2013 El Reno Tornado Damage Survey

Image of vegetation damage near the location where the highest doppler velocities were recorded more than 400ft above the ground.

Image of vegetation damage near the location where the highest doppler velocities were recorded more than 400ft above the ground. The tornado was given an EF5 rating less than 36 hours after dissipating solely due to mobile doppler radar velocities between 290 and 336mph, possibly the strongest ever recorded (AMS, 2013). The tornado was later downgraded to an EF3 due to a lack of EF5 damage indicators.

□ On May 31, 2013, a train of violent supercell thunderstorms erupted in the sky to the west of Oklahoma City. In the city suburb of Moore, rain began to fall over the tangled remains of homes and businesses obliterated less than two weeks earlier by a catastrophic EF5 tornado. Meteorologists at the National Weather Service recognized the tell-tale signs of a rotating mesocyclone on radar, and reports from storm chasers near the community of El Reno quickly verified the presence of a large, nebulous mass of clouds that had spun down to the ground. A rare tornado emergency was issued for the area a second time.

An unusually large number of storm chasers, both amateur and seasoned, drove down the perfect grid of county roads to the south of El Reno to film the ensuing storm. Like many large tornadoes, the El Reno storm began with a series of transient funnels beneath a rapidly rotating mesocyclone. Heavy rain left few good angles to film the storm, so most chasers concentrated near Highway 81 just northeast of the tornado. As the storm progressed slowly to the east-southeast it underwent a period of explosive strengthening. The already large tornado suddenly doubled in size in less than one minute (many say less than 30 seconds) to over two miles in width. Footage from multiple storm chasers showed a sudden increase in surface winds well away from the visible funnel. Near the intersection of Choctaw Avenue and SW 15th Street, two vehicles were engulfed by the storm, killing both drivers. One of the men killed, Richard Henderson, became the first amateur storm chaser fatality in history.

Storm chaser Richard Henderson sent this photograph to a friend several minutes before he was killed. Henderson was on the phone with the same friend

Storm chaser Richard Henderson sent this photograph to a friend several minutes before he was killed by the tornado on SW 15th Street. The same friend was on the phone with Henderson when debris began to strike the chaser’s car. Moments later, the line went dead (Kelly, 2013).

Trees along SW 29th Street were damaged and a piece of timber pierced 11 inches (measured) into the ground.

Trees along SW 29th Street were damaged and a piece of timber pierced 11 inches (measured) into the ground. The distance of visible damage along Highway 81 was 2.5 miles, although extreme straight line winds blurred the distinction. All of the damage visible from Highway 81 was in the EF0 to EF2 range, although wide spacing between buildings and trees left few reliable damage indicators.

A Weather Channel vehicle driving on Highway 81 was impacted by a violent wind feature, causing it to tumble through an adjacent field (initial reports stated the car travelled 200ft while later broadcasts reported 200 yards). All of the vehicle’s passengers were injured to some degree but most were able to walk away from the wreckage. Around this time, the tornado was completing an unexpected turn to the northeast. Highly knowledgable storm chasers were caught off guard by the storm’s size and unpredictability. A motorist due east of the Weather Channel crew was killed by the tornado at the intersection of Alfadale Road and Reno Street. Along SW 10th Street, a white car carrying three professional storm chasers was swept off the road west of Radio Road. Unlike the Weather Channel vehicle, the car driven by Tim Samaras was hurled 650 yards through the air at a high rate of speed (AMS, 2013). The three chasers, likely with cameras in hand, were all killed in the “unsurvivable” wreck. Several minutes later, the tornado swept across the I-40, killing a young mother and her infant son in a car hurled from the freeway. Forty minutes after first forming, the tornado weakened and dissipated.

I surveyed the damage from the El Reno tornado and interviewed local residents on June 4th and 5th. Photographs from my survey are shown below, and my final analysis can be found at bottom.

*In August of 2013, the El Reno tornado was officially downgraded to an EF3 by the National Weather Service (Querry/NWS, 2013).

