Fascinating and Accurate Tornado Records – the Deadliest, the Fastest, the Rarest

Several EF5 tornadoes have thrown industrial equipment weighing in excess of 15,000 lbs long distances. At top left, the 2011 El Reno tornado hurled an oil tanker weighing approximately 25,000 lbs a mile without leaving any noticeable ground impacts. At top right, the 1970 Lubbock tornado tossed a 26,000 lb fertilizer tank 3/4 of a mile over a freeway and several undamaged fences. At bottom left, the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado hurled a train car weighing 71,600lbs 130 yards in one throw, according to witnesses. At bottom right, the 1995 Pampa tornado lifted a 35,000 lb lathe.

Several EF5 tornadoes have thrown industrial equipment weighing in excess of 15,000 lbs long distances. At top left, the 2011 El Reno tornado hurled an oil tanker weighing approximately 25,000 lbs a mile without leaving any noticeable ground impacts. At top right, the 1970 Lubbock tornado tossed a 26,000 lb fertilizer tank 3/4 of a mile over a freeway and several undamaged fences. At bottom left, the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado hurled a train car weighing 71,600lbs 130 yards in one throw, according to witnesses. At bottom right, the 1995 Pampa tornado lifted a 35,000 lb lathe.

□ Accurate tornado statistics can be difficult to find. Recording techniques were not standardized before the weather radar age, so information on tornadoes that occurred before 1970 is often unreliable. Furthermore, lists of the deadliest and longest tracked tornadoes in world history are easy to find and dominated by 19th and early-20th century events.

To level the playing field and promote the dissemination of credible information, all of the following records cover tornadoes that occurred after 1970. Click each link in the index below to jump to a specific section. This page will undoubtably go through several edits and expand as more notable tornado records are uncovered. 

I. The Deadliest Tornadoes on Record

II. The Longest Tornado Damage Paths

III. The Fastest Tornadoes Ever Recorded

IV. Violent or Unusual Tornado Records

-IVa. The Highest Altitude Violent Tornado

-IVb. The Deadliest and Most Intense Anticyclonic Tornado Ever Recorded

-IVc. The Deadliest Hurricane Spawned Tornado

-IVd. The Highest Tornado Fatality Rate

-IVe. The Most Fatalities in a Single Building

-IVf. The Most Fatalities in a Single Mobile Home Park

-IVg. The Fastest Tornado Movement Ever Recorded Using Photogrammetry

-IVh. The Heaviest Object Ever Lifted by a Tornado

V. Graphs

Va. Graph of Tornadoes Causing 10+ and 20+ Fatalities by Decade

Vb. Graph of the Deadliest Tornadoes by Decade

_______________

I.
□ The Deadliest Tornadoes on Record

The 2011 Joplin tornado is by far the deadliest tornado of the past 50 years. Considering the storm's incredible intensity and size, it is remarkable the number of deaths did not surpass 200. All three of the deadliest tornadoes since 1970 occurred during the 2011 tornado season, the worst in modern history.

The 2011 Joplin tornado was by far the deadliest tornado of the past 50 years. Considering the storm’s incredible intensity and size, it is remarkable the number of deaths did not surpass 200. All three of the deadliest tornadoes since 1970 occurred during the 2011 tornado season, the worst in modern history.

1. 158 fatalities – Joplin, Missouri – May 22, 2011

□ A violent EF5 tornado rapidly intensified as it entered heavily populated sections of Joplin. The storm holds the post-1970 record for the most fatalities in frame homes (approximately 70) and the most fatalities in commercial buildings (approximately 20). The commercial deaths do not include the large number of fatalities at medical facilities, churches and private organizations.

2. 72 fatalities – Hackleburg/Phil Campbell, Alabama – April 27, 2011

One of the most impressive tornadic events in history carved a 132-mile path of devastation through largely rural areas of northern Alabama. The EF5 tornado had an exceptionally high fatality to injury ratio. The storm holds the post-1970 record for the longest swath of EF5 damage (including approximately 40 consecutive miles at EF5 intensity).

3. 64 fatalities – Tuscaloosa/Concord, Alabama – April 27, 2011

□ Borderline EF5 tornado caused more than 40 deaths in Tuscaloosa. Extremely well-covered by local news agencies and photographers. Caused high-end EF4 damage from Tuscaloosa to the suburbs of Birmingham.

4. ≈47 fatalities – Pugh City, Mississippi – February 21, 1971

□ A fast-moving F4 tornado nearly wiped out the town of Pugh City, killing 22 residents. Dozens of small homes were swept completely away. Official death toll of 58 is likely the result of a tornado family.

5. 42 fatalities – Wichita Falls, Texas – April 10, 1979

□ A large tornado left a wide swath of marginal F4 damage in Wichita Falls. The historic storm holds the post-1970 record for the greatest number of fatalities in vehicles (25). The majority of the deaths in automobiles were people attempting to flee the storm.

6. ≈41 fatalities – Inverness, Mississippi – February 21, 1971

□ A fast-moving F5 tornado passed directly through the town of Inverness, killing approximately 20 residents. Most of the deaths were in poorly built homes that were obliterated.

