□ For a tornado to be considered for categorization, it must have caused at least one fatality, and it must have occurred after the conception of the Fujita Scale in 1970. Damage intensity and, to a lesser extent, wind duration are the only variables considered, without regard to total path length, width or monetary loss. Information has only been taken from damage photographs or reliable survey reports, not unverified statements or accounts. While far from definitive, this list is the result of literally hundreds of hours of research, e-mails across the country and conversations with other storm chasers. I believe it is as accurate a list as is available. It is flexible and always open to change.
The indefinitive list of the strongest tornadoes:
1. Jarrell, Texas – May 27, 1997
2. Smithville, Mississippi – April 27, 2011
3. Kemper County (Philadelphia), Mississippi – April 27, 2011
4. Bridge Creek, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999
5. Bakersfield Valley, Texas – June 1, 1990
6. Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011
7. El Reno, Oklahoma – May 24th, 2011
8. Smithfield, Alabama – April 4, 1977
9. Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974
10. Andover, Kansas – April 26, 1991
11. New Hartford (Parkersburg), Iowa – May 25, 2008
12. Joplin, Missouri – May 22, 2011
13. Guin, Alabama – April 3, 1974
14. Moore, Oklahoma – May 20, 2013
15. Mulhall, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999
16. Wheatland, Pennsylvania – May 31, 1985
17. Rainsville, Alabama – April 27, 2011
18. Barneveld, Wisconsin – June 8, 1984
19. Will County (Plainfield), Illinois – August 28, 1990
20. Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974
10. Andover, Kansas – April 26, 1991
□ One of the most well-known tornadoes in United States history touched down near Clearwater, Kansas, at the height of a severe weather outbreak on April 26th, 1991. Storm chasers filmed the tornado as it slowly gained strength and took aim on the southern suburbs of Wichita. After ripping through homes in Hayesville, the “elephant trunk” funnel steered towards McConnell Air Force Base, where thousands of post-Gulf War military personnel and their families were being housed. As the tornado entered the southern edge of the base, the power failed and the sirens across the area fell silent. The tornado filled with debris and entered a period of rapid intensification as it crossed the southern edge of the base’s runway. Four people were killed in a residential area east of the base, all of them caught out in the open while running for shelter (Grazulis, 2001).
After exiting Wichita, the tornado reached F5 intensity and expanded to a quarter mile in width. The small town of Andover, which hugs the Kansas Turnpike ten miles east of downtown Wichita, was impacted directly by the tornado at maximum intensity. Large, two-story homes to the east of 159th Street were swept completely away as the tornado approached the Golden Spur mobile home park. Most of the community’s residents were sheltering in a large, underground storm cave when the tornado obliterated the park, but some people failed to make it to shelter on time. More than 80% of the mobile homes in the park were turned to splinters by the F5 tornado and 11 people were killed. Adjacent to the park, a couple and their teenage son stopped their car and sought shelter in a ditch along Andover Road. The man and his son were killed in the unforgivable blizzard of debris from hundreds of disintegrating mobile homes, and the woman was seriously injured (Grazulis, 2001). Aerial damage surveys later documented a trail of empty foundations and scoured grass through the housing developments of Andover. Ground crews photographed mobile home frames wrapped around completely debarked trees in the Golden Spur community.
Video of the Andover tornado shows some of the most violent tornadic rotation ever filmed. Even so, there may have been an even stronger tornado during the outbreak.The longest tracked tornado on April 26th, 1991, roared through the unpopulated Oklahoma countryside and was undoubtably capable of producing F5 damage. The “Red Rock” tornado caused no fatalities, however, so was not considered for the “strongest” list.
9. Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974
□ During the 1974 Super Outbreak, a tornado of incredible ferocity touched down in the hills of Northern Kentucky, a region unaccustomed to violent tornadoes. The storm intensified as it passed through unpopulated areas north of Hardinsburg, and began causing F5 damage as it approached the Indiana border. Several well-constructed homes were swept completely away along Highway 1239 as the violent tornado turned to the northeast at 50mph. Witness statements suggest that the tornado took on a “stovepipe” appearance and was fairly difficult to distinguish from the rain falling around it.
