Fascinating and Accurate Tornado Records – the Deadliest, the Fastest, the Rarest

Several EF5 tornadoes have thrown industrial equipment weighing in excess of 15,000 lbs long distances. At top left, the 2011 El Reno tornado hurled an oil tanker weighing approximately 25,000 lbs a mile without leaving any noticeable ground impacts. At top right, the 1970 Lubbock tornado tossed a 26,000 lb fertilizer tank 3/4 of a mile over a freeway and several undamaged fences. At bottom left, the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado hurled a train car weighing 71,600lbs 130 yards in one throw, according to witnesses. At bottom right, the 1995 Pampa tornado lifted a 35,000 lb lathe.

Several EF5 tornadoes have thrown industrial equipment weighing in excess of 15,000 lbs long distances. At top left, the 2011 El Reno tornado hurled an oil tanker weighing approximately 25,000 lbs a mile without leaving any noticeable ground impacts. At top right, the 1970 Lubbock tornado tossed a 26,000 lb fertilizer tank 3/4 of a mile over a freeway and several undamaged fences. At bottom left, the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado hurled a train car weighing 71,600lbs 130 yards in one throw, according to witnesses. At bottom right, the 1995 Pampa tornado lifted a 35,000 lb lathe.

□ Accurate tornado statistics can be difficult to find. Recording techniques were not standardized before the weather radar age, so information on tornadoes that occurred before 1970 is often unreliable. Furthermore, lists of the deadliest and longest tracked tornadoes in world history are easy to find and dominated by 19th and early-20th century events.

To level the playing field and promote the dissemination of credible information, all of the following records cover tornadoes that occurred after 1970. Click each link in the index below to jump to a specific section. This page will undoubtably go through several edits and expand as more notable tornado records are uncovered. 

I. The Deadliest Tornadoes on Record

II. The Longest Tornado Damage Paths

III. The Fastest Tornadoes Ever Recorded

IV. Violent or Unusual Tornado Records

-IVa. The Highest Altitude Violent Tornado

-IVb. The Deadliest and Most Intense Anticyclonic Tornado Ever Recorded

-IVc. The Highest Tornado Fatality Rate

-IVd. The Most Fatalities in a Single Building

-IVe. The Most Fatalities in a Single Mobile Home Park

-IVf. The Fastest Tornado Movement Ever Recorded Using Photogrammetry

-IVg. The Heaviest Object Ever Lifted by a Tornado

-IVh. The Deadliest Hurricane Spawned Tornado

V. Graphs

Va. Graph of Tornadoes Causing 10+ and 20+ Fatalities by Decade

Vb. Graph of the Deadliest Tornadoes by Decade

_______________

I.
□ The Deadliest Tornadoes on Record

The 2011 Joplin tornado is by far the deadliest tornado of the past 50 years. Considering the storm's incredible intensity and size, it is remarkable the number of deaths did not surpass 200. All three of the deadliest tornadoes since 1970 occurred during the 2011 tornado season, the worst in modern history.

The 2011 Joplin tornado was by far the deadliest tornado of the past 50 years. Considering the storm’s incredible intensity and size, it is remarkable the number of deaths did not surpass 200. All three of the deadliest tornadoes since 1970 occurred during the 2011 tornado season, the worst in modern history.

1. 158 fatalities - Joplin, Missouri – May 22, 2011

□ A violent EF5 tornado rapidly intensified as it entered heavily populated sections of Joplin. The storm holds the post-1970 record for the most fatalities in frame homes (approximately 70) and the most fatalities in commercial buildings (approximately 20). The commercial deaths do not include the large number of fatalities at medical facilities, churches and private organizations.

2. 72 fatalities – Hackleburg/Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011

One of the most impressive tornadic events in history carved a 132-mile path of devastation through largely rural areas of northern Alabama. The EF5 tornado had an exceptionally high fatality to injury ratio. The storm holds the post-1970 record for the longest swath of EF5 damage (including approximately 40 consecutive miles at EF5 intensity).

3. 64 fatalities - Tuscaloosa/Concord, Alabama – April 27, 2011

□ Borderline EF5 tornado caused more than 40 deaths in Tuscaloosa. Extremely well-covered by local news agencies and photographers. Caused high-end EF4 damage from Tuscaloosa to the suburbs of Birmingham.

4. ≈47 fatalities - Pugh City, Mississippi – February 21, 1971

□ A fast-moving F4 tornado nearly wiped out the town of Pugh City, killing 22 residents. Dozens of small homes were swept completely away. Official death toll of 58 is likely the result of a tornado family.

5. 42 fatalities – Wichita Falls, Texas – April 10, 1979

□ A large tornado left a wide swath of marginal F4 damage in Wichita Falls. The historic storm holds the post-1970 record for the greatest number of fatalities in vehicles (25). The majority of the deaths in automobiles were people attempting to flee the storm.