A home just south of SW 15th Street along highway 81 experienced EF1 damage despite being near the geographic center of the storm. The tornado's multi-vortex nature meant that most of the damage swath encountered winds in the EF1 and EF2 range.

A home just south of SW 15th Street along Highway 81 experienced EF1 damage despite being near the geographic center of the storm. The tornado’s multi-vortex nature meant that most of the damage swath encountered winds in the EF1 and EF2 range. The tornado’s first two fatalities occurred in two vehicles a mile west of Highway 81 along SW 15th Street (KFOR, 2013).

Wheat crop was blown to the ground in swaths approximately 100ft wide along SW 15th Street.

Wheat crop was blown to the ground in swaths approximately 50ft wide a half mile east of Highway 81 on SW 15th Street.

Fence posts adjacent to homes that experienced EF1 and EF2 damage were generally only lightly damaged. In some areas, they were bent to the ground or removed entirely. In some instances, metal stakes were twisted in various directions.

Fence posts adjacent to homes that experienced EF1 and EF2 damage were generally only lightly damaged. In other areas they were bent to the ground or removed entirely. In some instances, metal stakes were twisted due to bursts of winds from various directions.

A home on XX Street suffered severe internal damage but was left largely standing, like most of the homes in the area.

A home on Alfadale Road suffered severe internal damage but was left largely standing, like most of the homes in the area. One survivor who was staying with a relative on SW 29th Street said that the tornado “lasted about five minutes, but the worst of it happened in the first 30 seconds when every window shattered at the same time.”

A home on Reno Road experienced EF2 damage.

A home on Alfadale Road experienced EF2 damage. A motorist in a vehicle at this intersection became the storm’s third fatality.

A blizzard of dry plant materials was blown into standing fences along Reno Road.

A blizzard of dry plant materials was caught by standing fences along Radio Road.

Vegetation just northeast of the intersection of Radio Road and 10th Street, where the most intense winds were recorded by mobile doppler radar.

View northeast at the intersection of Radio Road and 10th Street, where the most intense winds were recorded by mobile doppler radar. While analysis is ongoing, velocities between 290 and 336mph were recorded as a single, exceptionally powerful sub-vortex slingshotted around the south side of the tornado at 177mph. The peak winds occurred on the eastern edge of the vortex where all of the rotational velocities combined. While of record intensity, the peak winds were found 110 yards above the surface and would have impacted a standing structure for only half a second (AMS, 2013).

10th and Radio Road was marked by a sign placed after the tornado to direct local traffic.

10th and Radio Road was marked by a sign placed after the tornado to direct local traffic.

The only tree near the intersection of 10th and Radio Road was 80ft to the east on 10th Street. The tree was stripped of leaves in a fashion consistent with winds in the EF3/EF4 range.

The only tree near the intersection of 10th and Radio Road was stripped of leaves and damaged in a fashion consistent with past EF4 tornadoes.

Vegetation was blown to the ground and strewn with small pieces of debris, including fragments from one white and one red vehicle. Metal fence posts were bent to the east-northeast or absent entirely from the ground.

Vegetation was blown to the ground and strewn with small pieces of debris, including fragments from destroyed vehicles. Metal fence posts were bent to the east-northeast or absent entirely from the ground. The gravel along 10th Street was blown almost completely away in areas affected by sub vortices. This is where a vehicle driven by Tim Samaras was recovered.

A half mile northeast Radio Road and 10th Street a fence was ripped from its posts and left in a tangled mass in a field.

A fence was ripped from its posts and left in a tangled mass a half mile northeast of 10th and Radio Road.

A white truck driven by iconic storm chaser Tim Samaras, his son, Paul Samaras, and chase partner, Carl Young.

A vehicle carrying storm chasers Tim Samaras, Paul Samaras and Carl Young was swept off 10th Street approximately 545 yards west of Radio Road. The car was thrown more than 650 yards, killing the three occupants (AMS, 2013). According to ABC News, Tim Samaras was found in the front seat whereas the other two passengers were ejected from the vehicle and found up to a half mile away. DOW observations at the time indicated that an intense sub-vortice with a forward speed of 177mph impacted the vehicle unexpectedly from the north (AMS, 2013). (Image by Jason Morris)

Area on 10th Street where the chase vehicle containing three occupants was found (note the trees in the background).

