You think yesterday’s tornado was bad? Shoulda been here 37 years ago! [The Arena]

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Yesterday’s spate of bad weather was certainly a frightening experience for folks here in Derby City, and we are all thankful that there were no deaths or injuries, and the horses staying at Churchill Downs were unharmed.  Animal lovers braved the elements to rush out to the Metro Animal Services shelter to make sure all our little furry friends were safe.  All in all, Louisvillians took the little F1 tornado in stride.

But we old-timers couldn’t help but harken back to that terrible day—April 3, 1974—when Louisville was hit by a monster F4 twister.  I remember it like it was yesterday:

I was working at my desk on the third floor of City Hall, as deputy director of the city’s Department of Building & Housing Inspection.  One of our inspectors came running in and announced that Dick Gilbert, in the WHAS traffic ‘copter, was on the air describing a funnel cloud which had just taken off part of the roof of Freedom Hall, at the fairgrounds.

Most of our 50 or so inspectors had already returned to the office that Spring afternoon, to fill out their reports.  It was Good Friday, and they were anxious to get home for the start of the Easter weekend.

Before we could even find a radio to check on the news, the phones started ringing in unison, with horror tales of streets blocked with trees and utility lines, houses off foundations with missing roofs, and reports of general carnage.  Someone said “Cherokee Park is gone!”  “That’s silly,” I remember thinking, “How could a whole park be gone?”  “Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore!”

With no real sense of organization, we started sending inspectors back out into the field to survey the damage.  A hurriedly photocopied checklist (wires down?  roof missing?  gas leaks?  injury?  death?) was distributed to our inspectors who, armed only with clipboards and flashlights (no cellphones, computers, or radios), went out in the community to see what was needed.

Without being asked, City Hall personnel started chipping in.  My wife left her desk in the Finance Department and manned a telephone in the old Civil Defense communication center in the basement.  Cops and firemen (we still called them “firemen” back then) spread out to give emergency assistance.  Works Department crews manned trucks, bucket loaders, and anything that moved.  Lots of City workers pulled a 24-hour shift that day, without stopping to rest.

I got one of our inspectors to commandeer a truck from Works and sent him to the downtown Sears store.  On City letterhead, I wrote:  “No time for purchase order, please give us all your chainsaws.  Send me the bill & I’ll see that it gets paid,” and signed it.  The people at Sears gave us 4 dozen chainsaws, complete with gas cans and oil.  A gas station donated the fuel, and our inspectors handed out the saws around the Highlands, to any able-bodied person who said he could use one.

Sears could have charged us anything they wanted to.  They only charged retail, and forgot the sales tax.  We could have refused to pay (we skipped the bidding process, and I had absolutely no legal authority to promise the City would pay).  The bill was paid shortly after it arrived; no questions asked.

The chainsaws?  We never got ‘em back.  Never asked for ‘em back.  Don’t know who we gave ‘em to.  But for several hours on April 3, 1974, we were all members of one big family, looking out for one another.

The twister evidently formed over Standiford Field Airport, touched down at The Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, and destroyed the majority of the horse barns and part of Freedom Hall, before it crossed Interstate 65, scattering several vehicles on the expressway. The tornado continued its 22-mile journey northeast where it demolished most of Audubon Elementary School and smashed into the neighborhoods of Audubon, Cherokee Triangle, Cherokee-Seneca, Crescent Hill, Indian Hills, Northfield, Rolling Hills, and Tyler Park. The tornado ended near the junction of Interstates 264 and 71 after killing two people, injuring 207 people, destroying over 900 homes, and damaging thousands of others. Cherokee Park, had thousands of mature trees destroyed.  It wasn’t really “gone” after all; just busted up.

northfield.jpg

Tornado damage in the Louisville suburb of Northfield, on April 3, 1974.  Photo taken by Russ Conger, of the National Weather Service office in Louisville.

We later learned that “The Super Outbreak,” as it was called, was the largest tornado outbreak on record for a single 24-hour period. From April 3 to April 4, 1974, there were 148 tornadoes confirmed in 13 US states. It extensively damaged approximately 900 square miles along a total combined path length of 2,600 miles.  By the time, the Super Outbreak ended in the morning of April 4, 1974, 335 people were killed and 5484 were injured. Damages were estimated at 250-275 million dollars.

Later, I would be involved in responding to other local disasters, including the chlorine barge which got stuck on the dam, and the Standard Gravure shootings, but April 3, 1974 was the day when I learned how folks in Louisville respond to calamity.  My father told me it was the same during the 1937 flood.  Louisville folks pitch in, roll up their sleeves, and take care of one another.  We’re not just neighbors, we’re family.

Finally, I need to say a word about the much-maligned City workers.  Back in 1974, no municipal employees deserted their posts.  No one asked to be paid overtime (or even to be paid at all for working a couple of extra shifts).  No one was really ever in charge; people just saw what was needed, and got it done.

Sure, we had a Mayor back then:  a new kid named Harvey Sloane, in office a little over 90 days when the tornado hit.  Later, when the sewers on Hill Street blew up, he remarked that he sometimes felt cursed.  On Good Friday, 1974, Harvey was running around City Hall trying to lend a hand, but generally just getting in everyone’s way, when someone reminded him that, as a physician, he should be on the front lines.  And that’s just what he did:  helping with emergency injuries at General Hospital.

So, here I am, thinking of how proud I was back then of the wonderful spirit of City employees, and feeling a little guilty about complaining when the snow doesn’t get scraped off the streets immediately, or when the storm debris doesn’t get picked up promptly.

Right now, I feel like thanking all of the unsung City workers who pick up our garbage, put out our fires, fix our roads, cut the grass in our parks, catch the drunk drivers, and do a thousand and one other unseen things every day to make Louisville such a great place to live.

“Possibility City?”  Nah.  We did all that “possible” stuff years ago.  We even did a lot of the “im-possible” jobs too.

Learn more:  Wikipedia article on the Super Outbreak

Watch this:  Day of the Killer Tornadoes

Read more:  Transcript of Dick Gilbert’s broadcast

WHAS RADIO APRIL 3, 1974:

About Thomas McAdam
At various times I have been a student, a soldier, a college Political Science teacher, a political campaign treasurer, and legal adviser to Louisville's Police Department and Board of Aldermen. I now practice law and share my political opinions with anyone who will listen.
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