The Indefinitive List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded (Part IV)

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The Hudsonville, Michigan, tornado of 1956 is not included in the “strongest tornadoes” list because it occurred before the development of the Fujita Scale. Photographic evidence, however, indicates that the F5 tornado caused some of the most intense wind damage ever documented. Large homes were reduced to bare slabs, vegetation was scoured completely from the ground and vehicles were thrown long distances and mangled beyond recognition. A detailed image gallery of the tornado’s destruction, including full color photographs, can be found here.

□ 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:

1. Jarrell, Texas – May 27, 1997

2. Smithville, Mississippi – April 27, 2011

3. Kemper County (Philadelphia), Mississippi – April 27, 2011 

4. Bridge Creek, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999    

5. Bakersfield Valley, Texas – June 1, 1990 

6. Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011              

7. El Reno, Oklahoma – May 24th, 2011

8. Smithfield, Alabama – April 4, 1977                   

9. Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974  

10. Andover, Kansas – April 26, 1991  

11. New Hartford (Parkersburg), Iowa – May 25, 2008

12. Joplin, Missouri – May 22, 2011     

13. Guin, Alabama – April 3, 1974 

14. Moore, Oklahoma – May 20, 2013 

15. Mulhall, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999

16. Wheatland, Pennsylvania – May 31, 1985

17. Rainsville, Alabama – April 27, 2011

18. Barneveld, Wisconsin – June 8, 1984

19. Will County (Plainfield), Illinois – August 28, 1990

20. Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974

Vegetation damage is good method of comparing tornado intensity. The above pictures show damage to pine trees (with relative intensity increasing from left to right). At left, damage from the Phil Campbell tornado, at center, a streak of extreme damage following the Rainsville tornado, and at right, a pine forest scoured to the ground

Vegetation damage is a fairly reliable method of comparing one tornado to another. The above pictures show damage to pine trees (with relative intensity increasing from left to right). At left, damage from the Phil Campbell tornado. At center, a streak of extreme damage following the Rainsville tornado. At right, a pine forest scoured to the ground in Smithville, Mississippi.

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16. Niles, Ohio and Wheatland, Pennsylvania – May 31, 1985

Mike Zahurak photographed the tornado from the Village Center Shopping Plaza as it crossed over Lantern Lane at F5 intensity. An excellent website with information on the tornado can be found here.

□ 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.

Two views of F5 damage on Lantern Lane. At right, aerial view of large, two-story homes that were obliterated. (Grazulis, 2001)

The Niles Park Plaza was leveled and partially swept away as the tornado crossed the US 422. Next door to the plaza was the Autumn Hills Retirement Home, where several apartment buildings were completely destroyed.

Homes on the north side of Chestnut Ridge Road were obliterated as the tornado headed due east towards the Pennsylvania border. (Image by John Durkos)

Perhaps the most impressive damage caused by the F5 tornado was to a trucking plant near the end of its path in eastern Wheatland. The narrow tornado completely destroyed the building, leaving only the twisted steel frame of the structure. Sections of pavement were scoured from the business’s parking lot, an indication of extreme intensity. (NOAA Storm Data)

17. Rainsville, Alabama – April 27th, 2011

Views of the Rainsville tornado as it crosses Main Street and rapidly intensifies. At right, image of the tornado at peak intensity as it crossed Lingerfelt Road. (Video stills by YORKBAMA)

Views of the Rainsville tornado as it crosses Main Street and rapidly intensifies. At right, image of the tornado in the vicinity of Lingerfelt Road. (Video stills by YORKBAMA)

□ 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.

Views of damage near Rainsville. At left, only the twisted chassis of a school bus remains after the tornado crossed Main street. At right, severe tree damage near Crow Lane.

Before and after views of a cul-de-sac of one and two-story homes along Marshall Road. The entire neighborhood, along with its mature hardwood trees, was obliterated. High velocity debris and extreme winds left unusual gouge marks in a field downwind.

