The List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded: Part III

Views of the EF5 tornado that caused catastrophic damage in the city of Joplin, Missouri. Like many of the deadliest tornadoes in US history, the Joplin tornado was extremely powerful and not clearly visible to those in its path. In terms of damage severity, the Joplin tornado easily caused the most intense tornado damage ever surveyed in a heavily urbanized area. (Video stills by Jeff and Kathryn Piotrowski)

□ For a tornado to be considered for categorization, it must have caused at least one fatality and it must have occurred after 1970. While an accurate list is impossible to compile, objectivity is attempted through the use of damage photographs and first-hand survey reports.

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

The 1995 Kellerville tornado is not included in the “strongest” list because it caused no fatalities. A detailed report of the damage, however, concluded that “the Kellerville tornado was one of the most violent ever surveyed” and was undoubtably capable of causing F5 damage. Vegetation in the tornado’s path was “completely scoured, leaving bare soil.” Asphalt was also stripped from roads, and trees were snapped a few inches above ground level. An unusual feature of the storm was its wobbly, non-linear path – a damage feature that had not been documented before in a violent tornado (Wakimoto, Murphey, Bluestein, Dowell, 2003).

15. Mulhall, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999

Image of the Mulhall tornado from the Doppler On Wheels.

□ The May 3rd, 1999, tornado outbreak is infamous for spawning a devastating F5 tornado that thundered through Bridge Creek and the Oklahoma City suburbs. Peak doppler velocities analyzed in the storm were estimated at 281 – 321mph, the highest ever recorded. Many are unaware, however, that another powerful tornado was analyzed by the Doppler On Wheels later that evening north of Oklahoma City. While peak velocities were somewhat less intense than the Bridge Creek tornado, the incredible size and duration of the winds meant that the storm was potentially capable of causing even more extreme damage.

The tornado touched down three miles south of the town of Mulhall just before 9:30pm. Doppler velocities indicated that the storm was exceptionally large early in its development, with powerful winds expanding over an area greater than four miles in width. The monster tornado quickly developed a pronounced multiple vortex structure as it roared northeast at 30mph. Six minutes after touching down, the large tornado passed to the east of the tiny town of Mulhall. As residents took shelter, hurricane force inflow winds blew through the streets, shattering windows and knocking out power. More than a minute later, winds throughout the town increased as the tornado made its closest pass to the east. Debris loudly impacted the sides of houses as buildings disintegrated and cars tumbled in the thundering winds. The town’s water tower collapsed, sending a tidal wave of water that pushed one home off its foundation. A full four minutes later, the winds began to subside. More than three quarters of the town had been destroyed, and some well-built homes on the edge of town were nearly leveled. Outside Mulhall, a woman was killed in the complete destruction of her home. Ten miles to the north, a man was killed when his vehicle was thrown from beneath an overpass on the I-35.

Despite the severity of the damage in Mulhall, the town was outside the core circulation of the tornado and on the weaker left side of the storm. Doppler analysis indicated that the highest winds occurred on the eastern side of the tornado as sub vortices slingshotted around the right side of the storm at 120mph (Wurman, Alexander, Robinson, Richardson, 2006). Peak velocities of 246 to 257mph were recorded as the tornado strengthened north of Mulhall, and even higher values were estimated. A ring of winds greater than 185mph surrounded the core of the storm, which had a diameter of nearly one mile (Lee, Wurman, 2005). While ground level winds could not be analyzed, it is likely some locations experienced surface winds greater than 180mph for several minutes.

Few, if any damage photographs are publicly available of the areas affected by the core of the storm. The southeast corner of Mulhall, which was more than a mile from the area of strongest winds, experienced borderline F4 damage. Considering that the tornado peaked in intensity well north of Mulhall, it is almost certain the storm was capable of causing a wide swath of F5 damage.

Photographs of the vehicle in which a fatality occurred. Wind damaged grass is visible on the hillside near the destroyed car. The center of circulation passed a mile west of this location.