7. 36 fatalities – Bridge Creek/Moore, Oklahoma – May 3, 1999

□ Violent F5 tornado killed 13 people in rural areas while at maximum intensity. The storm then caused another 23 deaths as it tracked through the Oklahoma City suburbs. Holds record for the highest doppler velocity ever measured – approximately 302mph.

8a. 32 fatalities – Oak Grove, Alabama – April 8, 1998

□ Marginal F5 tornado caused a high number of fatalities as it chewed through small towns near Birmingham after dark. The worst damage was confined to several small streaks of intense devastation.

8b. 32 fatalities – Xenia, Ohio – April 3, 1974

□ Infamous multi-vortex tornado became the deadliest and most damaging single storm in the 1974 Super Outbreak. Brief film of the tornado captured by a high school student was broadcast on news networks across the world.

9. 31 fatalities – Brandenburg, Kentucky – April 3, 1974

□ Violent F5 tornado swept away well-constructed houses in the town of Brandenburg. The storm struck far fewer homes than the Xenia tornado yet caused a similar death toll due to its extreme intensity.

10. 30 fatalities – Saragosa, Texas – May 22, 1987

Short lived multi-vortex tornado touched down and rapidly intensified as it passed over a small town in southwest Texas. Most of the fatalities occurred in the destruction of a crowded church.

_______________

II.
□ The Longest Tornado Damage Paths

-Due to the high number of tornado families that have been officially recorded as a single storm, an accurate list is difficult to compile. Tornadoes thought to have been two or more separate storms are not included. This list will undoubtably go through various edits.

The longest tracked tornadoes generally occur in the South in the spring and fall. At left, one of the longest tracked tornadoes in history caused EF5 damage in Hackleburg. At right, an power tornado probably capable of causing F5 damage killed four people in the obliterated home at bottom. One of the bodies was found in a tree a quarter mile from the foundation (Grazulis, 1995).

The longest tracked tornadoes generally occur in the South in the spring and fall when upper-level winds are more conductive to rapid forward movement. At left, one of the longest tracked tornadoes in history caused EF5 damage in Hackleburg. At right, an extremely long-lived nighttime tornado killed four people in the obliterated home at bottom near Jackson, Mississippi, in 1992. The body of one of the occupants was found in a tree a quarter mile from the foundation (Grazulis, 1997).

1. 149 miles – Yazoo City, Mississippi – April 24, 2010

□ A large, often obscured tornado sped through central Mississippi, killing 10 people in and near Yazoo City. The majority of the damage path was through sparsely populated forestland.

2. 132 miles – Hackleburg/Phil Campbell, Alabama to TN – April 27, 2011

Violent EF5 tornado travelled across nearly all of northern Alabama, causing 72 deaths before crossing the Tennessee border and continuing for an additional ten miles through Franklin County. The storm left strong tornado damage (EF3+) over more than 110 miles (NWS Survey).

3a. 128 miles – Brandon, Mississippi – November 21, 1992

□ Violent, rain-wrapped tornado killed 12 near Jackson around midnight. Four of the deaths occurred when a large, two-story brick home in the Easthaven subdivision was completely destroyed.

3b. 128 miles – Cordova, Alabama – April 27, 2011

□ Fast-moving tornado killed 13 people in Alabama. While officially rated an EF4, the tornado left severe ground scouring in unpopulated areas and hurled a vehicle nearly one mile.

4. 124 miles – Raleigh, Mississippi to AL – April 27, 2011

□ A Lesser know violent tornado during the 2011 Super Outbreak killed 7 in Mississippi and Alabama. Formed farther south than most of the tornadoes on April 27 and left a quarter-mile wide swath of fallen trees through a forest reserve.

5. 122 miles – Clinton, Arkansas – February 5, 2008

□ A fast-moving and long duration EF4 tornado ripped through largely rural areas of Arkansas. The 13 fatalities were spread out over a 30 mile area beginning in Pope County.

_______________

III.
□ The Fastest Tornadoes Ever Recorded

-Due to their rapidly shifting nature, it is difficult to ascertain the forward speed of a tornado over a specified time period. Decaying tornadoes can momentarily exceed 90mph, but these great speeds are never maintained. Most of the fastest tornadoes occur in the South from late-November through April, but similar conditions can cause extremely fast moving tornadoes from Tennessee to Michigan.

In 2012, an extremely violent and fast-moving tornado was filmed as it sped through the town of Henryville, Indiana, at more than 60mph (Video contains strong language). The multi-vortex tornado was powerful enough to loft vehicles more than 200 yards, scour a highway of pavement and completely sweep away several large, two-story brick homes. While rated an EF4 by the NWS, the tornado probably had instantaneous gusts capable of causing EF5 damage in areas east of Henryville. (Video by Rhett Adams)

1a. 70mph+ – April 27, 2011

Many of the tornadoes in the 2011 Super Outbreak reached speeds of 70mph at some point in their development. Examples include the Hackleburg/Phil Campbell tornado as it ripped through Marion and Franklin Counties and the Smithville, Mississippi, tornado as it caused some of the most intense EF5 damage ever photographed in Monroe County.

