FULTON COUNTY — As has been well documented in the past week, the severe storm that ripped through parts of Fulton County Monday, May 27, destroying numerous buildings, wreaking havoc on personal property and land, resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. Fortunately, no human lives were lost and less-affected residents are helping their friends and neighbors to pick up the pieces of their disrupted lives.
Most longtime residents of Fulton County know through personal experience the region has a long history of tornadoes. Those with the longest memory can vividly recall the most deadly twister ever visiting Fulton County, which struck April 3, 1974. The one that came to the area shortly before 6 p.m. that day was one of 148 tornadoes confirmed in 13 states and one Canadian province causing more than $843 million in damage, the equivalent of $4.58 billion in today’s currency. In what became known as the 1974 Super Outbreak, the storm remains the second-largest tornado outbreak on record for a single 24-hour period, surpassed only by an event in 2011. When all accounting from the storms was completed, 337 people, including 44 Hoosiers, were killed.
In Fulton County that day, at least 88 people were injured and six people were killed. It destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes and buildings with hundreds of families suffering financial loss. The estimated property damage in the county totaled nearly $10 million, or approximately $52 million today. As described in the October 1974 issue of the national publication Reader’s Digest, “Rochester, Ind., had five minutes’ notice before residents saw a large black cloud that crackled with lightning moving sinuously along the ground … swelling and contracting like a living monster.”
The storm entered the county from the west, crossing US 31 from approximately West 6th Street in the north to West 13th Street to the south. It turned northwest, crossing over the Fulton County Fairgrounds and Riddle Elementary School on a destructive path toward Talma, which by many accounts bore the brunt of the destruction. The swath of the tornado was estimated at a half-mile wide, with wind speeds in excess of 100 mph.
“I remember coming up on 9th and Main Streets,” recalled John Tombaugh, who was 32 at the time. “The rain water on the street was three feet high. Later that evening I was up on Olson Road helping to direct traffic. I also helped with sandbagging at the dam. I was up two days straight before I decided it was time to get some sleep.”
Bill Willard also offered recollections of that day. He was working for Rochester Telephone Company at the time and said he drove home from work in sheets of rain, but didn’t realize a tornado had struck until he got a phone call from his boss asking him if he had a chain saw and he needed to get back to work. He said they worked until around 11 p.m. that night, including running 2,000 feet of telephone line to the Talma Community Building to provide phone access to the American Red Cross, which had set up its relief headquarters there.
“I had my pilots’ license, so the next day we flew over Winamac, Rochester and Talma,” Willard recalled. “We could see where the tornado divided and then came back together near Talma.”
In a 1984 interview with Dave Kitchell of the Pharos Tribune in Logansport, then-Rochester Mayor Wayne Hittle said “it was like two different worlds. Every inch closer homes were to the tracks, the more damaged they were. Everything was obliterated on one side and a lot of people on the other side didn’t even know anything had happened. It was just that strange.”