Rubble on Trumbull Street in Xenia after 1974 tornado hit (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)
Ohio Life

The Fury and Aftermath of the 1974 Xenia Tornado

In April 1974, a tornado that was part of a string of deadly storms ripped through the Ohio community of Xenia. It left a trail of destruction that is still remembered in and associated with the city to this day.

It was raining hard when Billie Cummings started her shift at the front desk at the Greene County Library in Xenia at 4 p.m. April 3, 1974. She called her husband Marv around 4:30 p.m. to have him pick up their son Brian at preschool as she was afraid the storm might scare him. Not long afterward, a man came rushing into the library warning of a tornado.

“He was so scared and panic-stricken … I just took his word for it,” she recalled in a personal account written for the library.

Library staff herded people into the basement when Cummings checked the children’s reading room and found two little girls, blissfully unaware. She quickly took them downstairs and ran for shelter. The sound started like a swarm of bees, she recalled, before becoming a deafening roar comparable to a freight train. With the rest of the people crowded into the library basement, she recalled hearing glass breaking and items crashing above her. 

The tornado raging overhead was one of 148 that struck a total of 13 states in what was later termed a “super outbreak” of tornadoes. It remains one of the worst tornado outbreaks in history and included six tornadoes rated F5 — the most devastating — on the Fujita scale. One of those F5 tornadoes hit Xenia, decimating the town and leading to a tragic loss of  life and property.

What had seemed like an eternity to Cummings as she waited out the tornadoes in the Greene County Library basement was over in just moments. She tried to break the tension, asking if anyone knew any good tornado jokes. Everyone went upstairs, and she opened the door to look at the damage.
      Aerial view of Xenia after the tornado struck in 1974 (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

Xenia was declared a national disaster area after the tornado struck. (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

“It seemed the whole world had been broken by an angry child having a temper tantrum,” she wrote.

As the calendar turned from March to April in 1974, President Richard Nixon was fighting for his political life after a grand jury named him as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Watergate break-in, “The Sting” won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and baseball teams were getting ready to play, with the Atlanta Braves’ Hank Aaron opening his season in Cincinnati, just one home run away from tying Babe Ruth’s career record of 714.

And on April 2, a cold front came south from Canada toward the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. At the same time, a warm front was coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Atop both was a jet stream with winds estimated at 140 knots. Circumstances were ripe for tornadoes, which are typically caused when warm air is trapped under a cold front — the hot air raises and  the cold air settles.

It was a different era for weather research. Radar was more limited and less utilized. Still, meteorologists of the time saw enough to be concerned and issued dozens of weather watches and warnings — including nearly 150 tornado warnings — throughout the Midwest.

The first tornado briefly touched down in Indiana the morning of April 3. At 3 p.m. local time, tornadoes hit Bradley County, Tennessee, and Gilmer County, Georgia. About 10 minutes later, tornadoes were spotted 450 miles away in Illinois. A little after that, another was seen in Indiana. At one point, at least 15 tornadoes were moving simultaneously across the Hoosier State.

Around 4:30 p.m., three tornadoes formed into one super twister, more than half a mile wide in the sky above southwest Ohio. It touched down approximately 50 miles southwest of Columbus, near Bellbrook, and headed straight for Xenia, part of an area that the Shawnee who lived there generations earlier referred to as the land of the devil winds.
      Destruction of Xenia Kroger after the 1974 tornado hit (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

Churches were reduced to rubble. A semi-trailer was found on the roof of a local bowling alley, and the tornado had picked up school buses and dropped them onto the high school. A Kroger (pictured above) was completely destroyed. (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

The twister was traveling at a rate of 50 mph. (It was estimated that the wind inside the tornado was moving at 318 mph, one of the fastest speeds ever recorded.) It leveled a 300-home development on the outskirts of town and then cut a path of destruction as it traveled northwest through the city, moving into Clark County, before lifting and touching down again around South Charleston before dissipating.

The tornado had blown through town in about nine minutes, but the damage it left was momentous, estimated at the time to be $100 million — more than $600 million today.

“Conservatively speaking,” police chief Roy Jordan remarked, “I’d say Xenia is about 50 percent leveled.”

A total of 33 people were killed in the storm, and two National Guardsmen died in a fire at a furniture store during the cleanup three days later. The stories were tragic: An A&W Root Beer stand was flattened in the storm, killing five. A woman giving birth died in the storm, her newborn fighting for its life. The first funeral held for a tornado victim was for Irene Pagett, who died while doing volunteer work at the town’s cancer center.