1b. 70mph+ – March 2, 2012

The deadliest tornado outbreak of 2012 brought violent and fast-moving tornadoes to the states of Indiana and Kentucky. The deadliest two tornadoes in the outbreak – the Henryville, Indiana, tornado and the West Liberty, Kentucky, tornado – may have approached 75mph in periods of their development.

1c. 70mph+ – April 3, 1974

During the 1974 Super Outbreak, nearly every supercell was moving in excess of 50mph. The violent tornadoes that occurred in the state of Alabama – including the infamous Guin tornado – may have reached or momentarily surpassed 75mph.

_______________

IV.
□ Violent or Unusual Tornado Records

IVa. The Highest Altitude Violent Tornado

One of the most unusual violent tornadoes in recorded history touched down high in the mountains near Yellowstone National Park. The rain-wrapped tornado was imbedded within an exceptionally violent mesocyclone with large hail and frequent microbursts. Fujita toured the nearly mile wide damage swath and noted extreme tree damage consistent with violent (F4/F5) tornadic winds. The tornado proved that the deadliest tornado in United States history, theoretically, could strike a place as unexpected as

One of the most unusual tornadoes in recorded history touched down high in the mountains near Yellowstone National Park on July 21, 1987. The rain-wrapped tornado, which travelled at nearly 60mph, was imbedded within an exceptionally violent mesocyclone that contained large hail and frequent microbursts. Fujita toured the 1.5 mile wide damage swath and noted bursts of extreme tree damage consistent with violent (F4/F5) tornadic winds more than 9,000ft above sea level (the worst damage is visible as the lighter area on the hillside just above center). Some mountain peaks affected by the storm were at an altitude of nearly 11,000ft (Fujita, 1989). The rare storm, which was likely capable of causing a wide swath of EF2, EF3 and EF4 damage early in its life, proved that potentially catastrophic tornadoes can occur well-outside “tornado alley.” Had the storm impacted a large population center, it could have caused damage and loss of life comparable to the 2011 Joplin tornado.

IVb. The Deadliest and Most Intense Anticyclonic Tornado Ever Recorded

The West Bend tornado left a narrow swath of F4 damage through a housing subdivision in town.

In April of 1981, a thunderstorm developed over Washington County, Wisconsin. The storm resembled a typical nighttime thunderstorm on weather radar, so no tornado watch was issued. Despite the storm’s modest size and low cloud tops, it spawned an unusual anticyclonic tornado just after midnight. The short-lived tornado touched down at the edge of a neighborhood in the town of West Bend (visible above) and immediately began causing F4 damage (Wakimoto, 1983). Several two-story houses were leveled to the ground and three people were killed, including one man who was thrown more than 50 yards from his destroyed home. The rapidly intensifying tornado was exceptionally narrow, often less than 50 yards in width, and dissipated after traveling less than two miles. The event remains a meteorological oddity and the only violent anticyclonic tornado ever recorded. (Images by Patrick Golembiewski)

IVc. The Deadliest Hurricane Spawned Tornado 

In 1964, Hurricane Hilda made landfall in Louisiana as a weakening category 3 storm. Before the hurricane's eye reached the coast, a violent tornado was spawned in the swampland 30 miles south of New Orleans. The F4 tornado travelled westward over a narrow strip of homes and buildings that lined a waterway, killing 22 residents.

In October of 1964, Hurricane Hilda made landfall in Louisiana as a weakening Category 3 storm. Before the hurricane’s eye reached the coast, a violent tornado was spawned 30 miles south of New Orleans in a marshy area near the Gulf of Mexico. The F4 tornado travelled westward over a narrow strip of homes and buildings that lined a waterway in the town of Larose, killing 22 residents. Some homes were swept completely away and many of the bodies were carried more than 100 yards and later recovered in a nearby bayou. The storm remains the deadliest hurricane spawned tornado in US history and one of the strongest such storms ever recorded.

IVd. The Highest Above-Ground Tornado Fatality Rate

On Ma7 27, 1997, perhaps the most violent tornado in modern history swept through two clusters of homes just outside Jarrell, Texas. The slow-moving F5 tornado completely swept away two dozen homes and ground the remains into tiny pieces. Within the streak of worst damage, which expanded over a quarter-mile in width, there were no survivors above ground. The only people to that didn't loose their lives were crowded in an underground storm cellar on Double Creek Drive, where most of the fatalities occurred.

On May 27, 1997, perhaps the most violent tornado in modern history passed over two clusters of homes just outside Jarrell, Texas. The slow-moving F5 tornado completely swept away two dozen homes and ground the debris into tiny pieces. Within the streak of worst damage, which expanded over a quarter-mile in width, there were no survivors above ground. All of the vegetation in the worst affected areas was scoured from the ground, leaving nothing but empty foundations and fields of mud.