View of 1608 Lingerfelt Road, where an NWS survey team documented some of the most intense tornado damage ever recorded. The owners of the large, two-story brick home survived with several neighbors in an underground storm shelter. The tornado breeched the top of the storm cave, partially exposing the people huddled inside. An interesting feature of the damage was the sharp boundary  (marked by scoured grass) separating the EF5 damage from standing trees a short distance to the east. Trees immediately south of the home were blown over but not debarked, whereas vegetation across the street was stripped bare. Visible grass and pavement scouring a few yards north of the home hints at the presence of a powerful wind feature that descended from the tornado and made contact with the ground after passing over the foundation.

At left, view of debarked trees and severe vegetation damage northeast of Rainsville. (Image by Mark Almond) At right, a road scoured of grass near Sylvania. (Image by Melissa Smith)

At left, view of debarked trees and severe vegetation damage northeast of Rainsville. Pavement scouring is visible at right center (Image by Mark Almond). At right, another instance of pavement scouring near Sylvania (Image by Melissa Smith).

Aerial view of devastation along County Road 441. At bottom, a before view of two large homes visible in the lower left corner of the top image. A survey team documented vegetation scouring and sections of sidewalk that were torn from the ground in this area.

18. Barneveld, Wisconsin – June 8, 1984

The Barneveld tornado rapidly intensified as it passed directly through the center of the small town, leveling businesses and homes along Main Street. Winds in the tornado reached F5 intensity on the eastern side of town (just out of frame to the right). More than a third of the town’s population was killed or injured in the tornado. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin State Collection)

□ 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.

Aerial view of F5 damage on Swiss Lane, where seven of the tornado’s nine fatalities occurred. The tornado travelled from upper right to bottom left, leveling a large, well-built Lutheran Church as it exited town. (Image courtesy of the State of Wisconsin Collection)

Severe damage in Barneveld. At left, a crushed truck was thrown into an exposed basement. (Image courtesy of the State of Wisconsin Collection) At right, the mangled remains of vehicles, some of which were hurled more than 300 yards to the east of town. (Image by Allan Y. Scott)

Empty foundations and the flattened church at distance. Prior to the storm, many residents believed that Barneveld was “protected” from tornadoes by hills surrounding the town. In reality, steep terrain has no affect on the movement of tornadoes. (NOAA)

19. Will County (Plainfield), Illinois – August 28, 1990

The Will County tornado remains the only F5 ever documented in the month of August. Despite tearing through a populated area, no photographs exist of the tornado as it was completely wrapped in heavy rain. Several videographers, however, captured the rotating supercell that spawned the tornado. (Top image by Steve Longmire – used with permission)

□ 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.

Aerial view of the tornado’s path through Plainfield. The most intense vegetation damage occurred along the US 30, visible at lower left. (Image courtesy of Steve Longmire)

Aerial views of F5 vegetation damage. Fujita noted multiple instances of unusual “comma” and “eye” shaped patterns throughout the damage path. At left, the 10 yard wide core of extreme ground scouring is clearly visible. (Right image courtesy of Steve Longmire)

Photographs included in Fujita’s article on the Plainfield tornado. Vegetation was ripped completely from the ground. At top right, view of the 20-ton storage trailer that travelled more than half a mile as it was spun around the center of the vortex. (Fujita, 1993)

Scenes of destruction in and around Plainfield. At left, the devastated Plainfield High School, which was days away from re-opening for the Fall semester. At center, a mixture of F0 to F4 damage in Lily Cache. Some homes were swept from their foundations, but none were determined to have been well-constructed. At right, a large dumpster that was wrapped around the top of a partially debarked tree.

Aerial view of rescue efforts at the devastated Crest Hill Lake Apartments, where nine people lost their lives. (Image by Frank Hanes)

20. Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974

The Xenia tornado was at peak intensity and entering Windsor Park when a high school student took the only known film of the storm from his home on Ridgebury Drive.

□ 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.

Aerial view of Windsor Park, where the most intense damage was documented. After crossing the US 35, the tornado entered the Arrowhead subdivision, where the final instances of clear F5 damage occurred.