6. ≈41 fatalities - Inverness, Mississippi – February 21, 1971

□ A fast-moving F5 tornado passed directly through the town of Inverness, killing approximately 20 residents. Most of the deaths were in poorly built homes that were obliterated.

7. 36 fatalities – Bridge Creek/Moore, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999

□ Violent F5 tornado killed 13 people in rural areas while at maximum intensity. The storm then caused another 23 deaths as it tracked through the Oklahoma City suburbs. Holds record for the highest doppler velocity ever measured – approximately 302mph.

8a. 32 fatalities – Oak Grove, Alabama – April 8, 1998

□ Marginal F5 tornado caused a high number of fatalities as it chewed through small towns near Birmingham after dark. The worst damage was confined to several small streaks of intense devastation.

8b. 32 fatalities – Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974

□ Infamous multi-vortex tornado became the deadliest and most damaging single storm in the 1974 Super Outbreak. Brief film of the tornado captured by a high school student was broadcast on news networks across the world.

9. 31 fatalities - Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974

□ Violent F5 tornado swept away well-constructed houses in the town of Brandenburg. The storm struck far fewer homes than the Xenia tornado yet caused a similar death toll due to its extreme intensity.

10. 30 fatalities – Saragosa, Texas – May 22, 1987

Short lived multi-vortex tornado touched down and rapidly intensified as it passed over a small town in southwest Texas. Most of the fatalities occurred in the destruction of a crowded church.

_______________

II.
□ The Longest Tornado Damage Paths

-Due to the high number of tornado families that have been officially recorded as a single storm, an accurate list is difficult to compile. Tornadoes thought to have been two or more separate storms are not included. This list will undoubtably go through various edits.

The longest tracked tornadoes generally occur in the South in the spring and fall. At left, one of the longest tracked tornadoes in history caused EF5 damage in Hackleburg. At right, an power tornado probably capable of causing F5 damage killed four people in the obliterated home at bottom. One of the bodies was found in a tree a quarter mile from the foundation (Grazulis, 1995).

The longest tracked tornadoes generally occur in the South in the spring and fall. At left, one of the longest tracked tornadoes in history caused EF5 damage in Hackleburg. At right, a nighttime tornado killed four people in the obliterated home at bottom near Jackson, Mississippi, in 1992. The body of one of the occupants was found in a tree a quarter mile from the foundation (Grazulis, 1997).

1. 149 miles – Yazoo City, Mississippi – April 24, 2010

□ A large, often obscured tornado sped through central Mississippi, killing 10 people in and near Yazoo City. The majority of the damage path was through sparsely populated forestland.

2. 132 miles - Hackleburg/Phil Campbell, Alabama to TN – April 27, 2011

Violent EF5 tornado travelled across nearly all of northern Alabama, causing 72 deaths before crossing the Tennessee border and continuing for an additional ten miles through Franklin County. The storm left strong tornado damage (EF3+) over more than 110 miles (NWS Survey).

3a. 128 miles - Brandon, Mississippi – November 21, 1992

□ Violent, rain-wrapped tornado killed 12 near Jackson around midnight. Four of the deaths occurred when a large, two-story brick home in the Easthaven subdivision was completely destroyed.

3b. 128 miles – Cordova, Alabama – April 27, 2011

□ Fast-moving tornado killed 13 people in Alabama. While officially rated an EF4, the tornado left severe ground scouring in unpopulated areas and hurled a vehicle nearly one mile.

4. 124 miles – Raleigh, Mississippi to AL – April 27, 2011

□ A Lesser know violent tornado during the 2011 Super Outbreak killed 7 in Mississippi and Alabama. Formed farther south than most of the tornadoes on April 27 and left a quarter-mile wide swath of fallen trees through a forest reserve.

5. 122 miles - Clinton, Arkansas – February 5, 2008

□ A fast-moving and long duration EF4 tornado ripped through largely rural areas of Arkansas. The 13 fatalities were spread out over a 30 mile area beginning in Pope County.

_______________

III.
□ The Fastest Tornadoes Ever Recorded

-Due to the rapidly shifting nature of tornadoes’ forward speed, it is difficult to ascertain which was the fastest over a specified time period. Decaying tornadoes can momentarily exceed 90mph, but these great speeds are never maintained. Most of the fastest tornadoes occur in the South from late-November through April, but similar conditions can cause extremely fast moving tornadoes from Tennessee to Michigan.