Area near 10th Street where the chase vehicle was swept off the road.

Approximate location where the chase vehicle driven by Tim Samaras was found.

Flattened wheat crop just south of 10th Street.

Tree damage near where the chase vehicle was recovered. Trees 100ft to the north on the other side of 10th Street were damaged but not defoliated. Flooding carved deep ditches into areas that were previously crop fields.

Tree damage near where the chase vehicle was overtaken by the storm. Trees 100ft to the north on the other side of 10th Street were damaged but not defoliated. Flooding carved deep ditches into areas that were previously flat fields.

A quarter mile south of the I-40, an RV park was severely damaged in the tornado. A vehicle from the facility was thrown several hundred yards. Most of the powerlines along XX Street were snapped above the ground.

A quarter mile south of the I-40, an RV company was severely damaged in the tornado. A vehicle from the facility was thrown several hundred yards. Most of the powerlines along N2880 Road were snapped just above ground level.

The most severe vegetation damage appeared to be along the I-40, north of where the most intense winds purportedly occurred.

Some of the most severe vegetation damage appeared to be along the I-40, north of where the peak doppler velocities purportedly occurred.

A livestock trailer was blown 300 yards to the south from a complex across the highway and left tangled in the remains of a fence.

A livestock trailer was blown over 300 yards to the south from a complex across the freeway and left tangled in the remains of a fence.

View of the XXX where the livestock trailer originated.

View of the destroyed OKC West Livestock Market where the trailer originated.

Debris in a wind damaged field just south of the I-40.

Debris in a wind-damaged field just south of the I-40.

Tree damage just south of the I-40 near the OKC West Livestock complex.

Tree damage just south of the I-40 near the OKC West Livestock complex. The tornado’s massive size and slow movement would have exposed many areas to tornadic winds for greater than five minutes, though peak velocities occurred only in suction spots.

Extremely heavy rainfall on the day of the tornado led to widespread flooding in the affected areas. Visible here is the OKC West Livestock Market and a pool of water that trapped large pieces of debris, including sections of broken powerlines.

Extremely heavy rainfall on the day of the tornado led to widespread flooding in the affected areas. Visible here is the OKC West Livestock Market and a pool of water that trapped large pieces of debris, including sections of broken powerlines.

Closer view of the destroyed livestock complex. Dozens of large animals were killed throughout the tornado's path, leaving the smell of rotting flesh as the days passed.

Closer view of the destroyed livestock complex. Dozens of large animals were killed throughout the tornado’s path, leaving the smell of rotting flesh several days later.

Heavy tree damage just north of OKC West.

Heavy tree damage just north of OKC West.

Deep impact mark on a hillside just north of the I-40. Several vehicles were swept from the freeway in this area, resulting in three fatalities in two vehicles.

Deep impact mark on a hillside adjacent to the I-40. Several vehicles were swept from the freeway in this area, resulting in two fatalities.

Personal Damage Survey Conclusions:

Due to my belief that the Enhanced Fujita Scale grossly underestimates winds in violent tornadoes, the wind ranges I utilize are based on my research, discussions with wind engineers and comparisons between known surface readings and adjacent damage indicators in past tornadoes. My wind estimates are significantly higher than those employed by the National Weather Service.

Peak Intensity: EF4 (≈220mph)

□ The most intense damage occurred to vegetation in a swath of varying width from an area commencing just west of the intersection of 10th Street and Radio Road and ending at the I-40. Steel fence posts were bent to the ground by winds alone and not debris impacts. Powerlines were sheared just above ground level, vehicles were thrown over 200 yards and surface crops were severely damaged and bent to the east-northeast. The most intense structural damage likely occurred to the OKC West Livestock Market just north of the I-40 and several homes west of Highway 81. The most intense structural damage was consistent with winds in the EF3 range. The scarcity of trees and buildings left few reliable damage indicators, but no EF5-level vegetation damage was noted.