IVe. The Most Fatalities in a Single Building (post-1970)

At left, the 1987 Saragosa, Texas, tornado killed 22 people in the Guadelupe Church during a graduation ceremony for young students. At center, the 1994 Piedmont, Alabama, tornado killed 20 people at the Goshen United Methodist Church during Palm Sunday services. At right, the 2011 Joplin tornado leveled and partially swept away the Greenbriar Nursing Home. Of the approximately 90 residents and nurses in the building, 21 died.

At left, the 1987 Saragosa, Texas, tornado killed 22 people in the Guadelupe Church during a graduation ceremony for young students. At center, the 1994 Piedmont, Alabama, tornado killed 20 parishioners at the Goshen United Methodist Church during Palm Sunday services (Survey Report). At right, the 2011 Joplin tornado leveled and partially swept away the Greenbriar Nursing Home. Of the approximately 90 residents and nurses in the building, 21 died.

IVf. The Most Fatalities in a Single Mobile Home Park

In November of 2005, a fast moving nighttime tornado touched down near Evasnville, Indiana. Around 2am, the tornado struck the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park while residents were asleep. In the park alone, 20 people were killed as mobile homes were swept completely away along the southern edge of the park.

In November of 2005, a fast-moving nighttime tornado touched down near Evasnville, Indiana. Around 2am, the multi-vortex tornado struck the Eastbrook Mobile Home Park while most of the area’s residents were asleep. A total of 20 people were killed as the F3 tornado swept away mobile homes along the southern edge of the park. The event remains the deadliest tornado disaster in a mobile home park. In July of 1987, one of Canada’s deadliest tornadoes killed 15 people in the Evergreen Mobile Home Park in Edmonton, Alberta.

IVg. The Fastest Tornado Movement Ever Recorded Using Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is a technique that allows for the measurement of debris movement in the visible portions of tornadoes. The highest officially calculated velocity using Fujita's meticulous techniques was 284mph in the 1974 Parkersburg, Indiana, tornado. The official analysis program ended in the 80's, but rough calculations by Tom Grazulis indicated particle motions of 300mph just above ground level in the 1995 Pampa, Texas, tornado.

Photogrammetry is a technique that allows for the measurement of debris movement in the visible portions of tornadoes. The highest officially calculated velocity using Fujita’s meticulous techniques was 284mph in the 1974 Parker City, Indiana, tornado (Forbes, Bluestein, 2001). The official analysis program ended in the 80’s, but rough calculations by Tom Grazulis indicated particle motions of 300mph just above ground-level in the 1995 Pampa, Texas, tornado (two vehicles are visible mid-air left of the funnel). Basic photogrammetry techniques indicate the 2007 Elie, Manitoba, tornado was of similar intensity (a van being thrown 200 yards from the tornado is visible at right).

IVh. The Heaviest Object Ever Lifted by a Tornado

In June of 1990, an exceptionally violent tornado formed in the desert-land of southwest Texas. Near the end of the tornado's path, an oil production facility was destroyed (at left) and three oil tanks weighing 180,000lbs were moved three miles to the east. Two of the tanks were found 600ft up a hillside with a 40 degree incline. This is one of the most impresive instances of tornado damage ever recorded and perhaps the only instance of an object over 100,000lbs being moved a great distance.

In June of 1990, an exceptionally violent tornado formed in the desert-land of southwest Texas. Near the end of the tornado’s path in Bakersfield Valley, a production facility was destroyed (at left) and three oil tanks weighing 180,000lbs were moved three miles to the east. Two of the tanks were found 600ft up a hillside with a 40 degree incline. This is one of the most impresive instances of tornado damage ever recorded and perhaps the only documented instance of an object over 100,000 lbs being moved a long distance. (Images by Wayne Greene)

_______________

V.
□ Va. Graph of Tornadoes Causing 10+ Deaths by Decade

Since the the 70's, the average amount of lead-time preceding a tornado has not changed significantly. As a result, the number of overall fatalities bottomed out in the last two decades of the 20th century.

Since the the 70’s, the average amount of lead-time preceding a tornado has not changed significantly. As a result, the trend towards fewer fatalities has bottomed out. Urban sprawl and the increasing population in many severe weather-prone states will likely lead to an upturn in tornadoes causing 10 or more fatalities in the coming decades. Due to the random nature of all weather disasters, there is extreme variance in the number of deaths per year. Using a statistical bell curve of all tornado fatalities from 1980 to 2010, the 2011 tornado season’s death toll would have been expected less than once in a million years. In reality, a deadlier season is likely in the next century.

□ Vb. Graph of the Deadliest Tornadoes by Decade

No single tornado caused more than 50 deaths between 1955 and 2011. After several widely visible and well-covered tornadoes (Xenia '74, Wichita Falls '79, Bridge Creek '99) failed to cause more than 100 deaths, it was considered by some an "impossibility" in the weather-radar age. In truth, major cities and crowded freeways open the possibility to a single storm causing more than 1,000 deaths.

No single tornado caused more than 50 deaths between 1955 and 2011. After several widely visible and well-covered tornadoes (Xenia ’74, Wichita Falls ’79, Bridge Creek ’99) failed to cause more than 100 fatalities, it was considered by some an “impossibility” in the weather-radar age. In truth, major cities and crowded freeways open the possibility to a single storm causing more than 1,000 deaths.

