The 1974 Super Outbreak vs the April, 2011 Tornado Outbreak

The 2011 Super Outbreak spawned some of the most violent tornadoes in modern history. Pictured is the devastating Tuscaloosa tornado with horizontal vortices indicative of rapid rotation. Damage caused by the tornado in the suburb of Alberta City and communities near Birmingham would likely have received an F5 rating back in 1974. (SevereStudios)

□ The Super Outbreak of 1974 was deemed by many as a once in 500 year event. Then the 2011 Super Outbreak tore through the Deep South and suddenly the “once in many lifetimes” outbreak didn’t seem quite so unprecedented. With less than a century’s worth of solid corroborative evidence, the frequency of mega-outbreaks is unknown and potentially dramatically understated.

The four official EF5 tornadoes on April 27, 2011, were powerful enough to rip pavement from streets and sidewalks, including Wyatt Drive in Phil Campbell (pictured). There were no documented instances of this having occurred during the April 3, 1974, Super Outbreak. There are many variables that make official comparisons between the two outbreaks complicated.

Looking at the official statistics, the two outbreaks are very comparable. The 2011 outbreak had more tornadoes, yet technology in 1974 was liable to miss some of the briefer touchdowns. The 2011 outbreak probably had more tornadoes overall, but the difference is probably minimal.

Many believe that the 1974 tornado outbreak remains the most violent in history due to the greater number of E/F3, E/F4 and E/F5 tornadoes. In raw numbers, we see the following:

Event:                        April 3, 1974             April 27, 2011

E/F3                           35                                20

E/F4                           24                                11

E/F5                           6*                                 4

*The second tornado that devastated Tanner, Alabama, has since been upgraded to an F5 on most official publications without any detailed explanation. Fujita surveyed the tornado’s path and awarded an F4 rating.

The 1974 outbreak had 65 strong tornadoes, whereas the 2011 outbreak had 35. Taken at face value, the 1974 outbreak appears the most violent of the two. Even so, the 2011 outbreak caused slightly more fatalities (325 vs 319) and had single-tornado death tolls significantly higher than the 1974 outbreak despite advancements in tornado warning and lead time.

One potential variable to explain these inconsistencies is changes in the rating standards. A contemporary EF5 rating is more difficult to attain than an F5 rating 30 years ago. If the 1974 tornado outbreak was evaluated using the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the number of tornadoes given an EF5 rating would undoubtably be less than six. With the Enhanced Fujita Scale, a tornado has to do more than simply sweep a house from its foundation to achieve an EF5 rating. The obliterated home now must be of superior construction – a standard above the “normal” or “typical” construction standard often used to rate F5’s in the 1970’s.

The damage in Cherokee Valley by the Ringgold, Georgia tornado received a high-end EF4 rating. This damage would have undoubtably received an F5 rating in 1974. All of the empty foundations visible are the remains of large one and two-story frame homes. Seven people were killed in this one neighborhood, including four members of one family (TimesFreePress, 2011).

The damage in Cherokee Valley by the Ringgold, Georgia, tornado received a high-end EF4 rating. This damage would have undoubtably received an F5 rating in 1974. All of the empty foundations visible are the remains of large one and two-story frame homes. Seven people were killed in this one neighborhood, including four members of one family (TimesFreePress, 2011).

The 1974 outbreak has achieved mythical status through years of telling and retelling. While the outbreak was exceedingly violent, some of its more famous tornadoes were not as uncommonly intense as sometimes portrayed. A good example is the Xenia, Ohio, F5 tornado. Books in the 70’s refer to the Xenia tornado as “the strongest tornado ever recorded,” and online discussions bring forward claims that Prof. Fujita himself “considered rating the Xenia tornado an F6.” This often repeated claim has no basis in reality. Most of the damage caused by the Xenia tornado was in the F2 to F3 range. The only area where homes were swept from their foundations appears to be in the subdivisions on the western edge of town near the I-35. Most of the damage in the city could have been caused by winds under F4 intensity.

The Xenia tornado would probably have received an EF5 rating today based on the damage in Windsor Park, but most of the damage through the center of town was of EF3 intensity. If any tornado in the 1974 outbreak were to be deemed the “most powerful”, the Brandenburg, Kentucky, tornado would be a logical contender as it scoured vegetation from the ground and swept away more than a dozen large, well-built homes.

The Xenia tornado entered town near the I-35 (visible at center). Damage indicative of F5 intensity was found almost exclusively in the Windsor and Arrowhead subdivisions on the western edge of the city (foreground). Nine of the tornado’s 32 deaths occurred in adjacent homes near the four-way intersection (visible at lower center) bound by Commonwealth Drive. Most of the city had F2 and F3 damage.