□ While the tornado has been deemed the “second strongest” in recorded history due to extreme doppler velocities, this claim is completely unfounded. Few violent tornadoes are ever tracked by mobile doppler radar, so the available readings are not an objective method of classification.

□ While the tornado is being called the “widest” in history, this claim is also unfounded. The 1999 Mulhall tornado likely left a significantly wider damage path. In terms of violent tornado damage, the damage swath from the 2013 El Reno tornado was narrower than many documented tornadoes, including the 2011 Joplin tornado.

The width of EF0+ damage along Highway 81 was 2.55 miles in width, as measured by the distance between the northernmost and southernmost instances of missing shingles and downed tree branches. The southern margin was 300 yards south of SW 29th Street and northern margin was just north of 10th Street. Straight line wind damage was found in areas unaffected by the tornado, so the exact damage contours were impossible to ascertain.

The vegetation damage from the El Reno tornado was noticeably less intense than the damage caused by the 2013 Moore tornado.

The vegetation damage from the El Reno tornado was noticeably less intense than the damage caused by the 2013 Moore tornado. Few trees were debarked in El Reno, whereas all of the trees in the core damage path of the Moore tornado near County Edge Drive were completely stripped of bark and branches.

The List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded: Part IV

The Hudsonville, Michigan, tornado of 1956 is not included in the “strongest tornadoes” list because it occurred before the development of the Fujita Scale. Photographic evidence, however, indicates that the F5 tornado caused some of the most intense wind damage ever documented. Large homes were reduced to bare slabs, vegetation was scoured completely from the ground and vehicles were thrown long distances and mangled beyond recognition. A detailed image gallery of the tornado’s destruction, including full color photographs, can be found here.

□ For a tornado to be considered for categorization, it must have caused at least one fatality and occurred after 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. Objectivity is attempted through the use of damage photographs and reliable survey reports.

While far from definitive, this list is the result of 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 ever recorded:

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

Vegetation damage is good method of comparing tornado intensity. The above pictures show damage to pine trees (with relative intensity increasing from left to right). At left, damage from the Phil Campbell tornado, at center, a streak of extreme damage following the Rainsville tornado, and at right, a pine forest scoured to the ground

Vegetation damage is a fairly reliable method of comparing one tornado to another. The above pictures show damage to pine trees (with relative intensity increasing from left to right). At left, damage from the Phil Campbell tornado. At center, a streak of extreme damage following the Rainsville tornado. At right, a pine forest scoured to the ground in Smithville, Mississippi.

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20. Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974

The Xenia tornado was at peak intensity and entering Windsor Park when a high school student took the only known film of the storm from his home on Ridgebury Drive.

□ On the afternoon of April 3rd, 1974, a violent supercell thunderstorm passed to the south of Dayton, Ohio. At 4:30pm, one of the most well-known tornadoes in United States history touched down just east of Sugarcreek Reserve, nine miles southwest of the city of Xenia. The storm began its life as a series of transient funnels rotating beneath a violent mesocyclone. Over the course of ten minutes, the multi-vortex tornado solidified and gained strength. By the time it reached the western edge of Xenia, winds in the storm had reached F5 intensity.

The newly developed community of Windsor Park, which straddled the west side of the US 35, took the full brunt of the powerful tornado as it entered the city. Entire rows of small, brick homes were swept completely away as the tornado ripped through the neighborhood at 50mph. Nine fatalities occurred in six houses that were obliterated near the intersection of Roxbury Drive and Gayhart Court. The deaths included three teenagers, a pregnant woman and a mother and her young son (I Dream of Genealogy, 2012). An aerial damage survey later documented a trail of clean foundations all the way to the US-35. Extreme damage continued as the tornado roared past an elementary school, obliterating homes in the Arrowhead subdivision. Structural damage in the area indicated that the tornado had weakened slightly, with the last instances of clear F5 damage occurring on Wigwam Trail, where two people died.

Downtown Xenia was struck by the tornado just before 4:45pm. Businesses and homes in the densely populated center of town were severely damaged, leading to more than a dozen fatalities, including five deaths at an A&W Root Beer stand. In total, 30 people were killed in Xenia, and monetary losses totaled more than 100 million dollars. Three miles outside Xenia, the tornado caused its final two fatalities as it roared through the town of Wilberforce.