The List of the Strongest Tornadoes Ever Recorded: Part I

t

View of the Rainsville, Alabama, tornado as it passes over Lingerfelt Road at maximum intensity. Homes in the area were swept completely away and pavement was scoured from driveways. An 800lb safe anchored to a foundation was thrown 200 yards. The steel door to the safe was ripped open and completely off. At the same residence, a large, concrete porch was shattered and blown away, and cement columns were ripped from the ground (NWS Survey, 2011). These are among the most impressive and powerful instances of tornado damage ever recorded. (Video by YORKBAMA)

□ Over a thousand google searches every month ask the question – “What was the strongest tornado ever recorded?” In all likelihood, a quarter of those searches came from me. Truthfully, there is no list that can honestly answer that question. Only a fraction of E/F5 damage paths are thoroughly surveyed, and only a fraction of all tornadoes capable of inflicting E/F5 damage are ever rated as such.

Three views of extreme tornado damage from the 2011 season (intensity increasing from left to right). At left, the Phil Campbell tornado left a streak of damaged grass and empty foundations near Cornelius Drive. At center, pronounced grass scouring following the El Reno tornado near Oklahoma City. At right, extreme vegetation scouring and home damage from the Smithville tornado. Had all three tornadoes caused comparable damage, the El Reno tornado would have been ranked the lowest due to its modest forward speed.

Three views of extreme tornado damage from the 2011 season (intensity increasing from left to right). At left, the Phil Campbell tornado left a streak of damaged grass and empty foundations near Cornelius Drive. At center, pronounced grass scouring following the El Reno tornado near Oklahoma City. At right, extreme vegetation scouring and home damage from the Smithville tornado. Had all three tornadoes caused comparable damage, the El Reno tornado would have been ranked the lowest due to its modest forward speed.

For the purposes of this list, damage severity is the primary categorization variable, along with some consideration for wind duration. Special emphasis will be placed on tornadoes powerful enough to scour vegetation and pavement from the ground. To eliminate the many tornadoes that never hit a man-made structure, only tornadoes that caused fatalities are examined. The list is skewed towards more recent events as there is far more information available today than there was twenty years ago. Tornadoes before 1970 are not considered.

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

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.

_______

5. Bakersfield Valley, Texas – June 1, 1990

The Bakersfield Valley tornado of 1990 caused minimal damage and only two fatalities in largely unpopulated sections of Pecos County, Texas.

The Bakersfield Valley tornado of 1990 caused minimal damage and only two fatalities in largely unpopulated sections of Pecos County, Texas. Survey reports indicated, however, that the tornado was among the most intense ever documented. At left, one of several oil tanks weighing 180,000lbs that was moved three miles by the storm. Severe ground scouring is visible in the foreground. At right, a road scoured of pavement. (Images by Wayne Greene)

□ On June 1, 1990, one of the most violent tornadoes ever surveyed touched down far south of Tornado Alley in the deserts of southwest Texas. No photographs exist of the early evening storm, but witnesses described the tornado as a “low, turbulent, debris-filled cylinder extending to the cloud base” (Storm Data, June 1990). The tornado quickly widened as it travelled to the east-southeast, eventually reaching a peak width of 1.3 miles. Due to the area’s sparsely populated nature, few buildings were struck in the tornado’s early stages.

The tornado narrowed slightly to approximately 0.7 miles in width as it approached several rural residences. One large, newly-built two-story home of excellent construction was completely obliterated, leading surveyors to award the damage an F4 rating (Woodall and Matthews, 1993). As the tornado continued eastward, it intensified further and left a pronounced streak of severe ground scouring. According to a survey report, the storm left “only a few rocks and an occasional greasewood or mesquite stump” (Storm Data, June 1990). Several roads were stripped of asphalt, including one that was left with a 300ft segment scoured down to the subgrade. Spiral marks indicative of suction vortices were also documented by surveyors (Woodall and Matthews, 1993).

Mid-way through its lifecycle, the storm became rain-wrapped and weakened slightly. Two fatalities occurred in vehicles near Farm to Market Road 305. One man was killed in a car thrown 165 yards, and another man was found dead in a truck recovered 50 yards from an adjacent road (Woodall and Matthews, 1993). After causing the fatalities, the tornado re-strengthened and may have reached an intensity maxima. The storm then entered an oilfield and unanchored three 500-barrell oil tanks, each weighing approximately 180,000lbs, and tossed and rolled them three miles to the east. Two of the oil tanks were tossed 600ft up the side of a hill with a steep incline (Storm Data, June 1990). Nearby, a drainage culvert was scoured of concrete and large oil pumps were damaged or destroyed (Storm Data, June 1990). After this point, the tornado struck no substantial structures and dissipated just after nightfall.

A stringent damage survey gave the tornado an F4 rating due to the residential damage. The severity of the ground scouring and tree damage, however, was among the most intense ever photographed. Additionally, the long-distance movement of massive oil tanks is perhaps the most impressive instance of tornado damage ever recorded.