Close aerial view of empty foundations in Windsor Park. Nine fatalities occurred near the four-way intersection at top center, primarily on Commonwealth and Roxbury Drive.

At left, damage in the Arrowhead subdivision, with pronounced wind rowing near Arrowwood Elementary School. At right, view of F5 damage around the US-35.

At top, satellite view of the damage swath through Xenia and Wilberforce. The most intense damage is visible on the west side of town, with the storm’s path becoming less pronounced as it continued to the northeast. At bottom, view of damage around Arrowwood Elementary School.

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Part I
Part II
Part III

47 thoughts on “The Indefinitive List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded (Part IV)

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  4. Just wanted to say, I’ve spend literally three days on this site. Your analysis of these tornadoes is perhaps the most fascinating thing I have ever read, and I’ve gone over the entire site multiple times. To say incredible work at compiling and analyzing these events would be an unspeakably vast understatement. The weather dork in me is in total nirvana right now, and I might not ever leave this page.

    Have you heard of Fujita’s publication about F5 tornadoes from 2001? I’ve been told it came with his Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm book when ordered from the site but I got my copy at a bookstore; does this publication actually exist? I’ve been trying to find out about it for years.

    • Thank you for the compliment! And yes, the publication you are referring to does exist and is called “F5/F6 Tornadoes” – written by Grazulis, not Fujita. I received a copy of it when I ordered Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm in 2001, and the scanned photograph I used of the damage in Niles, Ohio following the 1985 F5 tornado came from that document. It is a good reference, but does not contain any groundbreaking information.

      • Does the F5/F6 work generally come with that? I have been hoping to obtain a copy. I already have the big green book, but I am interested in his accounts on Jarrell, OKC, and Pampa if it is in there.
        In another question, does the 1992-1995 work just document those years, or does it also include 1680-1991?

      • I don’t think the F5/F6 supplement comes with it anymore.

        As I said before, beyond the addition of the Jarrell, Oak Grove, Lawrence County and Bridge Creek tornadoes (small descriptions like in S.T.), there is little new info beyond a FAQ with Grazulis.

        The 92-95 book only covers those years, hence it is much smaller than the primary version.

  5. Man, I’m so glad Part IV is finally done, I was eagerly anticipating it’s completion. You seem to have put much thought into it, and I applaud you for it. I was so glad to finally see a detailed analysis of the Wheatland tornado on here. The only question I have is this: What were your reasons for not including the 1970 Lubbock, Texas tornado and the 2004 Hallam, Nebraska tornado? The latter reminds me a bit of Mulhall, mainly due to its unprecedented width and how it nearly annihilated a community by barely sideswiping it. I am not angry, I was just wondering about your reasons and if future posts might discuss these two events. Great website, and I look forward to continue reading your posts.

    P.S. That Moshannon State Forest Tornado was an absolute beast, if the reports are all true. Do you know of any great articles on it? I haven’t been able to find much. And FYI, that PDF file I sent you on the West Russia Outbreak of 1984 is the best I’ve been able to find in English. I didn’t find it on Google until a month before I sent it to you, as it is very recent (August 2012 or so, according to it).

    • I am happy you mentioned the Lubbock tornado because I initially included information on what I consider “minimal” F5′s but left it out for brevity’s sake. There is an excellent website on the Lubbock tornado – http://www.lubbocktornado1970.com/ – which has extensive aerial photography of the damage. Reviewing all the photographs, I did not see any clear examples of EF5 damage. The tornado’s path was quite unusual as it left widely spaced streaks of heavy F3/F4 damage amidst a mile wide swath of light damage.

      As for the Hallam tornado, all the imagery I have seen shows damage under what would be expected from an EF5 tornado. Particularly considering the size of the storm and the duration of the winds, the building and tree damage was not particularly impressive.

      I am sure the list will go through many edits, as it already has, and am happy to be introduced to any photographs/info I may have missed. The Hesston, KS tornado and the Chandler, MN tornado are two I have played around with including.

      As for the ’85 Moshannon Forest tornado, I do have some awesome damage photographs of the event. I’ll look through my references and see if there is any particular site I have bookmarked.

