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

The List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded: Part II

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

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

□ For a tornado to be considered for categorization, it must have caused at least one fatality, and it must have occurred after the conception of the Fujita Scale in 1970. Damage intensity and, to a lesser extent, wind duration are the only variables considered, without regard to total path length, width or monetary loss. Information has only been taken from damage photographs or reliable survey reports, not unverified statements or accounts. While far from definitive, this list is the result of literally hundreds of hours of research, e-mails across the country and conversations with other storm chasers. I believe it is as accurate a list as is available. It is flexible and always open to change.

The indefinitive list of the strongest tornadoes:

1. Jarrell, Texas – May 27, 1997

2. Smithville, Mississippi – April 27, 2011

3. Kemper County (Philadelphia), Mississippi – April 27, 2011 

4. Bridge Creek, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999    

5. Bakersfield Valley, Texas – June 1, 1990 

6. Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011

7. El Reno, Oklahoma – May 24th, 2011

8. Smithfield, Alabama – April 4, 1977    

9. Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974 

10. Andover, Kansas – April 26, 1991

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

12. Joplin, Missouri – May 22, 2011

13. Guin, Alabama – April 3, 1974 

14. Moore, Oklahoma – May 20, 2013

15. Mulhall, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999

16. Wheatland, Pennsylvania – May 31, 1985

17. Rainsville, Alabama – April 27, 2011

18. Barneveld, Wisconsin – June 8, 1984

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

20. Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974

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

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

10. Andover, Kansas – April 26, 1991

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

□ One of the most well-known tornadoes in United States history touched down near Clearwater, Kansas, at the height of a severe weather outbreak on April 26th, 1991. Storm chasers filmed the tornado as it slowly gained strength and took aim on the southern suburbs of Wichita. After ripping through homes in Hayesville, the “elephant trunk” funnel steered towards McConnell Air Force Base, where thousands of post-Gulf War military personnel and their families were being housed. As the tornado entered the southern edge of the base, the power failed and the sirens across the area fell silent. The tornado filled with debris and entered a period of rapid intensification as it crossed the southern edge of the base’s runway. Four people were killed in a residential area east of the base, all of them caught out in the open while running for shelter (Grazulis, 2001).

After exiting Wichita, the tornado reached F5 intensity and expanded to a quarter mile in width. The small town of Andover, which hugs the Kansas Turnpike ten miles east of downtown Wichita, was impacted directly by the tornado at maximum intensity. Large, two-story homes to the east of 159th Street were swept completely away as the tornado approached the Golden Spur mobile home park. Most of the community’s residents were sheltering in a large, underground storm cave when the tornado obliterated the park, but some people failed to make it to shelter on time. More than 80% of the mobile homes in the park were turned to splinters by the F5 tornado and 11 people were killed. Adjacent to the park, a couple and their teenage son stopped their car and sought shelter in a ditch along Andover Road. The man and his son were killed in the unforgivable blizzard of debris from hundreds of disintegrating mobile homes, and the woman was seriously injured (Grazulis, 2001). Aerial damage surveys later documented a trail of empty foundations and scoured grass through the housing developments of Andover. Ground crews photographed mobile home frames wrapped around completely debarked trees in the Golden Spur community.

Video of the Andover tornado shows some of the most violent tornadic rotation ever filmed. Even so, there may have been an even stronger tornado during the outbreak.The longest tracked tornado on April 26th, 1991, roared through the unpopulated Oklahoma countryside and was undoubtably capable of producing F5 damage. The “Red Rock” tornado caused no fatalities, however, so was not considered for the “strongest” list.

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

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

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

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

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

9. Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974

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

□ During the 1974 Super Outbreak, a tornado of incredible ferocity touched down in the hills of Northern Kentucky, a region unaccustomed to violent tornadoes. The storm intensified as it passed through unpopulated areas north of Hardinsburg, and began causing F5 damage as it approached the Indiana border. Several well-constructed homes were swept completely away along Highway 1239 as the violent tornado turned to the northeast at 50mph. Witness statements suggest that the tornado took on a “stovepipe” appearance and was fairly difficult to distinguish from the rain falling around it.

