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□ For a tornado to be considered for categorization, it must have caused at least one fatality and occurred after 1970. Damage intensity and, to a lesser extent, wind duration are the only variables considered, without regard to total path length, width or monetary loss. Objectivity is attempted through the use of damage photographs and reliable survey reports.
While far from definitive, this list is the result of hundreds of hours of research, e-mails across the country and conversations with other storm chasers. I believe it is as accurate a list as is available. It is flexible and always open to change.
The indefinitive list of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded:
20. Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974
19. Will County (Plainfield), Illinois – August 28, 1990
18. Barneveld, Wisconsin – June 8, 1984
17. Rainsville, Alabama – April 27, 2011
16. Wheatland, Pennsylvania – May 31, 1985
15. Mulhall, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999
14. Moore, Oklahoma – May 20, 2013
13. Guin, Alabama – April 3, 1974
12. Joplin, Missouri – May 22, 2011
11. New Hartford (Parkersburg), Iowa – May 25, 2008
10. Andover, Kansas – April 26, 1991
9. Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974
8. Smithfield, Alabama – April 4, 1977
7. El Reno, Oklahoma – May 24th, 2011
6. Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011
5. Bakersfield Valley, Texas – June 1, 1990
4. Bridge Creek, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999
3. Kemper County (Philadelphia), Mississippi – April 27, 2011
2. Smithville, Mississippi – April 27, 2011
1. Jarrell, Texas – May 27, 1997
20. Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974
□ On the afternoon of April 3rd, 1974, a violent supercell thunderstorm passed to the south of Dayton, Ohio. At 4:30pm, one of the most well-known tornadoes in United States history touched down just east of Sugarcreek Reserve, nine miles southwest of the city of Xenia. The storm began its life as a series of transient funnels rotating beneath a violent mesocyclone. Over the course of ten minutes, the multi-vortex tornado solidified and gained strength. By the time it reached the western edge of Xenia, winds in the storm had reached F5 intensity.
The newly developed community of Windsor Park, which straddled the west side of the US 35, took the full brunt of the powerful tornado as it entered the city. Entire rows of small, brick homes were swept completely away as the tornado ripped through the neighborhood at 50mph. Nine fatalities occurred in six houses that were obliterated near the intersection of Roxbury Drive and Gayhart Court. The deaths included three teenagers, a pregnant woman and a mother and her young son (I Dream of Genealogy, 2012). An aerial damage survey later documented a trail of clean foundations all the way to the US-35. Extreme damage continued as the tornado roared past an elementary school, obliterating homes in the Arrowhead subdivision. Structural damage in the area indicated that the tornado had weakened slightly, with the last instances of clear F5 damage occurring on Wigwam Trail, where two people died.
Downtown Xenia was struck by the tornado just before 4:45pm. Businesses and homes in the densely populated center of town were severely damaged, leading to more than a dozen fatalities, including five deaths at an R&W Root Beer stand. In total, 30 people were killed in Xenia, and monetary losses totaled more than 100 million dollars. Three miles outside Xenia, the tornado caused its final two fatalities as it roared through the town of Wilberforce.
An extensive search and rescue operation uncovered a total of 32 victims. Two more were killed in a fire during clean up operations, leading most sources to cite 34 fatalities for the event. In the weeks following the storm, extensive media coverage descended upon Xenia, which suffered the most damage of any city during the Super Outbreak. Due to the incredible destruction, the Xenia tornado was deemed “the strongest” of the outbreak, a belief that was furthered when it became one of six tornadoes awarded an F5 rating. In reality, damage throughout most of the city was in the F3 range. The number of empty foundations in Windsor Park was impressive, but the houses were small and likely of only moderate construction. The shear breadth and consistency of the damage in western Xenia, however, solidified the storm’s place as one of the most impressive of the 20th century.
19. Will County (Plainfield), Illinois – August 28, 1990
□ On a stormy August afternoon in 1990, an unusual off-season tornado touched down in a farm field to the west of Chicago. The funnel was imbedded within a violent high-precipitation thunderstorm that was traveling southeast towards populated sections of Will County. Heavy rain surrounding the tornado made it indiscernible to those in its path. Conventional weather radar failed to identify a hook echo, so no tornado warning was issued. The sirens across the area remained silent.
