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April 3, 1974 dawned bright and brilliant but by mid-morning it was clear this was not a typical April day. The heat had intensified and the breeze that ruffled the newly greening grass was hot and oppressive. The residents of Madison went about their daily routine, not yet suspecting the face of Madison would, from this day forward, be forever changed.
Children came home from school and mothers began to think about the evening meal but news spread quickly through neighborhoods that bad weather had been reported in counties east of Jefferson so some people switched on TV’s and radios to catch the weather reports. An unease began to overcome the area when it was reported several tornados had surfaced and that the whole area was under the threat of severe weather.
As the afternoon evolved, passing clouds intermittently obscured the sun and they had begun to consolidate and turn darker. Soon they became more agitated and angry looking. Like water heated in a blackened pot, they began to boil and churn and their color changed to an eerie yellow-green, like a fading bruise in the sky.
A word caught in the air, Hanover—a tornado in Hanover! Now precautions began in earnest. A window was opened, that was right, wasn’t it? Blankets and hallways, interior of the house, right? Where was that kid, anyway? The once distant sound of thunder now became more pronounced and jagged streaks of white heat shot out of the sky.
The storm marched ominously forward, releasing a downpour as it advanced. The last cloud-watchers sought shelter, and luckily so, because then came the hail. Great chunks of ice tumbled from the heavens, smashing glass and pounding on roofs as if demanding entrance. The thump, thump of the hailstones and the incessant staccato of the rain made the eerie silence that followed all the more menacing. It was an insidious, terrifying quiet and now darkness enveloped the area.
Then, slowly, the very earth began to shudder as it absorbed the storm and now a sound, heard of but never experienced, and incomprehensible until experienced took hold. All at one time it was deep and low while still it was shrieking, whining and screaming with such intensity as was barely credible. It was a cacophony that contained within it all the sorrow, terror and savage rage of the world. It bore down on a helpless community, tearing homes from their foundations and tumbling cars like Tonka Toys. It ripped great trees from the earth, much as a gardener pulling weeds, and tossed them aside. Electric wires briefly illuminated the gloom and cracked like whips in the thick air and then, calm and quietness descended. Behind the lingering clouds was clear delineation between storm and serenity. The skies brightened and the rain ceased. Stunned and awed people emerged to witness a landscape they did not recognize. Where the storm had touched the earth, devastation was complete.
The next day, and for many days after that, people tried to piece together what happened. One of the first tornados in the area struck Hanover and dealt it a devastating blow. The high school was badly damaged, so badly the school year could not be completed, and the subdivision across the road from it was gone. Cement slabs and a few pipes protruding through them were silent witness to the ferocity of the storm. Hanover campus was a wasteland of twisted trees and damaged buildings. Rubble and shards lay everywhere. The swath cut through the western part of the county was just the beginning.
The IKE plant was the next victim. After the winds left there the area looked as if a perverse child had stomped on an erector set. Metal and machinery was now twisted and smashed beyond recognition.
Into Clifty Falls State Park marched the behemoth. Like the monster in a science fiction movie, it up-rooted great trees and flung them down, smashing and crushing everything below. The wonderful old lodge would need to be rebuilt and it would be years before the park would recover.
The State Hospital was next and then Madison was in the crosshairs, vulnerable and helpless, it waited. Four more schools were in its path. Damage to schools alone would total nearly three million dollars. More homes and buildings were erased from the map. Some said the aftermath looked like a war zone but even that does not describe the total destruction in some areas. Wounded and bleeding much of the town now lay dark and silent.
Madison was not alone in her misery. One hundred forty-eight tornadoes struck thirteen states in a 24 hour period killing over 300 people, causing unparalleled property damage and the disruption of thousands of lives. Ten people in Jefferson County alone were killed.
People rebuilt and moved on, they had to, but no one who witnessed “the day of the killer storms” will ever forget.
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The library wishes to thank the Community Foundation of Madison and Jefferson County for making this website possible!
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