‘The human spirit:’ Reconstruction after the 1974 tornado shapes progress today

In the wake of the April 3, 1974 tornado, Xenia residents spent years bringing the houses and businesses back to life, and efforts to rebuild Xenia following that tragedy are echoed by downtown revitalization efforts today.

After the destruction, the city adopted the phrase “Xenia lives.” Today, the City of Hospitality ”is thriving,” Mayor Sarah Mays said.

Credit: Sharahn D. Boykin/STAFF

Credit: Sharahn D. Boykin/STAFF

“There’s new people, there’s new faces, there’s new development, there’s new housing, but I would argue that the culture of Xenia — of taking care of each other — has not changed,” she said.

The historic tornado — part of a “super outbreak” across several states — killed more than 30 people in Greene County and more than 1,300 sought hospital treatment, according to Dayton Daily News archives.

Up to 30 tornadoes rated as F4 or F5 were reported within 24 hours with the deadliest hitting Xenia, which experienced “the most violent tornado outbreak ever recorded,” according to a History Channel video.

‘Where is mom?’: What 20 people told reporters in the moments after the 1974 Xenia tornado

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is a Greene County native and has represented it in some way for more than 40 years. After the 1974 tornado — DeWine was then an assistant Greene County prosecutor — Xenia residents showed resiliency, “wanting to start rebuilding their lives, homes, schools and businesses,” he said.

“I saw this in Xenia, and frankly, I’ve also seen it in other places in Ohio later on,” including in Indian Lake, part of an 11-county area where DeWine last month declared a state of emergency after tornadoes caused major damage north of the Dayton area.

“Ohioans are tough and they’re strong and they just get back up and try to put things together,” he said. “And so, what we saw the next day and for the next week after that is people in Xenia doing everything they could to try and put their life back together.”

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Though many people stayed in Xenia and rebuilt their homes, many others moved away, as the cost of rebuilding their homes exceeded the cost of buying a new home elsewhere,” former Xenia Mayor Marsha Bayless said.

“We’d lost a big percentage of our population after the tornado. People lost their homes and relocated. So it’s been a gradual build,” she said.

Institutions also built and reformed after the tornado. Prior to 1974, the African Methodist Episcopal church in Xenia had split into two small churches, both of which were destroyed in the storm. The congregations were later reunited and combined under one church, the United AME Church, which still stands today.



Xenia Towne Square

Building up the center of town and its retail and commercial heart proved a challenge at the time, and shows striking parallels to the development of the area today.

Five years after people returned to their homes and businesses had reopened their doors, the development that would become Xenia Towne Square began construction amidst embroiled controversy over accusations of misspent relief funding, and frustration from residents.



A 1984 article in the Dayton Daily News showed that city leaders at the time had envisioned a shopping center similar to the Dayton Mall, but high interest rates and inflation rendered the project unrealistic. The allegations of misspent funds were eventually dropped, with a producer at CBS’ 60 Minutes saying ‘We found no crooks...just a lot of red tape.” Many residents who had owned decimated homes nearby wanted to rebuild, leading to bitter court battles and extensive costs of time and money.

“It took eight to 12 years to plan and build the Dayton mall. We had a year and a half to build ours,” mayor Charles Cook said in 1975.

However, once the Towne Square opened in 1980, the K-Mart, grocery store, and several storefronts largely accomplished their purpose, bringing commerce and retail back to the downtown area.

City leaders after the tornado were “under the gun” to get something built, Xenia Mayor Sarah Mays said, using federal relief dollars to get the job done quickly.

The haste with which the city was attempting to rebuild was accidentally rediscovered last year by crews laying broadband internet cables in Xenia, she added. Workers for Altafiber found an old car that had been paved over with the rubble, and ended up running the cables through its windows.

Now, 50 years later, Xenia Towne Square is primed for redevelopment again, with the goal of recreating the street grid that w

as there before the shopping center, or the tornado.

“You’re always going to have inflation. You’re always gonna have pressure from community,” she said. “Culture changes. I think one thing we’re seeing though, that doesn’t change is the desire for a downtown. That hasn’t changed in 50 years.”