Despite being well away from the center of the tornado, the brick Mulhall-Orlando Elementary School was nearly leveled by the storm. (The Edmond Sun)

14. Moore, Oklahoma – May 20, 2013

View of the 2013 Moore tornado near the time at which it reached EF5 intensity near Drexel Avenue. (Video by Curtis McDonald and Charles Lubensky)

View of the 2013 Moore tornado as it approached peak intensity. (Video by Curtis McDonald and Charles Lubensky)

In the midst of a multi-day severe weather outbreak across the Great Plains, a large funnel descended from the sky in Grady County, Oklahoma. News stations in Oklahoma City interrupted regular programming to broadcast footage of the tornado as it turned towards the city’s southern suburbs at 30mph. A rare tornado emergency was issued for the metropolitan area just after 3pm.

The large tornado traversed eight miles of sparsely populated countryside before entering a period of rapid intensification a mile east of the Canadian River. Homes in wealthy subdivisions just west of Moore were swept completely away as the tornado thundered through the area, leading to five fatalities. Powerful winds engulfed an area greater than a half-mile in diameter, but the worst damage was confined to a narrow streak less than 80-yards wide. Within the worst affected areas, vegetation was ripped from the ground and large trees were shredded into featureless trunks.

The tornado was likely above the EF5 threshold as it crossed Western Avenue and ripped through Celestial Acres and other equine sports facilities, killing approximately 100 horses (Kuruvilla, 2013). Nearby, a 20,000lb water tank was ripped from its anchorage and thrown a half-mile, and an oil tank weighing more than 5,000lbs was hurled 1.3 miles (Nye, 2013). Less than a minute later, the tornado entered the densely populated neighborhoods of Moore. Briarwood Elemenatry School, located at the western edge of town, experienced EF5 damage (NWS, 2013). Several deaths occurred as rows of tightly packed homes were whipped to the ground near Santa Fe Avenue. After crossing over Penn Lane, the tornado may have reached a secondary intensity maxima as it roared over Plaza Towers Elementary School. The school’s well-built concrete walls collapsed in the storm, crushing seven children to death (Kelly, 2013). Just south of the school, six more were killed as an entire residential block was reduced to a checkerboard of bare foundations. Fields in the vicinity of Plaza Towers Elementary were stripped bare and automobiles from adjacent neighborhoods were rolled into twisted balls only a few feet across.

Hundreds of homes were leveled to the ground as the storm made a slight jog to the north, narrowly missing a large theatre complex. A 7-Eleven at the northern margin of the tornado’s damage track was obliterated, killing four people who had taken shelter in the store’s walk-in freezer (Chuck, 2013). The greatest concentration of EF5 damage throughout the tornado’s path occurred on SW 6th Street, where five well-built homes were reduced to bare foundations (Ortega, Burgess et al., 2014). The storm then made a sudden curve to the east, enveloping the Moore Medical Center and nearby businesses. Cars in the medical center’s parking lot were hurled through the air and stacked like leaves against the building’s walls, but no fatalities occurred in the complex. After crossing the I-40, the tornado abruptly narrowed but maintained extreme intensity as it tore a streak of destruction through eastern Moore. Four separate homes, each in a different neighborhood, were destroyed in EF5 fashion between Broadway Street and Sunnylane Road (Ortega et al., 2014). Approximately 40 minutes after first touching down, the tornado roped out and dissipated near the shores of Stanley Draper Lake.

The Moore tornado caused extreme vegetation damage in areas just west of the city. Large trees were completely debarked or sheared just above ground level in a swath often only 30 yards wide. Near Western Avenue, the tornado left a streak of scoured earth only 50ft away from bushes with relatively little damage.

The Moore tornado caused extreme vegetation damage in areas just west of the city. Large trees were completely debarked or sheared just above ground level in a swath often only 30 yards wide. Near Western Avenue, the tornado left a streak of scoured earth only 50ft away from bushes with relatively little damage.

Two views of EF5 home damage in Moore. Both residences were determined to have been well-constructed.

Two views of EF5 home damage in Moore. At left, a row of five well-constructed homes near the Moore Medical Center was obliterated  At right, a large, strongly anchored house was reduced to a clean foundation at the eastern edge of Moore (Ortega et al., 2014).