An extensive search and rescue operation uncovered a total of 32 victims. Two more were killed in a fire during clean up operations, leading most sources to cite 34 fatalities for the event. In the weeks following the storm, extensive media coverage descended upon Xenia, which suffered the most damage of any city during the Super Outbreak. Due to the incredible destruction, the Xenia tornado was deemed “the strongest” of the outbreak, a belief that was furthered when it became one of six tornadoes awarded an F5 rating. In reality, damage throughout most of the city was in the F3 range. The number of empty foundations in Windsor Park was impressive, but the houses were small and likely of only moderate construction. The shear breadth and consistency of the damage in western Xenia, however, solidified the storm’s place as one of the most impressive of the 20th century.

Aerial view of Windsor Park, where the most intense damage was documented. After crossing the US 35, the tornado entered the Arrowhead subdivision, where the final instances of clear F5 damage occurred.

Close aerial view of empty foundations in Windsor Park. Nine fatalities occurred near the four-way intersection at top center, primarily on Commonwealth and Roxbury Drive.

At left, damage in the Arrowhead subdivision, with pronounced wind rowing near Arrowwood Elementary School. At right, view of F5 damage around the US-35.

At top, satellite view of the damage swath through Xenia and Wilberforce. The most intense damage is visible on the west side of town, with the storm’s path becoming less pronounced as it continued to the northeast. At bottom, view of damage around Arrowwood Elementary School.

19. Will County (Plainfield), Illinois – August 28, 1990

The Will County tornado remains the only F5 ever documented in the month of August. Despite tearing through a populated area, no photographs exist of the tornado as it was completely wrapped in heavy rain. Several videographers, however, captured the rotating supercell that spawned the tornado. (Top image by Steve Longmire – used with permission)

□ On a stormy August afternoon in 1990, an unusual off-season tornado touched down in a farm field to the west of Chicago. The funnel was imbedded within a violent high-precipitation thunderstorm that was traveling southeast towards populated sections of Will County. Heavy rain surrounding the tornado made it indiscernible to those in its path. Conventional weather radar failed to identify a hook echo, so no tornado warning was issued. The sirens across the area remained silent.

As the tornado approached the US 30, one mile to the west of Plainfield, the inner core of the storm rapidly intensified and narrowed to only 10 yards in width. Thick clouds of dirt and vegetation were ripped from the ground as the narrow vortex crossed the highway, hurling four vehicles into the air. A tractor hauling a metal storage trailer was impacted directly by the column of F5 winds. The tractor was thrown 100 yards into a cornfield in one throw, killing the driver. The 20-ton trailer was torn from the tractor and centrifuged around the center of the storm, bouncing several times before landing a quarter mile from the road. Another car was lifted into the tornado by violent inflow winds and whirled a half mile through the air without impacting the ground. The driver of the car, who had been wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle and found dead later that evening (Fujita, 1993). In total, four motorists were killed in vehicles on the US 30, all of them caught unexpectedly while driving on a rainy day.

Before entering Plainfield, the core of the storm expanded to 70 yards in width and weakened slightly. Well-constructed homes on the southern edge of town were leveled, and a large metal dumpster was wrapped around the top of a partially debarked tree. The Plainfield High School was directly impacted by the rain wrapped tornado as it crossed Commercial Street, causing three fatalities. Aerial imagery revealed that the tornado left a pronounced streak of damage as it continued to the southeast at 45mph. Large homes in Lily Cache and Crystal Lawns were splintered in F4 fashion, leading to seven additional fatalities.

Near the end of its life, the tornado struck the Crest Hill Lake Apartments. Nine residents died when the top two stories of an apartment building were obliterated. Some of the bodies were hurled more than 100 yards into a cornfield east of the apartments. One boy, who was the sole survivor of a family of four, later told a reporter “I was looking out the window at my brother who was coming home from football practice, and I thought, ‘Man, it’s getting dark.’ Then — boom! — I was out in a cornfield” (Grimm, 2010).

