Analysis of Violent Tornadoes that have Struck Downtown Areas

Views of three infamous tornadoes that struck the downtowns of large cities. At left, one of the most unsual tornadoes in recent history passed directly through downtown Salt Lake City at F2 intensity. At center, a wide but weak tornadic circulation damaged skyscrapers in downtown Nashville in 1999. While officially rated an F3, the storm caused no damage indicative of such intensity at any point throughout its life. At right, some of Atlanta's tallest buildings were struck by an unexpected nighttime tornado in 2008. All three storms caused tremendous monetary damage and one fatality each.

At left, an exceptionally rare F2 tornado passed directly through downtown Salt Lake City in 1999. At center, a wide but weak tornadic circulation damaged skyscrapers in downtown Nashville in 1998. While officially rated an F3, the storm caused no damage indicative of such intensity. At right, some of Atlanta’s tallest buildings were struck by an unexpected nighttime tornado in 2008. All three storms caused tremendous monetary damage but only one fatality each due to their modest strength.

Despite popular misconception, the downtowns of large cities are no less prone to violent tornadoes than the farmland that surrounds them. High-rise districts are rarely larger than one or two square miles, so they sit as small and widely spaced targets across the storm prone regions of the United States and Canada. Tornadoes have caused well over 1 billion dollars in damage and approximately 100 fatalities in the centers of major cities since 1950. As of this writing, however, no tornado* has ever caused violent (EF4/EF5) damage in the downtown area of a large city.

Below is a list of all strong (E/F3+) tornadoes that have impacted the downtowns of cities with populations greater than 100,000. While all of these storms left impressive damage, none caused the catastrophic devastation that researchers have predicted using modeled scenarios. Analyses of spatial distributions have indicated that a single tornado could take well over 10,000 lives within the boundaries of a major population center (Wurman, Alexander, Robinson, Richardson, 2006). After decades of relative complacency, the 2011 storm season proved that modern civilization is still no match for an EF5 tornado.

*The Gainesville, Georgia, tornado of 1936 caused violent tornado damage in the city’s central business district as well as over 200 fatalities. The population of Gainesville, however, is less than 50,000.

St. Johns Hospital was impacted by EF4 winds as the Joplin tornado reached EF5 intensity only a 100 yards north of the main tower.  (Images courtesy of Mercy Health)

The 2011 Joplin tornado reached EF5 intensity as the core of the storm passed only a few hundred feet north of St. John’s Hospital. The complex’s main tower is the tallest inhabited building ever directly impacted by violent tornadic winds. Irreversible damage to the structure’s concrete frame led to its demolition in 2012. (Images courtesy of Mercy Health)

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Waco, Texas – May 11, 1953

High school student David Reagan took color photographs of the tornado damage in downtown Waco following the devastating tornado of 1953. At left, the remains of a collapsed building on the 400 block of Austin Avenue, where more than half the fatalities occurred. (

Color photographs of damage in downtown Waco, the scene of the most disastrous tornado to ever impact the center of a large city. At left, the remains of a collapsed building on the 400 block of Austin Avenue, where more than half of the fatalities occurred. The Roosevelt Hotel, visible in the background, only suffered minor damage despite being directly impacted by the storm. (Images by David Reagan)

A sudden burst of heavy rain sent weekend shoppers scrambling for shelter in downtown Waco on May 11th, 1953. From inside the many multi-story businesses lining 4th and 5th Street, people watched as the afternoon sun was quickly extinguished by a massive thunderstorm. An “inpenetrable darkness” swept over the city streets, causing the few driving vehicles to switch on their headlights (WCCC.TV, 2012). Dozens of customers in the five-story R. T. Dennis Building, a large furniture store on 5th Street,  watched from the plate glass windows as hail loudly banged against parked cars. The storm was growing in intensity when an ominous roar was heard off to the south.

Without warning, a 300-yard wide tornado swept through the city center at 40mph. Those taking shelter in street-front shops were pelted with flying glass as a “dark fog” engulfed the area. Massive thuds were heard as water tanks were blown off roofs, crushing cars on the street below. The R. T. Dennis Building swayed back and forth a few times before collapsing, killing more than 22 people – including the majority of the store’s staff (Cox, 2006). A nearby recreation center was flattened, crushing 17 others to death (AP, 2003). More than half of the 114 deaths occurred on one city block, bound by Austin and 5th Street to the west. Damage to low-rise mortar buildings was catastrophic, yet the eleven-story Roosevelt Hotel stood with only a few broken windows. The tallest high-rise in Waco, the 22-story ALICO Building, suffered similarly modest damage despite being just across the street from the worst affected area

After the creation of the Fujita Scale, the Waco tornado was retrospectively given an F5 rating. Photographs, however, indicate that home damage in the vicinity of downtown was in the F2 and F3 range. The low concentration of fatalities in the residential sections of the city, coupled with the survival of most of the city’s large buildings, indicates the storm was likely under F5 intensity in the areas documented by local media.