More than half of the 23 direct fatalities from the Moore tornado occurred in the vicinity of Plaza Towers Elementary School. Seven students were killed in the school's collapse and another six deaths occurred in homes swept completely away on ar adjacent to SW 14th Street.

More than half of the 23 direct fatalities from the Moore tornado occurred in the vicinity of Plaza Towers Elementary School. Seven students were killed in the school’s collapse and another six died in homes swept completely away on or adjacent to SW 14th Street. (Image by Geoff Legler)

13. Guin, Alabama – April 3, 1974

Despite its impressive reputation, little information is available on the Guin tornado. All of the photographs used in this article were taken from this video.

Despite its impressive reputation, little information is available on the Guin tornado. Most of the photographs used in this article were taken from this video by ABC 33/40.

As the 1974 Super Outbreak drew to a close in the Ohio River Valley, a series of powerful supercells erupted in the nighttime sky over the Deep South. Around 8:45pm, a large tornado touched down near the Mississippi/Alabama state line and rapidly roared to the northeast. Like most intense tornadoes in the South, the storm was exceptionally fast moving and buried within sheets of torrential rain and hail. Hundreds of trees were felled each second as the tornado ripped through sparsely populated sections of Lamar County. The tornado reached F5 intensity as it crossed into Marion County, devastating several rural homes before reaching the small town of Guin. Homes and businesses within a 300-yard wide swath were reduced to bare concrete slabs. According to former NWS forecaster J. B. Elliot, “even the foundations were dislodged and, in some cases, swept away” *(ABC, 2006). Survivors described a very sharp line separating the worst damage from adjacent homes that were relatively unscathed. Most of the debris from Guin was blown to the northeast and wrapped around debarked trees.

After exiting Guin, the tornado plowed through the William Bankhead National Forest, leaving a well-defined streak of damage that was later photographed by satellites. The tornado weakened as it approached Lawrence County and finally lifted near Decatur after traveling just over 100 miles. Most, if not all of the damage and fatalities occurred in the tornado’s first 40 miles on the ground. Tom Grazulis lists 20 deaths in Guin and 30 overall, whereas the NWS shows 23 fatalities in Guin and 28 total.

In recent years, the intensity of the Guin tornado has become a frequent topic of conversation on severe weather message boards. Many of the extraordinary claims (including that Prof. Fujita considered an F6 rating) appear to have originated from meteorologist J. B. Elliot, who surveyed the damage in Marion County. Little photographic evidence exists of the destruction in and around Guin, so little objective information is available to either verify or disprove personal accounts. The tornado was undoubtably a historic event, but no solid evidence exists that indicates it was any more intense than the EF5’s that struck Alabama in 2011.

Brick homes were swept completely away on the west side of Guin. According to Tom Grazulis, the tornado was one of the most intense of the 20th century and caused F5 damage both before and after striking Guin (Grazulis, 1991).

Brick homes were swept completely away on the west side of Guin. According to Tom Grazulis, the tornado was one of the most intense in Alabama’s history (circa 1991) and caused F5 damage both before and after striking Guin (Grazulis, 1991).

Aerial view of the damage swath in Guin. (Image used by C. F. Boone)

Aerial view of the damage swath in Guin. (Image used by C. F. Boone)

12. Joplin, Missouri – May 22, 2011

View of the Joplin tornado as it tears through the city at EF5 intensity.

□ On a stormy afternoon in 2011, the city of Joplin, Missouri, was struck by the most catastrophic tornado in modern history. In only twelve minutes, the exceptionally violent storm killed 158 people and destroyed more buildings than any single tornado since 1925. The event was a meteorological worst case scenario; the nearly mile-wide tornado rapidly intensified moments after touching down on the western outskirts of a densely populated area. Within five minutes of touchdown, the tornado was causing EF5 damage.