The Bakersfield Valley event occurred in an area unaccustomed to violent tornadoes. At left, aerial view of the streak of severe ground scouring. At right, ground view of the disturbed earth vacant of all vegetation. (Image from Storm Data, June 1990).

The Bakersfield Valley event occurred in an area unaccustomed to violent tornadoes. At left, aerial view of the streak of severe ground scouring. At right, ground view of the disturbed earth vacant of vegetation and large rocks. (Images by Wayne Greene)

At left, image of a drainage culvert that was scoured of concrete. At right, one of the vehicles in which a fatality occurred.

At left, image of a drainage culvert that was scoured of cement (Image by Wayne Greene). At right, the remains of a vehicle in which a fatality occurred. In the worst affected areas, dense balls of wire and debris several feet in diameter were recovered, a highly unusual damage feature.

4. Bridge Creek, Oklahoma – May 3rd, 1999

Image of the Bridge Creek tornado around the time the world record velocity was recorded. The Doppler On Wheels can be seen at left.

□ Doppler radar observation of the Bridge Creek tornado has frequently led to it being cited as “the most powerful tornado ever recorded.” The DOW, headed by Josh Wurman, recorded the record velocity as the tornado tore through rural Grady County at maximum intensity. The reading, once quoted as 318mph (but later adjusted to 301mph +-20mph), remains the highest on record. It is important to note, however, that less than half of  1% of all violent tornadoes have been tracked by mobile doppler radar, so the few readings available are by no means a method of comparison to other E/F5 tornadoes. Additionally, doppler velocities are never analyzed at ground level, and do not constitute true “measurements.”

There is no doubt, however, that the Bridge Creek tornado was exceptionally violent. While deemed a “minimal F5” by one piece of NWS literature, the tornado caused some of the most impressive vegetation scouring ever surveyed. Media focused primarily on the tremendous damage in the Oklahoma City metro area, but the most intense damage occurred many miles southwest of the city in rural Grady County. Well-anchored homes were swept cleanly away, pavement was stripped from roads, trees were fully debarked and vehicles were thrown up to a mile, including one that was shredded and wrapped around a utility pole. A dozen fatalities occurred in a sparsely populated area near the Norman Spur of the H. E. Bailey Turnpike, a significant fatality rate considering the wide visibility of the storm. A further 24 deaths occurred after the tornado weakened slightly and ripped through Moore and housing developments near Tinker Air Force Base.

The tornado was extremely well-covered by local news stations, so nearly everyone in the tornado’s path had plenty of time to seek appropriate shelter. The death toll of 36 people made the Bridge Creek tornado the deadliest of the 90’s, yet still remarkably low considering the breadth of the destruction. A detailed morbidity report revealed that more than a third of the tornado’s victims were in a “recommended place”, meaning in an interior room in a frame home with no exterior walls, often with a mattress or other large object for protection (Sheryll Brown, 2001).

Looking at all seven “extreme” damage indicators (discussed at the end of post II), the damage path through Grady County is one of the most impressive in recent history. The tornado’s modest forward speed and large size, however, suggest that the duration of peak winds was significantly longer than some other E/F5 tornadoes.

Aerial view of F5 damage to a home in Grady County (a secondary source says this image depicts a home in Cleveland County). Extreme winds scoured vegetation from the ground, leaving behind a muddy aftermath unique to the most intense E/F5 tornadoes.

Remains of a well-constructed home. The large swath of grass scouring is clearly visible. Equally impressive is the damage to the remaining trees and shrubs, all of which have been completely debarked and bent to the northeast. Although tree bark is often partially removed in F3+ tornadoes, the complete stripping of low lying foliage is rare. (Image by Jim LaDue)

Iconic image of a mangled truck wrapped around a utility pole in Grady County. Vegetation scouring near Bridge Creek was some of the most intense ever documented.

At left, F5 damage to a row of houses in Eastlake Estates, a subdivision in Moore. At right, completely debarked trees in a field to the west of Eastlake Estates. (NWS, 1999)

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

Image from the only available footage of the Neshoba County tornado around the time it caused the extreme ground scouring that made it so notable. Taken near the town of Preston, MS. (lilbeejay1 – video link)

□ During the 2011 Super Outbreak, an exceptionally violent tornado touched down in rural Mississippi. A group of storm chasers captured the rapidly rotating tornado as it ripped apart trees and sped to the northeast at 60mph. Only a few buildings were struck by the tornado, so its true damage potential will never be known. Three woman were killed in Kemper County when a mobile home was lifted into the air and thrown more than 300 yards. An NWS survey team found no evidence that the mobile home had made contact with the ground, so it likely remained airborne the entire distance before disintegrating on impact (NWS, 2011). Nearby, a “well-built” home was swept away, and several vehicles were thrown long distances and wrapped around trees.