Bayless and her mother were teachers at the time of the tornado, and taught at what was then McKinley Elementary on Market Street, where Xenia Towne Square is today.

“She had an upstairs classroom, and she normally liked to stay after school and work,” Bayless said. “She came home a little bit early that day....When we went to look at the school, her classroom was completely gone,” she said.

Bayless taught first grade in 1974, and to help the children work through the fear and chaos of the tornado and its aftermath, their assignment was to write and draw pictures about it.

She kept those stories for 40 years, and at the city’s 40th anniversary celebration, gave most of the collection of pictures and stories back to those students, now adults, and their families. The rest she gave to the Xenia branch of the Greene County library, where they are on display for the month of April.

Advancements in communications

In the 50 years since the super outbreak of tornadoes, methods of warning and protecting against tornadoes have come a long way. Weather radio, tornado sirens, and even text alerts on smartphones are ways to keep informed of inclement severe weather in real time.

In 1974, nobody in Xenia had those things, and in the aftermath, many people didn’t even know if their families were safe.

“My dad attempted to get into town and when he drove by Arrowhead and saw that it was gone, that was really upsetting. He didn’t know. So by the time he got to my mom, he walked in and he just bawled his eyes out,” Mays said.

“My mom had no idea. She was still expecting their friends to come pick her up for Bible study that night,” she said.

Xenia also has a better system for responding to emergencies, and plans in place for the next natural disaster, she added.

“We all can instantly know, even when our internet’s down, we all know pretty quickly what’s happening...that’s such a big deal, how things have changed,” she said.

‘An injection of newness’

Xenia is experiencing an influx of growth, Xenia Mayor Sarah Mays said. Several new housing developments have been built or proposed in the last five years. Xenia has five new elementary schools, and is in the midst of constructing a new building for Warner Middle School.

Survivors of the tornado say they have a healthier respect for severe weather events, perhaps more than their children, or individuals and families who have moved to Xenia. As those survivors get older, that part of the culture shifts.

“Even today, if you hear a tornado watch or a tornado warning, those of us who went through that take it very, very seriously, and other people who haven’t experienced it, just kind of let it go,” Bayless said.

“There’s an injection of newness,” Mays said. “We still honor the past...there is a sympathy but there’s not the same empathy. And that that is simply just the passage of time.”

‘The human spirit’

“What was different about Xenia … was the magnitude of the deaths,” DeWine said. “I’m sure that when this anniversary comes around, anybody who lost someone in the in the Xenia tornado is going to be (impacted) again.

“But the town came back, the community came back, and the people came back,” he added. “And you know, the great desire that you saw in people was I want to get back to where we were, I want my home back. I want to get this fixed. I want to do whatever I can to move forward.”

What was also evident, DeWine added, was “people trying to help other people.”

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Credit: Lynch, Gregory

Other survivors expressed similar thoughts.

“It’s a reminder that deep down people still have good hearts for the most part,” Bayless said. “And after disasters, people do come together, and they do help in any way.”

In Xenia before the tornado, “there was some unrest going on,” said Lesa Taylor DeVond, a high school student at the time.

“And once the tornado took place — and then all of the destruction that we witnessed — I did see the town pulling together. Everybody was there to help everybody,” she said.

The “human spirit” was on display, said Jeff Louderback, whose family’s home was destroyed in the tornado.

While disasters seem to always attract looters and others seeking to capitalize from them, he added, in the tornado’s aftermath groups such as the Mennonites came in to help.

“It seems like there’s unity and camaraderie and spirit in people,” Louderback said.

Aid from the Mennonites also sticks in the memory of Mark Howard. His father’s business and a home the family was days away from buying both were destroyed by the twister.

“I remember my dad and I would be going there and cleaning up his office building,” said Howard, who was 10 at the time.

“And they’d just show up unannounced … and they set up tables and start giving sandwiches and coffee and that kind of stuff,” he added. “And for some reason, that sticks into my memory of just a positive experience.”