By Timothy Jarvis
On June 9, 1953, a devastatingly powerful tornado hit the city of Worcester and the surrounding areas. It came to be known as the 1953 Worcester Tornado, part of the Flint-Worcester tornado outbreak sequence, a series of tornado outbreaks that occurred in Worcester and Flint, Michigan from June 6-9, 1953.
In Flint, Michigan, an F5 tornado occurred on June 8, 1953, and an F4 in Worcester on June 9th; this is where the Flint-Worcester term originated. The tornadoes are linked together in the public mind because, for a brief period following the Worcester tornado, it was debated in Congress whether recent atomic bomb testing in the upper atmosphere had caused the tornadoes.
Congressman James E. Van Zandt (Representative of Pennsylvania) was among several members of Congress who expressed their belief that a June 4 bomb-testing created the tornadoes. As the natural disaster occurred far outside the traditional tornado alley, this was a plausible theory at the time. Worcester demanded a response from the government, but meteorologists quickly disproved the theory, and Congressman Van Zandt later retracted his statement.
The infamous 1953 Worcester Tornado was the worst during the outbreak sequence for a number of reasons. It caused the most damage in terms of cost in the United States at the time, costing over $52 million in damages (translating to $349 million today when adjusted for inflation). Over 4,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed in Worcester alone. Ninety-four people were killed, and about 1,300 more were injured, making it the 3rd deadliest tornado in American history at the time. It now stands as the 21st deadliest tornado in the United States.
It wasn’t until 1971 that the Fujita (F) scale was invented. After this, the Worcester Tornado was classified as an F4, and the Flint Tornado an F5. This was also when the tornadoes were established as some of the worst in American history.
The 1953 Tornado lasted for 84 minutes, traveling about 48 miles across central Massachusetts. At 4:25 p.m. it touched down in Petersham near the Quabbin Reservoir and continued to move to Barrie and Rutland, killing two people. As it arrived in Holden, a western suburb of Worcester, the tornado claimed the lives of 11 people.
At 5:08 p.m. the tornado entered Worcester, growing to a width of about 1 mile. The damage in Worcester was shocking for the residents at the time, as some parts of the city were equal in damage to that caused by the Tri-State Tornado, the worst tornado in American history, which killed 695 people.
The hardest-hit locations of the city included Assumption College (now Quinsigamond Community College). Assumption College was a prep school located where QCC is now in 1953. This was before it moved to its current location and became a college more than a prep school. Today at QCC, there is a memorial for all those who died on June 9, 1953.
The nearby Burncoat Hill neighborhood saw heavy devastation, but some meteorologists speculate it was the Great Brook Valley neighborhoods to the east of Burncoat Hill that were utterly leveled, with the tornado possibly reaching F5 intensity in this area.
Entire houses and neighborhoods vanished after the tornado struck Worcester. Over 10,000 people were left homeless from the event as well. There were several eyewitness accounts, people who saw things like buses, storage tanks, and other debris thrown at buildings and homes, destroying them completely.
The Worcester Tornado’s greatest effect on the nation was its being the principal catalyst for the Storm Prediction Center’s reorganization on June 17, 1953, as well as the use of a nationwide radar/storm spotter system. The results proved successful: since June 9, 1953, no single U.S. tornado had killed over 100 people until the Joplin, Missouri tornado of May 22, 2011.
Furthermore, the tornado’s meteorological explanation was due after the event; many wondered how such a storm was possible in the New England region. After Van Zandt’s atomic bomb theory was disproved, the meteorological synopsis was released. On June 7, 1953, an area of high pressure formed over most of the United States. This high-pressure air mass collided with a low-pressure mass that was centered over Nebraska, which made favorable conditions for severe thunderstorm development.
This is what spawned the tornado in Flint, Michigan on June 8, and the air mass continued to sit over the region throughout that night, further contributing to the outbreak. Then the cold air moved eastward to the New York/New England area. In the days leading up to the Worcester Tornado, it was experiencing a heat wave of temperatures over 90 °F. But, as the cold air rolled in from the midwest, the temperature dropped to 74 °F on June 8.
The presence of the air mass created the chance for warm air from the South to clash with the cold front. This phenomenon, which is the way most tornadoes and severe thunderstorms are formed, is something that would not normally happen in Massachusetts.
Forecasters at the National Weather Service office in Boston believed that there was a possibility for tornadic activity in the area, but chose not to broadcast it in their forecast for the day in fear that they would cause panic among local citizens. 1953 was the first year that tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings were used, so forecasters made a deal and issued the first severe thunderstorm watch in the history of Massachusetts. The tornado struck with little to no warning for residents as the decision to inform the public was debated over.
The effects of the tornado in Worcester were strong-felt immediately after the natural disaster, and many years after. The devastated city of Worcester needed rebuilding and housing for those 10,000 people who lost their places of residence. The city made plans to restructure buildings and properties that were damaged.
To this day, there are survivors of the 1953 Worcester Tornado living in the city. They often tell stories of how the event changed their lives, and how they are always fearful when there is a tornado warning issued, or even if the sky starts to turn grey. There was even a book published about the event, titled Tornado! 84 Minutes, 94 Lives by John M. O’Toole. He also donated funds to QCC to build the memorial.
In all, the 1953 Worcester Tornado was a devastating natural disaster that will forever live in infamy among Worcester residents. The Worcester community will never forget this disaster as part of the city’s long and proud history.
If the weather forecasters had been required to study New England storm records before being certified as meteorologists, they would have known about the area’s tornadoes since the 1600s.They could have warned the public to stay in their cellars that day, thereby saving many lives. Instead the weather “experts” said, “It can’t happen here.”