June 8, 1974: Tulsa's first big tornado disaster

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Forty years ago today, June 8, 1974, there was a massive tornado outbreak and widespread flash flooding in northeastern Oklahoma. At least 10 tornadoes touched down (possibly more from the long-track supercell that killed 12 Drumright residents and two others). For Tulsans who were kids in the '70s, it was the first major weather disaster we had witnessed.

According to the National Weather Service, it was Tulsa's costliest weather disaster to date and has since been surpassed only by the 1984 Memorial Day Flood and the 1993 Tulsa/Catoosa tornado. Two F3 tornadoes passed through Tulsa's city limits, the second one touching down before the first one had finished with us.

Everyone had heard about an "old Indian legend" that the hills and the bend of the river protected Tulsa from tornados. But which Tulsa? The settlement around the Creek Council Oak? The Tulsa of 1918 that didn't extend south beyond 21st Street or east of Lewis? The Tulsa of 1957, when the newly completed expressway connecting the turnpikes was dubbed "Skelly Bypass"? The Tulsa of 1974 reflected the tripling in Tulsa's size that took place in 1966. All the tornado damage occurred in areas beyond Tulsa's early-day boundaries, and Brookside was the only area within the pre-1966 boundaries that was damaged.

Tulsa_Tornado_North-19740608.png

The east Tulsa neighborhoods around 21st and Garnett that were hit were mostly very new at the time. Nearby neighborhoods were hit by another tornado on December 5, 1975. I always thought of the area as a tornado magnet.

It was a Saturday, and Mom had taken me to Oertle's (a locally owned department store 26th & Memorial) so that I could buy a gerbil. I had wanted a gerbil because I had seen one at school -- I forget whether it had belonged to the teacher or to a classmate. I named her Herbie, because a gerbil's shape reminded me of a Volkswagen Beetle. We came home with Herbie, a plastic Habitrail Deluxe Set (the big cage with the wheel and the tower), and official Habitrail food and litter. (Everything was orange or yellow. It was the '70s.) I seem to recall we were in a hurry to get home because storms had been forecast and the sky looked ominous.

habitrail-owners-guide-1970s.png

There had already been tornadoes in Oklahoma City earlier in the afternoon. We would have been listening to KRMG on the AM-only radio in our Chevy Kingswood Estate station wagon as we drove home.

Some time after we got home we heard the tornado warning on the radio. Although we lived in Wagoner County, we were in the far northwest corner, in the then-unincorporated Rolling Hills subdivision, so we paid attention when Tulsa County's name was called for a storm.

In our little house at 416 S. 198th East Ave., there was no basement, so taking cover meant that Dad pulled the foam mattress out of the back of the station wagon and the four of us huddled under it in our little hallway. Someone, probably Dad, also opened the windows away from the direction of the storm, in hopes of equalizing pressure and preventing the house from exploding. (That practice is now deprecated.)

Sometime after the storm had passed, my mom's next-to-youngest sister and her husband arrived. They had been at the Camelot Hotel for an event and were stuck in traffic on I-44 for hours trying to get to our house.

Tulsa_Tornado_South-19740608.png

Mobile phones were practically non-existent. None of the TV stations had radar. I think weather radio existed, but we didn't have one.

Those are my memories of June 8, 1974. What are yours?

MORE:

KJRH spoke to ORU Dean Clarence Boyd, Jr., who was a student on the second floor of an ORU dorm that lost its third floor to the tornado.

KOTV talked to residents of the Walnut Creek neighborhood, which was damaged by the second Tulsa tornado. One house was damaged by a piece of the ORU administration building from almost a mile away.

Tulsa World has a collection of its photos from the June 8, 1974, tornado aftermath.

TulsaTVMemories.com has a photo of the tornado damage in Brookside north of the KTEW/KVOO studios and the recollections of Michael Evans, who rode out the storm in Tulsa's first and at the time only Arby's at 42nd and Peoria.

I locked the south door and noticed I could no longer see across the street. I turned to lock the north door and out of the corner of my eye saw both picnic tables were airborne. My reaction was to flinch because milliseconds later they pushed through the glass front. I have no idea what happened after that because for about 20 minutes I was unconscious.

Stacy Richardson was on the air on KAKC, in the Trade Winds West at 51st and Peoria, the night of the tornadoes, at least until the power went out for every AM station except one. Sonny Hollingshead remembers tornado damage to Bell's at the Fairgrounds. David Bagsby remembers going to 31st and Mingo to try to rescue a friend stuck in a flash flood. Tulsa also received five inches of rain that night. More Tulsa tornado memories. More Tulsa tornado memories. Even more Tulsa tornado memories. Still more Tulsa tornado memories.

The Tornado Project has a list of all tornadoes touching down in Oklahoma between 1950 and 2012.

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1 Comments

Graychin said:

I looked out my west-facing front door that afternoon, and saw the black clouds moving from left to right. And the more distant black clouds moving from right to left! I said to my wife, "This looks bad." We took cover in the interior bathroom.

A bit later, we learned that the tornado had clipped The Falls, a nearby apartment complex at 61st and Memorial.

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