Worst Tornado In Connecticut: 1979 Windsor Locks Devastation

May 21, 2024

The F4 tornado that struck Windsor Locks, Connecticut, on October 3, 1979, remains one of the most significant natural disasters in the state's history. The tornado, which touched down at precisely 3:00 PM EDT, carved an 11.3-mile (18.2 km) path through north-central Connecticut, leaving devastation in its wake.

Areas Affected

The primary locations impacted by this powerful tornado included Windsor, Windsor Locks, Suffield in Connecticut, and Feeding Hills in Massachusetts. In addition to these main areas, damage was reported in surrounding regions such as East Hartford and Enfield.

Wethersfield and East Hartford

In Wethersfield, the tornado ripped the roof off a grocery store. Over in East Hartford, numerous trees were uprooted, contributing to widespread havoc.

Windsor and Poquonock

Windsor, particularly the Poquonock region along roads like River Road, Hollow Brook Road, Pioneer Drive, and Settler Circle, experienced severe damage. Poquonock Elementary School was heavily damaged but fortunately, there were no student casualties due to an early dismissal. The Poquonock Community Church, a historic building, sustained severe roof damage. Significant destruction was also noted in residential areas where large frame houses were demolished.

Bradley International Airport

Bradley International Airport experienced surface wind gusts of up to 87 mph, posing severe risks. A United Airlines flight narrowly missed the tornado's path, and the New England Air Museum at the airport saw over 20 vintage aircraft destroyed.

Feeding Hills

The tornado finally dissipated near the Westfield city line in Massachusetts, leaving a trail of destruction behind.

Meteorological Context

The tornado originated from a storm system initially causing severe weather in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Forming from a rare left-moving supercell, no tornado watches or warnings were issued. This lack of warning was due to missing atmospheric data and misjudgment of the storm's intensity, which unfortunately contributed to the level of disaster experienced.

Detailed Damage and Impact

The damage caused by the tornado was immense. In Windsor Locks alone, three people lost their lives—two construction workers and one local resident. Additionally, over 500 people sustained injuries, many due to flying debris and the force of the wind impacts. The monetary damage was substantial, amounting to $420 million in 1979 USD, equivalent to $1.763 billion in 2024 USD.

Immediate Aftermath

Initially, the extent of the destruction led some to misinterpret the damage as the result of an explosion. Immediate emergency response included Governor Ella Grasso imposing a curfew and the activation of 500 National Guardsmen. President Carter declared the area a disaster, facilitating the deployment of FEMA trailers to house displaced residents. The economic impact was also severe, with 38 businesses and numerous homes destroyed or damaged. The state's National Guard also saw extensive damage to tobacco sheds and vintage aircraft.

Casualties and Injuries

In total, the tornado caused three fatalities and over 400 hospitalizations. The injuries were largely due to flying debris and wind impacts, underscoring the brutal force of the storm.

Historical Significance

As the costliest tornado in the Northeastern United States, the Windsor Locks tornado of 1979 holds a unique place in history. Adjusted for inflation, it remains the most expensive tornado event in the region. It was also the deadliest tornado in Connecticut since the Wallingford tornado of 1878, which adds to its historical significance.

Overall, the Windsor Locks tornado stands as a significant meteorological event due to its intensity, unexpected nature, and the extensive damage it inflicted. This disaster led to critical changes in how tornado behavior is understood and emphasized the need for improved warning systems to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

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