As the tornado approached the US 30, one mile to the west of Plainfield, the inner core of the storm rapidly intensified and narrowed to only 10 yards in width. Thick clouds of dirt and vegetation were ripped from the ground as the narrow vortex crossed the highway, hurling four vehicles into the air. A tractor hauling a metal storage trailer was impacted directly by the column of F5 winds. The tractor was thrown 100 yards into a cornfield in one throw, killing the driver. The 20-ton trailer was torn from the tractor and centrifuged around the center of the storm, bouncing several times before landing a quarter mile from the road. Another car was lifted into the tornado by violent inflow winds and whirled a half mile through the air without impacting the ground. The driver of the car, who had been wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle and found dead later that evening (Fujita, 1993). In total, four motorists were killed in vehicles on the US 30, all of them caught unexpectedly while driving on a rainy day.
Before entering Plainfield, the core of the storm expanded to 70 yards in width and weakened slightly. Well-constructed homes on the southern edge of town were leveled, and a large metal dumpster was wrapped around the top of a partially debarked tree. The Plainfield High School was directly impacted by the rain wrapped tornado as it crossed Commercial Street, causing three fatalities. Aerial imagery revealed that the tornado left a pronounced streak of damage as it continued to the southeast at 45mph. Large homes in Lily Cache and Crystal Lawns were splintered in F4 fashion, leading to seven additional fatalities.
Near the end of its life, the tornado struck the Crest Hill Lake Apartments. Nine residents died when the top two stories of an apartment building were obliterated. Some of the bodies were hurled more than 100 yards into a cornfield east of the apartments. One boy, who was the sole survivor of a family of four, later told a reporter “I was looking out the window at my brother who was coming home from football practice, and I thought, ‘Man, it’s getting dark.’ Then — boom! — I was out in a cornfield” (Grimm, 2010).
Professor Fujita conducted an aerial damage survey the day after the tornado and selected an F5 rating due to the severity of the vegetation damage around the US 30, which he described as being “comparable to the worst I have ever seen.” According to Fujita, “The damage in the cornfield southeast of US 30 was entirely different from the damage adjacent to structures affected by the F3 or F4 winds…In the worst damage area, corn crops were blown away entirely, leaving behind the remnants of small roots connected to the underground root system” (Fujita, 1993). Twenty nine lives were lost in Will County, and more than 200 homes were obliterated.
18. Barneveld, Wisconsin – June 8, 1984
□ In the midst of a nighttime lightning storm on June 8th, 1984, residents of Barneveld were awoken by an electrical surge that sent fire alarms and appliances into a beeping frenzy. Moments later, the power across the tiny town flickered and went out. As people prepared to fall back asleep, a sound like “dry and distant thunder” was heard off to the west. The barely audible rumble soon became a deafening roar, awakening even the heaviest sleepers, some of whom suspected they were in the path of a crashing jumbo jet. A massive surge of wind driven debris followed, and soon a third of the town lay in ruins.
The deadly tornado followed Main Street directly through the center of Barneveld, splintering businesses and homes within its 300 yard wide path of destruction. Aerial damage photographs indicate that the tornado was intensifying as it passed through town. On the northeast edge of Barneveld, a cluster of homes on Swiss Lane was swept completely away. Seven of the tornado’s nine fatalities occurred in four adjacent homes in this area. The deaths included a couple and their eight year old daughter who were found 200 yards from their obliterated home. The only surviving member of the family, a one year old boy, was left paralyzed from the waist down (Brueck, Woodard, 2009). Trees near the empty foundations were debarked, and vehicles from the neighborhood were hurled long distances and rendered unrecognizable. Additionally, a large and well-constructed brick church was leveled and partially swept away.
A survey team headed by Prof. Fujita awarded the tornado an F5 rating due to the damage on Swiss Lane. The devastation and high concentration of fatalities in the area was indicative of exceptional intensity. Considering the unusual hour that the storm struck, it is remarkable the death toll was not higher. Many of the survivors credited their survival to the power surge, which preceded the tornado by several minutes.
17. Rainsville, Alabama – April 27th, 2011
□ The Rainsville tornado left an unusual swath of destruction through northeastern Alabama during the 2011 Super Outbreak. The intensity of the damage varied tremendously in affected areas of DeKalb County. In some instances, seemingly undamaged trees stood less than 100ft from well-constructed homes that were swept completely away from their foundations. Along the tornado’s 34 mile streak of devastation, 25 people were killed and more than 100 frame homes were obliterated.