View of the storm’s aftermath in downtown Xenia. The structural damage is not indicative of F5 intensity. Overall, the 1974 Super Outbreak brought violent tornadoes over a large area extending from central Alabama to Indiana, whereas the 2011 Super Outbreak was focused in western Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

The EF4 tornado that swept through Tuscaloosa in 2011 was narrower and more intense than the Xenia tornado as it impacted the commercial district of Alberta City. Two-story apartment buildings and stores were leveled and, in  some cases, partially swept away. With the exception of the damage in Windsor Park, the Xenia tornado caused noticeably less intense damage across its entire path length.

The EF4 tornado that swept through Tuscaloosa in 2011 was narrower and more intense than the Xenia tornado as it impacted the commercial district of Alberta City. Two-story apartment buildings and brick homes were leveled and, in some cases, partially swept away. With the exception of the damage in Windsor Park, the Xenia tornado caused noticeably less intense damage across its entire path length.

If the more stringent Enhanced Fujita Scale had been used back in 1974, the number of EF5 tornadoes would likely have been four or less. The Sayler Park and Depauw tornadoes both caused minimal F5 damage to homes of modest construction. Using the EF-Scale, it is almost certain that these two tornadoes would have received an EF4 rating. If the situation was reversed and the 2011 outbreak was analyzed using 1974 standards, it is likely the Tuscaloosa tornado, the Arab tornado and the Ringgold tornado would have been awarded F5 ratings. Other tornadoes in the 2011 outbreak also swept seemingly well-built homes from their foundations in classic F5 fashion including the Shoal Creek tornado, the Cordova tornado and the Dekalb County/Trenton tornado. Overall, comparing the two outbreaks is challenging due to changes in damage scale implementation. As many as seven to ten tornadoes in the 2011 outbreak caused damage indicative of F5 intensity.

The Marshall County/Arab tornado in 2011 was exceptionally narrow and violent as it sliced through downtown Cullman. After exiting the city, the tornado strengthened further and swept this brick home from its foundation four miles northwest of Arab. Five people were killed at this single residence after being hurled more than 150 yards from the foundation (Whisenant, 2012). This damage would have undoubtably been awarded an F5 rating in 1974.

At left, the remains of a home that was swept away near Sayler Park. Vegetation damage is not congruent with a contemporary EF5 rating. At right, the remains of a large, brick home that was obliterated in Shoal Creek, Mississippi in 2011.

At left, the remains of a home that was swept away near Sayler Park in 1974 (Image by Melissa Humphrey). Vegetation damage is not congruent with a contemporary EF5 rating. At right, the remains of a large, brick home that was obliterated in Shoal Creek, Alabama, in 2011. The damage was given an EF4 rating but fit the classic profile of F5 damage documented in the ’74 Super Outbreak.

Another method to ascertain tornado violence is the death to injury ratio. The notion holds that the more violent the tornado, the greater the fatality rate above-ground. There were approximately 5,400 injuries in the 1974 event, whereas the 2011 outbreak caused more deaths yet fewer than half the injuries. The Tuscaloosa tornado and the Xenia tornado caused a similar number of injuries (approximately 1,000) but the Tuscaloosa tornado killed twice as many people. Even though variations exist (more homes have basements in Ohio and more homes were damaged over a longer path-length in Tuscaloosa), the injury to death ratio indicates that the Tuscaloosa tornado, on average, was more difficult for those above ground to survive. This is even more true for some of the other EF5’s in 2011, particularly the incredibly powerful Phil Campbell tornado, which caused 72 deaths and only 145 injuries. Furthermore, almost all of the 2011 fatalities occurred during daylight hours whereas more than a third of the 1974 deaths occurred at night. An article by Stimers and Paul (2011) noted that tornado fatality rates increase by 56% during the overnight hours.

The F5 tornado that devastated the small river town of Brandenburg, Kentucky, did not receive significant media attention in 1974. The tornado struck far fewer homes than the Xenia tornado but caused noticeably more intense damage and a similar number of fatalities. Of the 31 deaths in and near Brandenburg, more than half were in a small cluster of homes on a bluff above the town’s business district. At left, the tornado undermined the basement walls of  an obliterated home. At right, mangled cars thrown long distances into a field that was partially scoured of grass – an indication of incredible intensity. (Images by Don Macy)

A possible explanation for the greater number of fatalities in 2011 may be the intensity of the deadliest tornadoes. The strongest tornadoes in the 2011 Super Outbreak were measurably more intense than all but one or two of the 1974 tornadoes, or at least when they impacted populated areas. The four EF5’s in 2011 caused some of the most extreme tornado damage ever photographed.

Images that show how complicated official analysis can be. The top two images show pocks of extreme ground scouring caused by the Cordova tornado, which was officially given an EF4 rating. At bottom, two images of extreme damage and wind rowing following the destruction of a large, two-story home in Arab. Both tornadoes likely reached EF5 intensity at some point in their lives, but few such tornadoes are ever at peak intensity in the vicinity of homes of "superior" construction.

