A huge tornado approaches the town of Moore, Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City in this file photo from May 20, 2013. Quapaw, Okla. and regions of Arkansas were struck by deadly tornadoes on Sunday.
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.
Powerful tornadoes killed at least 18 people as they flipped cars, ripped up homes and uprooted trees across south-central United States, emergency officials reported on Monday.
Rescuers worked through the night using searchlights in blacked-out areas as they sifted through mountains of rubble searching for survivors.
Forecasters warned the twisters would continue to threaten much of the region through Tuesday.
The Arkansas Department of Emergency Management said that 15 people were killed when tornadoes touched down on Sunday, while an official with the Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency said there were at least two tornado victims in the state.
"It's chaos right now," the mayor of the Arkansas town of Vilonia, James Firestone, told CNN late Sunday as emergency crews used searchlights to comb through the debris overnight in some of the hardest-hit areas.
The central part of the town of 4,000 "seems like it's completely leveled. There's a few buildings partially standing, gas lines spewing. Fire lines down. We've had some casualties."
Firestone said that police and firefighters from nearby cities as well as National Guard troops were heading to Vilonia.
Twisters also devastated large sections of the town of Mayflower, population 2,300, just northwest of the Arkansas state capital Little Rock.
Pictures of tornado damage posted by Arkansas TV station THV 11 showed smashed cars, homes ripped in half, and whole residential blocks reduced to rubble.
Officials said that parts of Interstate 40, a major east-west highway across the United States, was closed due to debris and overturned vehicles in the Mayflower area.
Two regional utility companies, Entergy and First Electric Cooprative, said that more than 15,000 customers were in the dark.
"It's been a truly awful night for many families, neighborhoods and communities, but Arkansans always step up to help each other recover," Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe wrote on Twitter.
The full impact of the storm and its toll will likely not be known until after sunrise at around 1130 GMT.
In Oklahoma, a powerful twister struck the town of Quapaw.
"There have been numerous homes and buildings damaged and some destroyed," Keli Cain of the Oklahoma Emergency Management Agency said.
She cited local emergency officials as saying that a fire station was destroyed and there was damage to the northern part of the town.
Dozens of homes were also reported destroyed in nearby Kansas, though state officials have reported no fatalities.
The National Weather Service warned of a severe weather threat across the central and southern United States over the next days.