Few people were aware of the danger in Brandenburg, a small community on the Ohio River. A local disc jockey on the edge of town saw the tornado approaching and sent out a frantic last-minute warning to the residents of Meade County. For many of those not listening to their radios, the first warning was the roar of the tornado. One survivor later said that she “heard a noise that sounded like the world was coming to an end.” The fast-moving tornado ripped through the tiny town in less than 30 seconds. The worst damage occurred to homes on a bluff just west of Brandenburg’s business district. The nine homes that lined Green Street were obliterated, leading to 18 fatalities (Meade County Heritage). Several large, well-built two-story homes were left as bare concrete slabs, including a recently constructed home where four people were killed. One body was blown several hundred yards and found near the banks of the Ohio River at the base of the bluff. Additionally, trees were debarked and sheared just above ground level, and a news photographer documented extensive grass scouring just west of town (Macy, 1974).

Over the years, some of the more infamous tornadoes during the ’74 Super Outbreak have acquired almost mythical status. Damage photographs and first-hand reports, however, suggest that the lesser known Brandenburg tornado was perhaps the most powerful of the outbreak.

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

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

Close view of the

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

8. Smithfield, Alabama – April 4, 1977

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

□ Birmingham, Alabama, was struck by an exceptionally violent tornado during a stormy spring day in 1977. Like most deadly tornadoes in the South, the Smithfield tornado was fast moving and difficult to see behind a curtain of heavy rain. The storm touched down west of downtown Birmingham and rapidly strengthened as it sped to the northeast. Four died, including a mother and her two children, as the tornado ripped through Smithfield Estates, a small neighborhood just east of North Pratt. Homes in the area were swept completely away and at least one vehicle were thrown more than 200 yards.

The tornado intensified further as it ripped through a forested area and approached Smithfield Manor, an upper middle class street lined with large two-story homes. Some victims in the neighborhood had heeded warnings and taken shelter in basements but others were caught unexpectedly by the F5 tornado. There were multiple fatalities in several families as an entire row of homes on Belmont Lane was obliterated, leaving nothing but clean foundations and empty basements. Photographic evidence indicates that the tornado scoured patches of grass from the ground and stripped trees bare of bark and branches. In total, 22 people were killed by the tornado, and more than 100 homes were completely destroyed. The death toll was remarkably low considering the severity of the building damage, which was some of the most intense ever photographed at the time.

Prof. Fujita, who was in Alabama at the time, gave the tornado an F5 rating. One piece of NWS literature reports that Fujita “toyed with the idea of rating the Smithfield tornado an F6.” Decades later, the 2011 Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado passed directly over some of the exact same areas affected by the 1977 event, causing damage to the same properties.

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

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

7. El Reno, Oklahoma – May 25, 2011

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

□ Twelve years after the Bridge Creek event, a tornado of equal ferocity passed within 20 miles of downtown Oklahoma City. The monster storm was tracked by rapid scanning mobile doppler radar as it touched down near the I-40 and rapidly intensified. Researchers recorded a doppler velocity of 280mph moments before the rain-wrapped tornado fell out of range and plowed to the northeast. As of this writing, the figure has yet to be officially released. Vegetation was ripped from the ground in the EF5 damage swath, and the few trees left standing were completely stripped of bark and branches. Three fatalities occurred in two vehicles as the tornado crossed the I-40. The victims’ bodies were left “unrecognizable” and discovered stripped of clothing a quarter mile from the freeway (AP, 2011). Rescue crews were unable to determine if the victims had exited their vehicles and attempted to take shelter on the ground.  The two cars were mangled so severely that only pieces of their frames were recovered. Additionally, an oil field adjacent to the I-40 was impacted directly by the EF5 tornado, resulting in the movement of a 1.9 million pound drilling derrick (Ortega, 2011). Reporters documented an oil tanker weighing in excess of 20,000lbs that was thrown a mile from the production site (KFOR, 2011). Aerial imagery revealed no visible ground impacts, so the tanker may have travelled the entire distance in one toss.