Examples of how challenging it is to asses a tornado’s peak intensity over its entire path length. The top two images show pockets of extreme ground scouring caused by the 2011 Cordova tornado, which was officially given an EF4 rating. The scouring occurred many miles southwest of Cordova near Bryant Cemetery in Tuscaloosa County. At bottom, wind rowing and the foundation of a two-story home that was swept completely away by the Cullman/Arab tornado. Both tornadoes likely reached EF5 intensity at some point in their lives, but few such tornadoes are ever at peak intensity in the vicinity of homes of “superior” construction.

In the 2011 Super Outbreak, an incredibly violent EF5 tornado devastated the small town of Smithville, Mississippi. The tornado threw cars up to a mile, reduced large, two-story brick homes to empty slabs and scoured vegetation from the ground (visible above). The Smithville tornado was one of the most powerful tornadoes ever surveyed by the National Weather Service.

Overall, the two outbreaks were very similar. Both had dozens of violent and fast moving tornadoes and both were unprecedented in their respective era. Some argue that the 1974 Super Outbreak remains the most violent on record, but the higher number of fatalities in 2011 and the stricter rating standards utilized by the Enhanced Fujita Scale call such a conclusion into question.

58 thoughts on “The 1974 Super Outbreak vs the April, 2011 Tornado Outbreak

  1. Very interesting analysis.
    Based on the conclusions from this article and the one about the Tuscaloosa tornado, there would be 3 more F5 tornados (Tuscaloosa, Cullman, and Ringold) added to the ccurrent list of 4 EF5s if the same standard of 1974 was used today. This would make a total of 7 F5s for the April 27, 2011 event.
    I live in north Alabama and experienced both April 3, 1974 and April 27, 2011.
    I have never found much information on the internet on the Depauw or the Sayler Park tornados other than to read that homes were swept away.

    • Although it is only a subjective guess, yes I do believe that seven of the April 27th tornadoes would have received F5 ratings in 1974 – most definitely the Tuscaloosa tornado, and very likely the Cullman and Ringgold events.

      I have seen damage photographs from the Sayler Park tornado, and it was not as intense as the damage rated EF4 in Tuscaloosa and Concord in 2011. I have not seen any damage photos from the Depauw tornado, but from written reports, and the low number of fatalities vs injuries, I can safely say I believe it would not have received an EF5 rating today.

      The speed, size and power of the strongest tornadoes on April 27th was more impressive, I believe, than the 1974 outbreak.

      • Agree with your assessment – excellent post! It appears “Super Outbreaks” may be more of an every 30-50 year type event as opposed to hundreds of years. I wish there was more detail on the Guin tornado as it has a mythical status, but I’ve never been able to find much about it, namely damage photos. Agree about both Xenia (over-rated) and Brandenburg (under-rated). Greg Forbes has a great article about this, you’ve probably seen it, but he draws similar conclusions about the F-Scale vs EF-Scale tornado ratings and number of F3, F4, F5 tornadoes. I’m content to call it a draw, but if I leaned one way, I’d say the 2011 outbreak was probably more severe.

  2. Below is a link to a youtube video that has some pictures of the Guin tornado damage taken by JB Elliot who did the NWS survey along with Dr. Fujita. On the talkweather forum Elliot says he has lots of pictures of the damage but does not have a means to scan them in. This video is the only place I have seen that has damage photographs.
    In the forum Elliot says that Fujita told him that if there was such a thing as F6 damage the Guin tornado was it. Fujita rated the tornado F5 however.

    • Thanks for the video link! I’ve seen this video several times when researching the Guin event, yet never watched it for whatever reason.

      As for Prof Fujita’s comments about the F6 rating – I believe he may have said that at the time, but he never documented it nor mentioned that in his writings on the storm. I believe that people often say things offhandedly when first coming across extreme tornado damage due to its impressive nature. Additionally, the Fujita Scale was very new in 1974 – and Fujita did not yet have decades of experience surveying violent tornado damage.

      The Phil Campbell/Hackleburg tornado of 2011 was very similar to the Guin event in size, speed and longevity. The Phil Campbell storm, however, travelled more than 30 miles farther, and caused a significantly higher number of fatalities in comparison to the number of people injured, despite having taken place during daylight hours, whereas the Guin tornado touched down well after dark. In the end, I think the Guin tornado was a classic Alabama F5 – fast moving and intense, but no different than most other F5’s.

      • I agree PhilCampbell tornado was similar to the Guin tornado. The Guin tornado has become famous because.

        1) At one point they thought the storm itself was moving at 113 Mph. It was moving at over 70 Mph while going through Guin. The PhilCampbell storm also was moving at over 70 Mph at various points.
        2) The Guin tornado path was visible from crude 1974 satellite photographs from space.
        3) People have heard of the Fujita comment about the F6 rating and have taken it to be the actual rating.

