This weekend features the stuff of June dreams…bright skies and warm temperatures. But sixty-five years ago, it was more of a nightmare. One of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history roared through an unlikely spot – Worcester, Massachusetts. It remains one of the most costly and deadly twisters in American history.
What came together on June 9th, 1953? The surface analysis for the day featured a warm front crossing the area, which is often a focus for rotating storms. Veering wind profiles are often found in the vicinity of warm fronts for extra wind shear, a key tornado ingredient. Increasing warmth and humidity streamed in from the south. And an upper-level trough was digging in to the Northeast. We can probably infer, given the large ridge over the central U.S. at the time and the resulting storms here in southern New England, that there was an EML (elevated mixed layer) in place that day as well. EMLs tend to bring about some of our most vicious supercell storms as they promote rapidly rising air.
Images courtesy: Eleanor Vallier Talbot – NWS Boston
The first tornado warning in U.S. history had been made just a few years previous in Oklahoma, at Tinker Air Force Base. Forecasting severe storms was a budding science in its infancy. But forecasters at the Weather Bureau in Boston knew by looking at the information at hand that a day of wicked weather was in the works. By late morning of the 9th, they issued the first ever ‘Severe Thunderstorm Warning’ in New England. Keep in mind there were no weather satellites at the time and generally crude tools to track these storms. Even without today’s technology, they did an excellent job of figuring out what was coming and raising the alarm.
Image courtesy: Eleanor Vallier Talbot – NWS Boston
Above is what an radar image in 1953 looked like. MIT happened to have a research radar in the area and the Worcester tornado was just the 4th ever spotted using radar technology. Not exactly the stuff we now get to show you on TV, or even remotely close to the quality you can get on your cell phone! It’s really amazing to think about how far the technology has come, and how many lives are now saved by early warning. Even with this rudimentary radar, the telltale hook echo is clearly spotted in Holden, MA.
Image courtesy: http://nesec.org/
Tracks of two tornadoes on June 9th, 1953
The F4 tornado touched down in Petersham and didn’t lift again for almost an hour and a half. As debris started to rain down in the Boston area, a ‘tornado warning’ was issued for the evening. That debris eventually fell out as far as Cape Cod over 100 miles away! The full track raged for 46 miles across central Massachusetts damaging or destroying 4,000 buildings. At the time, it was the single costliest tornado in American history.
Aside from the tornado itself, the same storm produced absolutely massive hail for this part of the country – up to baseball sized! Depending on where you look, the final death toll ranges from 90 to 100 souls. It’s sobering to think that with all the tornadoes that strike other parts of the country much more frequently than New England, this storm remains one of the deadliest on record. The Storm Prediction Center officially lists the death toll at 90, which stands as the 22nd deadliest in the U.S.