1974 Tornado Outbreak: How Technology Has Changed

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — Forty years ago today, the landscape of the Tennessee Valley and surrounding areas was forever changed. A deadly tornado outbreak took the lives of 335 people in 13 states, 86 of those deaths happened here in Alabama. Four decades later, the technology used to track severe weather has improved greatly. Advances in weather predicting services are saving lives that may not have been spared decades ago.

“The National Weather Service forecasters did predict that overall this would be a weather active and severe weather day,” said Tim Troutman, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

Troutman says April 3rd, 1974 was a day forecasters and meteorologists saw coming. However, they didn’t know how devastating it would be. He said they did the best they could with the technology they had. “A lot of these storms were moving at an excess of 70 miles per hour that it made it very difficult to keep track and keep up with the pace.’

Troutman has been studying the 1974 Super Outbreak for the last 9 months. He told WHNT News 19 that after that deadly tornado outbreak, the game changed. He said there was a lot of confusion the day those storms hit our area.

“During that event, from audio tape we have been able to retrieve from some of the local radio stations, there was that unknown factor back then.” He said. “They were wondering if there will be more tornadoes that form? Will there be further damage that could occur?”

Luckily for us, a lot of those problems are alleviated now due to improvements in radar, satellites, and even mass communications. “The warning technology at the time in the near term when they were issuing the warnings is just nowhere near the level that it is today,” said Troutman.

Warning lead times in the mid 1970’s ranged from 2 to 4 minutes, according to Troutman. He said now, the public knows a storm is heading their way on average 14 minutes prior to the severe weather hitting their area.