        I remember as a teenager watching on TV the Guin storm approaching Huntsvile, AL on radar from a local station and as crude as the radar was they thought there were 2 hook echos in the storm. The Guin storm actually spawned the Huntsville tornado (F3) but the Guin tornado itself was still aloft in the storm over north Huntsville. The storm had the most intense lightning I have ever seen.

        I have a couple of photgraphs of the Phil Campbell/Hackleburg tornado and damage you might be interested in seeing but I have not seen a way of attaching a photo to the comment. One of the photos shows a storm cellar that had its roof blown off by the tornado. The other photo is of it as it is approaching Tanner,AL.

  3. This video purports to be 16mm film of damage in Guin presumably the day after the event, the uploader says that he has donated the slides to the Guin public library. The damage doesn’t look like F5 at all…I’m wondering if it might have been a minimal F5, like Xenia.

    • John – I contacted the owner of that footage a few months ago but never received a response. Damage in the posted video looks consistent with F1 to low-F3 intensity, which is bizarre because, according to Tom Grazulis, F5 damage occurred in Guin.

      It is likely the filmmaker did not film the worst of the damage, as the concentration of fatalities recorded in Guin is indicative of more intense damage than what is visible in that clip.

      • Guin was my mother’s hometown. I went up there a couple days after that tornado. Dr. Greg Forbes at the Weather Channel flew over Guin the day after and said he had never seen such devastation. I find it hard to believe an F5 which according to the “F” scale contains 262-300 mph winds would be weaker than an EF-5 which has winds of 200 mph or greater. How does that math work? Also, it was mentioned superior construction these days versus construction back in the 70s. Really? Superior? In what way? I was around construction in the 70s and and in the 2000s. Houses constructed in the 70s are hands down better constructed than they are these days. No comparison whatsoever. Also, some of the damage I saw in Guin was houses swept off the foundations which was very common in the immediate path. Also, there were foundations partially swept off the ground. Some of the roads were missing chunks of asphalt. Didn’t see that in Tuscaloosa. The Tuscaloosa tornado would not have held a candle to the Guin tornado of 74. I saw the damage from both.

      • Tommy – The wind estimates in both scales are just that, estimates. The Enhanced Fujita scale was created because research showed that wind estimates pre-1980 were too high. So the EF5 category in the Enhanced Fujita scale is, without a doubt, stricter and therefore harder to attain than an old F5 rating.

        And I agree with you in general about construction in the 70s, but that says nothing about individual homes. There were also plenty of poorly built, poorly anchored homes in both the 70s and earlier times (look at all the black and white images of homes flipped upside down by F1 winds). And the Guin tornado was very likely stronger than the Tuscaloosa tornado, possibly much stronger. I also would love to see images and / or damage reports of the uprooted foundations / scoured roads but haven’t found any other than contemporary retellings.

      • The worst damage from Xenia 74 is not found either. All the pictures you have are what people were able to get at that time and are still around. There was no access to the worst hit areas because they were restricted or inaccessible. Most of the damage in Xenia was F3 to F4. However, there was significantly more F5 damage with this tornado than any other during the 74 outbreak. This was ascertained by NOAA, Fujita and the research teams. I saw the damage. Xenia was actually very lucky with its 33 death toll. Should that storm hit earlier in the afternoon it would have been horrible. Xenia High School was literally obliterated with a direct hit. It housed 2000 students, faculty and staff. If school would have been in session, the death toll would have been well into the hundreds. Thank God it didn’t. Most of the folks that day were ending their work day driving back from Dayton and Cincinnati to discover the devastation. Arrowhead Park was in such a condition, you couldn’t even tell houses ever existed there. Cars and trucks were blow every where in the streets and outlying areas. Trees were debarked, denuded, or just ripped out. Pavement was scoured from parking lots and 2 x 4s shot all the way through houses. The Penn Central train was an eye opener. At least 7 or more box cars were lifted, detached, bounced and slid a block and a half. Three of them blown into the back side of the Kroger store which was pretty much gone anyway. I remember seeing parking stops all piled up along buildings and cracked up. Apparently that is quite a feat from what I understand today but didn’t think much about that then. Brandenburg and Guinn were very bad storms but Fujita never considered them to be an F6. It was documented that he considered giving Xenia an F6 rating but chose not to. This was the only tornadic event he ever pondered for an F6 until his death. The reason he didn’t is because he had know way of knowing because there was not enough left in the worst hit parts to determine what that damage would look like. F5 damage is very limited in duration, probably 2 to 3% of the storm. Most damage from tornados actually occurs at F2 and F3 levels. Just for some perspective, Xenia was hit again in 2000 by a F4 rated tornado. Ask the folks there who experienced them both and they will tell you the 74 event is in a league of its own and that is the fear they think of when there is a tornado warning. It was not overrated at all. If anything, this is the storm that taught us just how bad a tornado can be. If any tornado deserves a F5 or EF5 rating, this one stands at the top of the pack.