In 2012, an extremely violent and fast-moving tornado was filmed as it sped through the town of Henryville, Indiana, at more than 60mph (Video contains strong language). The multi-vortex tornado was powerful enough to loft vehicles more than 200 yards, scour a highway of pavement and completely sweep away several large, two-story brick homes. While rated an EF4 by the NWS, the tornado probably had instantaneous gusts capable of causing EF5 damage in areas east of Henryville. (Video by Rhett Adams)

1a. 70mph+ – April 27, 2011

Many of the tornadoes in the 2011 Super Outbreak reached speeds of 70mph at some point in their development. Examples include the Hackleburg/Phil Campbell tornado as it ripped through Marion and Franklin Counties and the Smithville, Mississippi, tornado as it caused some of the most intense EF5 damage ever photographed in Monroe County.

1b. 70mph+ – March 2, 2012

The deadliest tornado outbreak of 2012 brought violent and fast-moving tornadoes to the states of Indiana and Kentucky. The deadliest two tornadoes in the outbreak – the Henryville, Indiana, tornado and the West Liberty, Kentucky, tornado – may have approached 75mph in periods of their development.

1c. 70mph+ – April 3, 1974

During the 1974 Super Outbreak, nearly every supercell was moving in excess of 50mph. The violent tornadoes that occurred in the state of Alabama – including the infamous Guin tornado – may have reached or momentarily surpassed 75mph.

_______________

IV.
□ Violent or Unusual Tornado Records

IVa. The Highest Altitude Violent Tornado

One of the most unusual violent tornadoes in recorded history touched down high in the mountains near Yellowstone National Park. The rain-wrapped tornado was imbedded within an exceptionally violent mesocyclone with large hail and frequent microbursts. Fujita toured the nearly mile wide damage swath and noted extreme tree damage consistent with violent (F4/F5) tornadic winds. The tornado proved that the deadliest tornado in United States history, theoretically, could strike a place as unexpected as

One of the most unusual tornadoes in recorded history touched down high in the mountains near Yellowstone National Park on July 21, 1987. The rain-wrapped tornado, which travelled at nearly 60mph, was imbedded within an exceptionally violent mesocyclone that contained large hail and frequent microbursts. Fujita toured the 1.5 mile wide damage swath and noted bursts of extreme tree damage consistent with violent (F4/F5) tornadic winds more than 9,000ft above sea level (the worst damage is visible as the lighter area just above center on the hillside). Some mountain peaks affected by the storm were at an altitude of nearly 11,000ft (Fujita, 1989). The rare storm, which was likely capable of causing a wide swath of EF2, EF3 and EF4 damage early in its life, proved that potentially catastrophic tornadoes can occur well-outside “tornado alley.” Had the storm impacted a large population center, it could have caused damage and loss of life comparable to the 2011 Joplin tornado.

IVb. The Deadliest and Most Intense Anticyclonic Tornado Ever Recorded

The West Bend tornado left a narrow swath of F4 damage through a housing subdivision in town.

In April of 1981, a thunderstorm developed over Washington County, Wisconsin. The storm resembled a typical nighttime thunderstorm on weather radar, so no tornado watch was issued. Despite the storm’s modest size and low cloud tops, it spawned an unusual anticyclonic tornado just after midnight. The short-lived tornado touched down at the edge of a neighborhood in the town of West Bend (visible above) and immediately began causing F4 damage (Wakimoto, 1983). Several two-story houses were leveled to the ground and three people were killed, including one man who was thrown more than 50 yards from his destroyed home. The rapidly intensifying tornado was exceptionally narrow, often less than 50 yards in width, and dissipated after traveling less than two miles. The event remains a meteorological oddity and the only violent anticyclonic tornado ever recorded. (Images by patgolem)

IVc. The Deadliest Hurricane Spawned Tornado 

In 1964, Hurricane Hilda made landfall in Louisiana as a weakening category 3 storm. Before the hurricane's eye reached the coast, a violent tornado was spawned in the swampland 30 miles south of New Orleans. The F4 tornado travelled westward over a narrow strip of homes and buildings that lined a waterway, killing 22 residents.

In October of 1964, Hurricane Hilda made landfall in Louisiana as a weakening Category 3 storm. Before the hurricane’s eye reached the coast, a violent tornado was spawned 30 miles south of New Orleans in a marshy area near the Gulf of Mexico. The F4 tornado travelled westward over a narrow strip of homes and buildings that lined a waterway in the town of Larose, killing 22 residents. Some homes were swept completely away and many of the bodies were carried more than 100 yards and later recovered in a nearby bayou. The storm remains the deadliest hurricane spawned tornado in US history and one of the strongest such storms ever recorded.

IVd. The Highest Above-Ground Tornado Fatality Rate

On Ma7 27, 1997, perhaps the most violent tornado in modern history swept through two clusters of homes just outside Jarrell, Texas. The slow-moving F5 tornado completely swept away two dozen homes and ground the remains into tiny pieces. Within the streak of worst damage, which expanded over a quarter-mile in width, there were no survivors above ground. The only people to that didn't loose their lives were crowded in an underground storm cellar on Double Creek Drive, where most of the fatalities occurred.

