The Tornado Outbreak of May 31, 1985
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May 31, 1985 started out quietly in Northeast Ohio and Northwest Pennsylvania, but danger loomed on the horizon. A warm front lifted north across the region during the predawn hours of the 31st. Clouds associated with this front gave way to sunshine during the morning hours allowing temperatures to soar. For much of the area, this Friday was the last day of the school year, but by early afternoon it felt more like the middle of July than the end of May. Unfortunately, the mild temperatures and high humidity levels in place that day were two of the key ingredients that allowed a warm May afternoon to turn into an historical and deadly evening.
At daybreak on May 31, 1985, a strong area of low pressure was centered near Duluth, Minnesota. A cold front extended south from the low across the western Great Lakes and then through Illinois and Missouri. The low tracked across the northern Great Lakes during the afternoon, while the cold front progressed eastward across Indiana and western Ohio. By late afternoon, temperatures had reached 87 degrees at Cleveland, 82 degrees at Youngstown, and 85 degrees at Erie, Pennsylvania. At the same time, conditions in the upper atmosphere continued to become more favorable for an outbreak of severe weather.
By early afternoon, thunderstorms developed in Ontario, Canada just ahead of the cold front. Over a dozen tornadoes occurred in Ontario, with at least four F3s and two F4s reported. However, as the afternoon progressed, the thunderstorm activity developed south into northern Ohio. The initial thunderstorms in the state occurred between 3 and 4 p.m. near Cleveland. At 4:10 p.m., the National Weather Service Office in Cleveland issued the first severe thunderstorm warning of the day for Ashtabula County. From that point on through the evening, weather conditions worsened. As the first reports of damage trickled in to the National Weather Service offices in the area, it quickly became clear that a tornado outbreak of an unprecedented magnitude was taking place across the region.
By the end of the evening, a total of forty-one tornadoes had occurred in the United States and Canada. Twenty-one tornadoes tracked across Northeast Ohio and Northwest Pennsylvania during the evening of May 31st. Of these twenty-one, one was rated an F5, and six were rated F4’s. Tragically, these tornadoes killed seventy-six people in Ohio and Pennsylvania. This day remains the deadliest tornado outbreak ever documented in Pennsylvania. In Ohio, this was the worst event since the April 3-4th, 1974 outbreak that killed thirty-seven in Xenia.
The strongest of the tornadoes touched down at the Ravenna Arsenal in eastern Portage County around 6:35 p.m. The tornado intensified to an F5 as it tracked east across southern Trumbull County devastating the communities of Newton Falls and Niles. Nine people were killed in the business district of Niles. As the tornado continued east along its forty-one mile path of destruction, it crossed the state line and slammed into the community of Wheatland located in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. The tornado destroyed nearly the entire town of Wheatland, and seven more people were killed. The tornado finally lifted south of the town of Mercer after damaging or destroying more than a thousand homes. Injuries were in the hundreds.
The deadliest tornado of the day touched down near Jamestown, Pennsylvania along the Mercer and Crawford County line around 5:20 p.m. This tornado was rated an F4 and killed 23 people. The tornado stayed on the ground for over an hour and produced a 56-mile long damage path. Along the way, the town of Atlantic was virtually destroyed. Cochranton, Cherry Tree, Cooperstown and Tionesta were also hard hit. Fatalities occurred in all five towns and also at mobile home park north of Franklin. The tornado finally lifted near Tionesta (Forest County) after destroying 371 homes.
Five other tornadoes also affected Crawford County on this day. An F3 tornado killed two people in Centerville with an F2 killing one person near Linesville. Over a thousand homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in the county.
Erie County, Pennsylvania was also affected by devastating tornadoes. The first of two F4 tornadoes to affect the county touched down just west of the Pennsylvania state line around 5 p.m. The tornado moved across the northwestern tip of Crawford County and then entered Erie County near Pennside. After causing considerable damage there, the tornado slammed into Albion leveling the town. A ten-block area was completely destroyed with nine people loosing their lives. The tornado killed three more people in Cranesville before finally lifting. There were also 82 injuries with a total of 309 buildings destroyed. The second F4 to affect Erie County touched down between Wattsburg and Corry in eastern Erie County. This tornado stayed on the ground for 45 miles but fortunately killed no people
In addition to the Newton Falls-Niles tornado, other somewhat weaker tornadoes affected the counties in Northeast Ohio. An F3 tornado caused significant damage in northern Trumbull and southern Ashtabula Counties. Several F2 and one F1 tornado were also reported. The tornado near Kinsman (Trumbull County) was produced by the parent thunderstorm that later spawned the deadly Atlantic tornado in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.
The residents of Ohio and Pennsylvania will long remember May 31st, 1985. Rarely has such an outbreak of tornadoes been seen in this county and never before in this area. Let this day serve as a reminder that devastating tornadoes can occur in any month of the year at any time of the day and at any location in the country.
Supplemental Information from our neighbors at WFO CTP:
Supplemental Presentation by Nick Sleptzoff, former Erie County EMA director:
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