At left, aerial view of the damage in downtown Waco. The 22-story ALICO (far left) was only a hundred yards from the devastated R. T. Dennis Building (Image from The Texas Collection). At right, view of the devastation on 5th Street.

At left, aerial view of the damage in downtown Waco. The 22-story ALICO Building (far left) was less than 100 yards from the destroyed R. T. Dennis Building (Image from The Texas Collection). At right, view of the devastation on 5th Street.

At left, ground view of the devastation on 5th Street.

Ground views of the devastation in downtown Waco. The tornado was likely at F3 or marginal F4 intensity in the downtown area.

Additional views of the damage. At left, the 22-story ALICO Building is visible just beyond the worst damage. At right, workers pulling a body from a car that was crushed by debris. (Images courtesy of the Austin History Center)

Additional views of the damage. At left, the 22-story ALICO Building is visible just beyond the worst damage. At right, workers pulling a body from a car that was crushed by debris. (Images courtesy of the Austin History Center)

Topeka, Kansas – June 6, 1966

The Topeka tornado was clearly visible and fairly slow-moving, which allowed more than two dozen photographers to capture the storm from various vantage points. (Image from the Kansas State Historical Society)

The Topeka tornado was clearly visible and fairly slow-moving, which allowed more than two dozen photographers to capture the storm from various vantage points. Here the tornado is seen churning through Burnett’s Mound at peak intensity.

One of the most well-known tornadoes of the 20th century touched down near Old Pauline Road in Shawnee County, Kansas. The large and widely visible funnel was reported by several police officers and weather service employees as it roared to the northeast towards the city of Topeka. Just east of Sherwood Lake, the rapidly intensifying tornado swept a home completely away, killing the two occupants. The storm’s moderate forward speed, which averaged 30mph, gave residents in the outer suburbs of Topeka more than ten minutes to seek appropriate shelter. By the time the barrel-shaped tornado reached a housing development along Interstate 470, it was at peak intensity. Rows of small tract homes were reduced to bare concrete slabs and vehicles were hurled more than two block and mangled beyond recognition. Most of the storm’s fatalities occurred in this area. The tornado swept over a freeway overpass where a group of people had sought shelter, leading to several critical injuries.

As the tornado moved into the city, it weakened slightly but continued causing a pronounced swath of F3+ damage. A large apartment complex was impacted directly by the tornado, yet only one of the 100 or more people who did not make it to the building’s storm cellar was killed (Fales, 1967). The storm crossed over a mile long section of Big Shunga Park, momentarily sparing residential areas of the city. After tearing across 21st Street, the tornado passed over the main campus of Washburn University. More than a dozen large, stone buildings at the college were severely damaged – some having their upper floors sheared completely off. Fifty students and faculty survived in the southeast corner of the school chapel’s basement. The “safe” southwest corner of the basement, where the group intended to hide, was buried in thousands of pounds of debris moments later (Fales, 1967). A 300lb piece of stone originating from the college was hurled two miles and found atop the Topeka Municipal Auditorium (Fales, 1967). As the storm continued to the northeast it ripped through downtown Topeka at marginal F3 intensity. The state capitol and a ten-story building suffered window and roof damage, but no fatalities were recorded in this area. East of downtown, the tornado flipped planes at the municipal airport before narrowing and dissipating.

The tornado caused 14 deaths in Topeka an 16 overall (Hoots, 2010). After the Fujita Scale was created in the early 70’s, the tornado was given an F5 rating due to the home damage near Interstate 470. Most of the homes were small and not well-built, however, so the damage may not be indicative of F5 intensity. The low number of fatalities was likely the result of the tornado’s slow movement, wide visibility and moderate intensity north of Big Shunga Park.

At left, view of devastation near the I-470, where the most intense damage in Topeka was documented (Image by Rich Clarkson). At right, Rick Douglas narrowly survived the tornado after being blown out from beneath an overpass and caked in mud and debris (Image by Delmar Schmidt).

At left, view of devastation near the I-470, where the most intense damage in Topeka was documented (Image by Rich Clarkson). At right, Rick Douglas narrowly survived the tornado after being blown out from beneath an overpass and caked in mud and debris. (Image by Delmar Schmidt).

Damage at Washburn University. (credit)

Damage at Washburn University. A 300lb chunk of stone from this building was thrown two miles. (Image by Mike Worswick)

After causing intense damage in southwest Topeka, the weakening tornado passed through downtown. Windows were shattered in the city's tallest high-rise, and the capital building was heavily damaged.

After causing intense damage in southwest Topeka, the weakening tornado passed through the southern end of downtown. Windows were shattered in some of the city’s tallest high-rises, and the capital building suffered roof damage.

