideways and away from both of us. We didn't pause to look for the ball. We simply ran for our lives to the car. Mom was in the car. She said it was terrifying watching us run as hard as we could (I was twelve at the time and my brother was 8) and yet unable to move forward because we were running into the wind. We at last made it to the car. I got in the front seat, my brother went to the rear seat. The hail came...but the roar of the wind was very loud. Tree limbs were flying everywhere. The car rocked so much we honestly thought the car might turn over. Overhead (and this was one mile from the actual tornado - our location was fairly close to the present high school) the clouds were swirling as if there was another tornado overhead. There was quite a bit of talk afterwards that perhaps there was a second or even third tornado but there apparently was no confirmation of this. When the wind subsided everyone in the parking lot was absolutely stunned. There was a dense patch of woods across the road and closer to the tornado than us. That patch had been stripped of its limbs like one often sees in a tornado. That was so far from the actual funnel cloud that it makes one wonder! "

Tom's thoughts are so vivid it's as though the storm hit today. This magnifies the premise that weather is only part meteorology with the other part sociology. In other words, tornadoes are about people and how their everyday lives can be altered forever in a matter of minutes.

As I walked back from dinner on a pleasant April evening I thought to myself how fortunate we have been to avoid the killer twisters in our region thru the years. Since April thru August is tornado season here, we can only hope that our region is again spared of the monster tornadoes.

By the way, Tom speculated in his complete e-mail that mulitple tornadoes may have occured that fateful day in 1968. My research suggests there were as many as 14 twisters from Kentucky into Ohio and north to Michigan. Since the big tornadoes are known to be part of families of twisters and can spawn smaller funnels on their flanks, I do not doubt that several smaller twisters hopscochted thru southern oHIO 40 YEARS AGO TODAY.


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