  4. Excellent analysis and you were able to change my opinion on the subject. Myth is hard to overcome, but you did it with solid examples and facts. BTW, i assume you meant Shoal Creek, AL instead of MS? One of my favorite vids is “Calhoun County tornado” which over 7 min shows the rain veiled Shoal Creek/ tornado approaching the cameraman until the twister comes fully comes into view and heads straight for them. Funny how all the light conversation gradually stopped btw the cameraman and his sidekick as they slowly realized the danger. Great site and I look forward to perusing your other articles.

    • Yikes you’re right! I edit this article regularly and recently inserted the Shoal Creek example without confirming I had the right state.

      And yes, the footage you are referring to is among the most impressive I have ever seen.

  5. I remember reading somewhere (have to look hard for it) that the first tornado to strike Tanner, Alabama on April 3, 1974 produced intense ground scouring, and and scoured pavement from roadways. I’ll have to look for where I originally found it.

    P.S. Do you have SIGNIFICANT TORNADOES, by Thomas Grazulis? It might be able to confirm a lot of my questions.

    • I do have “Significant Tornadoes” and I just took a look at the Tanner tornado. The official F5 that caused 28 fatalities is described as having “dug up red dirt” and plastered it on trees. This may be ground scouring, but it’s not explicitly stated. Wikipedia – which is choke full of inaccurate information – is the only place I see any mention of intense ground scouring.

  6. Below is the Huntsville NWS description of the first Tanner tornado
    This powerful tornado moved NE from near Mt. Hope, 10m WSW of Moulton. The funnel passed 3m NW of Moulton, killing 14 people in and near the “Mt. Moriah” community (8 of whom were trying to flee the tornado in cars). Rapidly intensifying, the funnel swept away home after home, causing 14 deaths in rapid succession, SW and west of Moulton. Six members of one family were killed, as were four members of another family. Their homes were completely swept away. The funnel passed across Wheeler Lake as a giant waterspout and entered Limestone County on a small peninsula. Here it leveled a 3/4 mile-wide swath of trees. The reddish soil was dug up and plastered to the trees by the wind. A nearby mobile home park was damaged on the edge of the tornado, and an injured man was taken to a church. He died a half hour later when the church was destroyed by a second tornado to hit the area. The tornado lifted ESE of Harvest. Fatalities by county: Lawrence 14;Limestone 5;Madison 9. The deaths in Madison County occurred S of Harvest. Lawrence County losses alone totaled $6,000,000.
    Below is a link to a newspaper article from april 3, 1974 you must go to page 66 to see damage photographs and an account of the tornado.
    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=ie8Y0QrpMWAC&dat=19740403&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

    • Excellent source. The NWS description was taken directly from ‘Significant Tornadoes.’ I now have enough information that I feel I have to edit my “strongest tornadoes” list to include Guin and the Tanner tornado.

  7. http://www.31alumni.com/1974tornadoes.htm

    This book was mentioned on a Talkweather forum…unfortunately, it is impossible to find. I could find no copies available on Amazon, and it seems only to be available at some stores in Moulton, Alabama. But anyways, it is apparently a “weather junkies dream”, as it is apparently has more information about the tornadoes of the Super Outbreak that affected northern Alabama than anything else. I only wish it was either in print or a copy was scanned online.

  8. Here is the forum: http://www.talkweather.com/forums/index.php?/topic/14446-april-3-1974-a-night-to-rememberbook/

    This is from the Alabama Weather Blog: one of the comments mentions a place in Moulton that may have copies of it for sale and lists their phone number. Probably a total shot in the dark, but here you go: http://www.alabamawx.com/?p=1324

    Some of the other comments are really interesting, particularly the one about a bathtub in the woods behind their house.

  9. I also found it slightly interesting that the track of Guin was wide on the high grounds and narrow in the valleys, at least according to that geological survey book.

    • SPC records have listed the second Tanner tornado as an F5 for some time, at least three years, though other pages have had it listed as an F4. Recently a few other pages have changed the rating to F5.

      • Fujita, who surveyed all of the violent tornado paths following the Super Outbreak, awarded six F5 ratings. I realize that the “other” Tanner tornado has since been upgraded, but there is no photographic evidence that I have seen that justifies deviating from Fujita’s original analysis.

        But I will take that into account in my article.

      • Great link! That’s the first official document I have seen that mentions the Xenia tornado as an F6. Can’t say I agree, and neither did Fujita going forward, but it’s interesting to note that he found Xenia the most impressive damage wise. Part of me wonders if that’s simply because it caused the most damage and impacted the most structures at or near maximum intensity – as well as the fact that it was the media focal point of the national news coverage.

      • Glad you found this helpful Jade and Max.