The tornado began its trek across the southern half of Joplin around 5:40pm. Storm chasers photographed the ragged funnel as it entered the city near the Twin Hills Country Club. The rapidly intensifying tornado soon became rain-wrapped and indistinguishable to those in its path. A damage survey indicated that the tornado widened and developed a pronounced multiple vortex structure moments before engulfing St. Johns Hospital. The large, ten-story medical complex was devastated by the storm, and survivors reported that patients in the ER were “sucked out of windows into the parking lot” (Sulzberger, 2011). The extreme inner core of the tornado, which passed just north of the hospital, was powerful enough to rip pavement from a parking lot and hurl thousands of cars long distances, reducing many to unrecognizable balls of twisted metal. One tractor trailer originating from St. Johns was shredded to its frame and wrapped around a debarked tree. Surveyors later noted that the tornado uprooted 300lb cement parking stops, which had been tightly anchored into concrete. A wind engineer concluded that such damage required winds of at least 205mph. Taking into account the friction from densely packed homes and businesses, winds of 205mph or greater only inches above the ground easily indicates significantly stronger winds a few yards higher up.

As the tornado continued eastward past St Johns Hospital it completely swept away brick homes along 20th Avenue. Trees and low-lying shrubs in the area were stripped entirely of bark and branches, and patches of grass were scoured from exposed hillsides. Just before roaring over Moffet Avenue, the tornado obliterated the Greenbriar Nursing Home, leading to 21 fatalities. The swath of EF3+ damage increased to a half mile in width as the tornado obliterated businesses on Main Street, and hurricane force inflow winds enveloped more than 200 city blocks. Entire neighborhoods of one and two-story frame homes were flattened and swept away as the tornado roared past Joplin High School, killing dozens. East of the high school, several three-story apartment buildings were nearly leveled to the ground, and sections of concrete curb were shattered and blown away from roadsides.

The tornado maintained EF5 intensity all the way to Rangeline Road, where it obliterated businesses and large department stores. Five people were killed after being torn out of a walk-in freezer at a Pizza Hut, and another eight perished in the destruction of a Home Depot. Surveyors later documented large sections of pavement that were scoured from parking lots near Home Depot and Walmart. As the storm continued eastward, it passed over an industrial area, leaving large warehouses as empty concrete slabs. Dozens of 18-wheeler trucks were hurled more than 300 yards and pronounced wind rowing occurred as debris was blown across Duquesne Road. In southeast Joplin, the tornado weakened but continued leveling buildings until it crossed the I-44 and swirled into a rural area east of the city. When it was all over, more than 7,000 buildings lay in ruins.

Video evidence suggests that most of the extreme damage was caused by incredibly powerful suction vortices rotating within the main funnel. The severity of the destruction was all the more impressive due to the density of structures in the tornado’s path, which would have added significant ground level friction.

A more thorough entry on the tornado can be found here.

At top, a mangled car was hurled into an empty basement. At bottom, a debarked tree with the frame of a disintegrated vehicle wrapped around it. Partial grass scouring is visible in the foreground. (Images by Dan Michaels)

Views of damage just east of St. Johns Hospital, where the tornado likely reached peak intensity. At top, a mangled tractor trailer that was wrapped around a debarked tree. Partial grass scouring is visible in the foreground. At bottom, the remains of an obliterated home. (Images by Dan Michaels)

Aerial view of EF5 damage along Iowa Avenue, where there was a high concentration of fatalities. Many of the homes that were swept away were well-constructed. Survey images taken the day after the tornado confirm that these homes were swept away by the tornado and not clean-up crews.

Views of EF5 damage along 20th Avenue. The images at top show how, in some cases, even taking shelter under a heavy table in a basement was not entirely safe. At bottom, aerial view of trees that were stripped completely bare. Vegetation damage in Joplin was noticeably more intense than vegetation damage in some other EF5 tornadoes, such as the Greensburg tornado of 2007.

Aerial view of extreme damage to large businesses and warehouses surrounding Rangeline Road. A defined trail of wind damaged grass marks the streak of worst damage. At left, a close view of two parking lots that were scoured of pavement. At top, the Walmart parking lot, and at bottom, a parking lot 100 yards to the east of the devastated Home Depot.