On May 27, 1997, perhaps the most violent tornado in modern history passed over two clusters of homes just outside Jarrell, Texas. The slow-moving F5 tornado completely swept away two dozen homes and ground the debris into tiny pieces. Within the streak of worst damage, which expanded over a quarter-mile in width, there were no survivors above ground. All of the vegetation in the worst affected areas was scoured from the ground, leaving nothing but empty foundations and fields of mud.

IVe. The Most Fatalities in a Single Building (post-1970)

At left, the 1987 Saragosa, Texas, tornado killed 22 people in the Guadelupe Church during a graduation ceremony for young students. At center, the 1994 Piedmont, Alabama, tornado killed 20 people at the Goshen United Methodist Church during Palm Sunday services. At right, the 2011 Joplin tornado leveled and partially swept away the Greenbriar Nursing Home. Of the approximately 90 residents and nurses in the building, 21 died.

At left, the 1987 Saragosa, Texas, tornado killed 22 people in the Guadelupe Church during a graduation ceremony for young students. At center, the 1994 Piedmont, Alabama, tornado killed 20 parishioners at the Goshen United Methodist Church during Palm Sunday services (Survey Report). At right, the 2011 Joplin tornado leveled and partially swept away the Greenbriar Nursing Home. Of the approximately 90 residents and nurses in the building, 21 died.

IVf. The Most Fatalities in a Single Mobile Home Park

In November of 2005, a fast moving nighttime tornado touched down near Evasnville, Indiana. Around 2am, the tornado struck the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park while residents were asleep. In the park alone, 20 people were killed as mobile homes were swept completely away along the southern edge of the park.

In November of 2005, a fast-moving nighttime tornado touched down near Evasnville, Indiana. Around 2am, the multi-vortex tornado struck the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park while most of the area’s residents were asleep. A total of 20 people were killed as the F3 tornado swept away mobile homes along the southern edge of the park. The event remains the deadliest tornado disaster in a mobile home park. In July of 1987, one of Canada’s deadliest tornadoes killed 15 people in the Evergreen Mobile Home Park in Edmonton, Alberta.

IVg. The Fastest Tornado Movement Ever Recorded Using Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is a technique that allows for the measurement of debris movement in the visible portions of tornadoes. The highest officially calculated velocity using Fujita's meticulous techniques was 284mph in the 1974 Parkersburg, Indiana, tornado. The official analysis program ended in the 80's, but rough calculations by Tom Grazulis indicated particle motions of 300mph just above ground level in the 1995 Pampa, Texas, tornado.

Photogrammetry is a technique that allows for the measurement of debris movement in the visible portions of tornadoes. The highest officially calculated velocity using Fujita’s meticulous techniques was 284mph in the 1974 Parker City, Indiana, tornado (Forbes, Bluestein, 2001). The official analysis program ended in the 80′s, but rough calculations by Tom Grazulis indicated particle motions of 300mph just above ground-level in the 1995 Pampa, Texas, tornado (two vehicles are visible mid-air left of the funnel). Basic photogrammetry techniques indicate the 2007 Elie, Manitoba, tornado was of similar intensity (a van being thrown 200 yards from the tornado is visible at right).

IVh. The Heaviest Object Ever Lifted by a Tornado

In June of 1990, an exceptionally violent tornado formed in the desert-land of southwest Texas. Near the end of the tornado's path, an oil production facility was destroyed (at left) and three oil tanks weighing 180,000lbs were moved three miles to the east. Two of the tanks were found 600ft up a hillside with a 40 degree incline. This is one of the most impresive instances of tornado damage ever recorded and perhaps the only instance of an object over 100,000lbs being moved a great distance.

In June of 1990, an exceptionally violent tornado formed in the desert-land of southwest Texas. Near the end of the tornado’s path in Bakersfield Valley, a production facility was destroyed (at left) and three oil tanks weighing 180,000lbs were moved three miles to the east. Two of the tanks were found 600ft up a hillside with a 40 degree incline. This is one of the most impresive instances of tornado damage ever recorded and perhaps the only documented instance of an object over 100,000 lbs being moved a long distance. (Images by Wayne Greene)

_______________

V.
□ Va. Graph of Tornadoes Causing 10+ Deaths by Decade

Since the the 70's, the average amount of lead-time preceding a tornado has not changed significantly. As a result, the number of overall fatalities bottomed out in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Since the the 70′s, the average amount of lead-time preceding a tornado has not changed significantly. As a result, the trend towards fewer fatalities has bottomed out. Urban sprawl and the increasing population in many severe weather-prone states will likely lead to an upturn in tornadoes causing 10 or more fatalities in the coming decades. Due to the random nature of tornadoes and their damage paths, there is extreme variance in the number of deaths per year. Using a statistical bell curve of all tornado fatalities from 1980 to 2010, the 2011 tornado season’s death toll would have been expected less than once in a million years.

