MOUNT VERNON -- A recent spate of tornadoes in Ohio may serve to remind us that April is the most dangerous month for twisters in the United States.
April traditionally has the most of these violent storms, but Knox County has seen a number of tornadoes over the years in all seasons.
The earliest documented local storm took place in the summer of 1806, according to A. Banning Norton's early history of the county.
According to Norton, “It came up very suddenly and was very violent. It tore roofs off all the houses, killed most of the stock running about, and tore down all the large white oak trees that were on Ben(jamin Butler]'s 36-acre tract, as also many trees on (Capt. Joseph) Walker's land.
"In its course, it took in Andy Craig's old stand on Center Run. Ben had nine head of horses. As the storm came up, they attempted to run out of its way; two of them were killed. One of the horses ran all the way to Craig's, and jumped into his garden patch. Its skin was torn and flesh scratched in many places by limbs of trees hurled against it by the storm as it ran to get out of its reach.”
A tornado hit Brandon Jan. 20, 1854, according to Frederick Lorey's county history. In addition to leveling numerous homes, a church, and a school, the storm picked up a single sack of grain from one farm in Brandon and dropped it in Danville, over 20 miles away, an example of the strange power of these storms to do extraordinary things.
Commenting on this storm a month later, however, an article in the Perrysburg Journal said that the tornado was moderate compared to the “Great Tornado of 1828,” which was half a mile wide and was said to have wreaked such destruction on Knox County's forests, that traces of the 1828 storm were still plainly visible in 1854.
That monster touched down in Delaware County and cut across Knox, ending in Coshocton County, proving that even the hilly eastern parts of the county are not immune from tornadoes, even if they've gotten fewer of them over the years than the flatter western end of the county.
In May of 1883, according to a notice in the Dayton Herald, Mount Vernon reported a storm that produced whopping five-inch hailstones, suggesting an extremely violent storm. Remarkably, no tornado descended from the storm.
Some people in Fredericktown were injured from “eight to 10-ounce” hailstones from the same storm.
On Nov. 22, 1900, a tornado dropped in Delaware County near Sunbury, hopped up to Licking County, where it destroyed many buildings at the Hartford Fairgrounds, then played out in Knox County, doing an estimated $20,000 in damages along the way.
Damages were done to the First Baptist Church (steeple blown off), the C. & G. Cooper Company (a wall blown in), and the B. & O. Railroad water station (unroofed), as well as hundreds of trees being uprooted during a severe storm in early July 1914. No tornado was sighted, however, according to the report in the Fulton County Tribune and it was thought that the damages may have been due to a particularly strong gust front.
A small tornado ripped through the center of Centerburg on June 11, 1957. Fire Chief Robert Whited was quoted in the The Salem News as saying the tornado was “long and slender,” which suggests a tornado near the end of its life “roping out” as it nears dissolution. Such storms are still dangerous, though, as Centerburg discovered.
According to Chief Whited, it hit town around 4:20 p.m., and did substantial damage to a two-block wide area going from the Burrer Mill (partially destroyed) to the Knights of Pythias hall (damaged), and other downtown buildings and residential garages.
Typically for an Ohio tornado, it entered town on the southwest side and exited on the northeast side. Knox County suffered a flurry of tornado activity in the early 1980s, with a tornado on April 1, 1981, in Mount Vernon, followed just over a month later by a tornado near North Liberty.
Fortunately, neither of those twisters did major damage.
On March 31 the following year, an interesting situation arose. It was tornado alert awareness day across the state of Ohio, so the schools in Mount Vernon participated in a state-wide tornado drill at 10:10 that morning. To everyone's surprise, the real thing showed up less than three hours later.
Tommy Garrett of the National Weather Service station at Mansfield's Lahm Airport told the Mansfield News Journal that the storm was exactly the sort he and his colleagues most dreaded. It was classified as a severe thunderstorm, and a warning to that effect was released. But severe storms at the time were ranked by the NWS on a 1 to 9 scale of severity.
Garrett said that tornadoes usually come from storms ranked 6 or higher on that scale. The Mount Vernon storm was ranked at 3, unlikely to be tornadic.
The storm paid no attention to its rating, dropping a tornado with winds around 120 miles per hour (an F-2 tornado on the modern Fujita scale that ranks tornadoes from F-1 to F-5). The tornado was about four blocks wide, and was on the ground for three-quarters of a mile. The tornado hit so quickly and so unexpectedly, no alerts were issued, and Mount Vernon's tornado sirens never went off.
The storm passed between Mount Vernon High School and the Joint Vocational School, doing only minor damage in the buildings where students didn't even have a chance to take cover before it was over.
The tornado injured seven people, destroyed four houses, damaged at least nine more, and did over $300,000 in damages.
It shook up the forecasters.
“We can handle those big storms,” Garrett said. “It's those small ones that worry us.”
Many others were shook up when another F-2 tornado touched down north of Fredericktown just three days later, flipping two mobile homes and injuring six.
Forecast implementation became a public argument in 1990 when Knox County Sheriff Paul Rowe took exception when Dewey Peters of the NWS office in Mansfield questioned why they weren't informed by the Knox County officials when a tornado dropped on July 9, 1990, north of Fredericktown, according to another News Journal article.
Rowe was upset that he had received no warning about the tornado from the NWS, and Peters was upset that the county officials neither told him about the tornado nor sounded their sirens.
Mount Vernon/Knox County Emergency Service director at the time, Dale Butler, said it was a matter of timing.
“After the sheriff's dispatcher notified me, it was about 20 minutes after the touchdown,” Butler said. “She asked me if I wanted her to set off the tones... I told her no, I felt that it was too late. I guess in retrospect we should have set the sirens off.”
Both forecasting technology and emergency planning procedures have grown since then, but with only a handful of small tornadoes in the last few decades, the county has also been lucky. If Knox County ever has to face another storm on the scale of the Great Tornado of 1828, the effects could be far more devastating now than it was when the area was only sparsely populated.