Lubbock, Texas – May 11, 1970

The Lubbock tornado was awarded an F5 rating due to damage in the northern sections of town, although an F4 rating was likely more appropriate. In downtown, the wind damage was comparatively light. (The City of Lubbock)

The Lubbock tornado was awarded an F5 rating due to damage in the northern sections of the city, although an F4 rating may have been more appropriate. In downtown, the wind damage was relatively light. Most sources erroneously claim that the Great Plains Life Building was directly impacted by the tornado at F5 intensity. (Images from The City of Lubbock)

One of the most important tornadoes in US history touched down in Lubbock, Texas, on a stormy night in May of 1970. The tornado’s damage path commenced a few blocks southwest of the city’s high-rise district, which included two buildings over 200ft in height. Downtown Lubbock was bombarded by hurricane force winds as the tornado widened to over a mile in width and slowly meandered to the north. Windows were shattered and several unreinforced brick walls collapsed, but the damage was fairly light in the city’s business district. The tornado’s first victim was killed several blocks west of downtown in the collapse of a small home. The massive storm intensified as it turned northward into the Guadelupe neighborhood, a low-income district with many poorly built homes. Widely spaced suction vortices left narrow strips of intense devastation surrounded on all sides by moderate to mild damage. Eight people were killed in the Guadelupe area, most in homes that were leveled to the ground.

Extreme streaks of damage were documented as the tornado crossed a tributary of the Brazos River and entered an industrial area. A 26,000lb, 41-ft long fertilizer tank was hurled nearly a mile across a freeway without leaving any visible impact marks. Several large oil tanks were also carried more than 300 yards, and a railroad car was rolled 50 yards (TTU, 1970). Sixteen people were killed near loop 289 of the US 87, several of them in vehicles swept off the freeway. The deaths included a family of four in a home that was swept completely away (City of Lubbock). Almost all of the residential developments in Lubbock are to the south and west of the business district, so the storm did not impact the majority of the city’s densely populated neighborhoods. As a result, the final death toll was only 26 residents.

Following the tornado, a relatively unknown faculty member from the University of Chicago, Professor Fujita, spent more than a week thoroughly studying the storm’s damage. Photographs of the widely spaced streaks of destruction led to our modern understanding of multiple suction vortices, a phenomena that had never before been so clearly documented. The Fujita-Pierson Tornado Damage Scale was also developed as a direct result of research conducted on the Lubbock tornado. The tornado was later given an F5 rating due to the severity of the damage in the northern edges of the city. Most, if not all of the obliterated homes were of questionable construction, so a contemporary EF5 rating may not be appropriate. The movement of large industrial equipment, however, remains among the most impressive instances of tornado damage ever documented.

Note: Fujita reported that a “family of five” was killed in a home in the Skyview neighborhood, but no such deaths were recorded by the city.

Despite reports to the contrary, the Great Plains Life Building in downtown Lubbock was well outside the F4/F5 damage zones. Window and roof damage to the building was likely the result winds in the F1 range. Following the tornado, the building was deemed

Despite reports to the contrary, the Great Plains Life Building in downtown Lubbock was well outside the F4/F5 damage streaks. The window and roof damage to the building was likely the result of ground-level winds in the F1 range. Following the tornado, the building was deemed “unsafe” and abandoned for several years due to a visible twist in the structure’s frame. (Images from the City of Lubbock)

Aerial views of the intense damage streaks in northern Lubbock. At right, view of destroyed homes on Cypress Road, where three fatalities occurred. At left, damage in the Guadelupe district. (Images from the City of Lubbock

Aerial views of damage streaks in northern Lubbock. At right, view of destroyed homes on Cypress Road, where three fatalities occurred. At left, damage in the Guadelupe district. The tornado’s low death toll was deemed to be the result of improvements in weather service warnings, but the low population density in northern Lubbock was likely the most influential factor. (Images from the City of Lubbock)

Kalamazoo, Michigan – May 13, 1980

the storm

The deadly Kalamazoo tornado was filmed on home video as it slowly twisted towards downtown. The cameraman continued filming from the building’s basement as the storm passed directly over the area. (Video by Ted Ruble)

In May of 1980, a tornado descended from the sky over the western outskirts of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The funnel remained airborne for several minutes before touching down just north of Newton’s Airport. Boards and branches whirled through the air as the storm headed eastward, roughly following Main Street towards the center of the city. A laundry business collapsed just before the tornado reached the center of the city, causing the storm’s first fatality (Laurens, 2002). At 4:15pm, the ragged funnel passed directly through downtown Kalamazoo, shattering windows in mid-rise office buildings. Several cars were flipped by winds funneled down narrow alleyways and the entire facade of a seven-story building collapsed onto the street below, killing two women. A motorcyclist riding through Bronson Park in downtown was killed by a falling tree (source, n.d.). In eastern Kalamazoo, the storm’s final fatality occurred when a man loading his truck was thrown to the ground.

Surveyors later awarded the storm an F3 rating due to a small streak of heavy damage near St. Augustines Elementary School (NWS Survey). Damage in the city center was indicative of F1 to F2 intensity. Prof Fujita surveyed the damage and deemed the tornado an “extremely rare event.” He incorrectly estimated that tornado’s strike the downtowns of large cities every 50 to 100 years.

