United States

Deadliest And Most Damaging Tornadoes In US History, Unveiling The Devastating Impact Of Nature's Fury

The recent surge in tornadoes across the US serves as a stark reminder of the immense power and destructive nature of these storms. Understanding how tornadoes are measured and the most devastating ones in American history can empower us to be more prepared and weather the storm.

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A tornado spins through Hawley, Texas on Thursday May 2, 2024. Photo: AP
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The recent surge in tornadoes across the US serves as a stark reminder of the immense power and destructive nature of these swirling storms. While predicting tornadoes with perfect accuracy remains a challenge, understanding how they're measured and the most devastating ones etched in American history can empower us to be more prepared and weather the storm (figuratively and literally).

Deadliest vs. Most Damaging

When examining the impact of tornadoes, two key factors emerge: fatalities and economic impact. Here, we'll delve into the five deadliest and most damaging tornadoes in US history, showcasing the dual destructive forces these storms unleash.

Deadliest tornadoes in US history

1. The Tri-State Tornado (March 18, 1925)

This monstrous storm, aptly named for carving a path through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, remains the deadliest single tornado in US history. Its wrath claimed nearly 700 lives and left over 2,000 injured. The storm's destructive power extended beyond human life, destroying more than 15,000 homes and causing an estimated $1.4 billion in property damage (adjusted for inflation).

2. Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak (April 1936)

While technically more than one storm, this outbreak stands out for its tragic toll. Multiple tornadoes spawned from the same weather system wreaked havoc in Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Georgia, collectively resulting in over 450 deaths, making it the deadliest tornado outbreak in US history.

3. The Great Natchez Tornado (May 7, 1840)

This historic storm holds the grim distinction of being the second deadliest tornado in the US. It unleashed its fury upon Natchez, Mississippi, leaving over 300 people dead. The storm's destructive path extended to the Mississippi River, where it sank numerous flatboats carrying freight and their crews, adding to the devastating loss of life.

4. The 1896 St. Louis Tornado (May 27, 1896)

This powerful tornado ripped through St. Louis, Missouri, a major city at the time. The storm's impact was catastrophic, claiming at least 255 lives and causing an estimated $352 million in damages (adjusted for inflation) in a mere 20 minutes. The destruction of infrastructure and homes left a lasting scar on the city.

5. The Joplin Tornado (May 22, 2011)

This devastating EF-5 tornado carved a path of destruction through Joplin, Missouri. Its immense size, nearly a mile wide, left a trail of shattered buildings in its wake. The storm tragically claimed over 150 lives and injured over 1,000 people.

Most damaging tornadoes in US history

While loss of life is the most profound tragedy, tornadoes also inflict significant economic damage. Here, we'll explore the five most damaging tornadoes in US history, highlighting the staggering financial toll they leave behind.

1. The Joplin Tornado (May 22, 2011)

This storm appears on both the deadliest and most damaging lists, a testament to its immense power.  Joplin's tornado not only caused a high number of casualties but also resulted in the largest insurance payout in Missouri history, with damages exceeding a staggering $2.8 billion.

2. Tuscaloosa-Birmingham Tornado (April 27, 2011)

Another entry from the destructive year of 2011, this EF-4 multiple-vortex tornado tore through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama, leaving a trail of devastation in both cities. The storm's economic impact was immense, with damages reaching $2.4 billion. Interestingly, it held the title of the costliest tornado in US history for a short period until the Joplin tornado struck later that same year.

3. Moore Oklahoma Tornado (May 20, 2013) 

In 2013, Moore, Oklahoma, unfortunately became reacquainted with the destructive power of tornadoes. This powerful EF-5 tornado, the last recorded EF-5 in the US as of 2023, carved a destructive path through the city. The storm's fury resulted in the estimated destruction of 1,150 homes and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage.

4. Dallas Tornado Outbreak (October 26, 2019)

This outbreak spawned multiple tornadoes, with one particularly destructive EF-3 tornado causing extensive damage in a Dallas suburb. This event became the costliest tornado in Texas history, with damages reaching a staggering $1.55 billion. While the outbreak itself produced 10 tornadoes, the combined damage from all surpassed the $2 billion mark.

5. Bridge Creek-Moore Tornado (May 3, 1999)

This powerful F5 tornado (predating the EF-Scale) holds a unique spot in history. It recorded the highest measured wind speeds globally at the time, solidifying its immense power. The tornado impacted parts of Oklahoma City and surrounding towns, with Moore (yet again) experiencing significant damage. Adjusted for inflation, the estimated damages from this storm exceeded $1.5 billion.

How is the severity of a tornado measured?

Tornadoes are categorized based on the damage they inflict, not their size or visual appearance. The National Weather Service employs the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale) for this purpose. This scale, established in 2013 as an upgrade to the original Fujita scale, takes into account 28 damage indicators, including the type and degree of damage to buildings, the types of trees downed, and the debris patterns left behind. Based on this meticulous analysis, storm experts can estimate the wind speeds associated with the tornado. The EF-Scale ranges from EF-0 (weakest, with minimal to light damage) to EF-5 (most intense, with incredible damage capable of leveling well-constructed buildings).

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How to prepare for tornadoes and its aftermath?

Tornadoes are a force of nature that can strike with devastating consequences. While predicting them with absolute certainty remains a challenge, staying informed and prepared can significantly improve your chances of staying safe. Here are some key takeaways:

Stay Weather Aware: Closely monitor weather forecasts and warnings issued by the National Weather Service. Be especially vigilant during peak tornado seasons, which vary depending on your location.

Have a Plan: Develop a tornado safety plan for your home, workplace, and school. This plan should include designated safe havens, evacuation routes, and communication protocols for your family.

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Practice Makes Perfect: Conduct regular tornado drills with your family to ensure everyone knows what to do when a warning is issued.

Invest in a Tornado Warning System: Consider installing a weather radio or downloading a reputable weather app that can provide real-time tornado warnings.

By understanding the power of tornadoes, the ways they're measured, and the devastating impact they can have, we can be better prepared to face these unpredictable storms. Staying informed, having a plan, and taking shelter immediately when a warning is issued are crucial steps in staying safe during a tornado event.

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