Few people were aware of the danger in Brandenburg, a small community on the Ohio River. A local disc jockey on the edge of town saw the tornado approaching and sent out a frantic last-minute warning to the residents of Meade County. For many of those not listening to their radios, the first warning was the roar of the tornado. One survivor later said that she “heard a noise that sounded like the world was coming to an end.” The fast-moving tornado ripped through the tiny town in less than 30 seconds. The worst damage occurred to homes on a bluff just west of Brandenburg’s business district. The nine homes that lined Green Street were obliterated, leading to 18 fatalities (Meade County Heritage). Several large, well-built two-story homes were left as bare concrete slabs, including a recently constructed home where four people were killed. One body was blown several hundred yards and found near the banks of the Ohio River at the base of the bluff. Additionally, trees were debarked and sheared just above ground level, and a news photographer documented extensive grass scouring just west of town (Macy, 1974).
Over the years, some of the more infamous tornadoes during the ’74 Super Outbreak have acquired almost mythical status. Damage photographs and first-hand reports, however, suggest that the lesser known Brandenburg tornado was perhaps the most powerful of the outbreak.
8. Smithfield, Alabama – April 4, 1977
□ Birmingham, Alabama, was struck by an exceptionally violent tornado during a stormy spring day in 1977. Like most deadly tornadoes in the South, the Smithfield tornado was fast moving and difficult to see behind a curtain of heavy rain. The storm touched down west of downtown Birmingham and rapidly strengthened as it sped to the northeast. Four died, including a mother and her two children, as the tornado ripped through Smithfield Estates, a small neighborhood just east of North Pratt. Homes in the area were swept completely away and at least one vehicle were thrown more than 200 yards.
The tornado intensified further as it ripped through a forested area and approached Smithfield Manor, an upper middle class street lined with large two-story homes. Some victims in the neighborhood had heeded warnings and taken shelter in basements but others were caught unexpectedly by the F5 tornado. There were multiple fatalities in several families as an entire row of homes on Belmont Lane was obliterated, leaving nothing but clean foundations and empty basements. Photographic evidence indicates that the tornado scoured patches of grass from the ground and stripped trees bare of bark and branches. In total, 22 people were killed by the tornado, and more than 100 homes were completely destroyed. The death toll was remarkably low considering the severity of the building damage, which was some of the most intense ever photographed at the time.
Prof. Fujita, who was in Alabama at the time, gave the tornado an F5 rating. One piece of NWS literature reports that Fujita “toyed with the idea of rating the Smithfield tornado an F6.” Decades later, the 2011 Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado passed directly over some of the exact same areas affected by the 1977 event, causing damage to the same properties.
7. El Reno, Oklahoma – May 25, 2011
□ Twelve years after the Bridge Creek event, a tornado of equal ferocity passed within 20 miles of downtown Oklahoma City. The monster storm was tracked by rapid scanning mobile doppler radar as it touched down near the I-40 and rapidly intensified. Researchers recorded a doppler velocity of 280mph moments before the rain-wrapped tornado fell out of range and plowed to the northeast. As of this writing, the figure has yet to be officially released. Vegetation was ripped from the ground in the EF5 damage swath, and the few trees left standing were completely stripped of bark and branches. Three fatalities occurred in two vehicles as the tornado crossed the I-40. The victims’ bodies were left “unrecognizable” and discovered stripped of clothing a quarter mile from the freeway (AP, 2011). Rescue crews were unable to determine if the victims had exited their vehicles and attempted to take shelter on the ground. The two cars were mangled so severely that only pieces of their frames were recovered. Additionally, an oil field adjacent to the I-40 was impacted directly by the EF5 tornado, resulting in the movement of a 1.9 million pound drilling derrick (Ortega, 2011). Reporters documented an oil tanker weighing in excess of 20,000lbs that was thrown a mile from the production site (KFOR, 2011). Aerial imagery revealed no visible ground impacts, so the tanker may have travelled the entire distance in one toss.
