Amazing Damage Pictures from the EF5 Rainsville Tornado – April 27, 2011

Two Video stills, only seconds apart, of the Rainsville tornado as it rapidly strengthens to maximum intensity. At right, the appearance of the tornado over Lingerfelt Road. (Video by YORKBAMA)

Two video stills, only seconds apart, of the Rainsville tornado as it rapidly strengthens to maximum intensity. At right, the appearance of the tornado over Lingerfelt Road. (Video by YORKBAMA)

During the April 27th, 2011 Super Outbreak, a tornado of incredible ferocity left a streak of devastation through northeast Alabama. The tornado carved a modest 34 mile path, significantly shorter than many other tornadoes that day, but the intensity of the damage near the community of Rainsville was astounding. Some of the most powerful instances of tornado damage ever recorded occurred within a one mile long corridor along Lingerfelt Road, just east of central Rainsville. In DeKalb County, 25 people lost their lives and more than 200 homes were destroyed. The EF5 tornado’s damage path was unusual and showed bizarre selectivity. Narrow bursts of extreme destruction were surrounded on all sides by damage of lesser intensity. In some cases, EF5 damage was found within 80ft of seemingly undisturbed trees. Visual documentation of the tornado indicates it had a complex multiple vortex structure.

*Special thanks to the Robinson family for their photographs and personal stories. 

Nine miles after touchdown, the tornado entered a populated neighborhood in eastern Rainsville. The tornado’s first fatalities occurred in this area.

Visual appearance of the Rainsville tornado as it was causing near-EF5 damage. The videographer was on Main Street in downtown Rainsville, about one mile west of the tornado. Distinct multiple vortices are clearly visible. (Youtube/pitwagonweb)

According to an NWS contour map, the tornado was at EF5 strength as it crossed Main Street. The DeKalb County School Coliseum (large structure at right center) and adjacent homes only experienced moderate damage, however. Genuine EF5 damage commenced a half mile northeast of this area.

A school bus was blown from the parking lot of the coliseum and stripped down to its metal chassis. Home damage nearby was of EF2 to EF3 intensity, but vehicle damage of this severity is rare and an indication incredibly violent winds were imbedded somewhere within the tornado.

A cul-de-sac of large homes was swept away along Marshall Road. Extreme winds and high velocity debris left unusual gouge marks in a field downwind. Damage in this area was approaching EF5 intensity.

Before and after views of the devastated

Before and after views of the devastated cul-de-sac.

A stone home on Skaggs Road (top center) was swept completely away, resulting in one fatality and two serious injuries. The NWS survey team documented a section of the home’s foundation that was pulled from the ground. This likely occurred when a stone column anchored to the underlying concrete was torn away.

Severe damage to a large, two-story home on Lingerfelt Road (incorrectly spelled “Lingerfeldt” in the NWS survey report). The position of fallen trees indicate a small scale vortex passed directly over the home before entering a wooded area to the northeast.

Close aerial view of the home in the image above.

Some of the most powerful tornado damage ever surveyed occurred at the Robinson family property at 1608 Lingerfelt Road. A large, two-story brick home was swept completely away and sections of pavement were ripped from the driveway (visible as light spots at top center). Even more impressively, the tornado ripped an 800lb safe that had been anchored to the home’s foundation and threw it 200 yards to the north. The door to the safe, which had been closed, was torn completely off. Additionally, a heavy concrete porch weighing thousands of pounds was shattered and blown away, and heavy supporting anchors were torn from the ground. The Robinson family fled the tornado in a vehicle, but several neighbors survived inside an adjacent underground storm shelter. The tornado scoured dirt and ripped open a section of the shelter’s roof, partially exposing the people huddled inside. (NWS Rainsville Tornado Survey, 2011)

Wide view of the Robinson home and surrounding areas. The strangely selective nature of the damage is apparent. Grass near the empty foundation was partially scoured away, yet trees 80ft to the east stand seemingly untouched. A truck that had been parked at the Robinson home was mangled beyond recognition and found 250 yards to the north (near the top edge of the image).