Footage of the tornado suggests that it remained fairly narrow as it approached the Neshoba County border. The storm further intensified and left deep scouring marks over a one mile area along Stokes Road. Surveyors noted that the narrow trenches, which were over 2ft deep in places, were approximately 10 to 20 yards wide and 50 to 100 yards long. Considering the forward speed of the tornado, it is likely the ditches were dug in less than two seconds by extremely powerful suction vortices imbedded within the main funnel. Massive trees weighing well over five tons were ripped out of the ground and lofted over a quarter mile from the edge of a wooded area, and several roads were stripped of pavement.

Violent tornadoes have been known to scour up to a foot of top soil from the surface, but the deep, penetrating ditches in Neshoba County appear to be unique. If there was ever evidence of winds over 300mph making direct contact with the ground, this is as good an example as there is. The lack of other damage indicators, however, leave open the unlikely possibility that the soil in the area was particularly vulnerable to the effects of violent tornadic winds.

Extreme ground scouring in Neshoba County, Mississippi. Most intense tornadoes scour the ground through the removal of topsoil, but the Neshoba County tornado penetrated the ground like a drill and tore out large clumps of dirt and rock. The soils in eastern Mississippi are primarily alluvial deposits with a high clay content, much like the soils found in the Great Plains.

Additional video frames of the severe ground scouring. Footage of the tornado around the time the damage occurred shows impressive, but not unprecedented rotational velocity. The vortex/vortices responsible for the trenches were likely hidden within the larger funnel.

Additional video frames of severe ground scouring. Footage of the tornado around the time the damage occurred shows impressive, but not unprecedented rotational velocity. The vortex/vortices responsible for the trenches were likely hidden within the larger funnel.

At left is severe damage to a car and a “well-built home” that was swept away. The building and vehicle damage occurred well before the tornado reached peak intensity. At top right, one of several roads that was stripped of pavement. At bottom right, one of the many large trees that originated from an unknown location.

2. Smithville, Mississippi – April 27, 2011

The Monroe County tornado directly over Smithville at maximum intensity. (Video by Surveyormike1)

□ During the 2011 Super Outbreak, one of the most violent tornadoes ever surveyed cut a path of devastation through rural Mississippi. The fast moving tornado touched down three miles southwest of the tiny town of Smithville and rapidly sped to the northeast at 70mph. Within seconds of touchdown, the storm was powerful enough to debark large pine trees. An extremely violent sub-vortex less than 50 yards wide developed at the edge of a wooded area two miles from the center of town. The inner core of the storm scoured a long trench through a field as it travelled parallel to Highway 25 towards Smithville. Seven deaths occurred in rapid succession as large homes on the north side of the highway were swept completely away while homes on the other side of the street suffered only moderate damage.

Less than three minutes after first reaching the ground, the massive, gray funnel enveloped more than half of Smithville, leading to another nine deaths east of Court Street. Large, well-constructed brick homes were swept cleanly from their foundations as the storm ripped through town in less than 20 seconds.  The EF5 damage and all the fatalities were focused within a narrow streak of incredibly intense damage that sliced through the northern side of town like a razor. Surveyors documented extensive vegetation scouring, completely debarked trees and vehicles that were lofted more than 3/4 of a mile. Some cars were pulverized into indiscernible pieces, and one truck remained missing at the time of the damage survey (NWS, 2011).

Approximately 50 frame homes and two dozen businesses were completely obliterated in the town of Smithville, and 16 people were killed. The death toll would likely have been much higher had the tornado not struck during work hours when many people were away from their homes. The tornado weakened not long after tearing through town but continued for an additional 34 miles. In total, 24 people lost their lives (the official NWS report lists 23 deaths).

The Smithville tornado was one of the most powerful tornadic events ever recorded and probably brought some of the strongest ground level winds of any tornado in recent history. A post detailing the tornado’s damage more thoroughly can be found here.

The Smithville tornado left a narrow streak of extreme damage as it sliced through town at 70mph. Grass was scoured from the ground and large, two story brick homes of excellent construction were swept cleanly away. The EF5 damage was clearly defined within a narrow corridor, but moderate to light damage occurred across most of the town.

The Smithville tornado left a narrow streak of extreme damage as it sliced through town at 70mph. Grass was scoured from the ground and large, two story brick homes of excellent construction were swept cleanly away. The EF5 damage was clearly defined within a narrow corridor, but moderate to light damage occurred across most of the town. Ground scouring and tree damage were noticeably more pronounced in Smithville than in Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Oak Grove and Rainsville, three other communities impacted by EF5 tornadoes on April 27th, 2011. (Left image by JJ Jasper)

At left, a narrow strip of deep ground scouring west of Smithville, where the tornado entered a period of explosive intensification (Image by Mel Webster). At right, the tornado left some of the most extreme tree damage ever photographed.

At left, a narrow strip of deep ground scouring west of Smithville, where the tornado entered a period of explosive intensification (Image by Mel Webster). At right, the tornado left some of the most extreme tree damage ever photographed.

