Ohio Tornado Outbreak: Remembering May 31, 1985

Posted at 9:06 PM, May 25, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-25 21:06:46-04

One of the Largest Tornado Outbreaks in Ohio History occurred on May 31st, 1985.

And, like many significant historic events, we often remember where we were when it all happened. I remember the event like it was yesterday. In part because, unbeknownst to me, severe storms and tornadoes were developing all around me that afternoon.

I was on college break, working my summer job helping my uncle and grandfather remodel a farm house off US Route 6 in Andover in Ashtabula County. Ashtabula, Trumbull, Columbiana and Portage Counties were Ground Zero for tornadoes that day.

The air was thick and summer like. Humidity was high. Temperatures soared that afternoon into the middle and upper 80s. Storms were in the air. They were in the forecast. But, this was the age BEFORE doppler radar apps and cell phones.

So, as we continued to work that afternoon, the storm clouds built all around us. And, soon, the sounds of thunder began to rumble. Little did we know, tornadic thunderstorms were building to our north, east and south.

As we packed up to head on home, a Tornado Watch was issued for Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The first twister touched down just before 5pm just to our north in Monroe Center in Ashtabula County. This tornado moved into Albion, Pa producing EF-4 damaged in that town! Over the next 90 minutes, tornadoes would touch down in Mesopotamia (EF-3 damage) and Kinsman (EF-2 damage) in Trumbull County. At 6:30 pm, the strongest tornado of the outbreak reached the ground near the Ravenna Arsenal. This EF-5 twister contained wind speeds above 250 mph as it raced east into Newton Falls. Most of the town was destroyed. The storm then devastated parts of Lordstown, Niles and Hubbard, before moving into Western Pennsylvania. This one twister killed 18 people and injured more than 300. Damage was estimated at 60 million 1985 dollars!

Other tornadoes touched down that afternoon and evening near Pymatuning Reservoir in Andover just to my east and in Dorset, just to the north. Both of those locations are in Ashtabula County.

The Outbreak of May 31, 1985 is one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. History occurred in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario, Canada.

In an eight hour period that afternoon and evening, 43 tornadoes touched down, killing 88 people and injuring more than 1,000.

Of those 43 twisters, seven touched down in the NewsChannel 5 viewing area. All of them east of Interstate 77.

The strongest tornado, an F-5 with winds above 250 mph, began its carnage near the Ravenna Arsenal in Portage County at about 6:30 p.m.

It reached F-3 to F-4 strength as it destroyed parts of Newton Falls and Lordstown. The twister reached F-5 strength in Niles (Trumbull County) where it killed nine people.

One of the little know facts about the Niles-Newton Falls Tornado: Even though the Youngstown National Weather Service Office had issued a Tornado Warning for this storm, a communication glitch prevented many from hearing about it!

After the dust had cleared, government officials came in to evaluate and assess the performance of  the National Weather Service.

Their report is informative and eye opening.

The bottom line is: Employees at all local National Weather Service Offices performed well during this stressful outbreak. Here is the report text.

Members of the (Assessment) team visited Ohio between June 3 and June 10, 1985. The National Weather Service (NWS) overall response to the May 31, 1985 tornado outbreak was determined to be very good. If the rarity of such a broad scale outbreak is factored into the evaluation, the response of the agency could be rated as excellent. A very accurate Tornado Watch bracketed the area and was issued prior to the occurrence of the first tornado report... Field Offices responsible for local warnings had Severe Thunderstorm Warnings in effect prior to tornado activity in almost all cases and Tornado Warnings in effect as soon as evidence of formation was available.

The first warning was issued by Cleveland (NWS Office) at 4:10 p.m. for Ashtabula County based on radar indicating a severe thunderstorm. The Severe Thunderstorm Warning was valid until 5:15 p.m. The warning verified with 3/4-inch hail and winds over 60 mph near Austinburg at 4:40 p.m. 

At 5:21 p.m., Cleveland issued a Tornado Warning for Ashtabula County based on radar and a report from the public. However, the warning was not disseminated over the NOAA Weather teletypewriter circuit because of a brief communications line failure. At 5:30 p.m., the office discovered the warning had not gone out over the teletype and tried again to issue the warning. But an old March 28 warning went out instead over the NOAA Weather Wire. Cleveland NWS then issued a corrected warning which was disseminated at 5:43 p.m. The weak tornado occurred in Ashtabula County at 5:30 p.m.

At 5:28 p.m, Cleveland issued a Severe Thunderstorm warning for Lake and Geauga counties valid until 6:15 p.m. Both counties experienced golf ball-sized hail during the warning period.

At 5:40 p.m., Cleveland took over responsibility for Youngstown's three Ohio counties because of a communication line failure. 

A Severe Thunderstorm Warning was issued at 6 p.m. for Medina County and a Severe Thunderstorm Warning at 6:15 p.m. Hail and high winds were associated with these storms. 

Cleveland issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Trumbull County at 6:30 p.m. based on very strong radar echo near Hudson.

A devastating tornado moved through Trumbull County between 6:40 p.m. and 7:05 p.m. A tornado watch was in effect and a timely severe thunderstorm warning based on radar was issued for Trumbull County at 6:30 p.m. (by Cleveland NWS Office). At 6:40 p.m., a verbal Tornado Warning was placed over the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) by the Youngstown Weather Service Office.

It warned of a possible tornado approaching the Niles-Warren Area. However, with the exception of the verbal warning, the Severe Thunderstorm Warning was never upgraded to a written Tornado Warning and transmitted on the NOAA Weather Wire or NOAA Weather Radio.

Two factors contributed to this. First, Youngstown failed to notify the Cleveland NWS Office of the verbal Tornado Warning. Cleveland would have likely upgraded the Severe Thunderstorm Warning to a Tornado Warning since they had taken over responsibility for Youngstown's warning area at 5:40 p.m. because of an AFOS communications line failure. Second, the decision (by Youngstown NWS personnel) not to activate the spotter network at Youngstown deprived the staff of critical spotter reports indicating a tornado had occurred in Newton Falls. That knowledge may have prompted the Youngstown Office to urge Cleveland into upgrading the Severe Thunderstorm Warning to a Tornado Warning.

The above quotes from the Natural Disaster Survey Report: The Ohio-Pennsylvania Tornado Outbreak, May 31, 1985.