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Vehicle damage is one way to ascertain the intensity of historical tornadoes, particularly since cars built pre-1960 were significantly heavier than modern light-weight vehicles. At left, extreme vehicle damage following the 1953 Beecher tornado (Image from the Flint Public Library). At center, a destroyed car after the 1956 Hudsonville tornado (Image by Thelma Bakker). At right, a truck stripped to its frame following the catastrophic Udall tornado of 1955.
□ 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.
Click to see Part I.
The list of the strongest tornadoes from 1880 to 1969:
15. Winston County, Alabama – April 20, 1920
14. Gans, Oklahoma – January 22, 1957
13. Colfax, Wisconsin – June 4, 1958
12. Snyder, Oklahoma – May 10, 1905
11. Ruskin Heights, Missouri – May 20, 1957
10. Scott County, Mississippi – March 3, 1966
9. Woodward, Oklahoma – April 9, 1947
8. Pomeroy, Iowa – July 6, 1893
7. Udall, Kansas – May 25, 1955
6. Tupelo, Mississippi – April 5, 1936
5. Hudsonville, Michigan – April 3, 1956
4. Beecher, Michigan – June 8th, 1953
3. New Richmond, Wisconsin – June 12, 1899
2. De Soto/Murphysboro/West Frankfurt, Illinois – March 18, 1925
1. Sherman, Texas – May 15, 1896
7. Udall, Kansas – May 25, 1955
The Udall tornado caused the highest death toll in a US town with a population under 1,000. The town’s block-long business district was wrecked, whereas homes immediately to the south were swept completely away.
□ On the evening of May 25, 1955, a powerful supercell thunderstorm was edging northward near Ponca City, Oklahoma. After spawning a tornado that took 20 lives in the town of Blackwell, the storm produced another tornado that touched down near the Kansas border just before 10pm. Witnesses in the area reported that the tornado, which was made visible by near constant lightning, was approximately a quarter mile wide early in its development (NWS Storm Reports). The storm widened and strengthened as it moved northward, eventually expanding to more than half a mile in diameter. Maps from the time show the tornado traveled almost due north, but damage patterns indicate the tornado made a turn to the northeast as it roared towards the tiny town of Udall, which had only 600 residents (LIFE, 1955). The town’s population was within the boundaries of a tornado watch but a slight bureaucratic delay meant that the alert was not issued until 10:08pm. As a result, most residents who watched the 10 o’clock news were told that all advisories had been lifted (Smith, 2010). Many residents were in bed at 10:25pm, the moment the storm struck.
As the tornado reached the southwestern edge of town, it devastated the local high school and hurled vehicles from nearby houses more than a quarter mile. A massive electrical arc lit up the sky as the tornado struck a power station on 3rd Street, causing the entire town to disappear into darkness. The roar of the approaching storm gave many residents valuable time to seek shelter but the intensity of the winds below 2nd Street left nowhere safe to take cover. Rows of homes were swept completely away as the core of F5 winds passed just south of the town’s commercial strip (LIFE, 1955). The ensuing blizzard of high velocity debris killed people who attempted to run towards the few underground storm caves in town, including a couple and their two children (Raw Data Report, 1955). After leveling the town hall, the tornado crossed the railroad tracks that bisect the center of Udall and obliterated buildings in a neighborhood to the northeast. A nursing home on East Lewis Street was destroyed, leading to multiple fatalities. After exiting town, the tornado left a wide streak of scoured vegetation. (LIFE, 1955). A total of 75 people were killed in Udall, and another five lost their lives in a home south of town.
When the final people succumbed to their injuries, 13% of the town’s population was dead. There were multiple fatalities in 17 households, with up to five deaths in a single home (List of Deceased). The incredible intensity of the tornado left unusual sights across town. The damage to Udall’s public school was perhaps the most intense ever photographed. Thick, steal cross-beams arching over the school’s gym were snapped and, in some cases, blown completely away (NWS image). Near one of the classrooms, the severely denuded frame of a Ford truck was left tangled in a partially debarked tree. Areas of grass around the campus were scoured from the ground, and low-lying vegetation was stripped bare (Udall Historical Museum). Farther inside town, power poles were snapped like toothpicks several feet above the ground and a 30ft by 40ft concrete block building was swept away. The Udall event remains by far the deadliest tornado in Kansas history and one of the worst disasters to ever occur within the boundaries of tornado alley.