Two views of EF5 home damage and grass scouring. At left, two well-constructed homes were swept completely away on Monroe Street, leading to three fatalities. At right, the remains of a brick home west of town. (Images by Thomas Wells)

Aerial views of three well-constructed homes where fatalities occurred. Pronounced vegetation scouring is visible around the empty foundations. (Images by Thomas Wells)

At right, the remains of a well-constructed brick home that was swept away along Highway 237. Plumbing fixtures were ripped from the concrete foundation, and adjacent vegetation was stripped bare and nearly ripped from the ground. At right, large trees were stripped of all bark and branches as the tornado entered a forested area near Cemetery Drive.

At left, the remains of a well-constructed brick home that was swept away along Highway 237. Plumbing fixtures were ripped from the concrete foundation and adjacent vegetation was stripped bare and nearly pulled from the ground. At right, large trees were completely debarked as the tornado entered a forested area near Cemetery Drive. (Image by Christi Welch)

At left, mangled vehicles and debris from destroyed homes was left strewn among debarked trees at the edge of town. At right, grass scouring and high velocity impact marks, both indications of extreme intensity. (Images by Christi Welch)

At left, mangled vehicles and debris from destroyed homes was left strewn among debarked trees at the edge of town. At right, grass scouring and high velocity impact marks, both indications of extreme intensity. (Images by Christi Welch)

1. Jarrell, Texas – May 27, 1997

View of the Jarrell tornado as it obliterates homes on Double Creek Drive. The slow moving storm caused the most intense wind damage ever documented.

□ On May 27, 1997, a tornado of unparalleled violence touched down in the hills of Central Texas. The storm was spawned from a rapidly developing supercell that drifted slowly to the southwest, the opposite direction of most severe thunderstorms. Initially, the thread-like funnel caused little damage as it followed the I-35 towards the small town of Jarrell.

Unexpectedly, the tornado entered a period of explosive intensification several miles north of Jarrell. In less than two minutes, the narrow funnel expanded into a massive, violently rotating wedge tornado. Large sections of pavement were torn from county roads as the storm made a shift to the west-southwest, sparing the center of Jarrell. Homes that lined County Road 305 and Double Creek Drive, however, lay directly in the storm’s path. Good visibility and excellent warning meant that all the area’s residents were well aware of the tornado, but interior rooms in well-constructed homes provided no protection. Every home in the tornado’s path was swept cleanly away, killing entire families. In the homes where the fatalities occurred, there were only three survivors – all on the far northern edge of the tornado’s damage path. The 0% survival rate for those above ground in the core of worst damage is unique to the Jarrell event.

The damage in the Double Creek area was the most intense ever surveyed. The thick pasture grass that once covered the area was ripped completely from the ground, along with more than one foot of soil. The sheds, fences and trees that populated the neighborhood were also removed, leaving nothing but fields of empty mud. All of the pavement in the worst affected areas was scoured, and every telephone pole in the core damage path was sheared inches above ground level. Surveyors also documented perhaps the most extreme instance of debris granulation ever recorded. All of the destroyed structures, trees and utility poles were pulverized into tiny pieces, quite literally leaving nothing left for emergency crews to sift through. The bodies of the victims were thrown long distances, many more than a quarter mile, and were nearly impossible to identify. Additionally, more than a dozen vehicles known to have been in the Double Creek area were removed without a trace (Grazulis, 2003).

Debate exists over the nature of the Jarrell damage. Post-storm surveys were challenging due to the complete lack of debris, but some of the homes were determined to have been well-constructed (NOAA, 2003). Additionally, one of the destroyed homes where three fatalities occurred had thick stone walls 24-inches thick (NBC, 1997). Even so, many believe that the slow movement of the Jarrell tornado, which averaged 8mph, was primarily responsible for the severity of the damage. While the tornado’s slow pace surely contributed to its astounding violence, the nature of the damage was highly indicative of F5 winds.

Whether it had the highest winds or not, the damage from the Jarrell tornado was unparalleled and worthy of the #1 spot on any list of tornado damage severity. A more thorough examination of the Jarrell tornado, along with damage pictures, can be found here.

Catastrophic damage to frame homes following the Jarrell tornado. Thick pasture grass, trees, property fences, pavement and backyard gardens once covered the muddy landscape. Most of the debris, including more than a dozen vehicles, was splintered into indiscernibly small pieces and never recovered.

Three views of damage in the vicinity of Double Creek Drive. The image at left was taken on the fringe of the damage swath and serves as a control shot for the original appearance of the area. The image at center shows severe grass scouring at the edge of the main damage path, and the image at right shows the complete removal of all vegetation in the worst affected area. (J u n g a / flickr.com)

Extreme damage to properties on County Road 305. A woman and her teenage son were killed in a large home that once rested on the bare foundation at right.

_______________

□ Potential top tornadoes not on the list include:
Chandler, MN – June 16, 1992 – Caused extreme vegetation damage, but only one death.
Hesston, KS – March 13, 1990 – Scoured vegetation and swept homes completely away.
Goessel, KS – March 13, 1990 – Media reports say Fujita estimated 300mph+ winds.
Girard, Kansas – May 4, 2003 – Severe ground scouring, chasers believed it was an F5.
______________

Click to see:
Part II
Part III
Part IV
The Strongest Tornadoes Pre-1970