  6. See, to me the Xenia tornado was, at the most, a minimal F5 and was surprised that it was included on this list (I am glad that you included the Brandenburg tornado on here, as that thing is severely underrated). The thing about Hallam that made me think it was similar to Mulhall is that the inner core missed the area that it is informally named after, yet the winds were so spread out that they were still able to do sufficient damage to the place. Makes you wonder what would’ve happened had the inner core struck the city. From what Grazulis said about the Lubbock event, it seemed pretty violent. Also, will there be any posts on the Wichita Falls, Texas tornado? The sheer scale of that event blows my mind, even when compared to events last year. You also mentioned how you were “playing around” with the Hesston tornado. I’ve heard that the Goessel tornado was exceptionally violent, but data is hard to come by on it. Well, I have been browsing some forums on violent tornadoes and tornado videos that, if you are interested, I can give you the links to them. I will leave you with two great YouTube accounts with tornado videos that I have literally been unable to find anywhere else on the web:

    http://www.youtube.com/user/MidnightStormTornado?feature=g-user

    http://www.youtube.com/user/vortexva?feature=g-user

    The second channel has great videos of the Andover tornado and the Columbus, Nebraska twister.

    P.S. That pic of the Mulhall twister freaks me out a little whenever I look at the lower left of the funnel: looks like it’s slowly bringing its foot up to slam back down on the ground below it, like it’s relishing what it’s doing.

  7. Awesome job,
    You opened my eyes to a few tornadoes that were stronger than I thought(El Reno) and weaker(Xenia). Of course I agree to disagree with a few of your rankings and don’t like that there are so many ties.(ie Jarrell vs Philadelphia). However as you said this list is indefinitive… Anyway below is my counter list…just for the sake of argument…
    1 Jarrell. The least likely storm I would ever want to be in period.
    2.Smithville. Pics say it all.
    3.Hackleburg/Phil Campbell. High death rate in rural areas.
    4. Joplin. even though its widely underrated I still think you underrate it a bit. NWS still considered it strongest of 2011.
    5.brandenburg
    6. Smithfield
    7.El Reno
    8.Bridge Creek
    9.Andover
    10. Hesston – video is enough for me.
    Barely left out…
    Philadelphia – didn’t look that impressive to me in video/didn’t hit much in the way of established structures.
    Lawrence County- forgotten because it didn’t effect populous areas. Hard to prove it should be ranked that high.
    …Older candidates include:
    1953 Flint
    1955 udall
    1947 Woodward
    1925 Tri state
    Again, appreciate your hard work and dedication

    • There is nothing that I enjoy more than reading other peoples’ thoughts on the subject.

      I agree with most of your list.

      It is important to clarify what “strongest” means. Is intensity gauged solely by damage severity, or by the damage in relation to the duration of peak winds? I see you ranked the Bridge Creek tornado below the Phil Campbell and Joplin events, yet the ground scouring in Grady County was significantly more intense than the vegetation damage in the 2011 events.

      The Phil Campbell tornado moved MUCH faster than the Bridge Creek tornado, however, so it is quite likely it had more intense winds on a second-by-second basis.

      It is difficult to compare tornadoes like the Philadelphia storm to the Phil Campbell tornado. The Phil Campbell tornado left a long, 150-yard wide streak of EF5 damage across nearly half of northern Alabama. The Philadelphia storm left a tiny slice of EF5 damage in an empty field. Yet when comparing the damage within the EF5 zones, the ground scouring in the Philadelphia storm was significantly more intense.

      But as I say, the list is continually changing and evolving. The more feedback I receive, the more accurate it will become.

    • I was wondering, Johnny Weather, do you have a source saying the NWS considered the Joplin storm the strongest of 2011? I’ve communicated with a few survey members, and the one’s I spoke to agreed the EF5′s in the 2011 Super Outbreak were among the most intense they ever documented.