11. New Hartford (Parkersburg), Iowa – May 25, 2008

Two views of the EF5 tornado. The left photograph shows the tornado directly over Parkersburg. (Miles Humphrey)

□ During a wide-scale severe weather outbreak across the Great Plains, a massive tornado touched down in the cornfields of central Iowa. The wedge tornado quickly reached EF4 intensity as it thundered to the east over open farmland. Only a few minutes after forming, the intensifying tornado ripped through the small town of Parkersburg, killing seven people. The entire southern half of town was leveled, and more than 100 homes and businesses were obliterated. According to the town’s mayor, Bob Haylock, “most of those killed in Parkersburg were in basements” (NY Times, 2008). Many of the destroyed homes were swept completely away, floorboards and all, exposing people who had taken shelter underground to the full force of the tornado. Another indication of the tornado’s exceptional power was the presence of finely granulated debris throughout the damage swath (NWS Survey, 2008). Photographs reveal that much of the material from devastated buildings in Parkersburg was ground into tiny pieces the size of woodchips and deposited east of town.

The EF5 damage contour commenced on the southwest edge of town and continued intermittently for the next ten miles. Aerial photographs suggest the tornado was approaching peak intensity just east of Parkersburg as it passed over a golf course. Grass in the area was partially scoured from the ground and well-constructed homes were swept completely away. Surveyors also documented thick, well-anchored basement walls that were undermined by the tornado’s incredible winds. As the tornado continued eastward it maintained its strength and size. By the time the tornado reached a rural housing subdivision north of New Hartford, it was likely at peak intensity. Two more died as several homes were reduced to empty basements plastered in mud and debris. Trees in the area were completely debarked and cars were hurled long distances and mangled beyond recognition.

The Parkersburg tornado passed only a few miles north of downtown Waterloo. Had the tornado tracked slightly farther to the south at EF5 intensity, the number of destroyed homes could have topped 3,000. The destruction in eastern Parkersburg and New Hartford solidified the EF5 tornado’s place as one of the most intense in modern history.

Aerial view of extreme damage in Parkersburg. The damage to the industrial buildings at lower left was deemed to be of EF5 intensity (NWS Survey, 2008).

Views of EF5 damage to a home east of Parkersburg. Extreme winds knocked over thick, well-anchored basement walls and left cracks in the home’s foundation. The streak of damage east of Parkersburg was marked by partially scoured grass and pronounced wind rowing, both indications of EF5 intensity. In the image at right, view of finely mulched debris from homes more than a half mile to the west. (NWS, 2008)

The remains of a frame home in New Hartford. The woman who lived at the residence was killed despite seeking shelter in the home’s basement. Trees in the area were completely debarked, and a vehicle that was stripped to its metal frame can be seen in the background. (Jungbluth, 2008)

At top, view of the tornado’s path as it exited Parkersburg and swept away homes along a golf course. The tornado left a visible trail of partially scoured grass. At bottom, a close up view of grass nearly ripped from the ground in New Hartford. (NWS Survey)

__________

Click to see:
Part I
Part II
Part IV

The List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded: Part II

During the 2008 Super Tuesday outbreak, one of the longest tracked tornadoes in history ripped through primarily rural forestland in central Arkansas. Near the small community of Zion, the tornado hurled a Hummer a quarter mile from an obliterated residence. Another vehicle in the same area was mangled beyond recognition and wrapped around a denuded tree. The tornado does not appear on the

During the 2008 Super Tuesday outbreak, one of the longest tracked tornadoes in history ripped through primarily rural forestland in central Arkansas. Near the small community of Zion, the tornado hurled a Hummer a quarter mile from an obliterated residence. Another vehicle in the same area was mangled beyond recognition and wrapped around a denuded tree. Whether the tornado was capable of causing EF5 damage will never be known since the storm, like most, reached peak intensity in unpopulated areas. (Images by wxmandan)

□ 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

Various images of tornado damage, with relative intensity increasing from left to right. At left, the 2011 Phil Campbell tornado left most trees partially debarked and stripped of branches. The ground also shows high velocity impact marks but no obvious scouring of grass (Image by John Phillips). At center left, impact marks and partial ground scouring in after the 2011 Smithville tornado. At center right, the near complete debarking of all foliage in Smithville (Images by C. Welch). At right, completely obliterated vegetation and severe ground scouring following the 2011 El Reno tornado. (Image by Jim LaDue).