□ Vb. Graph of the Deadliest Tornadoes by Decade

No single tornado caused more than 50 deaths between 1955 and 2011. After several widely visible and well-covered tornadoes (Xenia '74, Wichita Falls '79, Bridge Creek '99) failed to cause more than 100 deaths, it was considered by some an "impossibility" in the weather-radar age. In truth, major cities and crowded freeways open the possibility to a single storm causing more than 1,000 deaths.

No single tornado caused more than 50 deaths between 1955 and 2011. After several widely visible and well-covered tornadoes (Xenia ’74, Wichita Falls ’79, Bridge Creek ’99) failed to cause more than 100 fatalities, it was considered by some an “impossibility” in the weather-radar age. In truth, major cities and crowded freeways open the possibility to a single storm causing more than 1,000 deaths.

The Indefinitive List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded (Pre-1970): Part I

                                                                                               LEAVE A COMMENT – CLICK THE CLOUD ABOVE

Damage photographs are the most important tool in ascertaining the strength of historical tornadoes. Shown above is probable EF5 damage near the small town of Colfax, Wisconsin after a powerful tornado ripped through the area in 1958. Trees of all sizes were debarked, ground vegetation was shredded and vehicles were rendered unrecognizable (Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections).

Damage photographs are the most important tool in ascertaining the strength of historical tornadoes. Shown above is probable EF5 damage near Colfax, Wisconsin, after a powerful tornado ripped through the area in 1958. Trees of all sizes were debarked, ground vegetation was scoured and vehicles were rendered unrecognizable. (Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections)

□ Categorizing powerful tornadoes is a very, very inexact science. Most tornadoes capable of causing EF5 damage fail to impact populated areas, and the chance of any single storm impacting a man-made structure while at peak intensity is exceedingly small. Statistics on path length, width and forward speed are rarely accurate for historical events, further complicating analysis.

While nowhere near definitive, objectivity is attempted through the use of damage photographs, reliable survey reports and fatality statistics. Unverified accounts, vague newspaper descriptions and damage figures are not considered. Tornadoes that occurred before 1880 and tornadoes that caused less than 10 deaths are excluded to eliminate the thousands of rural storms that failed to attract significant media attention. Little to no photographic evidence makes the inclusion of some past tornadoes unfeasible without further information.

The indefinitive list of the strongest tornadoes from 1880 to 1969:

1. Sherman, Texas – May 15, 1896

2. De Soto/Murphysboro/West Frankfurt, Illinois – March 18, 1925

3. New Richmond, Wisconsin – June 12, 1899

4. Beecher, Michigan – June 8th, 1953

5. Hudsonville, Michigan – April 3, 1956

6. Tupelo, Mississippi – April 5, 1936

7. Udall, Kansas – May 25, 1955

8. Pomeroy, Iowa – July 6, 1893

9. Woodward, Oklahoma – April 9, 1947

10. Scott County, Mississippi – March 3, 1966

11. Ruskin Heights, Missouri – May 20, 1957

12. Snyder, Oklahoma – May 10, 1905

13. Colfax, Wisconsin – June 4, 1958

14. Gans, Oklahoma – January 22, 1957

15. Winston County, Alabama – April 20, 1920

The Tupelo tornado was the second deadliest in the US since 1900, surpassed only by the Tri-State tornado of 1925. Despite the storm's exceptional intensity and high death toll, it has been largely forgotten.

Since the turn of the 20th century in the US, only the Tri-State event has claimed more lives than the Tupelo tornado (shown above).  Despite the storm’s exceptional intensity and high death toll, it was largely forgotten amidst the turmoil of the Great Depression. At left, the tornado scoured patches of vegetation from the ground and hurled debris and dozens of bodies into Gum Pond. Large plantation homes were swept completely away on the west side of town. The final number of fatalities from the storm may have exceeded 240, making it the worst single tornado disaster in a US town.

____________________________

1. Sherman, Texas – May 15, 1896

The tornado that cut a narrow path of complete devastation through a neighborhood in Sherman, Texas was likely similar in appearance to the 2007 Elie tornado. While the Elie storm was powerful enough to rip a home completely from its foundation, it moved significantly slower than the 1896 event and was less intense.

One of the most powerful tornadoes in history cut a narrow path of complete devastation through a neighborhood in Sherman, Texas. The storm was likely similar in appearance to the 2007 Elie tornado, which also rapidly intensified several minutes before lifting. While the Elie storm was powerful enough to rip a home from its foundation, it moved significantly slower and was undoubtably less intense than the Sherman event. The 1896 tornado season was one of the deadliest on record, largely due to a weaker storm (F3/marginal F4) that killed over 250 in the St. Louis metro area on May 27th.