      • I’m just guessing but I’d say he probably based that on the “225-250mph” figure that was floated around for the estimated peak wind. The “official” estimates for the tornadoes on April 27 were all 210mph or less. Not that it really means anything, but it’s probably why some still believe Joplin to be the strongest of the year.

        That said, Joplin was certainly a terrible tornado but the EF5s on April 27 were probably among the most intense we’ll ever see.

      • Shawn – I have seen the 220 to 250mph estimate, but nowhere on any NWS material. At least not that I have found.

        Frankly, I think that would still be a conservative estimate for all six of the EF5 tornadoes in the 2011 season.

  8. One tornado I’d absolutely love to get more information on is the Ivanovo, Russia tornado from June 9, 1984. That whole outbreak, actually. There seems to be virtually no information available (thanks to the USSR), but what few sketchy details are available — cars thrown many hundreds of yards, reinforced concrete buildings demolished, more than a thousand homes leveled, etc — paint an extremely impressive picture.

    There apparently was a paper on it at some point. I believe it was in French, but I can’t seem to find a working link to it anywhere. I know that Tim Vazquez has several satellite photos of the outbreak showing a rather impressive line of supercells. Several of the other tornadoes that day were apparently extremely intense as well. Do you have any information on that outbreak?

  9. What is your opinion of the 1991 Red Rock tornado? It’s terrifying to look at. I’m guessing it would have made for interesting analysis had it hit solid structures.

    • I’m obviously glad it didn’t impact more structures, but I agree. That tornado looked absolutely phenomenal, and considering the 257-268 mph radar-indicated velocity I have no doubt it would have been capable of very high-end F5 damage. There was extensive ground scouring with that tornado, too.

    • If the Red Rock tornado had caused a fatality, it would have been somewhere on the list above the Andover event. With that said, I have not found any photographs of the F4/F5 damage swath. There is a youtube video of the storm’s aftermath that shows a dead cow wedged beneath a guardrail caked in dirt, but no debarked trees/scouring/clean foundations.

      Shawn – I haven’t been able to find any official sources that mention the ground/pavement scouring, though I am quite confident it’s true.

      • Tom Grazulis noted that several county roads had asphalt scoured away. I also recall reading another source that noted grass scouring. I’ll see if I can track down where I read it and let you know.

  10. Incredible website! Probably spent at least three hours reading your different articles – lots of stuff you don’t see anywhere else.

    Like you say, a perfect list would be impossible to make, but yours is easily understandable with the images to boot

    Jarrell was such a nasty storm. Amazing to me that some people consider it a possible F3 when no F3, F4 or even F5 in the past has ever caused similar damage over a few minute time period. I’m also happy you placed the Moore tornado high up, as sometimes people make a point of leaving it out due to media overexposure. It might be puffed up a lot, but it still did cause amazing grass and tree damage.

    I once thought the Xenia tornado was one of the strongest, but your other literature put that false belief to rest. Do you think it even caused enough damage in Windsor Park to be held in such high esteem? The homes were small and poorly made, and there is no visible ground scouring. Maybe because it was so early in the year when grass and other plants hadn’t matured yet?

    • I originally excluded the Xenia tornado from the list, but ended up adding it a short time before I made post IV. The damage in Windsor Park is the only reason it is included – and, partially, the fact that Tom Grazulis said Fujita was quite impressed by the damage to Xenia High School, which is very odd because the school was surrounded by homes with F2/F3 damage.

      The damage in Windsor Park was quite impressive, even if the homes were small and of only moderate construction. I am hard pressed to find any damage photographs that show that many clean foundations in a heavily populated area.

  11. Just a minor nitpick…in the Plainfield essay, you, at first, say that the 20-ton trailer was thrown “more than a quarter mile from the road.” But, in the photo of the vegetation damage and the trailer, it says that it “travelled more than half a mile through the air.” I think the second one sentence I quoted is a typo, because I just read Fujita’s article on the Plainfield tornado again, and on page 5, it mentions a passenger car before thrown nearly half a mile, after being centrifuged around the core of the storm.