Vehicles across town were thrown long distances and mangled beyond recognition. At left, the tornado’s most iconic sight was the remains of a truck wrapped around a tree near the public school. A postcard from the time wrote that the (very likely deceased) driver was found a quarter mile outside town. (Images from the Udall Historical Museum)
At left, the foundation of a home that was swept completely away. Nearly every home south of 2nd Street was obliterated in F5 fashion. At right, a grade school with thick brick walls was nearly leveled to the ground. (Images from the Udall Historical Museum)
Composite aerial view of the town taken two days later after only moderate clean-up had occurred. The southern section of town (at left) was swept completely away, leaving a checkerboard of empty foundations. The rest of the community was left as a patchwork of F5 to F0 damage, with the least damage occurring in the northwest corner of town.
At left, ground scouring just east of town. At right, a field near the high school that appears to have been stripped bare (as evidenced by the post-storm tire tracks, which are a common sight in ground effected by F5 winds). The trees in the background have been completely debarked. (Right image from the Udall Historical Museum)
6. Tupelo, Mississippi – April 5, 1936
Catastrophic damage following the 1936 Tupelo tornado.
□ One of the worst tornado disasters in world history occurred in the midst of a wide-scale severe weather outbreak that brought devastating tornadoes throughout the Southeastern United States in the spring of 1936. Just after 8pm on April 5th, a massive funnel touched down approximately eight miles southwest of Tupelo, Mississippi. Little is known about the tornado’s path outside the city, but several fatalities occurred in rural areas, including one person who was killed in a vehicle swept off a road (Mississippi State Geological Survey). As the tornado raced through the outskirts of town it swept away the Burroughs home, leading to the deaths of the couple and their 11 children (New York Times, 1936).
One witness described the storm as “four funnels that merged” just west of town (The Press-Scimitar, 1936). More than a dozen large, well-constructed plantation homes were swept completely away as the tornado entered the wealthy Willis Heights neighborhood (Grazulis, 1993). Reported damage patterns indicate the tornado had a complex multiple vortex structure as some homes adjacent to the worst devastation suffered relatively modest damage (Mississippi State Geological Survey). The tornado tore through residential neighborhoods just north of the city’s business district, with most of the destruction occurring in a 300 yard wide swath centered near the intersection of Madison and Allen Street. One witness recalled that “all of a sudden, all these houses across the street went down like paper” (Edith Gurner, 2008). Residents scrambled into unusual hiding spots as the tornado approached, including one man who survived the storm after crawling into a manhole.
The tornado likely moved in excess of 55mph and took less than two minutes to reach the eastern side of Tupelo. Tens of thousands of pounds of debris were centrifuged around the core of the tornado as it crossed Gum Pond, where dozens of bodies from across town were later recovered. Many of the dead pulled from the water were black victims who likely originated from a working class neighborhood several blocks to the west. Materials from across town piled against the eastern shore of the pond as the tornado exited the area and plowed to the northeast. Heavy timbers and construction beams pierced deeply into the ground and the thick, concrete Battle of Tupelo Monument was blown apart. Additionally, fields east of town were scoured of vegetation and left covered with pulverized debris the size of woodchips (Mississippi State Geological Survey).
After the storm passed, rescue workers and the citizens of Tupelo combed the wreckage as torrential rain fell over the area. One survivor later reported that there was an eerie silence in the worst affected areas, without a single cry or moan coming from the rubble (Moore, 1992). The condition of some of the bodies made determining even the sex of the dead challenging (Mississippi State Geological Survey). Entire families were wiped out in the storm, with multiple households suffering more than five fatalities. The tornado’s final death toll is debatable due to the unknown fate of approximately 100 critically injured white patients and an unknown (but likely similar) number of injured black residents (Grazulis, 1993). The official death toll of 216 only takes into account the immediate fatalities from the storm, so later estimates were increased to 233. A final figure of 250 deaths seems appropriate, making the Tupelo event the deadliest tornado disaster in a single US town (Grazulis, 1993). The fatality rate within the main damage swath was perhaps the highest of any tornado to cause more than 100 deaths since the turn of the 20th century. While the storm was largely forgotten amidst the turmoil of the Great Depression, it remains one of the most catastrophic severe weather events to occur on American soil.