Note: While the official population of Kalamazoo is under 100,000, the metropolitan area has a population over 300,000.

View of damage in downtown Kalamazoo following a tornado on May 13th, 1980. (Images by S. Zomer)

Damage in downtown Kalamazoo following the tornado. Most of the structures in the city center experienced only modest damage. At left, damage to a seven story building that housed the Gilmore Department store. Two people were crushed to death when the structure’s facade collapsed into the street (Images by S. Zomer)

Many of the mid-rise masonry buildings in downtown Kalamazoo, as in most cities, were built in the first half of the 20th century and not constructed to survive winds greater than 110mph. The greatest potential loss of life in city centers would likely be in these types of buildings, which surround most modern skyscrapers. (Images by S. Zomer)

Many of the mid-rise masonry buildings in downtown Kalamazoo, as in most cities, were built in the first half of the 20th century and not constructed to survive winds greater than 100mph. The greatest potential loss of life in future tornadoes would likely be in these types of buildings, as well as highways filled with afternoon traffic. Many large, elevated freeways in the Great Plains are oriented to the northeast and capable of holding more than 10,000 automobiles per mile of roadway. (Images by S. Zomer)

Forth Worth – March 28, 2000

The 2000 Fort Worth tornado was typical of many short lived storms on the Great Plains that fail to attract any media attention. By chance, however, the tornado touched down in the center of the city and passed directly through downtown.

The 2000 Fort Worth tornado was typical of most short lived storms that spin through sparsely populated areas and fail to attract significant media attention. By chance, however, the tornado touched down in the center of the city and passed directly through downtown. (Image by Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Mary Carolyn Bauman)

The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area is one of the largest and most vulnerable urban centers in Tornado Alley. Historical records indicate that the region surrounding the Red River Valley is particularly prone to violent, wide-tracked tornadoes in the months of March and April. To date, more than a dozen significant tornadoes have passed within the boundaries of the two cities, the deadliest of which swept through residential sections of Dallas in 1957. The last killer tornado to strike the area touched down near the Burton Hills neighborhood, about three miles west of downtown Fort Worth. Videographers filmed the large, dusty vortex as it marched eastward towards the city’s tallest skyscrapers. The tornado caused little damage until it reached the Trinity River, at which time it rapidly intensified into a minimal F3. After causing its first fatality at a trucking plant, the storm engulfed the ten-story Cash America building at maximum intensity. Nearly every window in the building was shattered and exterior offices were stripped of furniture. The tornado then began to weaken as it entered the heavily urbanized core of Fort Worth. Howling winds funneled through the downtown streets as the now-transparent tornado whirled debris high into the air. Thousands of windows shattered, raining large pieces of jagged glass to the ground below. High winds knocked over a brick wall where a homeless man had sought shelter, crushing him to death (NWS, 2010). After exiting downtown, the tornado became diffuse and dissipated.

Surveyors later concluded that most of the damage in the downtown area was of F0 and F1 intensity. The devastated Cash America Building, however, was likely impacted by winds in the upper-F2/lower-F3 range.

At left, damage to the Bank One Building in downtown Fort Worth. At right, the devastated Cash America Building, which was struck by the tornado while at peak intensity.

At left, damage to the Bank One Building in downtown Fort Worth. At right, the devastated Cash America Building, which was struck by the tornado at peak intensity.

Additional views of the Bank One and Cash America building. Due to ground friction, tornadic winds increase dramatically with height. Tree and vehicle damage at street level was generally minor.

Additional views of the Bank One and Cash America buildings. Due to ground friction, tornadic winds increase dramatically with height. Had the tornado not impacted such tall structures, it likely would only have achieved an F2 rating.

The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area has some of the most congested freeways in the United States, such as the Woodall Rodgers overpass (pictured at left). Peak traffic flow generally occurs between 4 and 6pm, which coincides with violent tornadic activity. Considering the vehicle fatality rate in EF5 tornadoes, a single badly placed storm could cause thousands of deaths, particularly if a rain-wrapped storm were to follow a freeway corridor.

The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area has some of the most congested freeways in the United States (pictured is the 366 Spur just west of the central business district). Peak traffic flow generally occurs between 4 and 6pm, which coincides with the maxima in violent tornadic activity. Considering the vehicle fatality rate in EF5 tornadoes, a single badly placed storm could cause thousands of deaths on the roads alone, particularly if a rain-wrapped storm were to follow a freeway corridor.

Springfield, Massachusetts – June 1, 2011

The Springfield tornado was captured by tower camp as it crossed the Connetticut River and moved into the downtown area.