At left, the cab of the truck that was thrown a quarter mile from the Robinson residence. This was the largest piece that remained of the vehicle. At right, the 800lb safe that was ripped from its anchorage and thrown 300 yards. 9Images by Colt Robinson)

At left, the cab of the truck that was thrown 250 yards from the Robinson residence. This was the largest piece that remained of the vehicle. At right, the 800lb Liberty safe that was ripped from its anchorage and thrown 200 yards. (Images courtesy of Colt Robinson)

Image of the Liberty Safe showing how it was anchored to the home's foundation. (Image courtesy of Colt Robinson)

Image of the Liberty Safe showing how it was anchored to the home’s foundation. (Image courtesy of Colt Robinson)

Image of the remains of Colt Robinson's truck as it was being towed away by the insurance company. (Image courtesy of Colt Robinson)

The remains of Colt Robinson’s truck (the truck referenced in the NWS survey) as it was being towed away by the insurance company. (Image courtesy of Colt Robinson)

Aerial view of

Before view of the two large, two-story homes that were obliterated on Lingerfelt Road. The Robinson residence is at bottom left.

Tammy Robinson shows an AP reporter the remains of her home on April 29th. Strangely, despite the incredible oddities that occurred at the residence, the trees behind the home seem remarkably intact, and the grass in the foreground does not appear to have been scoured. The foundation is also unusually clean, with most of the debris having been blown 200 yards to the north into a wooded area. Aerial imagery showed noticeable grass and pavement scouring 50ft north of the home, and trees across the street were pulverized in EF5 fashion. Therefore, it seems possible an extremely powerful vortex descended from the tornado and made contact with the ground just north of the home. Damage this selective is extremely rare. (AP Photo/Billy Weeks)

Extreme tree damage to a tall, thick grove of pine trees on Crow Lane. The few remaining tree trunks have been stripped of bark and branches and snapped at ground level. Vegetation damage of this severity is likely an indication of EF5 winds.

Close up view of a damaged truck northeast of Crow Lane. (Image by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Free Press)

Debarked trees and partially scoured vegetation highlight the tornado's path through a rural area northeast of Rainsville. (The Birmingham News)

Debarked trees and partially scoured vegetation highlight the tornado’s path through a rural area northeast of Rainsville. (Image by Mark Almond/The Birmingham News)

The NWS survey team described the damage in this neighborhood as “near EF5 in intensity.” Frame homes were swept completely away along County Road 441 and vehicles were thrown long distances and found wrapped around trees to the northeast. Additionally, the survey team documented streaks of ground scouring and sections of pavement that were removed from a sidewalk.

Before view of two homes that were swept completely away (visible in the lower left corner of the previous image).

Bursts of extreme winds left pockets of scoured grass northeast of Rainsville.

Homes and businesses were leveled and swept away along County Road 27. The tornado had expanded by the time it reached this area and was leaving a damage swath more than a half mile wide.

Two large chicken houses were swept cleanly away near County Road 591. The tornado had weakened slightly as it entered this area, but was still causing pockets of near EF5 damage. More fatalities occurred farther north in neighborhoods to the east of Sylvania and Henagar, but no clear instances of EF5 damage were documented north of County Road 112.

35 thoughts on “Amazing Damage Pictures from the EF5 Rainsville Tornado – April 27, 2011

  1. Pingback: The Indefinitive List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded Part III | Extreme / Planet

  2. Because I here it mentioned much with this tornado, I am curious if you are aware of any photos of the 800 pound safe with the missing door. I can’t find any on NOAA’s website, so I was wondering if you knew of any links that did?

  3. These 2 links are very interesting, although I should warn you, both contain some glaring inaccuracies:

    My guess is that NOAA meant to type “Liberty” instead of “liberty”, and I’m not sure if the company of Liberty is trying to hide the fact that one of their products failed or not, but I do believe that this could indeed be the 800 pound safe that was thrown 600 feet and had its door torn completely off.

    • No John. That picture is not the safe at all. Extreme Panet has posted the correct picture above.