        Hi Max, in reply to your comment on the Xenia tornado notoriety: yes the media descended on Xenia after the storm because the town looked liked it was carpet bombed, suffered the most intense damage of the outbreak, and cause a high death and injury toll. If was if the tornado was saying, “f**k all this stuff in general”. From weather scientist, it received notoriety because it was the most severe convective weather event on record. Three large convection bands that stretched from the Gulf on up, merged at a focal point in Green county Ohio with thunderheads reaching 60,000 feet. Up top, temps were -55 and on the ground surface 80. It was at this point at 4:15 p.m., the TKE of this large system unleashed the Xenia tornado. It also cemented Fujita’s theory of multi-vortex tornadoes and is the only tornado ever considered for an F6 rating. It was the most studied tornado and the cornerstone event leading to the need in developing better warning systems.

        It was an extremely violent and intense tornado. There was a lot of phenomenon associated with this storm. Because of this, photogrammetry studies were done using the only 8mm film available and radar signatures. The film, which was about one and half minutes long, was filmed just minutes before reaching Xenia and before reaching full intensity. At that point, wind speeds were calculated at 303 mph. and escalating. The radar signature showed that the tornado was intensifying rapidly. It was thought that the winds reached beyond 320 mph, but no one knows for sure what the actual wind speeds were. The anemometers in the downtown area all broke at 190mph. It was a mover, in and out of Xenia in four and a half minutes. It snowed in Xenia the next day.

        I know many folks on here think it was an overrated tornado and did not deserve an F5 rating or an EF5 rating today. The only reasoning you would have is thinking building construction is better today. If that is your case, than you might as well exclude all of the tornadoes of the 74 outbreak from the list, or for that matter, anything prior to 2007. Sounds a bit ridiculous.

        Tornadoes are mesmerizing and have there own unique personality. I believe that is why many of us are so fascinated with them and pick the ones we think are the best like sports teams or movie stars.

      • Hi Max, the Xenia tornado did receive the most notoriety of the outbreak for a variety of reasons. The media descended on Xenia after the storm. Xenia suffered the most intense damage and loss of life. From a weather scientist’s point of view, it received notoriety because it was the most severe convective weather event on record. Three large convection bands that stretched from the Gulf on up, merged at a focal point in Montgomery and Green counties in Ohio, with thunderheads reaching 60,000 feet. Up top, temperatures were -55 and on the ground surface 80. It was at this point at around 4:15 p.m., the TKE (Total Kinetic Energy) of this large system unleashed the Xenia tornado. The Xenia tornado also cemented Fujita’s theory of multi-vortex tornadoes and is the only tornado to be considered for an F6 rating. It was the most studied tornado and the cornerstone event leading to initiatives for improving advanced warning systems.

        I have noticed that many folks on here think it was an overrated tornado. Apparently, NOAA, NWS, weather research scientists, and construction survey engineers would disagree. They surveyed the other tornadoes of the outbreak and their conclusion was that Xenia was the worst.

        Today they use the EF5 rating system. This came about because of the Jarrell, TX tornado of May 27, 1997 and the Oklahoma City/Moore, OK tornado of May 3, 1999. Were the wind estimates were too high in the F-Scale? Maybe, many structures succumb to 150mph winds and with 200mph winds, the point is mute. After surveying the damage caused by these two storms, it was determined the that the damage did not require anything more than 200mph winds. The EF scale is really just a modification of the F scale that lowers the wind speed threshold for F5 damage to occure. It also takes into account the building materials and construction methods.

        In summary, would Xenia be an EF5 if it happened today. You bet it would. What I find most interesting is that even today, it stands as the flagship of the most violent and intense tornadoes.

  10. Wow, never knew Brandenburg was so impressive, especially since many sources blow up the Guin and Xenia tornadoes like they were ungodly intense. I find the photographs in that video of the Guin tornado only marginally impressive. People on talkweather.com have been “analyzing” the pictures from the video you posted and saying there is “ground scouring” and proof of a “foundation being ripped from the ground” or something like that. What do you think about this? I see you posted in the same thread.

  11. Why has this year and last year been relatively quiet in terms of tornado activity? And also how rare is it to get an active and deadly year such as 2011?

    • The last two years haven’t been that inactive in terms of damage and fatalities but in terms of overall tornadoes, yes, they have been below average.

      The 2011 tornado season was exceptional – it was more than 4x as deadly as the 1984, 1998 and 2008 tornado seasons – which were the three deadliest since 1974. The season easily caused the greatest number of EF5/probable-EF5 tornadoes in history. Whereas no single tornado had caused more than 50 fatalities between 1956 and 2010, the 2011 season spawned three tornadoes that caused greater than 60 deaths – including the Joplin tornado, which stands as by far the most catastrophic single tornado in modern history.

      Despite all the incredible technological advances that have occurred in predictive and structural technology, the 2011 tornado season is the 2nd deadliest in US history (553 deaths) – only behind the 1925 tornado season (794 deaths) and a hair ahead of the 1936 and 1917 tornado seasons (552 and 551 deaths respectively).