Professor Fujita conducted an aerial damage survey the day after the tornado and selected an F5 rating due to the severity of the vegetation damage around the US 30, which he described as being “comparable to the worst I have ever seen.” According to Fujita, “The damage in the cornfield southeast of US 30 was entirely different from the damage adjacent to structures affected by the F3 or F4 winds…In the worst damage area, corn crops were blown away entirely, leaving behind the remnants of small roots connected to the underground root system” (Fujita, 1993). Twenty nine lives were lost in Will County, and more than 200 homes were obliterated.

Aerial view of the tornado’s path through Plainfield. The most intense vegetation damage occurred along the US 30, visible at lower left. (Image courtesy of Steve Longmire)

Aerial views of F5 vegetation damage. Fujita noted multiple instances of unusual “comma” and “eye” shaped patterns throughout the damage path. At left, the 10 yard wide core of extreme ground scouring is clearly visible. (Right image courtesy of Steve Longmire)

Four photographs included in Fujita’s article on the Plainfield tornado. Vegetation was ripped completely from the ground. At top right, view of the 20-ton storage trailer that travelled more than half a mile as it was spun around the center of the vortex. (Fujita, 1993)

Scenes of destruction in and around Plainfield. At left, the devastated Plainfield High School, which was days away from re-opening for the Fall semester. At center, a mixture of F0 to F4 damage in Lily Cache. Some homes were swept from their foundations, but none were determined to have been well-constructed. At right, a large dumpster that was wrapped around the top of a partially debarked tree.

Aerial view of rescue efforts at the devastated Crest Hill Lake Apartments, where nine people lost their lives. (Image by Frank Hanes)

18. Barneveld, Wisconsin – June 8, 1984

The Barneveld tornado rapidly intensified as it passed directly through the center of the small town, leveling businesses and homes along Main Street. Winds in the tornado reached F5 intensity on the eastern side of town (just out of frame to the right). More than a third of the town’s population was killed or injured in the tornado. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin State Collection)

□ In the midst of a nighttime lightning storm on June 8th, 1984, residents of Barneveld were awoken by an electrical surge that sent fire alarms and appliances into a beeping frenzy. Moments later, the power across the tiny town flickered and went out. As people prepared to fall back asleep, a sound like “dry and distant thunder” was heard off to the west. The barely audible rumble soon became a deafening roar, awakening even the heaviest sleepers, some of whom suspected they were in the path of a crashing jumbo jet. A massive surge of wind driven debris followed, and soon a third of the town lay in ruins.

The deadly tornado followed Main Street directly through the center of Barneveld, splintering businesses and homes within its 300 yard wide path of destruction. Aerial damage photographs indicate that the tornado was intensifying as it passed through town. On the northeast edge of Barneveld, a cluster of homes on Swiss Lane was swept completely away. Seven of the tornado’s nine fatalities occurred in four adjacent homes in this area. The deaths included a couple and their eight year old daughter who were found 200 yards from their obliterated home. The only surviving member of the family, a one year old boy, was left paralyzed from the waist down (Brueck, Woodard, 2009). Trees near the empty foundations were debarked, and vehicles from the neighborhood were hurled long distances and rendered unrecognizable. Additionally, a large and well-constructed brick church was leveled and partially swept away.

A survey team headed by Prof. Fujita awarded the tornado an F5 rating due to the damage on Swiss Lane. The devastation and high concentration of fatalities in the area was indicative of exceptional intensity. Considering the unusual hour that the storm struck, it is remarkable the death toll was not higher. Many of the survivors credited their survival to the power surge, which preceded the tornado by several minutes.

