By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD News & Journal Editor
Last week, March 18-22 was declared ‘West Virginia Severe Weather Awareness Week by Governor Jim Justice. As part of this declaration, it was announced that a statewide Tornado Safety Drill was to take place on Tuesday, March 19th at 10:30 a.m. and as part of the campaign, TEST tornado warnings would be issued by the National Weather Service using all available resources including radio and television warning messages.
The purpose of giving such attention to Weather Awareness Week was to encourage residents of the Mountain State to “be prepared” in case of such an emergency and to update their emergency plans.
Nearly every press release received by The News & Journal proclaimed the “Shinnston Tornado” as an example of the devastating effects that can be generated by a weather emergency like a tornado. While tornadoes may be rare in West Virginia and while some may believe that residents here are somewhat protected by our hills, news releases last week cited the 1944 Shinnston Tornado as “a tragic reminder that natural disasters can strike suddenly, without warning, and in many forms”.
It is reported that since the mid-1800’s, there have been only four tornadoes in West Virginia – three of those were not extremely significant. West Virginia is listed as being among the states with the lowest rate of occurrences of such storms.
The Shinnston Tornado, however, is called the “deadliest tornado in West Virginia’s history”. It reared its ugly head June 22-23, 1944, with tornadic activity across a path from southwestern Pennsylvania to Garrett County, Maryland, but what wreaked havoc in Shinnston and its surrounding area earned its status as the deadliest weather event in the state’s history. It also passed through other areas of Harrison, Marion, Taylor, and Barbour Counties before losing its force in Randolph County.
It was reported to have been an F-4 tornado, the second highest of tornado rankings that can produce winds up to or stronger than 200 miles per hour that are capable of leveling houses and throwing vehicles into the air. This 1944 twister certainly let its power be known in Shinnston, particularly in the Pleasant Hill section of the community where no more than ten houses were left standing. It bent the State Police tower in half, lowered wooden oil derricks to the ground, and took out power lines.
Most accounts reveal that 103 people (ranging in age from 85 years old to a six-day old infant) died in West Virginia as a result of this 1944 storm whose funnel tossed debris as it advanced through the area. Those seriously injured numbered 430. The death toll here locally encompassed 66 of those record-number deaths! Between loss of lives, injuries, property and infrastructure damage, this unexpected storm was headline news for quite some time … and it is still cited as a perfect example for the necessity of preparedness.
Those area citizens were not prepared for this vicious black cloud, so how did they react? Although phone service was also disrupted making it difficult to call for help, that service was only out of order for a short time because it was during war years and emergency backup preparations were in place for that reason. A further benefit turned out to be the people of the area who pitched in to help one another. Even teenage boys were put to work carrying in bodies of the dead and injured, using doors as stretchers. Boy Scouts helped by running errands. With no electric power in the vicinity, local pharmacist George Rice went to his place of business, gathering all the candles he had in stock. The First United Methodist Church opened its doors to offer first aid to those with more minor injuries. A traveling circus lent its generators to the two local hospitals in Clarksburg so that victims could be treated; prison camp laborers were put to work digging graves. Elected officials, the National Guard, police, firefighters, nurses, doctors, road crews, various civic groups, and citizens ALL acted selflessly to do their best for the local area that was literally left in ruins.
If you have never read John L. Finlayson’s book Shinnston Tornado (published in 1946), it is a thorough revelation of riveting accounts from eyewitnesses who survived the wrath of Mother Nature that fateful day. Along with their descriptive narratives are powerful photographs that depict the vast devastation that the angry twister left behind. Not only does it reveal the horror of the event but also the gratitude the community felt for all those people who offered compassion and helped with rescues, cleanup, and recovery.
Finlayson also praised the Shinnston News for its coverage of the tornado and for opening the doors of its office to headquarter the Red Cross. Its edition immediately following the Shinnston Tornado devoted nearly all of its copy space to this tragic event, headlining the front page “Shinnston Buries Her Beloved Dead”.
Finlayson noted that Publisher/Editor William A. Meredith’s telling of the tornado story was so compelling it drew the admiration of newspapers everywhere. Mr. Meredith described the “unequaled fury” of the storm, telling of churches that were destroyed and homes left in ruins. He wrote of “winds fierce enough to pluck the feathers off of chickens and peel the bark off of the trees that were left standing”. Families whose homes were destroyed were listed along with bodies that had been recovered and names of those still missing. People immediately realized the enormity of what had happened in their community!
This year will mark the 75th anniversary of the tornado that ravaged Shinnston, and it certainly left an indelible mark! What happened that day is still like a blazing “poster child” for being prepared for the unexpected.
A storm can ruin a picnic, or it can bring welcomed relief to a dry, parched garden. But the horrific storm that funneled through Shinnston in late June of 1944 left many families literally speechless. It was a “wild” but certainly not a “wonderful” day in Shinnston, West Virginia.