How the “Day of a hundred tornadoes” Changed the Face of the Louisville District’s Emergency Management Mission

Fifty years ago today, April 3, 1974, 148 tornadoes ravaged 13 states in the South, Ohio Valley and Great Lakes.

At the time, it was the largest outbreak of tornadoes within 24-hours and continues to hold the record for the most violent outbreak, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their records indicate that Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama were especially hard hit, resulting in 200 of the 335 total fatalities from the storms.

NOAA notes that the event brought about advancements and increased funding for meteorological equipment and techniques and led to the Modernization and Associated Restructuring of the National Weather Service.

The day became known as the “Day of a Hundred Tornadoes” and has also had a lasting impact on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Emergency Management mission.

Prior to 1972, emergency operations within the district had consisted chiefly of responses to flood situations, as stated in The Falls City Engineers History Book 1970-1983.

Upon being called upon to assist with the recovery efforts in April 1974, the district established field sites, equipped with experts from a variety of disciplines, including engineering, contracting and real estate to assist with debris removal and demolition.

George Minges and Matt Hagewood, Louisville District, oversee debris removal operations on Cardinal Lane in Mayfield, Kentucky Jan. 4, 2022. USACE PHOTO BY KATELYN NEWTON

Debris removal assignments for the district came at the hard-hit communities of Monticello, Madison and Hanover, Indiana, and Xenia and Butler County, Ohio, according to The Falls City Engineers History Book 1970-1983.

Today, when disasters occur, USACE works under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to support state and local governments in responding to major disasters. In cases where the damage and debris are so extensive that it exceeds local and state capabilities, FEMA can assign USACE a mission to provide debris management assistance.

The Louisville District is home to one of seven Debris Planning and Response Teams across USACE, supporting national removal efforts.

“These events can be a no-notice tornado that you may have to respond to within hours, a well-known frequent flood area, or the Debris PRT is called to respond anywhere in the United States to a hurricane strike,” said Bob Burick, Emergency Operations Manager. “You just never know where the next event may occur.”

For example, the Louisville District debris team has deployed personnel to respond to 16 disasters in the last 5 years. Most notably, the Louisville District performed a 7 month clean up following the historic and devastating tornado in Mayfield, Kentucky in 2021 and provided debris technical assistance and monitoring across 13 counties in Western Kentucky.

Disasters can happen any time and any place. However, when they aren’t occurring the four base Emergency Management personnel still stay busy.

“When the Emergency Management office is not actively responding to disasters, we prepare and train throughout the year,” said George Minges, Chief of Emergency Management. “We execute multiple trainings every year for different teams and local government stakeholders to ensure that the proper people and entities are prepared.”

The district’s Emergency Management office is responsible for creating and updating emergency response plans so that execution can start immediately when disasters strike.

“The first step is at the recommendation of the emergency manager, the Commander signs a disaster declaration. This gives us the authority to request funding and activate the Emergency Operations Center, which then becomes the command and control center for the event,” said Minges. “Next, we pull one of our many plans off the shelf and determine the appropriate courses of action to include: what stakeholders do we need to engage with, determine necessary materials and resources to request, and what team members we need to activate to proportionately respond to the event in order to reduce loss of life and limit damage to improved property.”

“Although the “Day of a Hundred Tornadoes” was 50 years ago it has had a significant impact on emergency management response efforts,” said Minges. “Without it, our district’s emergency management would likely look very different, and we might not be as equipped to prepare for and respond to disasters.”

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