The Springfield tornado was captured by a tower camera as it crossed the Connecticut River and moved into the downtown area. (Right image still by brewbeer22)

A rare supercell thunderstorm in the state of Massachusetts spawned a tornado that touched down in the city of Westfield. The knob-like funnel remained aloft for several minutes as it spun to the east at 30mph. Damage was limited primarily to trees and poorly fitted roofs until the storm entered the city of Springfield, at which point it intensified. Hundreds of vehicles caught in afternoon traffic were struck by the tornado as it passed over the Memorial Bridge, leading to several injuries from shattered car windows. Sheets of water spiraled around the core of the vortex as it crossed the Conneticut River and approached the high-rises of downtown Springfield. Just after making landfall on the other side of the river, a man was killed when a tree fell atop his parked car. Winds in the storm caused extensive damage to multi-story brick buildings just south of the central business district, littering the streets with bricks and downed trees. As the storm exited downtown, it passed over a three-story apartment building on Union Street. The force of the tornado caused the structure to collapse, killing a mother sheltering her daughter on the ground floor (Constantine, 2011).

East of Springfield, the tornado reached EF3 intensity as it plowed through miles of forestland. Several homes impacted by the tornado were nearly leveled to the ground in the town of Monson (NWS Survey). The storm’s final fatality occurred when the storm swept through a campground near Brimfield. While the tornado was determined to have been a half mile wide in Brimfield, the worst damage was confined to an area less than 100 yards in width. The tornado finally lifted about eight miles southeast of Worcester, the scene of New England’s deadliest tornado in 1953.

The tornado slowly intensified as it ripped through a historic section of downtown Springfield. (Image from AP).

The tornado slowly intensified as it ripped through a historic section of downtown Springfield. (Image from AP)

At left, damage in the Six Corners district. At right, the apartment building where one of the fatalities occurred. (Images by Robert Blackie)

At left, damage in the Six Corners district. At right, the destroyed apartment building where a mother sheltering her daughter was killed. (Images by Robert Blackie)

The List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded (Pre-1970): Part I

Damage photographs are the most important tool in ascertaining the strength of historical tornadoes. Shown above is probable EF5 damage near the small town of Colfax, Wisconsin after a powerful tornado ripped through the area in 1958. Trees of all sizes were debarked, ground vegetation was shredded and vehicles were rendered unrecognizable (Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections).

Damage photographs are the most important tool in ascertaining the strength of historical tornadoes. Shown above is probable EF5 damage near Colfax, Wisconsin, after a powerful tornado ripped through the area in 1958. Trees of all sizes were debarked, ground vegetation was scoured and vehicles were rendered unrecognizable. (Image courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collections)

□ Categorizing powerful tornadoes is a very, very inexact science. Most tornadoes capable of causing EF5 damage fail to impact populated areas, and the chance of any single storm impacting a man-made structure while at peak intensity is exceedingly small. Statistics on path length, width and forward speed are rarely accurate for historical events, further complicating analysis.

While nowhere near definitive, objectivity is attempted through the use of damage photographs, reliable survey reports and fatality statistics. Unverified accounts, vague newspaper descriptions and damage figures are not considered. Tornadoes that occurred before 1880 and tornadoes that caused less than 10 deaths are excluded to eliminate the thousands of rural storms that failed to attract significant media attention. Little to no photographic evidence makes the inclusion of some past tornadoes infeasible without further information.

The indefinitive list of the strongest tornadoes from 1880 to 1969:

1. Sherman, Texas – May 15, 1896

2. De Soto/Murphysboro/West Frankfurt, Illinois – March 18, 1925

3. New Richmond, Wisconsin – June 12, 1899

4. Beecher, Michigan – June 8th, 1953

5. Hudsonville, Michigan – April 3, 1956

6. Tupelo, Mississippi – April 5, 1936

7. Udall, Kansas – May 25, 1955

8. Pomeroy, Iowa – July 6, 1893

9. Woodward, Oklahoma – April 9, 1947

10. Scott County, Mississippi – March 3, 1966

11. Ruskin Heights, Missouri – May 20, 1957

12. Snyder, Oklahoma – May 10, 1905

13. Colfax, Wisconsin – June 4, 1958

14. Gans, Oklahoma – January 22, 1957

15. Winston County, Alabama – April 20, 1920

 

The Tupelo tornado was the second deadliest in the US since 1900, surpassed only by the Tri-State tornado of 1925. Despite the storm's exceptional intensity and high death toll, it has been largely forgotten.

Since the turn of the 20th century in the US, only the Tri-State event has claimed more lives than the Tupelo tornado (shown above).  Despite the storm’s exceptional intensity and high death toll, it was largely forgotten amidst the turmoil of the Great Depression. At left, the tornado scoured patches of vegetation from the ground and hurled debris and dozens of bodies into Gum Pond. Large plantation homes were swept completely away on the west side of town. The final number of fatalities from the storm may have exceeded 240, making it the worst single tornado disaster in a US town.

