Thursday, June 2, 2011

Worst Tornado Outbreaks in U.S. History

The months of April and May 2011 have been some of the worst months I can remember for severe weather. Areas such Smithville, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri have seen such dramatic devastation that it is difficult for many to wrap their minds around. Seeing all of these severe storms got me researching the largest tornado outbreaks in history. The list was difficult to compile because of the many categories that the storms fall. I was not sure if I should base it off of a single 24-hour period of tornadoes or the entire outbreak of storms itself or even base it off a single tornado and its individual destruction. The other option involved basing it on things such as number of tornadoes, destruction, and/or death toll. Because of the devastation of a tornado is many times based on the death toll the storm system causes the list is based mostly off of that number. The list could have easily been much longer and some might argue I left out others that should have been included, but here is simply 7 of the worst tornado outbreaks in history.

1) The Natchez Tornado of 1840 - Few events can cause over $1.2 million in damage to an area and in Pre-Civil War Mississippi that number was absolutely disastrous. Shortly before 2pm on May 7, 1840 a tornado first touched down along the banks of the Mississippi River. It travelled North along the Mississippi river, eventually striking Natchez, Mississippi. Due to the time of day and importance of the Mississippi River the water was full with steamboats barges. The fierce winds violently turned the water and rose the level of the river by seven feet, as a result 60 flatboats were destroyed. Out of total 317 people who died as a result of this tornado, 269 people died while on the river itself. As the storm passed the town of Natchez was in ruins. The merchant port in Natchez was destroyed along with most of the buildings including the Steamboat Hotel which was reported to have been leveled. Natchez Free-Trader was quoted as saying: “We are all in confusion, and surrounded by the destitute, the houseless, the wounded and the dying. Our beautiful city is shattered… We are peeled and desolate.” The death and injury seemed so high that one man was quoted as he “walked over the ruins, I passed the dead and wounded at every twenty paces.” The Natchez tornado is the second deadliest single tornado believed to have been registered as a F5 based on historical data since the Fujita Scale was around at the time.

2) Tri-State Tornado of 1925 - To say there has never been another single tornado like it is an understatement. This single tornado travelled 219 miles, stayed on the ground 3.5 hours, is said to have been wider then taller with the estimated diameter being nearly a mile, wiped through 15,000 homes, and killed nearly 700 people. Since 1887 weather forecasters were not even allowed to speak about tornadoes publicly because of the completely unpredictability of the event. Research on the phenomenon was halted. With this in mind the weather forecast for the day predicted showers and cooler temperatures. It is no surprise the complete lack of preparedness on the part of individuals in the wake of this storm. It first touched down around mid-afternoon and originated in Missouri, eventually ending in Indiana. Nothing in the path of this storm was safe. The worst devastation was in Illinois where it at one point cut through a school killing 30 students inside. It then came upon a mining community in West Frankfort, Illinois. Working down below the miners had no idea what was happening. When they emerged they found their town destroyed and 127 people killed. Another town decimated was Murphysboro, Illinois which was completely destroyed and half the population was killed. Thanks to various observational data and reports that were made at the time the Tri-State tornado is classified as a F5, which is the highest on the Fujita Scale. This single giant was not the only tornado apart of this weather system that touched down, eight others were reported with deaths tolls taking the total to over 750 people. This single event brought the need to research tornadoes back to the forefront. The sheer magnitude of this F5 tornado can be felt in this quote from a survivor.
"An invading army of debris swept over the western hill -- trees, boards, fences, roofs. Day became night. The house began to levitate and, at the same time, the piano shot across the room, gouging the floor and carpet where I had played only moments before. The walls began to crack as the roof ripped free and disappeared, joining the swirling mass of debris. But the walls and the floor held as we and the house took flight." - Akin The Forgotten Storm
3) Deep South Outbreak of 1932 - “It sounded like 49 trains running wide open,” said one man of the devastating tornado outbreak that struck the southern United States. He and six of his friends fled to a barn to escape, only he survived. The storm produced over 20 tornadoes between Texas and South Carolina with 10 of them being category F4s. Despite the large area of the country in which this system struck, Alabama was the hardest hit out of all the states. The most severe of the tornadoes in the outbreak cut a 60 mile path just south of Birmingham. Another F4 ripped through the Tuscaloosa region narrowly missing the downtown district but still leaving 2000 people homeless. Within a four hour span some 7,000 homes and businesses were destroyed, 1850 people injured and 268 people killed in the state of Alabama alone, with a total of around 332 being killed from the entire storm system. Being at the height of the Great Depression this was one incident in which the people of Alabama and the south as a whole were not in a position to handle.

4) Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak of 1936 - A total of seventeen tornadoes torn through the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia between April 5th and 6th of 1936 and packed a strong wallop to the area. The strongest of these was a F5 which struck the town of Tupelo, Mississippi and a F4 which hit Gainesville, Georgia. The Tupelo tornado struck around 8:30pm and is ranked as the fourth single deadliest tornado in American history which killed 233 people. Thankfully the tornado missed the downtown business district, preventing even more costly damage to the city. Narrowly escaping death from the disastrous tornadoes in Tupelo was a young Elvis Presley and his mother. As the storm progressed east through Alabama it reached Gainesville, Georgia by 8:30am the next morning. When it reached Gainesville two separate tornadoes merged and formed into a F4 which moved through the city, sadly this one torn straight through the business district of the city causing major damage. At the Cooper Pants Factory which was filled with workers for the morning shift the tornado struck and collapsed then caught fire, killing 70 people. The same happened to other stores in the area, being destroyed and even catching fire with people trapped inside. The final death toll in the Gainesville area reached 203 people and is registered as the fifth most devastating single tornado in American history. The final death toll for the entire outbreak reached nearly 436 people.

5) Palm Sunday Outbreak of 1965 - Like the Japanese in 1941 these tornadoes struck on a Sunday catching many people in the Midwest by surprise. With it also being a holiday, Palm Sunday, many were unprepared for the worst. Twelve tornadoes touched down starting in Iowa and into Illinois. Once the system hit Indiana it broke wide open with a total of ten additional tornadoes, eight of them being F4. One these F4 tornadoes tore through the small town and county in Indiana that I was born and raised in. I have heard numerous stories from my grandparents and other relatives about where they were at and what they saw when the twister came through. A pair of sister tornadoes formed over Goshen, Indiana which destroyed over 100 trailers. Another twister devastated the town of Russiaville, leveling 90% of the buildings. With telephone lines down due to the storm, Indiana officials were unable to warn Emergency Services in Michigan and Ohio about the coming destruction. A total of 47 tornadoes struck, killing 271. The outbreak was the worst ever to hit Indiana killing 137 and injuring nearly 1,200.

6) Super Outbreak of 1974 - This storm packed together more violent tornadoes than any that was ever recorded. Six F5 and twenty-four F4 tornadoes were recorded stretching from Indiana to northern Alabama and as far east as North Carolina and Virginia. The largest and first of the F5 tornadoes struck Xenia, Ohio, killing 34 and destroying most of the town. The devastation in Xenia was so great that President Nixon visited the site a few days later and said, “As I look back over the disasters, I saw the earthquake in Anchorage in 1964; I saw the hurricanes... Hurricane Camille in 1969 down in Mississippi, and I saw Hurricane Agnes in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And it is hard to tell the difference among them all, but I would say in terms of destruction, just total devastation, this is the worst I have seen." A 10-month study was done of the Xenia tornado and they determined that it is as close to a F6 as they could determine. Overall 148 tornadoes touched down over a two-day period and saw some of the highest death tolls and greatest destruction until the tornado outbreak of 2011.

7) Super Southern Outbreak of 2011 - Several tornadoes touched down on the 25th, 26th, and 28th however it was on the 27th of April that saw the greatest amount of activity with a total of three EF5s reported. In addition the 24 hour-period from 8am to 8am the next day is the fifth deadliest tornado day in American history. The magnitude of this storm over the four day period is hard to believe and what really sparked the research of this blog entry. Twenty-one states recorded having at least one tornado touch down with the highest totals coming from Tennessee (55), Alabama (54), Mississippi (40), Texas (34), and Arkansas (27), for a grand total in all states of 327 confirmed. As one meteorologist had stated this is a once in a generational proved that to be true. At least 344 are confirmed to have been killed as a result of the four days of tornado activity with the vast majority coming on April 27th and from the state of Alabama. This string of storms has made it the largest outbreak of tornadoes on record and overall the second deadliest in American history, only to the Tri-State tornado of 1925.
"Ava, our friend Lisa, our dogs and I were in the basement, watching the progress of the storms on television. The storms were severe enough that local television programming was suspended, and stations devoted all their air time to tracking the tornadoes. The dogs were agitated, and we did our best to calm them. We were all very worried. As the tornado in our path approached, Lisa and I went into the interior of our basement — the room with no windows and no exterior walls. The newscaster directed everyone to take cover immediately. As Ava was moving to join us in the interior room, she saw the storm appear on one of the TV sky-cams. ‘Oh my God!’ she exclaimed. ‘Look at the size of that thing!” The picture went blank; the power flickered, and then went out completely."

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