The year 2011 has been an historic and deadly year for tornadoes in the United States. First, there were a record 875 tornadoes in April, smashing the previous one-month record (542 in May 2003). A total of 305 tornadoes swept across the Southeast, mostly Mississippi and Alabama, from April 25 to April 28, making it the largest four-day tornado outbreak in the nation’s history. The outbreak resulted in at least 321 deaths, the most in the U.S. from an outbreak since 1936.
The damage had not even been cleared from those tornadoes before a monstrous tornado tore through the heart of Joplin, Missouri, the afternoon of May 22. The tornado leveled a large part of the city, killed 154 people and injured around 1,000. The Joplin tornado ranks as the deadliest tornado since 1947. Thanks to today’s better forecasting, and improved warning procedures, there have been fewer casualties from tornadoes in the past half-century. A look at the 10 deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history begs the question of how many of the deaths from those storms could have been avoided today.
10. The Flint Tornado
(Michigan; June 8, 1953; 116 killed, 844 injured)
Most of the tornadoes on this list occurred in the southeast or south central states in April and May, but as the summer progresses, northern states like Michigan can become susceptible to strong twisters as well. After the Flint tornado speculation was rife that atomic bomb testing four days earlier might have contributed to the turbulent weather, but meteorologists were quick to discount the theory. Significantly, this was the last single tornado to cause more than 100 deaths in the United States until the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri.
9. The New Richmond Tornado
(Wisconsin; June 12, 1899; 117 killed, 200 injured)
Bad timing and bad luck places the New Richmond tornado on this list, for it was not as strong as most of the other twisters described here. It struck New Richmond on a day when about 1,000 extra people were in town to see the circus. Shortly after the show ended the tornado arrived. Its path through the center of town created a roiling vortex of dangerous debris, and truly, no place was safe. Many people, for instance, took refuge in the basement of the O.J. Williams dry goods store, but the tornado blew away the building and then rained bricks and wood down on those who thought they could ride out the storm underground, killing them.
8. The Amite/Pine/Purvis Tornado
(Louisiana and Mississippi; April 24, 1908; 143 killed, 770 injured)
This was the deadliest tornado within a remarkably large outbreak of twisters, mostly across the Southeast. The storms started popping up around 2:30 a.m. on April 24 and didn’t subside until 11 p.m. that night. Damage was at its worst in the Louisiana community of Amite, where 29 people were killed by the 2-mile-wide tornado. The most deaths, 55, later occurred in the tiny Mississippi town of Purvis, where just seven of the community’s 150 homes were left standing after the storm blew through. Finally, near McCallum, Mississippi, a railroad work crew attempted to take shelter from the storm in boxcars, which the twister tossed 150 feet into the air.
7. The Joplin Tornado
(Missouri, May 22, 2011; 154 dead, 1,000 injured)
In the hours and days after this tornado ripped through this town of 50,000 in Southwest Missouri, the rest of the nation was stunned to learn the extent of the devastation and hear the tales from survivors. The tornado struck town just before 6 p.m., and reached a width of three-quarters of a mile as it tore through some of the city’s most heavily populated neighborhoods. It made a direct hit on St. Johns Medical Center, where six people were killed. Thousands of structures were either destroyed or damaged. The city’s newspaper, the Joplin Globe, put the tornado’s devastation in blunt terms: “Joplin was eviscerated.” The death toll as of June 13 stood at 154, including a police officer who was killed by lightning the next day. It was the deadliest tornado to strike the United States since 1947.
6. The Woodward Tornado
(Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas; April 9, 1947; 181 killed, 970 injured)
The Woodward Tornado is the first tornado on this list to have occurred in the so-called Tornado Alley, and it remains Oklahoma’s deadliest twister on record. After forming in the Texas Panhandle and basically erasing the small towns of Grazier and Higgins, it entered the Sooner State. Growing in size and strength in mostly empty farm country, it arrived, nearly 2 miles wide, at the town of Woodward, where 107 people died. This tornado, more than any other, would be responsible for the creation of a watch and warning program, according to the National Weather Service.
5. The Gainesville Tornado
(Georgia; April 6, 1936; 203 killed, 1,600 injured)
The morning after a deadly tornado struck Tupelo, Mississippi, Gainesville, Georgia, two states due east, experienced its own killer twister in the same outbreak. Actually, it was two funnel clouds that set their sights on the town, merging near Grove Street into one giant storm. The most deaths occurred at the Cooper Pants Factory, which collapsed after it was hit by the tornado and caught fire. Seventy people, who had just arrived for work, died there, the largest death toll from a tornado in a single structure on record in the U.S.
4. The Tupelo Tornado
(Mississippi, April 5, 1936; 216 killed, 700 injured)
The Tupelo Tornado was part of an outbreak of twisters that also included the No. 5 tornado on this list. It missed the center of town, instead doing its damage on the west and northeast sides, where poorly constructed houses were no match for the storm. Since there were still at least 100 people in hospitals, many in poor condition, when the storm’s official death toll was announced, the toll may have been a bit higher. And again, injured blacks were not counted. Officials brought in rail boxcars to house the homeless, and a movie theater was transformed into a hospital, with the popcorn machine used to sterilize surgical instruments. Among the survivors of the Tupelo tornado were a very young Elvis Presley and his mother.
3. The St. Louis Tornado
(Missouri and Illinois; May 27, 1896; 255 killed, 1,000 injured)
It’s rare for tornadoes to strike large cities, given their relatively small land area. Today the potential for death and destruction in such an occurrence has been lessened, thanks to better building construction and tornado warning systems, but it was a different story in 1896. St. Louis then was one of the largest cities in America, and no stranger to severe weather. In fact, throughout its history St. Louis has been struck by tornadoes more than any other major city in America, with the twister of 1896 being the worst. Many deaths occurred on the Mississippi River, as when the storm crossed from Missouri to Illinois, people living on shanty boats were swept downriver. Their deaths were never recorded; it’s possible the death toll from this storm could be closer to 400.
2. The Natchez Tornado
(Louisiana and Mississippi; May 7, 1840; 317 killed, 109 injured)
The second-deadliest tornado on record probably ranks close to the first in terms of deaths, but we’ll never know for sure. After slamming through Vidalia, Louisiana, and then crossing the Mississippi River into Natchez, it spun north into the plantations along the delta. Hundreds of slaves were reported killed from the tornado there, but this being 1840, their deaths were not recorded. Otherwise, the vast majority of this storm’s fatalities occurred on the river itself, as flatboats, steamers and the many itinerant tradesmen selling goods there couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. “Twas the voice of the Almighty that spoke, and prudence should dictate reverence rather than execration. All have suffered, and all should display the feelings of humanity and the benevolence of religion!” wrote the Mississippi Free Trader newspaper.
1. The Tri-State Tornado
(Missouri, Illinois and Indiana; March 18, 1925; 695 killed, 2,027 injured)
In addition to being the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, the Tri-State Tornado set many other records, including fastest forward speed (72 mph) and longest track (219 miles). There has been much debate over whether this was one single tornado, or several of them, but there exists today no data to overturn the consensus that it was a single twister, and no breaks were ever found in its path, from near Ellington, Missouri, to the Princeton, Indiana, vicinity. While there were deaths in three states, the tornado did its worst in Illinois, particularly to the town of Murphysboro, where 234 people were killed. Dozens of children died along the storm’s track as they left school. Many victims never saw the tornado coming; its size and long duration allowed dust and debris to hide the actual funnel cloud.