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 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.
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 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 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. 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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