    Also, while I know that Fujita only estimated F5 winds to the southeast of US 30, could the dumpster wrapped around a tree be considered “incredible phenomena”, and suitable for F5 winds as well, or only up to F4? The old scale seemed a bit unsure on the F4/F5 boundary a bit.

    • Both are actually accurate. The trailer was found a quarter mile from the road, but Fujita mapped its path through the air based on ground impacts and it actually was whirled around more than half a mile. I believe the link provided in the entry above shows the image Fujita drew of the four vehicles and their paths through the air. The tractor was thrown the farthest of all the vehicles.

      As for the dumpster, the nearby home damage was of F4 intensity. I believe even an F3 tornado can hurl cars, and certainly dumpsters, at a high rate of speed through the air. The vegetation damage near the US 30 was extremely intense – worse than the corn damage caused by the Greensburg and Parkersburg tornadoes. Fujita toured many F5 damage paths, and he still said he thought the Plainfield cornfield damage was perhaps the most intense he ever saw – hence its inclusion in the list.

      • There have been a couple informal studies on cars vs. tornadoes, most of the ones I’ve read just looked at what sort of lofting/damage was done to the car(s) and then associated it with the intensity of the tornado. That seems like kind of a strange way to go about it, but I think they found that F3 is the intensity at which most cars will begin to be rolled and/or thrown. Obviously depends on a number of factors though. I’d think a dumpster would require even less force since it’s got a ton of surface area.

  12. Thanks for clearing that up, and I found the map of the 4 vehicles on page 12. On page 5 of the article, though, it clearly states that a passenger was centrifuged around the core, and that’s what it looks like on the map. The trailer was thrown the farthest, but it doesn’t like, at least on my browser, to have been centrifuged. Or maybe both were, not sure.

  13. It would be interesting to seem more on the intensity of the Chickasha and Goldsby tornadoes. I remember a discussion of them and a page relating to F5 and EF5 tornadoes.

  14. Came across this, a ground view of one of the oil tanks lofted by the Wheatland tornado. Three questions: 1. Do you know if the tanks were empty or full when the tornado encountered them? 2. Are photos of the Yourga Trucking Company damage almost impossible to find, other than the one from NOAA storm data? 3. Are than any other awesome photos of Moshannon, other than, again, the NOAA storm data?

  15. Amazing website and storm analysis. Im wondering, what are your thoughts on the Hesston and goessel tornadoes of 1990. Do you think they were as strong as andover or plainfield?

  16. The wikipedia article on the Xenia tornado is so inaccurate it’s incredible. It says, among other things, that the tornado killed “33 – 36″ people, became an F5 inside the city, was the strongest tornado ever documented and stripped large trees bare.

    Did the Xenia tornado debark trees? Did it cause any incredible phenomena that justifies an F5 rating today?

    • In terms of the death toll, there have been several numbers reported. The three figures I’ve found for the tornado are 32 (here), 34 (Grazulis), and 36 (SPC). Not to defend it, but that appears to be the source of confusion.

      • The city of Xenia has a memorial which lists the names of the 32 direct deaths in Green County, as well as the two National Guardsmen who were killed in the fire afterwards. All the deaths from the storm were in Greene County. One woman was 8-months pregnant, so perhaps some sources count the unborn child.

        It’s strange that Grazulis, who always makes a point of separating indirect fatalities, lists 34 when he is aware the final two were not tornado-related.

        I imagine that due to the tornado’s celebrity, people look for ways to increase the number. My guess is someone saw the memorial, which listed the 34 overall deaths, and then became aware that two deaths occurred in Wilberforce and double counted them to get 36.

        As for the storm’s intensity, it was probably EF5 worthy in Windsor Park. Beyond the clean slabs, it left some good wind-rowing and probably debarked the few trees that were planted there at the time. Can’t remember if I read about vehicles flying long distances, but I imagine some must have in the western edge of town.

  17. That’s another thing that I’ve wondered. I’ve seen this mentioned in a few places. Why is wind rowing considered an indicator of F5/EF5 intensity?