Aerial view of F5 damage on Swiss Lane, where seven of the tornado’s nine fatalities occurred. The tornado travelled from upper right to bottom left, leveling a large, well-built Lutheran Church as it exited town. (Image courtesy of the State of Wisconsin Collection)

Severe damage in Barneveld. At left, a crushed truck was thrown into an exposed basement. (Image courtesy of the State of Wisconsin Collection) At right, the mangled remains of vehicles, some of which were hurled more than 300 yards to the east of town. (Image by Allan Y. Scott)

Empty foundations and the flattened church at distance. Prior to the storm, many residents believed that Barneveld was “protected” from tornadoes by hills surrounding the town. In reality, steep terrain has no affect on the movement of tornadoes. (NOAA)

17. Rainsville, Alabama – April 27th, 2011

Views of the Rainsville tornado as it crosses Main Street and rapidly intensifies. At right, image of the tornado at peak intensity as it crossed Lingerfelt Road. (Video stills by YORKBAMA)

Views of the Rainsville tornado as it crosses Main Street and rapidly intensifies. At right, image of the tornado in the vicinity of Lingerfelt Road. (Video stills by YORKBAMA)

□ The Rainsville tornado left an unusual swath of destruction through northeastern Alabama during the 2011 Super Outbreak. The intensity of the damage varied tremendously in affected areas of DeKalb County. In some instances, seemingly undamaged trees stood less than 100ft from well-constructed homes that were swept completely away from their foundations. Along the tornado’s 34 mile streak of devastation, 25 people were killed and more than 100 frame homes were obliterated.

The tornado touched down east of Fyffe and travelled roughly parallel to Highway 75 at a forward speed of 60mph. Video evidence suggests that the tornado had a complex multiple vortex structure. The first fatalities occurred as the tornado crossed Main Street, devastating homes and businesses in eastern Rainsville. A school bus parked at the DeKalb County School Coliseum was thrown 100 yards and stripped to its metal chassis.

The tornado rapidly intensified north of Main Street and reached peak intensity as it swept over Lingerfelt Road, where several well-constructed homes vanished. Some of the most intense tornado damage ever documented occurred at 1608 Lingerfelt Road, where a two-story brick home was swept completely away. An NWS survey found that an 800lb anchored safe had been ripped from the home’s foundation and thrown 200 yards to the northeast. The door to the safe, which had been closed, was torn open and completely off. A large concrete porch weighing thousands of pounds was shattered and blown away from the destroyed home. Additionally, sections of pavement were ripped from the residence’s driveway, and the home owner’s truck was rendered completely unrecognizable after being thrown more than 250 yards (NWS, 2011). The damage to this single property is the reason for the inclusion of the Rainsville tornado in the list of the strongest tornadoes ever recorded.

Incredible damage also occurred at several nearby properties. Large stone pillars were ripped from the ground at one home, and a section of slab foundation was uprooted at another. Damage patterns suggest that the EF5 damage was caused by extremely powerful suction vortices that made brief contact with the ground, leading to the erratic nature of the destruction. Grass scouring and pock marks from high speed debris were also photographed near Lingerfelt Road and areas to the north, further evidence of the tornado’s awesome power.

More images detailing EF5 damage on Lingerfelt Road can be found here.

Views of damage near Rainsville. At left, only the twisted chassis of a school bus remained after the tornado crossed Main street. At right, severe tree damage near Crow Lane.

View of 1608 Lingerfelt Road, where an NWS survey team documented some of the most intense tornado damage ever recorded. The owners of the large, two-story brick home survived with several neighbors in an underground storm shelter. The tornado breeched the top of the storm cave, partially exposing the people huddled inside. An interesting feature of the damage was the sharp boundary  (marked by scoured grass) separating the EF5 damage from standing trees a short distance to the east. Trees immediately south of the home were blown over but not debarked, whereas vegetation across the street was stripped bare. Visible grass and pavement scouring a few yards north of the home hints at the presence of a powerful wind feature that descended from the tornado and made contact with the ground after passing over the foundation.

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 (1608 Lingerfelt Road). This was the largest piece that remained of the vehicle. At right, the 800lb safe that was ripped from its anchorage and thrown 200 yards. (Images and information by Colt Robinson)

At left, view of debarked trees and severe vegetation damage northeast of Rainsville. (Image by Mark Almond) At right, a road scoured of grass near Sylvania. (Image by Melissa Smith)

At left, view of debarked trees and severe vegetation damage northeast of Rainsville. Pavement scouring is visible at right center (Image by Mark Almond). At right, another instance of pavement scouring near Sylvania (Image by Melissa Smith).