After passing to the north of El Reno, the tornado barreled eastward through the rural outskirts of Oklahoma City. A small cluster of homes near the town of Piedmont was directly impacted by the storm. Approximately a dozen homes were completely obliterated, and several residents were killed. More than a dozen large vehicles from the neighborhood were hurled several hundred yards into a field that was partially scoured of vegetation. The tornado continued to the east-northeast for an additional 35 miles but failed to impact any populated areas. Most of the damage and all of the fatalities occurred in the first 30 miles of the damage track.

A mesonet station near El Reno recorded a wind gust of 151mph in the outer fringes of the tornado’s circulation. The wind gust, which falls in the EF3 range, provides some indication that the Enhanced Fujita Scale grossly underestimates wind speeds in violent tornadoes. Ground scouring in the El Reno tornado was similar to the Bridge Creek tornado, and its path length was significantly longer. The Bridge Creek tornado paralleled the I-44 and was closely followed by radar for much of its life. The El Reno tornado was analyzed only briefly as it crossed the I-40, so higher winds may have occurred.

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

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

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

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

View of severe ground scouring southwest of Piedmont.

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

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

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

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

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

□ One of the most notable tornadoes in modern history touched down in a forested area near the town of Detroit, Alabama. After spending 15 minutes tearing through sparsely populated sections of Marion County, the fast moving storm ripped through the tiny town of Hackleburg at EF5 intensity, causing 18 fatalities. Buildings across most of the town were damaged, but the worst destruction was confined to a streak only 200 yards wide. In the worst affected areas, trees were completely debarked, well-constructed homes were swept from their foundations and a large manufacturing plant was reduced to a pile of twisted metal (NWS, 2011).

The tornado’s intensity remained remarkably uniform as it exited town and sped to the northeast at more than 70mph. Five minutes later, the storm reached the town of Phil Campbell, a small community with just over 1,000 residents. The town’s population was well-warned of the approaching storm, but interior rooms provided no protection from the exceptionally violent tornado. Twenty six people were killed in Phil Campbell, including four members of one family. Photographic evidence indicates the tornado scoured grass from exposed hillsides, and surveyors documented a large section of pavement that was peeled from a street on the eastern edge of town. Additionally, aerial imagery suggests that the roof of an underground storm cellar was ripped from the ground near Highway 237.

A post-storm damage survey by the NWS indicated that the most intense damage occurred in the unincorporated community of Oak Grove, about eight miles northeast of Phil Campbell. As the tornado roared through the area, a large, two-story brick home of excellent construction was swept completely away. The bodies of the home’s two occupants were found far from the empty foundation in a field to the east. Surveyors later determined that the EF0 damage contour reached a peak width in excess of one mile in Oak Grove, but the path of extreme damage remained narrow throughout the tornado’s life. In total, the storm travelled 132 miles – one of the longest officially measured damage paths in history. Surveyors documented EF5 and “near EF5” damage from Hackleburg to Tanner, a distance of nearly 70 miles. Despite hitting mostly unpopulated forestland and tiny towns, the tornado killed 72 people, most of whom were killed in a 25 mile swath between Hackleburg and Mount Hope.

The Phil Campbell tornado was one of the most impressive tornadic events of the past century. The storm’s intensity, rapid forward pace, huge size and exceptional path length have led many to consider it the “strongest tornado ever recorded.” Winds in the storm may have easily exceeded the Bridge Creek and El Reno events, but the storm’s fast movement reduced the duration of the most intense winds to less than five seconds. As a result, the tornado caused less pronounced ground and vegetation scouring than some other, slower-moving EF5 storms. A post dedicated specifically to this tornado can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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Certain damage indicators are unique to EF5 tornadoes. These include:

1. Pronounced ground and vegetation scouring (perhaps the best indicator of extreme intensity).

2. Completely debarked trees.

3. Well-constructed buildings swept from their foundations.

4. Vehicle’s thrown great distances and mangled beyond recognition.

5. Granulation of debris.

6. Incredible phenomena (eg. an 800lb safe thrown 200 yards in Rainsville, AL) and wind rowing.

7. High above-ground fatality rates in frame homes.

For reasons unknown, some intense tornadoes do not leave behind all seven damage indicators. Ground scouring, while strongly correlated with wind speed, occurs readily in some tornadoes and not others.

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

__________ Click to see:

Part I

Part III

Part IV