□ Old newspaper accounts, full of embellishments and divine prophetics, are rarely useful in ascertaining the intensity of historical storms. With that said, one particular tornado transcends the information haze that preceded the turn of the 20th century. The devastating and exceptionally powerful storm touched down 40 miles north of downtown Dallas, Texas, on a muggy May afternoon in 1896. Survivor testaments collected by Tom Grazulis indicate that the violent storm never took on the “wedge” shape commonly associated with F5 tornadoes and instead appeared as “a perfect funnel” (Grazulis, 1993). After traveling northeast for more than 40 minutes and taking a dozen lives, the tornado entered its shrinking stage and made an abrupt curve to the north, sparing the center of Sherman. The drill-like funnel carved an extremely narrow path through a mixed-racial neighborhood on the western side of town. Less than 60 homes were destroyed, but most were swept completely away. Half of the 60 deaths in Sherman were concentrated within eight separate homes in which most or all occupants perished (link). Newspapers reported that most of the victims were thrown long distances, many more than 400 yards (Grazulis, 1993). One of the bodies was found in a tree four blocks from a home that was swept completely away. The ground within the streak of devastation was scoured, and an iron bridge on Houston Street was ripped from is anchor bolts and fragmented into “useless scraps.”

The Sherman tornado remains one of the most powerful tornadic events ever documented. Tom Grazulis considered the tornado the most impressive of all 19th century events based on newspaper descriptions of the damage. If a more comprehensive list of the “strongest tornadoes” were created, the Sherman tornado would likely deserve a place at the top.

One of the few damage photographs available showing the aftermath of the Sherman tornado.

One of the few available damage photographs showing the aftermath of the Sherman tornado. According to Grazulis (1993), the primary damage path through the city was only 60-yards wide. Strangely, newspapers reported that most of the bodies were found to the south of their destroyed homes, the opposite direction of the storm’s movement.

Artist's depiction of the Sherman tornado chewing its way through town. (Grazulis, 1993)

Artist’s depiction of the Sherman tornado chewing its way through town. (Grazulis, 1993)

2. Murphysboro, Illinois – March 18, 1925 (Tri-State Tornado)

The deadly Tri-State tornado caused an exceptionally high number of fatalities in southern Illinois. More than 234 were killed in less than 90 seconds as the storm erased entire neighborhoods in Murphysboro, pictured above. (Image by Sue Stinson)

The deadly Tri-State tornado caused an exceptionally high number of fatalities in southern Illinois. More than 200 deaths occurred in less than 90 seconds as the storm erased a large section of Murphysboro, pictured above. (Image by Sue Stinson)

□ In the spring of 1925, the deadliest and most destructive tornado in United States history touched down in the tree covered hills of Reynolds County, Missouri. The storm initially struck few buildings as it slowly intensified and roared to the east-northeast at more than 65mph. Only 11 fatalities were recorded in the 85 miles before the storm crossed the state border into Illinois. Some survivors in southeastern Missouri later reported seeing “funnels” early in the tornado’s life, but the storm quickly became diffuse and unrecognizable within a column of heavy rain and hail.

The tiny town of Gorham, with only a few hundred residents, was the first populated area to experience F5 damage. One in six residents perished as the storm swept away most of the town’s homes, many of which were never rebuilt. Citizens of Murphysboro, a small city eight miles east of Gorham, later described an inpenitrable darkness that descended over the area just before the tornado struck at 2:30pm. For many, the roar of the storm was the only warning that preceded the “heavy cloud” as it tore a half-mile wide swath of complete devastation through the northern side of town. The tornado struck with such power that it wiped out entire families, including eight households that reported four or more deaths (Genealogy Trails). Damage throughout the city was inconsistent – a row of homes in the center of the tornado’s path was battered but left standing while adjacent homes were swept away, an indication the tornado had a complex multiple vortex structure. In total, 234 people were killed in Murphysboro. More than half of the deaths occurred within four blocks of the intersection of 16th and Gartside Street.

A few minutes after exiting Murphysboro, the exceptionally powerful tornado obliterated the town of De Soto, leaving only debarked stumps and pulverized bits of debris in its wake. Of the 69 deaths in and near the small town, 33 were in one brick school that was obliterated. At 2:50pm, the tornado ripped through a housing subdivision in West Frankfurt, a mining town filled with the wives and children of miners working deep underground. Only the northwest corner of town was clipped by the storm, but the destruction was complete. The dollar damage in West Frankfurt totaled only a fraction of what was recorded in Murphysboro, yet a total of 127 lives were lost, including seven deaths in one family (Genealogy Trails). The tornado maintained exceptional intensity as it thundered eastward towards the Indiana border. More than 30 farm owners were killed in rural homesteads in southeastern Illinois, an unprecedented figure indicative of extreme intensity (Tom Grazulis, 1994).