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4. Beecher, Michigan – June 8th, 1953

The Beecher tornado left a narrow swath of extreme damage along Coldwater Road. At left, a vehicle that was left in the basement of a home that was obliterated. At right, the swath of F5 damage around the local high school, where grass was ripped from the ground (Flint Public Library)

The Beecher tornado left a narrow swath of extreme damage along Coldwater Road. At left, a vehicle that was thrown into the basement of an obliterated home. At right, the swath of F5 damage around the local high school. Grass scouring was documented throughout the tornado’s path. The fatality rate within the F5 damage contour was exceptionally high, including more than 60 deaths in a quarter mile stretch centered on Saginaw Street. (Flint Public Library)

□ Prior to the 2011 tornado season, the year 1953 was the deadliest in contemporary American history. Prolific severe weather outbreaks brought catastrophic tornadoes from central Texas to Massachusetts, with much of the activity focused within a three-week period beginning in the middle of May. The deadliest and strongest tornado of the year began its path of destruction northwest of Flint, Michigan, just before dark on June 8th. Spawned from a violent supercell thunderstorm with baseball-sized hail, the devastating tornado spent its first few minutes ripping through farmland north of Daltons Airport. The tornado quickly developed a violent inner core that left a path of pronounced ground scouring as it roared eastward at more than 40mph. Five miles after first touching down, the F5 tornado reached the Flint suburb of Beecher.

Huge strokes of lightning momentarily lit up the “column of storm clouds” as it crossed Ballard Drive and entered a two mile stretch of residential developments east of the yet-to-be-constructed I-475. Entire families were killed as homes were swept completely away within a 150-yard wide path that travelled roughly parallel to Coldwater Road. Most survivors in the streak of worst damage later described regaining consciousness more than 50 yards from their devastated homes, sometimes near the bodies of relatives or neighbors (Flint Public Library). Trees were snapped just above ground level near a local high school, and vehicles were hurled several blocks and rendered completely unrecognizable. After passing through Beecher, the tornado travelled an additional 15 miles before finally dissipating in rural Lapeer County. When the final victims succumbed to their injuries a few months later, the death toll stood at 116, with five families suffering four or more fatalities. The tornado was the deadliest of the weather radar age (post-1950) in the US until it was surpassed by the 2011 Joplin tornado

The Beecher tornado occurred during the climax of a severe weather pattern that favored the development of violent tornadoes in and around the Great Lakes region . Following the Palm Sunday outbreak of 1965, the locus of severe weather outside tornado alley shifted southward towards Indiana and northern Alabama. While no E/F5 tornadoes have impacted Michigan since the 1950’s*, the Beecher tornado is a reminder that exceptionally violent tornadoes are capable of developing well outside the prairies of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

*A tornado that struck Strongsville, MI was likely capable of causing F5 damage. Additionally, the majority of tornadoes capable of causing F5 damage are not rated as such.

Unlike the Waco, Texas tornado a few weeks earlier, the Beecher tornado left damage indicative of EF5 intensity. Aerial footage captured pronounced ground scouring in rural areas outside town. (Flint Public Library / Right video stills by ken Kelley)

Unlike the Waco, Texas, tornado a few weeks earlier, the Beecher tornado left damage indicative of EF5 intensity. A videographer captured pronounced ground scouring in rural areas outside town. The ground markings were indicative of extremely powerful suction vortices that rotated around the core of the storm (Flint Public Library / Right video stills by Ken Kelley)

View of the tornado's narrow swath of devastation through Beecher. Some of the destroyed residences were large, two-story homes.

The tornado travelled almost due east down Coldwater Road for several miles. This photograph was taken near the eastern edge of the residential developments in Beecher and shows almost the entire swath of damage through the suburb. Most of the fatalities occurred within a half mile of the water tower on Saginaw Street (visible above).

At left, a picture of the swath of complete devastation along Coldwater Avenue. At right, closer view of empty foundations near Saginaw Blvd.

At left, a picture of the swath of complete devastation along Coldwater Road. At right, closer view of empty foundations near Saginaw Blvd.

3. New Richmond, Wisconsin – June 12, 1899

Catastrophic wind damage to homes and businesses along the Willow River in New Richmond. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

The New Richmond tornado caused catastrophic wind damage to homes and businesses along the Willow River. This photograph was taken after several days of moderate clean-up, but the scene resembles the “not a board left standing” description printed in newspapers the day after the disaster. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

□ On a summer afternoon in 1899, the normally quiet streets of New Richmond were populated with out-of-towners who had come to see the Gollmar Brothers Circus. As the performances came to an end around 5 o’clock, residents and tourists alike filled the streets in the center of town. Several miles outside New Richmond, a powerful tornado was thundering along the banks of the Willow River. Just after 6pm, the approaching tornado became visible from town, causing an immediate panic to surge through the crowds. Most locals ran towards their homes, while others fled into the brick and mortar businesses that lined 1st Street. Less than two minutes later, as the last few scrambled through the now-empty streets, the storm’s roar became deafening. Clouds of dirt and debris were whipped into the air as the tornado tore through 16 blocks of homes and businesses on the northern side of town. At least 114 people were killed as buildings were swept completely away within a 300-yard wide strip of devastation. Some of the victim’s bodies were blown several blocks and later recovered from the waters of Mary Park Lake. Local newspapers documented a 3,000lb safe that was hurled approximately 100 yards and a dead horse that was thrown two miles. The wide visibility of the storm likely prevented the death toll from climbing much higher.

