Despite popular misconception, the downtowns of large cities are no less prone to violent tornadoes than the farmland that surrounds them. High-rise districts are rarely larger than one or two square miles, so they sit as small and widely spaced targets across the storm prone regions of the United States and Canada. Tornadoes have caused well over 1 billion dollars in damage and approximately 100 fatalities in the centers of major cities since 1950. As of this writing, however, no tornado* has ever caused violent (EF4/EF5) damage in the downtown area of a large city.
Below is a list of all strong (E/F3+) tornadoes that have impacted the downtowns of cities with populations greater than 100,000. While all of these storms left impressive damage, none caused the catastrophic devastation that researchers have predicted using modeled scenarios. Analyses of spatial distributions have indicated that a single tornado could take well over 10,000 lives within the boundaries of a major population center (Wurman, Alexander, Robinson, Richardson, 2006). After decades of relative complacency, the 2011 storm season proved that modern civilization is still no match for an EF5 tornado.
*The Gainesville, Georgia, tornado of 1936 caused violent tornado damage in the city’s central business district as well as over 200 fatalities. The population of Gainesville, however, is less than 50,000.
Waco, Texas – May 11, 1953
A sudden burst of heavy rain sent weekend shoppers scrambling for shelter in downtown Waco on May 11th, 1953. From inside the many multi-story businesses lining 4th and 5th Street, people watched as the afternoon sun was quickly extinguished by a massive thunderstorm. An “inpenetrable darkness” swept over the city streets, causing the few driving vehicles to switch on their headlights (WCCC.TV, 2012). Dozens of customers in the five-story R. T. Dennis Building, a large furniture store on 5th Street, watched from the plate glass windows as hail loudly banged against parked cars. The storm was growing in intensity when an ominous roar was heard off to the south.
Without warning, a 300-yard wide tornado swept through the city center at 40mph. Those taking shelter in street-front shops were pelted with flying glass as a “dark fog” engulfed the area. Massive thuds were heard as water tanks were blown off roofs, crushing cars on the street below. The R. T. Dennis Building swayed back and forth a few times before collapsing, killing more than 22 people – including the majority of the store’s staff (Cox, 2006). A nearby recreation center was flattened, crushing 17 others to death (AP, 2003). More than half of the 114 deaths occurred on one city block, bound by Austin and 5th Street to the west. Damage to low-rise mortar buildings was catastrophic, yet the eleven-story Roosevelt Hotel stood with only a few broken windows. The tallest high-rise in Waco, the 22-story ALICO Building, suffered similarly modest damage despite being just across the street from the worst affected area
After the creation of the Fujita Scale, the Waco tornado was retrospectively given an F5 rating. Photographs, however, indicate that home damage in the vicinity of downtown was in the F2 and F3 range. The low concentration of fatalities in the residential sections of the city, coupled with the survival of most of the city’s large buildings, indicates the storm was likely under F5 intensity in the areas documented by local media.
Topeka, Kansas – June 6, 1966
One of the most well-known tornadoes of the 20th century touched down near Old Pauline Road in Shawnee County, Kansas. The large and widely visible funnel was reported by several police officers and weather service employees as it roared to the northeast towards the city of Topeka. Just east of Sherwood Lake, the rapidly intensifying tornado swept a home completely away, killing the two occupants. The storm’s moderate forward speed, which averaged 30mph, gave residents in the outer suburbs of Topeka more than ten minutes to seek appropriate shelter. By the time the barrel-shaped tornado reached a housing development along Interstate 470, it was at peak intensity. Rows of small tract homes were reduced to bare concrete slabs and vehicles were hurled more than two block and mangled beyond recognition. Most of the storm’s fatalities occurred in this area. The tornado swept over a freeway overpass where a group of people had sought shelter, leading to several critical injuries.