In Indiana, the tornado continued to pave an unbroken swath of F4+ damage. The storm’s forward speed accelerated to 73mph as the surrounding rain and fog lightened, occasionally providing survivors glimpses of “multiple funnels” (Grazulis, 1993). Dozens were killed in the town of Griffin, a tiny railroad community only two blocks wide. After traveling more than 200 miles, the tornado finally lifted near Union, Indiana.

Survivor descriptions of the Tri-State tornado are reminiscent of footage captured during the 2011 Joplin tornado. Unlike the Joplin storm, however, the 1925 event was fast moving and not preceded by extensive warning. The Tri-State storm struck only small towns and rural areas during its three and a half hours on the ground yet caused approximately 700 fatalities. While some meteorologists suggest the disaster may have been a closely spaced family of tornadoes, the damage path was uniform in size, intensity and direction through all of Illinois, where most of the destruction occurred. In terms of longevity and intensity, the storm remains the single most impressive tornadic event ever documented.

Four views of F5 damage in Murphysboro. At top left, erratic damage patterns hint at the storm's multiple vortex structure.

Four views of probable F5 damage in Murphysboro. At top left, erratic damage patterns hint at the storm’s multiple vortex structure, though fires from broken gas lines may have contributed to the sharp damage contour. The concentration of fatalities in Murphysboro was remarkably high, with some neighborhoods losing more than half their population to the storm.

At top left, the De Soto school were 33 students were killed. At bottom left, survivor descriptions from Murphysboro indicate the tornado was preceded by heavy rain and hail which blackened the sky, much like the 2011 Joplin tornado (pictured). At right, damage in West Frankfurt.

At top left, the De Soto school were 33 students were killed. At bottom left, survivor descriptions from Murphysboro indicate the tornado was preceded by heavy rain and hail which blackened the sky, much like the 2011 Joplin tornado (pictured). (Video still by Darin McCann) At right, damage in West Frankfurt, where dozens of homes were swept completely away.

The swath of empty foundations in the northwestern corner of West Frankfurt, where the highest concentration of fatalities occurred.

The swath of empty foundations in the northwest corner of West Frankfurt, where the highest concentration of fatalities occurred.

Extreme damage in Griffin, Indiana, where the final fatalities occurred. Post storm clean-up may be partly responsible for the debris free appearance of the area, but survivors reported that dozens of homes were swept completely away.

Extreme damage in De Soto, Illinois, where 69 people were killed.

3. New Richmond, Wisconsin – June 12, 1899

Catastrophic wind damage to homes and businesses along the Willow River in New Richmond. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

The New Richmond tornado caused catastrophic wind damage to homes and businesses along the Willow River. This photograph was taken after several days of moderate clean-up, but the scene resembles the “not a board left standing” description printed in newspapers the day after the disaster. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

□ On a summer afternoon in 1899, the normally quiet streets of New Richmond were populated with out-of-towners who had come to see the Gollmar Brothers Circus. As the performances came to an end around 5 o’clock, residents and tourists alike filled the streets in the center of town. Several miles outside New Richmond, a powerful tornado was thundering along the banks of the Willow River. Just after 6pm, the approaching tornado became visible from town, causing an immediate panic to surge through the crowds. Most locals ran towards their homes, while others fled into the brick and mortar businesses that lined 1st Street. Less than two minutes later, as the last few scrambled through the now-empty streets, the storm’s roar became deafening. Clouds of dirt and debris were whipped into the air as the tornado tore through 16 blocks of homes and businesses on the northern side of town. At least 114 people were killed as buildings were swept completely away within a 300-yard wide strip of devastation. Some of the victim’s bodies were blown several blocks and later recovered from the waters of Mary Park Lake. Local newspapers documented a 3,000lb safe that was hurled approximately 100 yards and a dead horse that was thrown two miles. The wide visibility of the storm likely prevented the death toll from climbing much higher.

Damage photographs show a clear swath of F5 damage that swept the ground clean along the shores of the Willow River. Photographic evidence also reveals that trees were debarked and debris from destroyed buildings was finely granulated, both indications of extreme intensity. While records from the 19th century are rarely reliable, the storm’s official fatality to injury ratio is among the highest of any tornado in history. The New Richmond tornado remains the worst in Wisconsin’s history, and the deadliest summertime tornado on record.