The tornado touched down east of Fyffe and travelled roughly parallel to Highway 75 at a forward speed of 60mph. Video evidence suggests that the tornado had a complex multiple vortex structure. The first fatalities occurred as the tornado crossed Main Street, devastating homes and businesses in eastern Rainsville. A school bus parked at the DeKalb County School Coliseum was thrown 100 yards and stripped to its metal chassis.
The tornado rapidly intensified north of Main Street and reached peak intensity as it swept over Lingerfelt Road, where several well-constructed homes vanished. Some of the most intense tornado damage ever documented occurred at 1608 Lingerfelt Road, where a two-story brick home was swept completely away. An NWS survey found that an 800lb anchored safe had been ripped from the home’s foundation and thrown 200 yards to the northeast. The door to the safe, which had been closed, was torn open and completely off. A large concrete porch weighing thousands of pounds was shattered and blown away from the destroyed home. Additionally, sections of pavement were ripped from the residence’s driveway, and the home owner’s truck was rendered completely unrecognizable after being thrown more than 250 yards (NWS, 2011). The damage to this single property is the reason for the inclusion of the Rainsville tornado in the list of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded.
Incredible damage also occurred at several nearby properties. Large stone pillars were ripped from the ground at one home, and a section of slab foundation was uprooted at another. Damage patterns suggest that the EF5 damage was caused by extremely powerful suction vortices that made brief contact with the ground, leading to the erratic nature of the destruction. Grass scouring and pock marks from high speed debris were also photographed near Lingerfelt Road and areas to the north, further evidence of the tornado’s awesome power.
More images detailing EF5 damage on Lingerfelt Road can be found here.
16. Niles, Ohio and Wheatland, Pennsylvania – May 31, 1985
□ In the summer of 1985, an unprecedented outbreak of long-tracked tornadoes swept through eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario. The event was notable not only for the incredible intensity and longevity of the storms but also for being the only violent tornado outbreak ever recorded in the region. In total, the storm system killed 88 people across the United States and Canada and left more than 500 million dollars in damage.
The only tornado awarded an F5 rating during the outbreak began its 47 mile path of destruction in Portage County, Ohio. After ripping through sparsely populated forestland, the tornado swept through the city of Newton Falls at F3 intensity. Damage was widespread throughout the town, but no fatalities were recorded. As the tornado continued eastward at 50mph it gained strength, leveling rural homes north of Lordstown. The tornado was approaching F5 intensity as it entered the outskirts of Niles, a manufacturing city south of Warren. Massive industrial tanks more than 30ft high and weighing 75,000 pounds were crumpled like soup cans, one of which was rolled 60 yards onto a nearby road. Large, well-constructed homes lining Lantern Lane were swept completely away as the tornado roared through cul-de-sacs around the Niles Union Cemetery (Grazulis, 2001). Pronounced wind rowing was noted as the tornado made a slight curve to the north and headed towards the US 422. Three people were killed as two vehicles were thrown from the road. On the west side of the highway, the Niles Park Plaza and a large skating rink were leveled and partially swept away, causing additional fatalities.
As the tornado continued eastward towards the Pennsylvania border it maintained F4 intensity and completely demolished several rural residences. The tornado remained fairly narrow throughout its life, with the primary damage path never surpassing 150 yards in width. After crossing into Pennsylvania, the storm entered the industrial area of Wheatland at F5 intensity. A man shielding two children in a ditch was torn from the ground and later found dead in the debris of a destroyed business a block away. Nearby, a six-year old boy running home from a baseball game was caught outside and killed by the storm (Ivory, 2007). Four more died in separate buildings at the intersection of Church Street and Ohio Street. The tornado may have reached peak intensity during its second wind maxima on the east side of Wheatland. A trucking plant was stripped of its roof and walls, and the steel-beam frame of the building was “twisted like a pretzel” (Grazulis, 2001). Sections of pavement were scoured from the plant’s parking lot, and surveyors documented pieces of debris and paper wedged beneath the remaining asphalt. Minutes after exiting Wheatland, the tornado weakened and dissipated.
In total, the violent tornado killed 11 people in Ohio and seven in Wheatland. A damage survey concluded that the tornado caused F5 damage both in Niles and in Wheatland. Yet despite the severity of the building damage, photographic evidence indicates the tornado failed to cause significant tree debarking in the worst affected areas. As discussed in Part II, violent tornadoes may cause some extreme damage indicators but not others. The reason why damage patterns differ so wildly is unknown.