      I imagine that, based on current evidence, the 2011 tornado season was perhaps a once in 100 year event. Weather records and the lower population density prior to 1920 make it difficult to compare tornado seasons prior to that time.

      That doesn’t mean to say, however, that there will not be a tornado season that causes even more deaths in the next 100 years. A single badly placed tornado (the type that occurs every year in rural areas) could cause well over 1,000 deaths if it were to strike a major freeway corridor or population center.

  12. It still amazes me just how incredible the 2011 season was as a whole. Yes the last couple of years have had some notable tornadoes but overall a lot less than average; what causes a steady decline in tornado numbers for a season? I think last year had less than a thousand and this year has had close to half of that so far. Does something like a long heat wave or cold streak; or even an el nino or la nina pattern cause or prevent more tornadoes in a given season?

    • Weather patterns really are a “butterfly effect” science, so it’s impossible to name any one or two things that lead to a brief downturn or upturn in tornadic events. But I have noticed a general pattern between La Nina and greater tornadic activity – in fact, the 1965, 1971, 1974, 1984, 1998, 2008 and 2011 tornado seasons – which are the seven deadliest seasons since 1960 – ALL occurred during La Nina conditions.

      The number of tornadoes per year is only marginally correlated with the number of fatalities. More importantly is the strength of the tornadoes and the time of year they occur. Records show that the month of June averages more tornadoes than the month of April, yet April tornadoes have always caused approximately 5 to 10x as many fatalities.

      So the deadliest and most destructive tornado seasons are almost always the seasons that have a high number of tornadoes between November and April.

  13. My grandmother lived thru the 1920 and 1974 tornadoes. I know the 1920 and 1974 tornadoes both where with in a few miles of her house near Hatton. Not sure how close but she always said it was a lot worst in the 20’s. She near said why or anything. I don’t know nothing about the 20’s tornadoes but would love to know more.

  14. I don’t know a lot about the ingredients associated with major tornado outbreaks but I do know a little bit. In addition the ingredients for the April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak, would it have been even worse had CAPE values had been 5000-6000J/Kg or higher in those areas?

    • Increased CAPE would have increased the instability, but CAPE values over 2000 in the month of April (as they were on 4/27) are rather high for the Deep South. In general, CAPE values increase throughout the year commencing in April and reach their peak in the late-summer. CAPE values and tornadic potential are related but not to the extent that some imply.

  15. I suspect there was at least 4 to 6 other tornadoes on April 27, 2011 that were capable of inflicting EF5 damage. Especially the Tuscaloosa, Cullman, and Ringgold tornadoes. In addition do you suspect at least several of these tornadoes may have had winds that were at or even exceeded 300 mph?

  16. Another thing could it ever be possible to get a tornado outbreak of similar violence during the months of like September or November. Such as where you have well over a 100 confirmed tornadoes in one day and at least 8-10 EF4 or EF5 events. Like for instance 6 or 7 EF4’s and 2 or 3 EF5’s along with 2 to 3 dozen EF2 and EF3 tornadoes.

  17. You said no single tornado caused more than 50 fatalities between 1956-2010. I thought the Candlestick Park F5 tornado on March 3, 1966 and the Pugh, Mississippi F4 tornado on February 21, 1971 each caused over 50 fatalities. I also believe they both had path lengths of over 200 miles.

    • In terms of outbreaks in the Fall, I always say that anything is possible. An outbreak of that severity has surely happened sometime in the past 500 years, perhaps even a half dozen times.

      As for the two tornadoes you mention, the Candlestick Park tornado was actually two tornadoes, the one that struck Candlestick Park, causing about 18 deaths (I posted the exact figure on talkweather a few months back but am too lazy to look it up) and a second, stronger tornado that impacted rural areas to the northeast, causing approximately 39 deaths. The final death was from a third tornado.

      I discussed the Pugh City tornado in “fascinating and accurate tornado records” – I concluded the tornado was a family, the deadliest of which killed less than 50 people. Grazulis stated in Significant Tornadoes in 1993 that no storm since 1955 had caused over 50 deaths.

  18. Then none of those tornadoes stayed on the ground for over 200 miles. They were a family of tornadoes spawned from the same supercell or another supercell. Did they somehow prove that over the years that they weren’t the same tornado but a family of tornadoes? Tornado History Project has them listed as two continuous tornadoes with path lengths of 202 miles and both killing 58 people. Seems confusing to me. I believe you though on the tornado families in those two situations.

    • Tornado History project has many erroneous path lengths, with basically every single path length longer than 120 miles (sans a few exceptions) being a tornado family. As for the two tornadoes, yes it is commonly accepted by meteorologists, including Grazulis, that both storms were tornado families.

  19. How many tornadoes do you think may have had wind speeds exceeding 300mph during the 2011 season? Would any tornadoes in the 1974 outbreak have been candidates for possibly having winds that high as well?