Her home had been untouched by the storm. A temporary morgue was set up, and in the first 24 hours, more than 21 bodies were processed.

Car buried under pile of bricks at corner of Greene and Main streets after the 1974 Xenia tornado (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

A car is buried under a pile of bricks at the corner of Greene and Main streets in the aftermath of the storm. (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

Churches were reduced to rubble. A semi-trailer was found on the roof of a local bowling alley, and the tornado had picked up school buses and dropped them onto the high school. (City leaders noted the tornado struck after school hours; had children been in school, the casualties could have been even greater, as a total of seven of the city’s 12 public schools had been hit.)

Two historically Black colleges in nearby Wilberforce, Central State and Wilberforce universities, also sustained heavy damage. The city’s newspaper, The Xenia Daily Gazette, had to print at its sister paper in Middletown after the storm ripped the roof of its building off.

“Gazette’s [a] little late,” a headline said in the next day’s edition, a masterful understatement. (The paper would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage in the tornado’s aftermath.)

The stools at the front of a local doughnut shop still stood, but the building itself was gone, ripped off its moorings by the tornado. Canceled checks from Xenia banks picked up by the tornado were found as far away as the northeast Ohio communities of Chagrin Falls and Richfield. Veterans of World War II and Vietnam likened the destruction to a bombing.

But the city and its residents soldiered on. Xenia billed itself as the City of Hospitality (in fact, the Greek word Xenia literally translates to hospitality), and stories soon emerged of friends and neighbors helping one another. Restaurants that had survived opened their doors to the workers digging people out of the rubble and cleaning up the damage, offering them food and drinks, and National Guardsmen distributed Easter baskets.
      People walking through Xenia following the 1974 tornado (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

The American Red Cross, as well as several hundred Ohio National Guard troops, moved into Xenia for several weeks to assist with the rescue and clean up. (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

Gov. John Gilligan visited the site within hours of the tornado, pledging immediate state assistance to the cleanup and recovery. The day after, Vice President Gerald Ford, who had been in Cincinnati to watch Aaron and the Braves take on the Reds, flew over the area.

“The destruction, the devastation is unbelievable,” Ford said. 

The following week, President Richard Nixon visited the area. He flew into Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton and surveyed Xenia from a helicopter before driving into town and meeting with residents. The damage shocked him.

“They raised my spirits.” Nixon said of the people of Xenia. “This is the worst devastation I’ve seen in a small area, and I’ve seen the earthquake in Anchorage [Alaska], the devastation of hurricane Camille and hurricane Agnes in Pennsylvania.”

Nixon promised to cut through federal red tape to bring aid to Xenia as well as the other states cleaning up damage. The wave of tornadoes led to wholesale changes in meteorology as well. There are now more than twice as many National Weather Service stations keeping an eye on conditions, and the federal government upgraded its warning system, using Doppler radar, which was in its testing phase when the tornadoes hit. The federal government also adopted the Fujita scale, standardizing measurement of tornadoes based on wind speed, from F0 to the most severe, F5. (Scientists considered categorizing the Xenia tornado as an F6, literally off the chart.)
      Damage from the 1974 Xenia tornado on a neighborhood street (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

Three tornadoes formed into one super twister, more than half a mile wide in the sky above southwest Ohio, creating a path of destruction that has never been forgotten in this part of Ohio. (photo courtesy of Greene County Public Library)

A sports fan, Nixon compared the resilience of Xenia to Hank Aaron, who’d hit his record-breaking 715th home run the night before his visit.

“The spirit of the city is great,” he said while visiting Xenia. “It will come back.”

It was already on its way. The day after Nixon’s visit, the gong in the clock tower rang at 5 p.m. — the first time it had worked since the tornado struck.

Within weeks of the tornado, bumper stickers started to appear around town, reading simply, “Xenia lives.” The town rebuilt, slowly and in some instances unevenly (some African American residents, as well as Wilberforce and Central State universities, said they didn’t see recovery efforts like those present in other parts of town). Chainsaws roared as felled trees and utility poles were cut up. Buildings beyond saving were torn down and ultimately replaced.

“The rubble has been hauled away and so much is gone now,” Cummings wrote in her account for the Greene County Library. “A great emptiness is left in the wide-open spaces. Still, Xenia does live and will go on living for the future; not grieve for the past.”