    • I imagine the main funnel had winds of nearly 200mph whereas fast-moving suction spots could have brought instantaneous gusts of over 280mph to small areas.

      I think all of the EF5’s on 4/27 had gusts over 275mph, and quite possibly over 300mph.

  4. Is it possible for a tornado to have sustained winds in the 250-300mph range; not just instantaneous gusts at those speeds, and if so, what are some tornadoes that may have had sustained winds around those ranges?

    • I think that most tornadoes bring their most intense winds in brief gusts, hence the sharp damage contours separating lighter damage from complete devastation. The Joplin tornado brought a wide area of EF3+ damage and moved fairly slowly, yet the Fastrip video clearly indicated the worst winds lasted only seconds.

      The only tornado I can think of that may have brought sustained winds in the EF5 range for a duration of more than 15 seconds is Jarrell.

  5. What tornado do you think (open question to others as well besides EP) brought the highest gust to the surface and how fast might it have been. I know you say the Kemper County tornado was some of the best evidence of winds over 300mph but which other ones ignoring wind duration.

    Smithville and Phil Campbell must have had some crazy surface winds.

    • I think the highest winds in tornadoes with a fairly regular return rate (meaning it probably happens several times every decade) is certainly over 300mph at 10m, and probably somewhere between 320 and 340mph. This refers to only a one second gust as such winds would only last for a second at most. As the return rate decreases, the maximum possible winds get even higher. I don’t know how fast they can get, but I’m believe a gust over 350mph is possible.

      Tom Grazulis found winds of 300mph just above the surface using photogrammetry of the 1995 Pampa tornado. The Smithville and Philadelphia tornadoes caused much more intense ground scouring and were clipping along at 60 to 70mph, whereas the Pampa tornado moved at approximately 10mph, so I imagine they both had instantaneous gusts over 300mph.

      • The Pampa tornado’s average speed was 16.4 mph. Using some very crude calculations, I estimated the average speed of the Pampa tornado in the actual industrial park (where it was doing the worst damage) to be highly variable, from about 12.7 mph in the beginning of its swath to 29.2 mph at max intensity. This is presuming a width of 50 yards at all times for the debris cloud, which seems to be more on the narrow end for the tornado’s width throughout its life span.

  6. do you know how long those 300mph winds in the pampa tornado lasted for? based on the videos it looks to be several seconds. Also wondering can the wind gusts you were discussing, 320mph and above, last well over a few seconds in a tornado? Would extreme damage occur just from a 1 second gust of 300mph? That seems too short to inflict a whole lot of damage.

  7. As for Pampa, do you mean the duration of peak winds as experienced on the ground? I would imagine for longer than most tornadoes due to the storm’s slow movement and symmetrical, single vortex nature. Some locations may have encountered winds over 250mph for 5 to 10 seconds or more on both sides of the funnel.

  8. Does most of the extreme damage come from the main funnel? Can those suction vortices containing the extreme winds of over 250mph in the most intense tornadoes actually cause a lot of damage? Is a 3 second gust of 250mph+ winds actually long enough to cause severe damage? it seems too short of a duration

    • Yes, extreme damage would occur from just one or two seconds of 300mph winds. Houses probably “explode” and are swept away very quickly in the center of an EF5 tornado.

      The Smithville tornado is a good example. When you look closely at the damage photographs, you see the EF5/EF4 damage swath is generally less than 50 yards wide. Outside of that, the damage rapidly drops to a wide area of EF2 and EF1 damage. In some areas, the EF5 and EF1 damage contours are across the street from each other.

      Considering the tornado’s forward speed of 70mph, this means a single location in its path probably experienced winds over 60mph for 20 seconds, winds over 120mph for 10 seconds, and winds over 250mph for maybe two seconds. If it was graphed it would look like there was a giant spike in the middle, or maybe two spikes if it was a multivortex tornado.

      The Fast trip video from Joplin shows that extreme winds (EF3+) lasted maybe five seconds, ten at most. And that was in a large, slow moving tornado.

