It’s tornado time in Connecticut, in case you haven’t noticed. In the past month or so at least four confirmed twisters have left their characteristic trail of damaged trees and buildings across the local landscape. One storm, which leapfrogged across the Connecticut River from Windsor Locks to East Windsor, left large swaths of white cheesecloth tobacco netting strewn across I-91 in a surreal scene befitting an art project by Christo! Fortunately damage has been relatively limited (except for some barn roofs and the fields of the Thrall tobacco farm) and there have been no injuries reported.
Over the years I’ve met many people from across the country who have commented that at least we in Connecticut “don’t have to worry about tornadoes.” Really? While I am not out to create panic or anything we just need to set the record straight. Tornadoes are not all that uncommon in Connecticut; it’s just that we rarely see the more powerful variety in the EF-3 category and above.
Among the earliest accounts of a tornado in Connecticut is one that dates to 1648 in Hartford County. But think about it; the fact that so much of Connecticut was unsettled at that time guarantees that there were other storms that went unnoticed, and so unreported. By contrast the deadly Wallingford tornado of August 1878 was well documented in word and picture. Photographers from across the state came to capture the scenes of amazing damage inflicted by this storm. With a death toll estimated at more than thirty people it remains the state’s deadliest tornado ever.
Certainly in my own lifetime there have been several notable tornadoes in Connecticut. The October 1979 storm that touched down on Bradley International Airport to begin a long destructive path through Windsor Locks comes to mind as one which put the lie to the notion that Connecticut does not experience tornadoes. Three lives were lost, hundreds injured, scores of structures damaged or destroyed, and the Bradley Air Museum devastated by this storm. Rated an EF-4 on the Fujita Scale (a 0-5 rating originally developed in the early 1970s by Professor Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita at the University of Chicago), this tornado occurred in—of all times—leaf-peeping season! With damages exceeding $200 million in 1979 dollars, at the time the storm was one of the costliest in U.S. history, unfortunately now overshadowed by more recent tornado disasters in Joplin, Tuscaloosa, and Oklahoma City.
Back in Connecticut, a cluster of tornadoes, including a very powerful EF-4, battered Litchfield and New Haven counties in July 1989. Damage to forests, including the spectacular old-growth Cathedral Pines grove in Cornwall, was heartbreaking. Despite the widespread path of damage, training from Cornwall to Hamden, no fatalities were reported. Improved warning systems and luck combined to prevent a repeat of the Wallingford tragedy.
Let’s face it, lots of people my age experienced our first dose of tornado excitement in The Wizard of Oz which, of course, prompted years of childhood nightmares. And seeing Cary Elwes’ storm chaser character being sucked up into a tornado in the 1996 blockbuster Twister was only marginally less emotionally scarring. Now, except for a five-year stint in coastal Virginia I have lived in Connecticut all of my life. Have I seen a tornado first hand? No. Not here, not in Virginia, nor anywhere else I have traveled. I suppose the closest I have come is a waterspout (a weaker, short-lived type of funnel cloud) I watched form near the mouth of the Connecticut River back in the 1970s. And frankly I was too enthralled at the scene to even think about hopping back on my 10-speed bike a heading for the hills.
Needless to say, in the age when severe weather has assumed a level of popular awareness and interest once reserved for sports, I am keeping a sharp eye to our Nutmeg State skies…