As the tornado moved into the city, it weakened slightly but continued causing a pronounced swath of F3+ damage. A large apartment complex was impacted directly by the tornado, yet only one of the 100 or more people who did not make it to the building’s storm cellar was killed (Fales, 1967). The storm crossed over a mile long section of Big Shunga Park, momentarily sparing residential areas of the city. After tearing across 21st Street, the tornado passed over the main campus of Washburn University. More than a dozen large, stone buildings at the college were severely damaged – some having their upper floors sheared completely off. Fifty students and faculty survived in the southeast corner of the school chapel’s basement. The “safe” southwest corner of the basement, where the group intended to hide, was buried in thousands of pounds of debris moments later (Fales, 1967). A 300lb piece of stone originating from the college was hurled two miles and found atop the Topeka Municipal Auditorium (Fales, 1967). As the storm continued to the northeast it ripped through downtown Topeka at marginal F3 intensity. The state capitol and a ten-story building suffered window and roof damage, but no fatalities were recorded in this area. East of downtown, the tornado flipped planes at the municipal airport before narrowing and dissipating.
The tornado caused 14 deaths in Topeka an 16 overall (Hoots, 2010). After the Fujita Scale was created in the early 70′s, the tornado was given an F5 rating due to the home damage near Interstate 470. Most of the homes were small and not well-built, however, so the damage may not be indicative of F5 intensity. The low number of fatalities was likely the result of the tornado’s slow movement, wide visibility and moderate intensity north of Big Shunga Park.
Lubbock, Texas – May 11, 1970
One of the most important tornadoes in US history touched down in Lubbock, Texas, on a stormy night in May of 1970. The tornado’s damage path commenced a few blocks southwest of the city’s high-rise district, which included two buildings over 200ft in height. Downtown Lubbock was bombarded by hurricane force winds as the tornado widened to over a mile in width and slowly meandered to the north. Windows were shattered and several unreinforced brick walls collapsed, but the damage was fairly light in the city’s business district. The tornado’s first victim was killed several blocks west of downtown in the collapse of a small home. The massive storm intensified as it turned northward into the Guadelupe neighborhood, a low-income district with many poorly built homes. Widely spaced suction vortices left narrow strips of intense devastation surrounded on all sides by moderate to mild damage. Eight people were killed in the Guadelupe area, most in homes that were leveled to the ground.
Extreme streaks of damage were documented as the tornado crossed a tributary of the Brazos River and entered an industrial area. A 26,000lb, 41-ft long fertilizer tank was hurled nearly a mile across a freeway without leaving any visible impact marks. Several large oil tanks were also carried more than 300 yards, and a railroad car was rolled 50 yards (TTU, 1970). Sixteen people were killed near loop 289 of the US 87, several of them in vehicles swept off the freeway. The deaths included a family of four in a home that was swept completely away (City of Lubbock). Almost all of the residential developments in Lubbock are to the south and west of the business district, so the storm did not impact the majority of the city’s densely populated neighborhoods. As a result, the final death toll was only 26 residents.
Following the tornado, a relatively unknown faculty member from the University of Chicago, Professor Fujita, spent more than a week thoroughly studying the storm’s damage. Photographs of the widely spaced streaks of destruction led to our modern understanding of multiple suction vortices, a phenomena that had never before been so clearly documented. The Fujita-Pierson Tornado Damage Scale was also developed as a direct result of research conducted on the Lubbock tornado. The tornado was later given an F5 rating due to the severity of the damage in the northern edges of the city. Most, if not all of the obliterated homes were of questionable construction, so a contemporary EF5 rating may not be appropriate. The movement of large industrial equipment, however, remains among the most impressive instances of tornado damage ever documented.
Note: Fujita reported that a “family of five” was killed in a home in the Skyview neighborhood, but no such deaths were recorded by the city.
