Who remembers the Palm Sunday Tornadoes of April 11th and 12th, 53 years ago in 1965? 36 deaths were recorded between Elkhart, St. Joseph, LaGrange, and Marshall Counties.
A Koontz Lake resident looking through the remains of her home in 1965. 10 people were killed there. - Photo by South Bend Tribune
A total of 261 people died that weekend after the 17 tornadoes struck Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. It was the deadliest tornado known in modern times. In the Walkerton Area witnesses saw a double funnel tornado dissipate after it struck Elkhart County and traveled along Highway 6 towards Koontz Lake. It was initially rated an F5 but downgraded to an F4. Wreckage was strewn across the eastern side of Walkerton and through the countryside towards Koontz Lake which took the brunt of the communitie's damage. 10 people died at Koontz Lake.
The F5 tornado downgraded to an F4 when it hit the Walkerton Area. Here it is photographed hitting Koontz Lake taken from Tamarack Rd. at US 6. The lake was so full of debris that it had to be drained.
People were disoriented. 30 cottages on the lake were destroyed, and 70 homes were severely damaged. President Lyndon Johnson surveyed the damage across Indiana and declared thatassistance include Koontz Lake to be drained so that the refuse from destruction could be cleared from the environment.
President Lyndon Johnson surveying damage in nearby Dunlap not far from Walkerton, 53 years ago in April of 1965.
- Photo by South Bend Tribune
The events of April 11, 1965 ended up becoming the primary catalyst in the development of the tornado watch and warning program that is still in use today, whose necessity was highlighted in the Weather Bureau’s service report in the wake of the outbreak. In addition, extensive analysis of the outbreak was done by Dr. Ted Fujita, leading to the discovery of features such as suction vortices within tornadoes, which can locally amplify damage significantly. The Monthly Weather Review paper written by Fujita and Dorothy Bradbury is a must read for all interested in severe weather meteorology and tornado history. It includes photos of the helical patterns within the tornado damage paths that lead to the suction vortex conclusion.
Damage at Koontz Lake killed 10 people. 30 cottages destroyed and 71 homes damaged.
Despite the tragedy of the Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak, it was a crucial building block and learning experience in the infancy of the ever-advancing tornado detection and watch/warning systems. Nine years later, even more significant advances would occur following the Super Outbreak, with the development of Doppler radar and expanding satellite presence.