    • I’m not sure exactly why, but it pretty much only occurs in violent tornadoes (EF4+). I’m guessing a combination of large amounts of debris from obliterated homes and intense, tightly wound vortices moving faster than 50mph. It can occur in slower movers like Joplin because the suction vortices within the funnel rotated around the center at more than 70mph.

  18. Your description of the Barneveld tornado is by far the most accurate and true to life account I have found anywhere. I was in high school back in the summer of 1984 and lived on Ameson Road. Refrigerators in those days beeped loudly when they lost power, and my mother and I were awoken by that just before the tornado struck, as you described. The sound is impossible to put into words – you hear people describe it in newspapers but nothing matches the absolute terror of hearing what sounds like Niagra Falls directly over your head. It only lasted a few seconds – just a big explosion with no build up. We were lucky – our home lost its roof and all of the windows, but we were uninjured, but shaken. The police had to comb the fields near the trail behind Swiss Lane for the whole night to find all of the bodies, as most of them were nowhere near their homes.

    I appreciate your work and dedication. Keep it up.

  19. I actually live in a town that was hit by the Barneveld Tornado, and can say for sure it probably reached peak intensity outside Barneveld. It hit Barneveld at around 1:00 a.m., and made a 15-mile trek to Black Earth by 1:10. That means it had to be moving at about 90 m.p.h. If it managed to obliterate almost the entirety of Barneveld that quickly, I shudder to think what would’ve happened had it moved as slowly as the Jarrell or Joplin tornadoes.

  20. I just wanted to say that I enjoy this site so much that I literally have it bookmarked and return often. I’ve been obsessed with severe weather and tornadoes my entire life, and this is nothing short of a storm lover’s utopia. While I know your in-definitive lists are organized by tornadoes that have caused at least one fatality, I’m curious to know if you have any thoughts on the Jordan, Iowa Tornado of 1976? In my own research, which is indeed amateur and lacking sufficient scholarly propriety, I’ve determined that it must have been an extremely violent event. I believe the Jordan storm was among the most powerful tornadoes ever documented, but information concerning it is very limited and hard to come by. Alongside a small degree of video and witness testimony, it’s truly as though this tornado was another “Forgotten F5″ just like with Lawrence County, Tennessee. I’ve heard no mention of ground scarring or vegetation scouring with the Jordan tornado, but it did seem to exhibit extremely violent motion, and apparently obliterated most structures in its path. Purportedly, Dr. Fujita stated that it was among the most intense tornadoes he’d ever surveyed, including the devastating storms of 1974. For the reasons, I’m more than curious what you might think of the Jordan Iowa tornado. Thanks!

    • Tony – I have probably encountered most of the same information as you regarding the Jordan tornado, including a mention by Tom Grazulis in ‘The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm’ that Fujita was particularly impressed by the Jordan, Iowa, and Xenia, Ohio, storms. The Xenia reference surprised me, which makes me take some of those statements with a tiny little grain of salt.

      I do agree with you, however, that the Jordan storm was likely an extremely violent tornado – and the damage was likely even more impressive due to the storm’s slow movement. I have one image of the damage that shows an entire farmhouse that was completely leveled in EF4 fashion, but nothing else. So I wouldn’t know how to rank the tornado without any “objective” evidence other than claims it was “one of the strongest.” There are no pictures of F5 damage, no information on ground/pavement scouring or other extreme phenomena, hence no way to compare it to, say, Bridge Creek or Parkersburg.

  21. Professor Fujita said the Jordan Iowa tornado damage was one of the worst he had ever seen. There is of course one super 8 movie of the tornado it had a strange shape, not quite a wedge but not a stovepipe sort of a “V” shape. It looked very violent and the inflow in the video can be seen as pretty intense. I saw a picture of a house that was totally wiped clean by that tornado it was probably a high-end F-5.

    The Xenia tornado has achieved a kind of infmaous cult-like status because of the number of people killed and because of the urban area it hit. I have a relative who knew someone killed in the tornado, said her house had no basement and she and her son had to shelter in a bathroom. Unfortunately, from what I’ve been told, it simply wasn’t enough and she was killed by blunt force trauma.

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