Tornadoes are far deadlier than most realize. Until the Weather Bureau began tornado warnings in the 1950s, tornadoes caused triple-digit death tolls surprisingly often. It is estimated that during a bad year, such as 2011, total tornado deaths in the USA might exceed two thousand if warnings didn’t exist.
While tornadoes have happened in all 50 states, the deadliest tornadoes occur in the South. As you review the list of ten worst tornadoes below, it is worth pointing out that none of the top-five worst tornadoes occurred in what we traditionally think of as “Tornado Alley,” and only two of the top ten. It is also worth mentioning the population of the United States is far greater today than it was when many of these tornadoes occurred. So, absent tornado warnings, the death tolls would be even higher if these tornadoes happened without warning today.
1. The Tri-State Tornado, 695 killed and injured more than 2000 on March 18, 1925. We are approaching the centennial of the worst tornado in the history of North America. It began in southeast Missouri, moved across southern Illinois, and lifted in southwest Indiana. There was no warning whatsoever of this storm, and the death toll was likely inflated because it didn’t look like a tornado. The photo shows the town of West Frankfort, IL, which was pulverized by the storm. Based on survivor accounts, the Tri-State Tornado looked like clouds dragging along the ground. Like the 2011 Joplin Tornado, it was invisible along its path in the city. This highlights the importance of not going outside to try to see a tornado. Instead, act according to tornado warnings!
2. Natchez Tornado, at least 317 killed and more than 1,000 injured on May 7, 1840. Tornadoes that killed hundreds of people and injured in the thousands are tragic. However, there is one aspect of history that must be acknowledged that makes them even more heartbreaking, and that is that the numbers for many storms were likely much higher than we know. It should be noted that in the South before the 1950s, Black people who were fatally injured were not counted among tornado deaths. Most of the people killed were the crew of boats on the Mississippi River. However, this tornado was on the ground for at least 20 miles past Natchez. Since most of those areas were populated by Black people, the actual death toll is likely far higher than 317.
3. St. Louis Tornado, at least 255 people were killed. This storm occurred on May 27, 1896. However, it is known the tornado sank several boats on the Mississippi River, and those deaths are not counted. In addition, the Eads Bridge across the river, of iron construction, had to be rebuilt because of the storm. The tornado began just south of Forest Park (as did a less deadly tornado in 1959) and continued through downtown into East St. Louis. More people have been killed by tornadoes (399) in the St. Louis Bi-State region than in any other metro area in the nation.
4. Tupelo Tornado, at least 216 people were killed (again, Black people killed by the tornado were not included in the official death toll) on April 5, 1936. Baby Elvis Presley (15 months old) had a very close call as the tornado destroyed homes on the block where he was living at the time. In addition, the tornado destroyed the city’s water plant, which hindered fighting post-storm fires.
5. Gainesville (GA) Tornado, killed more than 203 people on April 6, 1936. This is the same weather system that caused the Tupelo Tornado the day before and is the only morning tornado to kill more than 100 people. Many were killed in the Cooper Pants factory. The building, after it was collapsed by the tornado, quickly caught fire – trapping workers. At least seventy died in the factory. This tragedy points out the essential nature of tornado safety at business locations.
6. Woodward Tornado, killed 181 in the Texas Panhandle, northwest Oklahoma, and south-central Kansas on April 9, 1947. The path length was 221 miles. Nearly 1,000 were injured. The tornado was a mile wide in places. It paralleled the Santa Fe (now BNSF Railway) Railroad’s mainline and derailed three trains. One hundred seven people were killed in the city of Woodward itself. The death toll might have been higher, but for the heroic act of a worker at the electricity utility who cut the power before being killed seconds later by the tornado. Because the power was out, fires did not develop.
7. Joplin Tornado, killed 158 on May 22, 2011, with three indirect deaths in the following 24 hours. More than 1,150 were injured. Several people were killed in “big box” stores in the east part of the city, highlighting the need for shelters in commercial and industrial facilities. This was the first, and so far the only, major failure of the tornado warning system. It highlights the vital nature of the warning system: when it fails, fatalities climb into the triple-digits.
8. Amite/Pine/Purvis (MS) Tornado, which killed 143 people on April 24, 1908. This is another case where the death toll is likely too low due to Black fatalities not being counted. There were multiple storms that day, and the total number of tornado fatalities in Mississippi that day was nearly 300.
9. New Richmond (WI) Tornado, 117 people were killed on June 12, 1899. The circus was in town, and the tornado killed a number of people as they left the show. This storm was well north of the area traditionally considered “Tornado Alley.”
10. Flint (MI) Tornado, killed 115. Eight hundred forty-four were injured. The next day, the same weather system spawned a tornado that killed 94 in Massachusetts. The Flint Tornado approached the Flint Drive-In Theatre causing people to flee in their vehicles. Several drove into the path of the tornado and were injured.
It's amazing to learn the history of these powerful storms, and too easy to think that damage from them is something that doesn't happen anymore.
As mentioned, we only have to go as far back as Joplin in 2011 to see a warning system failure with catastrophic results. Because of this, when we think of these storms, it's important to remember what we CAN do. Having a plan for severe storms is of utmost importance, as is having a place to take shelter. Only by doing all that we can to stay safe do we honor those who weren't so lucky.