Various images of tornado damage with relative intensity increasing from left to right. At left, the 2011 Phil Campbell tornado left most trees partially debarked and stripped of branches. The ground also shows high velocity impact marks but no obvious grass scouring (Image by John Phillips). At center left, impact marks and partial ground scouring after the 2011 Smithville tornado. At center right, the near complete debarking of all foliage in Smithville (Images by C. Welch). At right, completely obliterated vegetation and severe ground scouring following the 2011 El Reno tornado. (Image by Jim LaDue).

10. Andover, Kansas – April 26, 1991

From the steps of the Terradyne Country Club, Earl Evans captured the exact moment the F5 tornado entered the Golden Spur mobile home park. Just southwest of the park, large homes (similar to the ones in the foreground) were swept cleanly away.

□ 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.

Damage from the Andover tornado in the vicinity of the Golden Spur mobile home park (at right). Grass scouring is clearly visible in the swath of extreme damage. As the tornado crossed Andover Road, it left perhaps the most impressive instance of wind rowing ever photographed. The debris originated from a subdivision of large homes that was obliterated. (Image by Fernando Salazar)

Surveyors photographed a vehicle that had been carried almost a mile from the Golden Spur mobile home park. It was so thoroughly mangled that they were unable to determine whether it was a truck or a car. (Grazulis, 1993)

Several views of F5 damage in the vicinity of Chapel Drive, where large two-story homes were swept completely away.[

Several views of F5 damage in the vicinity of Chapel Drive, where large two-story homes were swept completely away.[

The remains of two large, well-built homes that were swept away in F5 fashion near 143rd Street. Circular ground scouring is visible in the lefthand image. Despite the severity of the damage, there were no fatalities in frame homes. Extensive warning and clear visibility gave residents more than 30 minutes to seek shelter underground. Also, the area was much less developed in 1991 than it is today. (Image from TVCII)

9. Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974

Before and after views of Brandenburg. Perched on the corner of the ridge overlooking the Ohio River was “one of the nicest modern houses in Brandenburg” (visible in the before image at right center). The home was swept completely away in the tornado, killing the occupants. Green Street (the third street from the edge of the bluff) was the location of more than half of the tornado’s fatalities. (Meade County Heritage)

□ 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.

Just west of Brandenburg, a home was swept completely away, leaving nothing but an empty basement plastered in mud. The fatality rate in Brandenburg was the highest of any town affected during the 1974 Super Outbreak. A total of 27 residents were killed in the town of Brandenburg, where basements are commonplace. By contrast, 20 deaths occurred in the town of Guin, Alabama, which had a slightly larger population at the time. Additionally, the Guin tornado moved in excess of 70mph and impacted the town after dark, two variables that dramatically increase the likelihood of fatalities. (Data collected by Scott Koerner)

Two views of severe damage southwest of Brandenburg. At left, the collapsed basement walls of a home that was swept away. At right, view of mangled cars that were thrown long distances into a field that was partially scoured of grass. (Images by Donald Macy)

Close view of the

Close view of the “modern house” that was swept away above Main Street, resulting in two fatalities. Low-lying shrubbery was stripped bare, an indication of extreme surface winds. (NWS Louisville)

8. Smithfield, Alabama – April 4, 1977

Aerial view of F5 damage to large homes on Belmont Lane. The powerful tornado skirted just north of the highly populated core of Birmingham.

□ 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.

Extreme damage from the Smithfield tornado. At left, the sharp boundary between F5 damage and homes with only minor damage is evident. Most of the well-built homes destroyed in the tornado had basements, likely reducing the death toll. The body of one victim was reportedly carried over half a mile.

The remains of a brick home in Smithfield. Pine trees in the background have been reduced to featureless trunks.

7. El Reno, Oklahoma – May 25, 2011

View of the EF5 tornado minutes after touchdown. The tornado spent approximately 100 minutes on the ground and travelled nearly 70 miles, an exceptional distance for the Great Plains. (Image from JeopardyTempest / Youtube)

□ 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 the 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.

The remains of car hurled a half mile in Piedmont. Vegetation and vehicle damage of this severity are indicators of incredible intensity. (Image by Jim LaDue)

Severe vehicle damage and grass scouring near a neighborhood in Piedmont, where several fatalities occurred. (Image by Rebecca Manney)

Aerial views of the oil tanker that was thrown a mile from a production site on the other side of the I-40. Several other tankers were hurled long distances, and machinery in excess of 1 million pounds was moved.