Approximately a dozen people were killed in the basement of a brick store that was swept obliterated on 1st Street. At right, view of a debarked tree that was impacted by the blizzard of deadly debris. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

Approximately a dozen people were killed in the basement of a brick store that was obliterated on 1st Street. At right, view of debarked trees and flattened buildings in the center of town. The tornado hurled a 3,000lb safe an entire city block – this remains one of the most impressive instances of tornado damage ever documented (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

At left, the remains of the Nicollet Hotel, once a large, three-story brick building. At right, closer view of the swath of F5 damage through the northern side of town. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

At left, the remains of the Nicollet Hotel, once a large, three-story brick building. At right, closer view of the swath of F5 damage through the northern side of New Richmond. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

4. Beecher, Michigan – June 8th, 1953

The Beecher tornado left a narrow swath of extreme damage along Coldwater Road. At left, a vehicle that was left in the basement of a home that was obliterated. At right, the swath of F5 damage around the local high school, where grass was ripped from the ground (Flint Public Library)

The Beecher tornado left a narrow swath of extreme damage along Coldwater Road. At left, a vehicle that was thrown into the basement of an obliterated home. At right, the swath of F5 damage around the local high school. Grass scouring was documented throughout the tornado’s path. The fatality rate within the F5 damage contour was exceptionally high, including more than 60 deaths in a quarter mile stretch centered on Saginaw Street. (Flint Public Library)

□ Prior to the 2011 tornado season, the year 1953 was the deadliest in contemporary American history. Prolific severe weather outbreaks brought catastrophic tornadoes from central Texas to Massachusetts, with much of the activity focused within a three-week period beginning in the middle of May. The deadliest and strongest tornado of the year began its path of destruction northwest of Flint, Michigan, just before dark on June 8th. Spawned from a violent supercell thunderstorm with baseball-sized hail, the devastating tornado spent its first few minutes ripping through farmland north of Daltons Airport. The tornado quickly developed a violent inner core that left a path of pronounced ground scouring as it roared eastward at more than 40mph. Five miles after first touching down, the F5 tornado reached the Flint suburb of Beecher.

Huge strokes of lightning momentarily lit up the “column of storm clouds” as it crossed Ballard Drive and entered a two mile stretch of residential developments east of the yet-to-be-constructed I-475. Entire families were killed as homes were swept completely away within a 150-yard wide path that travelled roughly parallel to Coldwater Road. Most survivors in the streak of worst damage later described regaining consciousness more than 50 yards from their devastated homes, sometimes near the bodies of relatives or neighbors (Flint Public Library). Trees were snapped just above ground level near a local high school, and vehicles were hurled several blocks and rendered completely unrecognizable. After passing through Beecher, the tornado travelled an additional 15 miles before finally dissipating in rural Lapeer County. When the final victims succumbed to their injuries a few months later, the death toll stood at 116, with five families suffering four or more fatalities. The tornado was the deadliest of the weather radar age (post-1950) in the US until it was surpassed by the 2011 Joplin tornado

The Beecher tornado occurred during the climax of a severe weather pattern that favored the development of violent tornadoes in and around the Great Lake states. Following the Palm Sunday outbreak of 1965, the locus of severe weather outside tornado alley shifted southward towards Indiana and northern Alabama. While no E/F5 tornadoes have impacted Michigan since the 1950′s*, the Beecher tornado is a reminder that exceptionally violent tornadoes are capable of developing well outside the prairies of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

*A tornado that struck Strongsville, MI was likely capable of causing F5 damage. Additionally, the majority of tornadoes capable of causing F5 damage are not rated as such.

Unlike the Waco, Texas tornado a few weeks earlier, the Beecher tornado left damage indicative of EF5 intensity. Aerial footage captured pronounced ground scouring in rural areas outside town. (Flint Public Library / Right video stills by ken Kelley)

Unlike the Waco, Texas, tornado a few weeks earlier, the Beecher tornado left damage indicative of EF5 intensity. A videographer captured pronounced ground scouring in rural areas outside town. The ground markings were indicative of extremely powerful suction vortices that rotated around the core of the storm (Flint Public Library / Right video stills by Ken Kelley)

View of the tornado's narrow swath of devastation through Beecher. Some of the destroyed residences were large, two-story homes.

The tornado travelled almost due east down Coldwater Road for several miles. This photograph was taken near the eastern edge of the residential developments in Beecher and shows almost the entire swath of damage through the suburb. Most of the fatalities occurred within a half mile of the water tower on Saginaw Street (visible above).

At left, a picture of the swath of complete devastation along Coldwater Avenue. At right, closer view of empty foundations near Saginaw Blvd.

At left, a picture of the swath of complete devastation along Coldwater Road. At right, closer view of empty foundations near Saginaw Blvd.

*Tornadoes that likely belong on the list include:

Clyde, Texas – June 10, 1938 – Slow moving storm caused possible Jarrell-type damage.
Antlers, Oklahoma – April 12, 1945 – Damage photographs inconclusive.
Rocksprings, Texas – April 12, 1927 – Extremely violent tornado for southwest TX.
Fargo, North Dakota – June 20, 1957 – Caused streak of extreme damage in Golden Ridge.