Aerial view of devastation along County Road 441. At bottom, a before view of two large homes visible in the lower left corner of the top image. A survey team documented vegetation scouring and sections of sidewalk that were torn from the ground in this area.

16. Niles, Ohio and Wheatland, Pennsylvania – May 31, 1985

Mike Zahurak photographed the tornado from the Village Center Shopping Plaza as it crossed over Lantern Lane at F5 intensity. An excellent website with information on the tornado can be found here.

□ In the summer of 1985, an unprecedented outbreak of long-tracked tornadoes swept through eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Ontario. The event was notable not only for the incredible intensity and longevity of the storms but also for being the only violent tornado outbreak ever recorded in the region. In total, the storm system killed 88 people across the United States and Canada and left more than 500 million dollars in damage.

The only tornado awarded an F5 rating during the outbreak began its 47 mile path of destruction in Portage County, Ohio. After ripping through sparsely populated forestland, the tornado swept through the city of Newton Falls at F3 intensity. Damage was widespread throughout the town, but no fatalities were recorded. As the tornado continued eastward at 50mph it gained strength, leveling rural homes north of Lordstown. The tornado was approaching F5 intensity as it entered the outskirts of Niles, a manufacturing city south of Warren. Massive industrial tanks more than 30ft high and weighing 75,000 pounds were crumpled like soup cans, one of which was rolled 60 yards onto a nearby road. Large, well-constructed homes lining Lantern Lane were swept completely away as the tornado roared through cul-de-sacs around the Niles Union Cemetery (Grazulis, 2001). Pronounced wind rowing was noted as the tornado made a slight curve to the north and headed towards the US 422. Three people were killed as two vehicles were thrown from the road. On the west side of the highway, the Niles Park Plaza and a large skating rink were leveled and partially swept away, causing additional fatalities.

As the tornado continued eastward towards the Pennsylvania border it maintained F4 intensity and completely demolished several rural residences. The tornado remained fairly narrow throughout its life, with the primary damage path never surpassing 150 yards in width. After crossing into Pennsylvania, the storm entered the industrial area of Wheatland at F5 intensity. A man shielding two children in a ditch was torn from the ground and later found dead in the debris of a destroyed business a block away. Nearby, a six-year old boy running home from a baseball game was caught outside and killed by the storm (Ivory, 2007). Four more died in separate buildings at the intersection of Church Street and Ohio Street. The tornado may have reached peak intensity during its second wind maxima on the east side of Wheatland. A trucking plant was stripped of its roof and walls, and the steel-beam frame of the building was “twisted like a pretzel” (Grazulis, 2001). Sections of pavement were scoured from the plant’s parking lot, and surveyors documented pieces of debris and paper wedged beneath the remaining asphalt. Minutes after exiting Wheatland, the tornado weakened and dissipated.

In total, the violent tornado killed 11 people in Ohio and seven in Wheatland. A damage survey concluded that the tornado caused F5 damage both in Niles and in Wheatland. Yet despite the severity of the building damage, photographic evidence indicates the tornado failed to cause significant tree debarking in the worst affected areas. As discussed in Part II, violent tornadoes may cause some extreme damage indicators but not others. The reason why damage patterns differ so wildly is unknown.

Two views of F5 damage on Lantern Lane. At right, aerial view of large, two-story homes that were obliterated. (Grazulis, 2001)

The Niles Park Plaza was leveled and partially swept away as the tornado crossed the US 422. Next door to the plaza was the Autumn Hills Retirement Home, where several apartment buildings were completely destroyed.

Homes on the north side of Chestnut Ridge Road were obliterated as the tornado headed due east towards the Pennsylvania border. (Image by John Durkos)

Perhaps the most impressive damage caused by the F5 tornado was to a trucking plant near the end of its path in eastern Wheatland. The narrow tornado completely destroyed the building, leaving only the twisted steel frame of the structure. Sections of pavement were scoured from the business’s parking lot, an indication of extreme intensity. (NOAA Storm Data)

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Click to see:
Part I
Part II
Part III