Damage photographs show a clear swath of F5 damage that swept the ground clean along the shores of the Willow River. Photographic evidence also reveals that trees were debarked and debris from destroyed buildings was finely granulated, both indications of extreme intensity. While records from the 19th century are rarely reliable, the storm’s official fatality to injury ratio is among the highest of any tornado in history. The New Richmond tornado remains the worst in Wisconsin’s history, and the deadliest summertime tornado on record.

Approximately a dozen people were killed in the basement of a brick store that was swept obliterated on 1st Street. At right, view of a debarked tree that was impacted by the blizzard of deadly debris. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

Approximately a dozen people were killed in the basement of a brick store that was obliterated on 1st Street. At right, view of debarked trees and flattened buildings in the center of town. The tornado hurled a 3,000lb safe an entire city block – this remains one of the most impressive instances of tornado damage ever documented (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

At left, the remains of the Nicollet Hotel, once a large, three-story brick building. At right, closer view of the swath of F5 damage through the northern side of town. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

At left, the remains of the Nicollet Hotel, once a large, three-story brick building. At right, closer view of the swath of F5 damage through the northern side of New Richmond. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collection)

2. Murphysboro, Illinois – March 18, 1925 (Tri-State Tornado)

The deadly Tri-State tornado caused an exceptionally high number of fatalities in southern Illinois. More than 234 were killed in less than 90 seconds as the storm erased entire neighborhoods in Murphysboro, pictured above. (Image by Sue Stinson)

The deadly Tri-State tornado caused an exceptionally high number of fatalities in southern Illinois. More than 200 deaths occurred in less than 90 seconds as the storm erased a large section of Murphysboro, pictured above. (Image by Sue Stinson)

□ In the spring of 1925, the deadliest and most destructive tornado in United States history touched down in the tree covered hills of Reynolds County, Missouri. The storm initially struck few buildings as it slowly intensified and roared to the east-northeast at more than 65mph. Only 11 fatalities were recorded in the 85 miles before the storm crossed the state border into Illinois. Some survivors in southeastern Missouri later reported seeing “funnels” early in the tornado’s life, but the storm quickly became diffuse and unrecognizable within a column of heavy rain and hail.

The tiny town of Gorham, with only a few hundred residents, was the first populated area to experience F5 damage. One in six residents perished as the storm swept away most of the town’s homes, many of which were never rebuilt. Citizens of Murphysboro, a small city eight miles east of Gorham, later described an inpenitrable darkness that descended over the area just before the tornado struck at 2:30pm. For many, the roar of the storm was the only warning that preceded the “heavy cloud” as it tore a half-mile wide swath of complete devastation through the northern side of town. The tornado struck with such power that it wiped out entire families, including eight households that reported four or more deaths (Genealogy Trails). Damage throughout the city was inconsistent – a row of homes in the center of the tornado’s path was battered but left standing while adjacent homes were swept away, an indication the tornado had a complex multiple vortex structure. In total, 234 people were killed in Murphysboro. More than half of the deaths occurred within four blocks of the intersection of 16th and Gartside Street.

A few minutes after exiting Murphysboro, the exceptionally powerful tornado obliterated the town of De Soto, leaving only debarked stumps and pulverized bits of debris in its wake. Of the 69 deaths in and near the small town, 33 were in one brick school that was obliterated. At 2:50pm, the tornado ripped through a housing subdivision in West Frankfurt, a mining town filled with the wives and children of miners working deep underground. Only the northwest corner of town was clipped by the storm, but the destruction was complete. The dollar damage in West Frankfurt totaled only a fraction of what was recorded in Murphysboro, yet a total of 127 lives were lost, including seven deaths in one family (Genealogy Trails). The tornado maintained exceptional intensity as it thundered eastward towards the Indiana border. More than 30 farm owners were killed in rural homesteads in southeastern Illinois, an unprecedented figure indicative of the tornado’s exceptional intensity (Tom Grazulis, 1994). The mangled body of one farmer from the town of Parrish was found more than a mile from his obliterated home (Quigley, 1996).

In Indiana, the tornado continued to pave an unbroken swath of F4+ damage. The storm’s forward speed accelerated to 73mph as the surrounding rain and fog lightened, occasionally providing survivors glimpses of “multiple funnels” (Grazulis, 1993). Dozens were killed in the town of Griffin, a tiny railroad community only two blocks wide. After traveling more than 200 miles, the tornado finally lifted near Union, Indiana.

Survivor descriptions of the Tri-State tornado are reminiscent of footage captured during the 2011 Joplin tornado. Unlike the Joplin storm, however, the 1925 event was fast moving and not preceded by extensive warning. The Tri-State storm struck only small towns and rural areas during its three and a half hours on the ground yet caused approximately 700 fatalities. While some meteorologists suggest the disaster may have been a closely spaced family of tornadoes, the damage path was uniform in size, intensity and direction through all of Illinois, where most of the destruction occurred. In terms of longevity and intensity, the storm remains the single most impressive tornadic event ever documented.

