On March 31, 1973, there were 8 tornadoes recorded by the SPC. The focus of this Funnel Feature looks at the two (or three) most damaging tornadoes.

Officially one of these tornadoes is a long-tracked F2 tornado that affected north-central GA.  The other is an F4 that hit Abbeville SC.

Different sources have different opinions on what happened this day:

  • The NCDC/SPC has one F2 in Georgia and the F4 in South Carolina.
  • Significant Tornadoes by Thomas Grazulis lists two F4s in Georgia and the F4 in South Carolina. 
  • Ted Fujita’s paper “FPP Classifications of 1971 and 1972 Tornadoes” lists two F4s in GA and one F5 in South Carolina.

Conyers-Athens Tornado

SPC Stats

Path length: 72.4 miles

Width:  500 yards

Fatalities:  2

Injuries:  100

Rating:  F2

County:  Clayton, Screven, DeKalb, Rockdale

This is the account of the tornado that is provided in Storm Data.  Some of the details in Storm Data are different than the SPC data.  It lists a width of 200-600 yards and a path length of 75 miles.  Also, the NCDC lists Clayton, Walton Oconee, Clarke, and Oglethorpe Counties as being affected by this tornado.

Per Storm Data: “A devastating tornado moved east-northeast through north-central Georgia causing extremely heavy and almost continuous damage along a 75-mile path.  The width of the storm’s destructive path varied from 200 yards to almost one-half mile.  The storm first touched down near Jonesboro, in Clayton County around 5:30 p.m.  It moved through parts of 6 counties before dissipating in southwestern Madison County, about 10 miles east-northeast of Athens.  Two persons were killed and more than 100 injured.  Most of the injuries were minor.  One man lost his life east of Monroe and a woman was killed near Athens when the pickup truck in which she was riding was taken high into the air and dropped.  

A state survey team estimated total damage at more than $113 million, the largest for any natural disaster in the State’s history.  The damage estimates were broken down as follows:  400 homes destroyed, 1784 homes damaged, total home damage $24 million; 32 businesses destroyed, 76 businesses damaged, total business damaged $74 million; timber and other damage nearly $20 million.  

The greatest destruction occurred in the Conyers area of Rockdale County were total losses were estimated at almost $75 million.  The Athens area of Clarke County suffered the second-highest losses at about $24 million. Other Counties with substantial damage were Clayton, Henry, DeKalb, Walton, Oconee, and Madison.  The damage to business property left 1500 persons jobless and an estimated 2500 persons were homeless. The area of the storm’s path was designated a national disaster area.”

By reading the description in the Storm Data Publication it would seem as though the F2 rating is too low, as this was a very destructive tornado.  When you Look in Significant Tornadoes you can see that this tornado was rated F4 and broken into two different tornadoes.  This is echoed by Dr. Fujita, who personally surveyed the damage and found that damage was caused by two F4 tornadoes.

The first tornado listed in Significant Tornadoes we will refer to as the Conyers Tornado had a path length of 33 miles and a path width of 300 yards.  It killed 1 person and injured 80.  Grazulis lists Clayton, Henry, Dekalb, Rockdale and Walton Counties.

Per Significant Tornadoes:  It moved “east-northeast from two miles northeast of Jonesboro, passing along the north edge of Conyers, and lifting 7 miles west of Monroe.  The tornado was over a half-mile wide near Conyers, and losses at Conyers alone totaled $75,000,000.  In that area, 400 homes were destroyed and over 1700 damaged.  One industrial complex had a $15,000,000 loss.  A woman eventually died from injuries sustained in her Rockdale County home.  That death is not on the official totals for this event.  15 people were injured at a rest home north of Stockbridge.”

The second tornado which we will dub the Athens tornado had a path length of 35 miles and a path width of 200 yards.  It killed 2 people and injured 20. Grazulis lists Walton, Oconee, Clarke, and Madison counties.

Per Significant Tornadoes “Shortly after the previous tornado dissipated west of Monroe this tornado touched down about 3 miles west-southwest of Monroe.  It continued to the east-northeast and northeast, passing 2 miles north of Monroe and then just outside the north edge of Athens. The funnel dissipated 10 miles east-northeast of Athens, north of Colbert.  Athens area losses totaled $24,000,000.  One man was killed in the destruction of his home east of Monroe, on US-78.  A woman was killed north of Athens when the pick-up truck was picked up and thrown into a liquor store on US-441.  Over 1000 acres of forest were leveled in Oconee County alone.”

