50 years after historic tornadoes, Kentucky remains committed to disaster prep, response

Published 1:15 pm Wednesday, April 10, 2024

By Representative Daniel Elliott

Kentucky marked the 50th anniversary of the deadly April 3, 1974 tornadoes with the recovery from a daylong storm event that wreaked havoc across the state on April 2. By the time Tuesday’s storms moved on, the state experienced one storm-related death, 11 tornadoes, considerable straight-line winds, and a tremendous amount of property damage across most of the state.
Comparatively, we were blessed. While this year’s storms took their toll, the series of twisters that tore through the state on April 3, 1974, were part of a historic storm system that to this day is considered the worst in our nation’s history. In just 16 hours, an estimated 148 tornadoes left a wake of destruction in 13 states, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Here in Kentucky, 70 died – a number that would not be reached until December 2021 when more than 80 Kentuckians were killed when tornadoes hit Mayfield, Bowling Green, and other areas in Western Kentucky. The 1974 storms included the only recorded F5 tornado to hit our state in history, which claimed 31 lives and left the Ohio River town of Brandenburg shattered.
The memory of lives lost, homes destroyed, and communities shattered remains etched in our state’s history, but also in the memories of survivors. As Kentuckians moved from rescue, to recovery, to cleanup, out of the wreckage emerged stories of resilience and solidarity as people rebuilt their lives. The state and various weather agencies also took away a valuable lesson on how it could better prepare to see disasters coming and respond to their impact. In 1978, the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University began creating a statewide weather monitoring system. The system, known as the Kentucky Mesonet, is based on a network of automated stations that monitor conditions across the state. Data from the system is easily accessible and can be used to improve severe weather warning and aid emergency response. The legislature provides $1.75 million in funding for the Mesonet in each fiscal year of the budget (HB 6) we sent to the Governor before we recessed.
Lawmakers have also expanded support for emergency management, an area of state government that does a tremendous job of supporting local communities and first responders as they face disasters ranging from ice storms, to tornadoes, to flooding. In addition to the Mesonet, HB 6 includes:
• Preparedness: $1.5 million over two years to match federal funding to improve emergency response preparedness
• Urban Search and Rescue: $8.34 million in fiscal year 2025 and $7.84 million in fiscal year 2026 to support the program, which the legislature created after the July 2022 catastrophic flooding in Southeastern Kentucky.
• Emergency Management Equipment: $1.5 million over the biennium towards equipment repair and maintenance due to the closeout of the federal chemical stockpile program.
• Disaster Aid: Necessary Government Expense authority of up to $75 million in the current fiscal year, and an additional $50 million in each of the next two fiscal years to match federal disaster relief aid.
• Disaster Response: $9 million over two years to the Kentucky National Guard to offset costs of responding to disasters. If the cost exceeds this amount, the budget provides the Governor the authority to access up to an additional $25 million for eligible expenses.
• Agricultural Preparedness: $887,000 in fiscal year 25 and fiscal year 26 for additional personnel to work on emergency preparedness within the Department of Agriculture.
While this is a considerable investment, we recognize that major disasters may require more. That is yet another reason the state’s budget reserve trust fund is so critical. Even with the investments made this session, the fund stands at a historic level and provides us with a chance to address emergencies as they arise. We did so after the tornadoes in Western Kentucky and the flooding in Eastern Kentucky by working with the executive branch to establish the EKSAFE and WKSAFE funds respectively (SAFE stands for State Aid for Emergencies). These funds provided almost half a billion dollars in state aid to communities for response, housing, education support, and other needs.
While all of this is important, it is equally critical that you know what to do when disaster strikes. Kentucky Emergency Management provides great resources to prepare your family, business, and community. Among them are very timely suggestions for surviving tornadoes. The full document can be found at: https://kyem.ky.gov/Preparedness/Pages/Tornado.aspx, but here are a few tips:
Before a Tornado
• Have a family tornado plan in place and practice a family tornado drill at least once a year and a pre-determined place to meet after a disaster.
• Learn the signs of a tornado: dark, greenish sky; large hail; dark, low clouds; and loud roaring sounds.
During a Tornado
• Seek shelter in the lowest level of your house. If you have a basement, go there. If you do not, find a small interior room like a bathroom or closet. Consider what is on the floor above you, and try to cover yourself with a blanket.
• If you are in a mobile home, go to a neighbor’s, an underground shelter, or some other permanent structure.
After a Tornado
• Keep your family together and wait for emergency personnel to arrive.
• Stay away from downed power lines and do not use matches or lighters, there might be leaking natural gas pipes or fuel tanks nearby.
As always, I can be reached anytime through the toll-free message line in Frankfort at 1-800-372-7181. You can also contact me via e-mail at Daniel.Elliott@lrc.ky.gov and keep track through the Kentucky legislature’s website at legislature.ky.gov.

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