Four views of F5 damage in Murphysboro. At top left, erratic damage patterns hint at the storm's multiple vortex structure.

Four views of probable F5 damage in Murphysboro. At top left, erratic damage patterns hint at the storm’s multiple vortex structure, though fires from broken gas lines may have contributed to the sharp damage contour. The concentration of fatalities in Murphysboro was remarkably high, with some neighborhoods losing more than half their population to the storm.

At top left, the De Soto school were 33 students were killed. At bottom left, survivor descriptions from Murphysboro indicate the tornado was preceded by heavy rain and hail which blackened the sky, much like the 2011 Joplin tornado (pictured). At right, damage in West Frankfurt.

At top left, the De Soto school were 33 students were killed. At bottom left, survivor descriptions from Murphysboro indicate the tornado was preceded by heavy rain and hail which blackened the sky, much like the 2011 Joplin tornado (pictured). (Video still by Darin McCann) At right, damage in West Frankfurt, where dozens of homes were swept completely away.

The swath of empty foundations in the northwestern corner of West Frankfurt, where the highest concentration of fatalities occurred.

The swath of empty foundations in the northwest corner of West Frankfurt, where the highest concentration of fatalities occurred.

Extreme damage in Griffin, Indiana, where the final fatalities occurred. Post storm clean-up may be partly responsible for the debris free appearance of the area, but survivors reported that dozens of homes were swept completely away.

Extreme damage in De Soto, Illinois, where 69 people were killed.

1. Sherman, Texas – May 15, 1896

The tornado that cut a narrow path of complete devastation through a neighborhood in Sherman, Texas was likely similar in appearance to the 2007 Elie tornado. While the Elie storm was powerful enough to rip a home completely from its foundation, it moved significantly slower than the 1896 event and was less intense.

One of the most powerful tornadoes in history cut a narrow path of complete devastation through a neighborhood in Sherman, Texas. The storm was likely similar in appearance to the 2007 Elie tornado, which also rapidly intensified several minutes before lifting. While the Elie storm was powerful enough to rip a home from its foundation, it moved significantly slower and was undoubtably less intense than the Sherman event. The 1896 tornado season was one of the deadliest on record, largely due to a weaker storm (F3/marginal F4) that killed over 250 in the St. Louis metro area on May 27th.

□ Old newspaper accounts, full of embellishments and divine prophetics, are rarely useful in ascertaining the intensity of historical storms. With that said, one particular tornado transcends the information haze that preceded the turn of the 20th century. The devastating and exceptionally powerful storm touched down 40 miles north of downtown Dallas, Texas, on a muggy May afternoon in 1896. Survivor testaments collected by Tom Grazulis indicate that the violent storm never took on the “wedge” shape commonly associated with F5 tornadoes and instead appeared as “a perfect funnel” (Grazulis, 1993). After traveling northeast for more than 40 minutes and taking a dozen lives, the tornado entered its shrinking stage and made an abrupt curve to the north, sparing the center of Sherman. The drill-like funnel carved an extremely narrow path through a mixed-racial neighborhood on the western side of town. Less than 60 homes were destroyed, but most were swept completely away. Half of the 60 deaths in Sherman were concentrated within eight separate homes in which most or all occupants perished (link). Newspapers reported that most of the victims were thrown long distances, many more than 400 yards (Grazulis, 1993). One of the bodies was found in a tree four blocks from a home that was swept completely away. The ground within the streak of devastation was scoured, and an iron bridge on Houston Street was ripped from is anchor bolts and fragmented into “useless scraps.”

The Sherman tornado remains one of the most powerful tornadic events ever documented. Tom Grazulis considered the tornado the most impressive of all 19th century events based on newspaper descriptions of the damage. If a more comprehensive list of the “strongest tornadoes” were created, the Sherman tornado would likely deserve a place at the top.

One of the few damage photographs available showing the aftermath of the Sherman tornado.

One of the few available damage photographs showing the aftermath of the Sherman tornado. According to Grazulis (1993), the primary damage path through the city was only 60-yards wide. Strangely, newspapers reported that most of the bodies were found to the south of their destroyed homes, the opposite direction of the storm’s movement.

Artist's depiction of the Sherman tornado chewing its way through town. (Grazulis, 1993)

Artist’s depiction of the Sherman tornado chewing its way through town. (Grazulis, 1993)

*Tornadoes that likely belong on the list include:

Clyde, Texas – June 10, 1938 – Slow moving storm caused possible Jarrell-type damage.
Antlers, Oklahoma – April 12, 1945 – Damage photographs inconclusive.
Rocksprings, Texas – April 12, 1927 – Extremely violent tornado for southwest TX.
Fargo, North Dakota – June 20, 1957 – Caused streak of extreme damage in Golden Ridge.