And as you can see by the map below made by Dr. Fujita, these were rated at F4 and as two separate tornadoes.  It is not clear why the rating is F2 by the SPC and why it is listed as one long-tracked tornado when the survey by Fujita found it to be 2 separate tornadoes.

We have one last source from which we gathered details.  It is the NWS Service Assessment of this event published in 1973.  They note that the tornado stayed on the ground nearly the whole distance of the 75 mile path.  This is more consistent with Storm Data.  They list an injury count of 300-350.  This is significantly more than the 100 that is officially documented in the SPC Database or what is listed by Grazulis.  

Tornado Path

Click Map to Enlarge

SPC coordinates:  Start: 33.53 / -84.33   End:  33.75 / -83.93

Used NCDC County Coordinates as well

Coordinates based on Grazulis locations:  Start:  33.54318 / -84.32997  End:  33.80161 / -83.86473      

Note:  Exact tornado path may not be straight and/or continuous.

Video

Newspaper Clippings - Stockbridge/Conyers

Newspaper Clippings - Athens

Abbeville Tornado

SPC Stats

Path length: 22.6 miles

Width:  200 yards

Fatalities:  7

Injuries:  30

Rating:  F4

County:  Abbeville, Greenwood

There is a slight discrepancy in the path length between SPC and Storm Data:  Storm data lists a 23-mile path.  This was probably just because they rounded the path length up.

Per Storm Data:  “A tornado touched the ground first about 1 mile southeast of the intersection of routes 81 and 72 in Calhoun Falls.  It traveled east-northeast nearly parallel to Route 72, passing through the northern part of Abbeville and going a short distance into Greenwood County.  Seven persons died and at least 30 were injured.  About 50 families were left homeless, many other houses sustained minor damage. Hundreds of trees were downed and power and telephone services were disrupted for some time.  The storm struck just after dark and one of the first things struck was a motel about three miles east of Calhoun Falls.  Four of the occupants were killed and several injured.  The entire building and its furnishing and occupants from the foundation upward were carried across the highway toward the south and spread over a large field.”

The NWS Damage Assessment notes that the tornado had a 16 mile path but also mentions the fact that Fujita found a 36 mile path.  Both of these are different than the SPC database and Grazulis.  50 injuries were reported in this document, more than the SPC.  

In Significant Tornadoes, Grazulis states what is said in Storm Data.  He also has a 23-mile path.  However, the real discrepancy with this tornado comes from Dr. Fujita’s Survey of the storm.  He rated the tornado F5.  In his paper referenced in this summary he shows the photo below.  It gives Fujita Scale damage examples, and shows the hotel that was struck near Calhoun Falls as F5 damage.

He also shows a photograph of a home that was swept away (Fig 8).  He denotes this as F4 damage in his paper.

So it seems that the F5 rating was solely based on the hotel that was swept away and disintegrated. Was this, in fact, F5 damage? or was it only just F4 damage?  The SPC and Grazulis list it as an F4.  It is possible that Fujita himself downgraded to F4 after this paper was published.

From looking at damage pictures and videos of the damage.  The damage does not seem to be F5.  Video from the ground level of the hotel shows that it was a rather narrow building, and the foundation blocks didn’t seem well anchored.  Cars in the parking lot were undamaged as the hotel was lifted above them.  This damage with today’s stringent EF-Scale probably would not rank higher than a low to mid-EF-3.  Maximum home damage appeared to be in F3 to F4 range.  Therefore the official rating of F4 seems more reasonable.  Although as I mentioned above, Dr. Fujita may have downgraded the rating in a later publication or possibly even through personal communications with the NSSF.

Tornado Path

SPC coordinates:  Start: 34.08 / -82.57   End:  34.27 / -82.25      

Note:  Exact tornado path may not be straight and/or continuous.

Photos

From Fujita's paper

Video

Newspaper Clippings

Sources:

The Storm Prediction Center

NCDC Storm Events Database 

March 1973 Storm Data Publication

newspapers.com

FPP Classifications of 1971 and 1972 Tornadoes

Tornado Tracks – Georgia and South Carolina (Natural Disaster Survey Report)

Grazulis, Thomas P. (1993). Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991: A Chronology and Analysis of Events. St. Johnsbury, VT: The Tornado Project of Environmental Films. Pages 1135-1136.

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