Like many people who lived in Athens, Georgia at the time, Anne Shepherd clearly remembers March 31, 1973 — the day the tornado hit.
Shepherd, owner of downtown’s Chick Music store, had gone out to a house on North Avenue with her husband to service a piano late that afternoon 40 years ago today. As her husband began his work, Shepherd heard a warning. A tornado had hit Covington and was thought to be bearing down on Athens. She told her husband and the woman in the North Avenue house, who scoffed.
“What are you talking about? We don’t have tornadoes here,” Shepherd recalled the woman remarking.
But the Shepherds drove quickly to their Best Drive house, got in the basement just minutes before the tornado brought its whirlwind of destruction at about 6:30 p.m. They looked out a window as their lawn furniture blew away, never to be seen again.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” she said. “It was just unreal that it could be so fast.”
Others reported similar experiences, though some saw roofs lifted away instead of lawn furniture. But no one knew the full extent of the damage wrought by the twister until later.
It was actually the second of two tornadoes in Georgia that day, according to National Weather Service records. Together, they destroyed 400 homes and damaged 1,784. The unusually violent F-4 tornado left behind an estimated $113 million in damage, including the destruction of 1,000 acres of forest in Oconee County and a broad canopy of oak trees that shaded Athens’ Boulevard.
For some, the damage was far greater than trees.
Dana Hix Kenney lost her mother, one of two people the storm killed that day; 100 more were injured.
The family lived in Comer and were driving toward Athens in a mini-caravan for a shopping excursion. Her mother, father and big sister were in a little pickup truck ahead, Kenney, 9 then, trailing in a car with her grandparents.
“The closer we got to Athens, the harder it started to rain,” she said.
Her parents pulled off to the side of the road as they neared Athens, but her grandparents waited until they could park under a bridge of the Athens perimeter.
“We could feel and hear it coming through,” she said. “It was very scary.”
When they looked back toward where her parents had parked, they could see downed power lines and debris; there was no way they could drive back to where the truck was parked.
Later, family members were able to piece together what had happened from eyewitness accounts. The tornado had picked the truck up, as high as the telephone and power wires on the poles by the side of the road. Her sister and mother were flung or sucked out of the truck; her father managed to cling to the steering wheel. Her sisters legs were broken; her mother, Peggy Hix, died instantly when she was flung against a telephone pole.
For years after, storms terrify Kenney.
“If it even just started thundering, it would just bring back memories,” she said. “But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to accept that it’s just one of God’s things. If that had not happened, my life would be different. I would not be where I am today. But when I was young, it was just devastating.”
Growing up without a mother made her independent and taught her she could do things on her own, she believes.
Today, Athens would have gotten more warning of the violent storm, though no one can say for sure if the early warning would have saved Peggy Hix’s life.
“The technology is hugely better,” said Pam Knox, an agricultural climatologist in the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
The National Weather Service had a network of radars to track storms, but radar then was primitive compared to today’s systems.
“They just basically had a blur where there was rain,” she said.
But with radar installed within just the past couple of years, weather observers can get a three-dimensional picture of storms. They can get some indication of wind speed and direction, and can see just how big the debris is that a tornado has picked up, Knox said.
But the trail of damage from Covington to Comer left no doubt that the March 31, 1973, tornado was an unusually strong one. It’s listed as an F4 tornado on a scale that ranges from 0 to 5.
With the new radar technology, weather forecasters can send out earlier and more definitive alerts, Knox said. There are more ways to receive alerts, too.
Clarke County has a system of 12 tornado sirens to warn people, who can also subscribe to alert systems such as Nixle, which allows people to sign up to get alerts about all kinds of emergencies, including weather emergencies.
And just as 40 years ago, radio and TV stations issue warnings as quickly as they can, as do newspaper websites over the Internet.
It’s a good idea to have more than one way to learn about storm threats, such as by having a weather radio in addition to something like a cell phone that receives cellular data.
Tornadoes can strike any time of year in Georgia, but they are most frequent in the spring, and to a lesser degree, in the fall, Knox said.
People should make sure they know the difference between a tornado watch, which means conditions are favorable for tornado formation, and a tornado warning, which means a tornado has been spotted, she said.
And people should plan in advance where they will go for shelter if a tornado is bearing down, she said.
Emergency responders today also recommend having a football or bicycle helmet around as many tornado victims suffer head trauma.