Aerial views of damage in Tupelo. At left, the devastation around Gum Pond. Possible vegetation scouring is visible atop the mound at right center. At right, looking northeast at the tornado’s path through the city.
Views of damage in Tupelo. At left, the remains of homes and a tree that was stripped bare by Gum Pond. At bottom right, only sections of baseboard remain where a home once stood.
At left, complete devastation in the eastern section of town. At right, a heavily damaged mansion that was similar to nearby residences that were reduced to their foundations. The three-story Hoffman house at 365 North Church Street was swept completely away, leading to several fatalities.
At left, the remains of the Hoffman mansion, which was swept down to its baseboards. Homes across the street suffered relatively modest damage. At right, a field that was “stripped bare” just east of town. (Mississippi State Geological Survey, 1936)
5. Hudsonville, Michigan – April 3, 1956
The Hudsonville tornado never took on the “wedge” shape typical of most F5 tornadoes and instead appeared as a large funnel, sometimes with two or more vortices visible at once. (Image by Marvin Bueker)
□ In the spring of 1956, one of the most violent tornadoes ever documented touched down far outside tornado alley in the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thousands of residents across the area witnessed the widely visible funnel as it turned to the north-northeast at nearly 50mph. The first instances of F5 damage occurred only five minutes after touchdown as the tornado crossed New Holland Street. Several newly built homes in the area were swept completely away, leading to the storm’s first fatality. Heavy pieces of furniture from the destroyed residences were thrown several hundred yards at high speeds, leaving long gouge marks in the ground upon impact. Aerial views of ground scouring indicate that the tornado intensified even further as it continued towards the west side of Hudsonville. The storm was well into the F5 category when it crossed the intersection of Van Buren Street and 40th Avenue. Seven homes within a 100-yard wide streak nearly vanished without a trace. The Oostendorp home was swept completely away along with the flooring and plumbing fixtures, leading to the deaths of the homeowner and his infant son (1956tornadoes). Vegetation around the home was scoured from the ground or left clinging by only a few roots, whereas neighboring homes only 60 yards to the east were left damaged but still standing.
The tornado maintained its strength as it crossed Port Sheldon Street near Elmwood Lake. Approximately fifteen homes were considered destroyed in this area. Four fatalities occurred in one home that was swept completely away. The underground basement of the home where the fatalities occurred was swept clean of furniture and personal affects. Debris from obliterated structures was whipped into long lines of wind rowing that extended more than a half mile through the surrounding fields. A car that had been driving on Port Sheldon Street was hurled several hundred feet, killing the two occupants. In total, 13 deaths were reported in the Hudsonville area.
After crossing the Grand River, the tornado swept through rural areas near the town of Standale, where four people died (Sheboygan Journal Wisconsin, 1956). The tornado would continue for another 40 miles through sparsely populated areas north of Grand Rapids. The final fatality occurred near Comstock Park, where several homes were leveled to the ground. Photographs indicate that the tornado narrowed into a long, snake-like funnel in the latter stages of its life before finally dissipating. Overall, the tornado caused 18 deaths and completely obliterated nearly 100 homes.
The remains of a home where a man and his young son were killed. Vegetation around the bare foundation was scoured from the ground and the fallen tree trunk behind the home was debarked and stripped of branches. Much of the furniture and debris from the home was found more than a quarter mile away. Amazingly, the homeowner’s wife and daughter survived the tornado, though both were critically injured. (Image by Thelma Bakker)
Extreme damage to cars near Port Sheldon Street. The mangled car at right originated from a home where four fatalities occurred. (Images by Thelma Bakker)
Aerial view of F5 damage to two homes along 40th Avenue. The tornado’s narrow path was made visible by streaks of pronounced wind rowing, an indication of extreme intensity. Similar wind rowing was photographed throughout the tornado’s damage path. All of the photographs used in this section came from 1956tornadoes flickr page, which is the single best resource for information and imagery on the Hudsonville tornado.