Deadly tornadoes have lashed the United States for centuries. Most of the worst occurred before modern warning systems existed, although one occurred almost exactly two years before the deadly twister that struck Oklahoma on May 20.
The deadliest tornado in U.S. history, the Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925, ravaged 219 continuous miles of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Nearly 700 people lost their lives in that single tornado, according to NOAA. However the twister was not officially classified by NOAA as an EF5 -- the most damaging type -- because of a lack of data, nor were there official records of wind speeds.
On May 22, 2011, the deadliest tornado yet recorded by the new Enhanced Fulita Scale struck Joplin and killed 158 Americans, making it the seventh deadliest in U.S. history. Winds exceeded 200 miles per hour as the EF5 tornado demolished a path that was 22.1 miles long and up to 1 mile wide.
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The second deadliest tornado in U.S. history whipped along the Mississippi River on May 2, 1840, ending 317 lives, according to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center. The tornado killed hundreds on boats and barges on the river until striking Natchez, where the storm killed dozens more. Like all tornadoes from before 1950, NOAA lacks sufficient data to classify the Natchez tornado as F5 or EF5.
St. Louis, Mo.
St. Louis suffered a tornado’s wrath on May 27, 1896, when at least 255 people died. A study published in Weather and Forecasting estimated that the tornado cost $2.2-$2.9 billion in 1997 dollars when adjusted for inflation and wealth increases, making it the costliest tornado in American history. The death toll made it the third deadliest.
On April 5, 1936, the fourth deadliest tornado in U.S. history struck Tupelo, Miss., and killed 216. A total of 436 people died in the outbreak of 17 tornadoes that included the Tupelo twister. Tetsuya Fujita of the University of Chicago and Tom Grazulis, head of the Tornado Project, retroactively rated the Tupelo tornado as an F5 on the scale invented by Fujita.
The same storm system that lashed Mississippi in 1936 continued on to Georgia where it unleashed the fifth deadliest tornado in U.S. history and killed 203 people in Gainesville. Fujita and Grazulis rated this tornado an F4, meaning winds reached 207-260 miles per hour.
Oklahoma is no stranger to tornadoes. The sixth deadliest on record struck on April 9, 1947. The storm nearly destroyed the towns of Higgins and Glazier. In Woodward, Okla., 100 city blocks were destroyed and 107 lives lost, according to the Tornado Project. A total of 181 people died in the tornado.
The largest outbreak of F5 super-tornadoes occurred April 3-4, 1974. Seven F5 tornadoes struck in a single 24-hour period. In total, 147 tornadoes whirled through the central portion of the United States on that day.
On May 22, 2004, the largest tornado ever recorded hit Hallum, Neb. The twister stretched nearly 2 1/2 miles across. No one died in the massive twister.
Groups of tornadoes or outbreaks can cause as much or more damage than a single giant storm. The “Dixie Outbreak” of April 27, 2011, killed 316 people according to NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center. More Americans died in tornadoes that day than any other in this century.