After passing to the north of El Reno, the tornado barreled eastward through the rural outskirts of Oklahoma City. A small cluster of homes near town of Piedmont was directly impacted by the storm. Approximately a dozen homes were completely obliterated, and several residents were killed. More than a dozen large vehicles from the neighborhood were hurled several hundred yards into a field that was partially scoured of vegetation. The tornado continued to the east-northeast for an additional 35 miles but failed to impact any populated areas. Most of the damage and all of the fatalities occurred in the first 30 miles of the damage track.
A mesonet station near El Reno recorded a wind gust of 151mph in the outer fringes of the tornado’s circulation. The wind gust, which falls in the EF3 range, provides some indication that the Enhanced Fujita Scale grossly underestimates wind speeds in violent tornadoes. Ground scouring in the El Reno tornado was similar to the Bridge Creek tornado, and its path length was significantly longer. The Bridge Creek tornado paralleled the I-44 and was closely followed by radar for much of its life. The El Reno tornado was analyzed only briefly as it crossed the I-40, so higher winds may have occurred.
6. Hackleburg/Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011
□ One of the most notable tornadoes in modern history touched down in a forested area near the town of Detroit, Alabama. After spending 15 minutes tearing through sparsely populated sections of Marion County, the fast moving storm ripped through the tiny town of Hackleburg at EF5 intensity, causing 18 fatalities. Buildings across most of the town were damaged, but the worst destruction was confined to a streak only 200 yards wide. In the worst affected areas, trees were completely debarked, well-constructed homes were swept from their foundations and a large manufacturing plant was reduced to a pile of twisted metal (NWS, 2011).
The tornado’s intensity remained remarkably uniform as it exited town and sped to the northeast at more than 70mph. Five minutes later, the storm reached the town of Phil Campbell, a small community with just over 1,000 residents. The town’s population was well-warned of the approaching storm, but interior rooms provided no protection from the exceptionally violent tornado. Twenty six people were killed in Phil Campbell, including four members of one family. Photographic evidence indicates the tornado scoured grass from exposed hillsides, and surveyors documented a large section of pavement that was peeled from a street on the eastern edge of town. Additionally, aerial imagery suggests that the roof of an underground storm cellar was ripped from the ground near Highway 237.
A post-storm damage survey by the NWS indicated that the most intense damage occurred in the unincorporated community of Oak Grove, about eight miles northeast of Phil Campbell. As the tornado roared through the area, a large, two-story brick home of excellent construction was swept completely away. The bodies of the home’s two occupants were found far from the empty foundation in a field to the east. Surveyors later determined that the EF0 damage contour reached a peak width in excess of one mile in Oak Grove, but the path of extreme damage remained narrow throughout the tornado’s life. In total, the storm travelled 132 miles – one of the longest officially measured damage paths in history. Surveyors documented EF5 and “near EF5” damage from Hackleburg to Tanner, a distance of nearly 70 miles. Despite hitting mostly unpopulated forestland and tiny towns, the tornado killed 72 people, most of whom were killed in a 25 mile swath between Hackleburg and Mount Hope.
The Phil Campbell tornado was one of the most impressive tornadic events of the past century. The storm’s intensity, rapid forward pace, huge size and exceptional path length have led many to consider it the “strongest tornado ever recorded.” Winds in the storm may have easily exceeded the Bridge Creek and El Reno events, but the storm’s fast movement reduced the duration of the most intense winds to less than five seconds. As a result, the tornado caused less pronounced ground and vegetation scouring than some other, slower-moving EF5 storms. A post dedicated specifically to this tornado can be found here.
–Certain damage indicators are unique to EF5 tornadoes. These include:
1. Pronounced ground and vegetation scouring (perhaps the best indicator of extreme intensity).
2. Completely debarked trees.
3. Well-constructed buildings swept from their foundations.
4. Vehicle’s thrown great distances and mangled beyond recognition.
5. Granulation of debris.
6. Incredible phenomena (eg. an 800lb safe thrown 200 yards in Rainsville, AL) and wind rowing.
7. High above-ground fatality rates in frame homes.
For reasons unknown, some intense tornadoes do not leave behind all seven damage indicators. Ground scouring, while strongly correlated with wind speed, occurs readily in some tornadoes and not others.
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