1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak: Some Thoughts

There is something about historic tornadoes that, for me at least, sets them apart emotionally. Perhaps it's the black-and-white photos, which give their subjects an eerie, otherworldly appearance. Perhaps it's the thought of what it is that makes the storms historic. People died--lots of people. Then again, part of it may lie in knowing that some of these events played out in my own regional backyard. The 1974 Superoutbreak occurred the year I graduated from high school, and I remember seeing a woodlot of splintered treetops as I was hitchhiking past Monticello, Indiana.

And then there were the Palm Sunday tornadoes of April 11, 1965....

The Palm Sunday event has had a strange hold on me since my childhood. Living in Niles, Michigan, the tornadoes bypassed our area, but not by much. I remember a hot, windy day...relatives visiting from Chicago...tornado warnings on the television...the South Bend Tribune and Niles Daily Star filled with news the next day of the disaster...and, on a drive into the Elkhart, Indiana, area a few days later, a scene of devastation that left a lasting impression on my eight-year-old mind.

Yesterday I revisited the small community of Dunlap, just south of Elkhart, where two tornadoes, roughly an hour apart, claimed nearly fifty lives. It was halfway between here and nearby Goshen that Elkhart Truth staff photographer Paul Huffman stopped his car alongside U.S. 33 and snapped a series of photos as the first tornado swept across the fields and into the Midway trailer park. One of those images, depicting twin funnels straddling the highway, became an icon of the outbreak and remains one of the most vivid and horrifying tornado photographs ever taken.

As Huffman joined in rescue operations, another storm moved in from the west, and an even larger, more powerful tornado swept directly through Dunlap, wreaking F5 damage in the Sunnyside division.

Driving through Dunlap yesterday, I had a haunting sensation of two realities--of the past superimposed on the present; of the community as it stands in 2004, going about its business under the bright August sun, mercifully heedless of what transpired there on that long-ago Sunday evening.

Huffman's photos depict a rural setting--a white two-story farmhouse in the foreground, railroad tracks to the right paralleling the road, and open fields. Today, U.S. 33 is developed. Businesses, shopping centers, and auto dealerships line the road from Dunlap to Goshen, and as I write, bulldozers are shoving dirt around where the Midway trailer court once stood. I don't know what's going in at the site. More businesses? New homes? Whatever is planned, it will sit on top of land with a story to tell.

After my visit to Dunlap, I headed to the Mishawaka Penn-Harris Library to research the tornadoes. I will probably continue to make such visits. I have the crazy notion that if I do enough legwork, I may write a book. We'll see. It's one thing to talk about it and another to do it, and so many of my great ideas remain nothing more than great ideas. Still, the ones I actually pursue have a way of turning out. The resources are certainly available. The Palm Sunday event is remarkably well documented. And there are memories, many memories, and stories that have been told and retold, and perhaps, after all these years, tears that are still close to the surface. Area natives in their late forties and older haven't forgotten that day nearly four decades ago when the great winds came calling.
 
palm sunday is the outbreak i most often research or talk about in weather related conversations. One big reason is because it effected a large part of michigan. A second reason is because i think it is more of a forgotten outbreak. When you watch TV, surf websites, etc. Most often you find bits on the 4-3-74, 5-3-99, or some other modern day outbreak. Watch the history channel's warth of god series and you see 4-3-74, 8-8 and 8-9 1953 but nothing about palm sunday. That for some reason makes me want to learn more and more about that outbreak.
 
I also remembered that day in Grand Rapids - we all ran into the basement and waited - it hit Comstock park pretty hard - recently found a couple web sites that had some pics of it too that were interesting - search engine for "palm sunday tornado 1965"
 
I think the region is over-due for a "Palm Sunday"-style outbreak. The last "big" outbreak of supercellular tornadoes to hit MI was on July 2 1997, which the strongest tornado was an F3, while the majority were weak.
 
Bill, do you still live in Grand Rapids? What an experience! The Comstock tornado is kind of a natural for me to look into, and I'll bet our library has plenty of info on it in the press archives.

Two things struck me in reading the Indiana newspaper accounts. One was the number of multiple casualties sustained by families. The other was that many people simply failed to heed the warnings. Granted, the warning system in those days was nowhere near as sophisticated as what we have today. But the weathermen did their best with what they had. They did their jobs, and as reports of tornadoes piled in beyond anything they could handle, they ultimately issued a blanket warning for northern Indiana. In some cases, power was cut to the area by the storms and the warnings didn't get through. But in many cases, folks did get the warnings but adopted a cavalier attitude, and the rapidly moving storms took them by surprise.
 
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