Aerial views of an oil tanker that was thrown a mile from a production site on the other side of the I-40. Several other tankers were hurled long distances, and machinery in excess of 1 million pounds was moved.

View of severe ground scouring southwest of Piedmont.

On the same day as the El Reno tornado, two other tornadoes were likely capable of causing EF5 damage. One tornado in Chickasha scoured grass from the ground, swept away atleast one well-built home and ripped pavement from roads (at left). Nearby, a tornado in Goldsby left several large homes as bare foundations and caused pronounced grass scouring (at right).

On the same day as the El Reno event, two other violent tornadoes developed south of Oklahoma City. One tornado in Chickasha scoured grass from the ground, swept away atleast one well-built home and ripped pavement from roads (visible at left). Nearby, a tornado in Goldsby left several large homes as bare foundations and caused pronounced grass scouring (at right). Both tornadoes were likely capable of causing EF5 damage and may deserve a place on the “strongest” list.

6. Hackleburg/Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011

View of the catastrophic tornado near the town of Phil Campbell. The storm maintained peak intensity for an exceptionally long period of time - the swath of EF5 damage was longer than the entire track of all the other EF5 tornadoes on April 27, 2011. (Video still by lookalika maan)

View of the catastrophic tornado near the town of Phil Campbell. The storm maintained peak intensity for an exceptionally long period of time – the swath of EF5 damage was longer than the entire track of all the other EF5 tornadoes on April 27, 2011. (Video link)

□ 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.

Hackleburg was the first town directly impacted by the fast moving EF5 tornado. As the tornado entered town, a large church and several homes were reduced to empty concrete slabs. The few remaining bushes and trees in the inner damage swath were stripped bare and left clinging to the ground by only a few roots. High winds within the tornado’s large circulation affected all of the buildings visible in this photograph, including the green-roofed church at extreme upper left, which was destroyed. (Image from HBTV)

Three images of extreme damage in Hackleburg. At top left, view of large trees that were completely debarked near the Wrangler Factory (Image by Patrick Flanagan). At top right, a vehicle that was rendered unrecognizable in the vicinity of Clay Street (Image by John Phillips). At bottom, the tornado was powerful enough to scour concrete from the ground (Image by Niccolò Ubalducci). Considering the speed of the tornado and the width of the EF4 and EF5 damage contour, the most extreme destruction likely occurred in less than five seconds.

At left, extreme vegetation damage and possible ground scouring along a hillside on Pinion Drive in Phil Campbell. At right, a storm cellar 200 yards to the southwest of the left image appears to have lost its ground-level roof in the storm (Image by HGTV). The Hackleburg/Phil Campbell tornado caused some of the most violent wind damage ever documented.

At left, extreme vegetation damage and possible ground scouring on Pinion Drive in Phil Campbell (Image by Robin Conn). At right, a storm cellar (center) at the edge of Phil Campbell appeared to have lost its ground-level roof in the storm (Image from HBTV). Due to its strength and longevity, the Hackleburg/Phil Campbell tornado likely had the most destructive potential of any tornado in recent history.

Damaged grass marks the path of EF5 damage near County Road 81, one mile east of Phil Campbell. In the foreground, large trees that have been debarked and sheared just above ground level are visible. A few hundred yards to the east, a cluster of empty foundations is all that remains of several frame homes along Cornelius Drive, one of which was large and very well-constructed. Three people died in two of the obliterated homes, and a dozen vehicles were thrown more than 150 yards. Just beyond the small lake at top, another three people were killed in the complete destruction of two homes at the edge of a wooded area. (Image from HBTV)

__________

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.

Damage in Oak Grove following the 2011 Phil Campbell tornado. Researchers at the NWS believed the tornado reached peak intensity in this area, and at far right a large, two-story brick home of excellent construction was swept completely away. There is no grass scouring near the home, however, whereas the 1999 Bridge Creek tornado scoured grass while at F4 intensity.

__________ Click to see:

Part I

Part III

Part IV