  9. I see how you talk about the school bus and how it is nearby EF2/EF3 damaged structures. You believe that an incredibly violent wind imbedded in the tornado got a hold of the school bus. Here is damage photos from an EF3 tornado that happened on March 28, 2009 in Corydon, Kentucky. I very much agree with the EF3 rating based on the structural damage and tree damage etc. While I know this was not a school bus there is a ford ranger truck that was thrown 1/4 of a mile and mangled beyond recognition. Is it possible in this case scenario that a much more violent winds got a hold of the truck because the damage done to it is unbelievable. Here is the photos. I think it is the very first photo. I know ford rangers weigh a lot less than school buses but still very impressive.

  10. Now that I looked a little more closely of the picture of the ford ranger truck I wonder if the tree fell on it and may have contributed to why it looks the way it did.

    • I just checked out the link and yeah, it’s hard to tell how damaged the truck is because it’s flipped upside down. But the distance it travelled is pretty incredible.

      A school bus might be even easier to move than a truck due to its overall density, but it would also be heavier. The damage to that school bus in Rainsville is the worst I’ve ever seen – probably an indication that a narrow burst of EF4 winds swept across the coliseum parking lot. The vortices with EF5 winds commenced a little farther to the north.

  11. thank you for clearing that up. I had no idea that just a second of 300mph winds could do such destruction. Do you know what type of damage could be caused from 300mph winds lasting over 10 seconds?

  12. If you watch the videos of the homes that were filmed within close proximity of the earliest nuclear bomb test then you see exactly what happens to buildings impacted by a momentary wind gust over 200mph. The structural damage to many of those homes was less intense than that caused by some EF5 tornadoes.

    If winds of 300mph lasted more than 10 seconds than I imagine it would look like Jarrell – clean foundations, severe vegetation scouring and the removal of all pavement. Jarrell caused the most intense tornado damage ever photographed.

    The 2007 Elie tornado probably brought winds of 250mph or so (photogrammetry would surely indicate this just above the surface) to certain locations for more than 10 or 15 seconds and yet the damage photographs show the grass wasn’t scoured. That makes me appreciate the damage in Jarrell even more.

  13. What kind of effect would a tornado have on a massive boulder; like the ones that lay on certain beaches or up on mountains? Would they be violently eroded or even picked up possibly? Same with hitting a rocky cliff? Of course its a rare scenario but would it just cross and travel up over a cliff or tear into it?

    • Extremely violent tornadoes could move big boulders on the order of 10,000lbs+ if they were loosely fitted into the ground, but generally I imagine they would be mostly untouched. As for cliffs, tornadoes have impacted cliffs and they look much the same as they did before the tornado sans damage to trees and vegetation.

  14. Pingback: The Indefinitive List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded (Part IV) |

  15. how fast are large objects thrown about in violent tornadoes? I would assume objects like 2 X 4s are flying at over 250 mph at given times but what about cars and other large objects? could they be accelerating at over 200mph if caught in a violent vortice?

    • My guess is that cars and other large objects are not thrown as quickly as lighter debris, but still may reach speeds at or just over 100mph. The trucks hurled from the 1995 Pampa tornado were said to have been travelling about 90mph as they exited the funnel, meaning they reached incredible speeds rotating within a funnel only 70 yards wide.

    • I do not know how fast heavy objects like vehicles can travel in violent tornadoes. But if the Pampa tornado caused two trucks to accelerate to 90mph, a tornado with an unusually large expanse of EF5 winds (like Jarrell) might cause a vehicle to travel at, I’m just guessing, 120mph briefly. Also, if a vehicle were centrifuged out of a tornado at a height of 400ft (which is very possible), it would hit the ground at over 100mph.

  16. My name is colt Robinson and I lived at 1608 lingerfelt. I have pictures of the safe it was my fathers I also have images of my truck that was mangled. I would not mind to share with whomever

  17. I just wanted to let you know that in the photos and information above, you mention that the first fatalities reported with this storm were in Rainsville. However, the first fatality was just south of Fyffe, about two miles after the tornado touched down. Her name was Eula Miller.

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