Kalamazoo, Michigan – May 13, 1980
In May of 1980, a tornado descended from the sky over the western outskirts of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The funnel remained airborne for several minutes before touching down just north of Newton’s Airport. Boards and branches whirled through the air as the storm headed eastward, roughly following Main Street towards the center of the city. A laundry business collapsed just before the tornado reached the center of the city, causing the storm’s first fatality (Laurens, 2002). At 4:15pm, the ragged funnel passed directly through downtown Kalamazoo, shattering windows in mid-rise office buildings. Several cars were flipped by winds funneled down narrow alleyways and the entire facade of a seven-story building collapsed onto the street below, killing two women. A motorcyclist riding through Bronson Park in downtown was killed by a falling tree (source, n.d.). In eastern Kalamazoo, the storm’s final fatality occurred when a man loading his truck was thrown to the ground.
Surveyors later awarded the storm an F3 rating due to a small streak of heavy damage near St. Augustines Elementary School (NWS Survey). Damage in the city center was indicative of F1 to F2 intensity. Prof Fujita surveyed the damage and deemed the tornado an “extremely rare event.” He incorrectly estimated that tornado’s strike the downtowns of large cities every 50 to 100 years.
Note: While the official population of Kalamazoo is under 100,000, the metropolitan area has a population over 300,000.
Forth Worth – March 28, 2000
The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area is one of the largest and most vulnerable urban centers in Tornado Alley. Historical records indicate that the region surrounding the Red River Valley is particularly prone to violent, wide-tracked tornadoes in the months of March and April. To date, more than a dozen significant tornadoes have passed within the boundaries of the two cities, the deadliest of which swept through residential sections of Dallas in 1957. The last killer tornado to strike the area touched down near the Burton Hills neighborhood, about three miles west of downtown Fort Worth. Videographers filmed the large, dusty vortex as it marched eastward towards the city’s tallest skyscrapers. The tornado caused little damage until it reached the Trinity River, at which time it rapidly intensified into a minimal F3. After causing its first fatality at a trucking plant, the storm engulfed the ten-story Cash America building at maximum intensity. Nearly every window in the building was shattered and exterior offices were stripped of furniture. The tornado then began to weaken as it entered the heavily urbanized core of Fort Worth. Howling winds funneled through the downtown streets as the now-transparent tornado whirled debris high into the air. Thousands of windows shattered, raining large pieces of jagged glass to the ground below. High winds knocked over a brick wall where a homeless man had sought shelter, crushing him to death (NWS, 2010). After exiting downtown, the tornado became diffuse and dissipated.
Surveyors later concluded that most of the damage in the downtown area was of F0 and F1 intensity. The devastated Cash America Building, however, was likely impacted by winds in the upper-F2/lower-F3 range.
Springfield, Massachusetts – June 1, 2011
A rare supercell thunderstorm in the state of Massachusetts spawned a tornado that touched down in the city of Westfield. The knob-like funnel remained aloft for several minutes as it spun to the east at 30mph. Damage was limited primarily to trees and poorly fitted roofs until the storm entered the city of Springfield, at which point it intensified. Hundreds of vehicles caught in afternoon traffic were struck by the tornado as it passed over the Memorial Bridge, leading to several injuries from shattered car windows. Sheets of water spiraled around the core of the vortex as it crossed the Conneticut River and approached the high-rises of downtown Springfield. Just after making landfall on the other side of the river, a man was killed when a tree fell atop his parked car. Winds in the storm caused extensive damage to multi-story brick buildings just south of the central business district, littering the streets with bricks and downed trees. As the storm exited downtown, it passed over a three-story apartment building on Union Street. The force of the tornado caused the structure to collapse, killing a mother sheltering her daughter on the ground floor (Constantine, 2011).
East of Springfield, the tornado reached EF3 intensity as it plowed through miles of forestland. Several homes impacted by the tornado were nearly leveled to the ground in the town of Monson (NWS Survey). The storm’s final fatality occurred when the storm swept through a campground near Brimfield. While the tornado was determined to have been a half mile wide in Brimfield, the worst damage was confined to an area less than 100 yards in width. The tornado finally lifted about eight miles southeast of Worcester, the scene of New England’s deadliest tornado in 1953.