CLEVELAND - As Ohio weather history goes, this was one of the top ten worst severe weather events ever. July 4, 1969 started out as a terrific weather day across Northern Ohio. The sun was out for much of the day. Temperatures warmed into the lower and middle 80s. Residents were more concerned about beer and bratwurst than thunderstorms. Parks and beaches were full as thousands celebrated Independence Day and waited for fireworks displays to begin.
But Mother Nature would soon provide her own fireworks. Big storms were raging across lower Michigan and well out over Lake Erie all afternoon. But the storms were moving east toward Buffalo and few people on Ohio's shores even noticed the clouds.
The first sign of trouble came just after 7:30 p.m. from a ship's captain out in Lake Erie, about 10 miles north of Lorain. His boat encountered a surprise thunderstorm. The winds gusted to 110 miles per hour! The storms were turning south. He radioed the observation to weather officials on-shore.
What no one knew was that a line of monster thunderstorms stretching from Toledo to Ashtabula, was crossing the lake and was now headed toward unsuspecting picnickers, partiers and boaters on the south shore.
Just after 8 p.m., the storms slammed into Northern Ohio. Toledo got hit first. Winds more than 100 miles per hour downed an estimated 5,000 trees across the city. A toledo man was killed near the Breakers Hotel at Cedar Point by a fallen tree.
A short time later the line of storms, know as a "DERECHO" (der-RAY-ch-oh), blasted Greater Cleveland. About 20,000 spectators had gathered at Lakewood Park to watch fireworks. Two spectators were killed by falling trees as the crowd scrambled to safety. More than 100 trees fell in Lakewood as the storm blew through... all in less than 10 minutes.
In Cleveland, winds peaked at 100 miles per hour. Hundreds of small pleasure boats, crowded with people, were anchored just off shore on Lake Erie to watch the fireworks. Most boats made it safely to shore, but U.S. Coast Guard ships rescued 100 boaters from the maelstrom. Four boaters drowned. Three people were killed by downed trees at Edgewater Park during the storm. And two Cleveland men were electrocuted by downed power lines.
The storms continued to move southeast across much of Northern and Eastern Ohio. Power was knocked out to more than 250-thousand people area-wide.
But Mother nature wasn't done. The western edge of this squall-line stalled. From Toledo to Wooster the heavy rains fell for several hours. Total rainfall was 10 to 14 inches from Ottawa County to Wayne County. In Ottawa and Sandusky counties, witnesses say, fields were flooded as far as the eye could see. Record flooding was observed on the Huron River, the Vermilion River, and the Black River. Major portions of Ashland and Wayne Counties were flooded and isolated for two days after the flood. Killbuck Creek in Holmes County rose 20 feet to its highest level ever.
All told, hurricane-force winds, flooding, and lightning caused 18 deaths in Ohio and more than 500 injuries. More than 10,000 homes were damaged and 104 small businesses were destroyed.
My wife, Mary, watched as her outdoor cat was picked up by the fierce winds at her Ashtabula home and carried away. Six weeks later, the cat returned.
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