    • My answer is a total guess with very little basis in scientific evidence, but I would say maybe between 8 and 12 tornadoes had winds capable of causing EF5 damage (lets say 300mph winds) at some point in their life. It gets confusing because some tornadoes may reach that intensity very briefly, leaving little to no evidence.

      As for the Super Outbreak, the same issue is even more prevalent. I have seen damage photographs that cover perhaps 0.05% of all the areas affected. But I believe the Brandenburg tornado was extremely violent, certainly a 300mph contender, as well as the Guin and Tanner tornadoes. Perhaps a similar number of tornadoes reached EF5 intensity – maybe 8 to 10.

      If you were to look at very small vortices within 500ft of the ground, maybe greater than 20 tornadoes briefly had 300mph winds.

      • Following the 1974 outbreak photogrammetry studies were conducted on the Parkersburg IN and Xenia tornado. It showed the f4 Parkersburg tornado wind speed at around 270 mph and the f5 Xenia tornado at 303 mph. Readings were analyzed at 150 meters above ground. The Xenia tornado had not reached maturity and peak intensity at that point. The analyzed 8mm film that was taken by a high school student, was about 4 minutes before it reached Xenia. Radar showed once it reached Arrowhead and Windsor Park, the collar shifted to the rear and intensified. It was very likely the winds at that point were well above 300 mph at various points. So it safe to say that Xenia is a 300 mph contender. The tangential and angular velocity were very intense. I think what really added to this tornadoes uniqueness was the updraft and suction vortices. Damage surveys show VERY extreme levels of this occurred.

      • I need to make a correction below. I meant Parker City IN tornado not Parkersburg. Photogrammetry on the Parker City, IN tornado from 1974 showed wind speeds of approximately 270 mph. It was rated an F4. You can find the video online.

        Hi Jade, the Xenia tornado film was only about a minute and half long. It can be easily found online. It was the only video taken. During the photogrammetry studies, they tried to match location with the film and radar signature. It was just a few minutes outside Xenia when it was filmed. At the tail end of the video, radar showed it intensifying. Before the intensification, wind speeds were at 303 mph. It was believed the wind speeds following would have been significantly higher past 320+ mph. No one can say for sure what they were. In the downtown of Xenia, the anemometers all broke at 190mph. It was a mover and in and out of Xenia in 4 and half minutes.

        Hi Max, yes the media was all over Xenia because the town looked as if it was carpet bombed. It was the worst event of the outbreak damage wise, deaths counts, and the incredible intensity. People there who had been in past tornadoes said the sound was more pronounced, intense and rumbly. However, it received much notoriety from weather scientists because it was one of the most severe convective weather events on record. 3 very large convective bands stretching from the Gulf on up merged in southern Ohio. All of the TKE of the system came to a focus point from thunderheads reaching 60,000 feet. Temps were -50 up top and 80 at the surface. It all happened in Green county Ohio at around 4:15 p.m. For Fujita it cemented his theory of multi-vortex tornadoes and was considered for an f6 rating. It was also the most studied tornado and put in motion the need for much better warning systems.

        As far a tornado comparisons across the board, they all have there distinct personalities. That is why the phenomenon is so mesmerizing. It is a shame lives are lost in so many instances.

        Did you know It snowed the next day in Xenia after the tornado.

      • Hi Jade, the video can easily be found on line. Just search for Xenia tornado it on YouTube. Two photogrammetry studies were done on Parker City IN and Xenia OH tornadoes. I need to correct myself though, I said Parkersburg below and I meant Parker City. That is what happens when I am racing through posts.

  20. If based on quanity then 1974 was clearly the largest outbreak. I would think it may also be the intensity winner. We went to Xenia the next day to help clean up. To confirm how “intense” a tornado can be, I encourage research of the arrowhead plat area of Xenia. Foundations were swept clean, blacktop was pulled up from the road, the railroad tracks were pulled up. The radar signatures alone of this are from that day should be enough to reference the ferocity of the Xenia tornado.

    • Technically, the 2011 outbreak had the most tornadoes – both in terms of the overall outbreak and within a 24-hour period (211 vs 148). Surely some tornadoes were missed in 1974 – but surely not enough to surpass the 2011 outbreak’s total.

      I also believe the 2011 outbreak was more impressive in terms of tornadic intensity – at least 8 tornadoes on April 27th would have undoubtably received F5 ratings three decades earlier.

      On the other hand, the 1974 outbreak was more widespread and caused violent tornadoes over a much wider area.

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  23. My sister Patricia Jean Ford Burlington was almost killed on Stannye Drive, Louisville, KY when the F4 came over the houses and picked her up and tore off part of her foot (flying debris) and so many lost their lives that day being April 3, 1974. Her car was in the picture montage if you google photos of April 3rd Super Outbreak you will see her Patricia’s car with the plank that was driven through the driver’s side windshield. Had she stayed in the car, she would have likely been killed instantly. Peggy “Jade” Ford

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