TORNADOES OF THE 20TH CENTURY
December 29, 1999 Severe weather experts from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., have prepared a list of some of the more notable tornado outbreaks that occurred in the United States during the 20th century. The summary lists the tornadoes by decade and notes the technological and policy improvements that resulted.
"For meteorologists who study tornadic storms either through forecasting or research or storm chasing, there are a number of memorable tornadoes or tornado outbreaks during the 1900s," said Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist for the Storm Prediction Center. "Many meteorologists are in the profession because of a certain outbreak or tornado that spurred their curiosity, driving them to the science."
Technological advancements in the second half of the century have contributed to better, more accurate severe weather watches and warnings from the National Weather Service, ultimately saving countless lives. The biggest advancement for severe weather (forecasting was the development of Doppler radar. NOAA scientists and other researchers took the airborne radar developed by the U.S. military during World War II and applied it to weather forecasting and severe storm identification. The ultimate result was the Next Generation Radar (NEXRAD) Doppler weather radar system currently in use.
Advancements in computer technology also have created continued advancements in numerical weather prediction, allowing meteorologists to apply physics in replicating motions of the atmosphere. This, combined with diligent analysis to recognize weather patterns, helped advance severe weather prediction to its current level of an average lead time of over 11 minutes for tornado warnings issued by National Weather Service forecasters.
The most impressive and devastating tornado outbreak in the 20th century, McCarthy said, was the Super Outbreak of April 3-4, 1974. The outbreak lasted 16 hours and produced a total of 148 tornadoes across 13 states from Illinois, Indiana and Michigan southward through the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys into Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. This outbreak produced more long-track tornadoes than any other, killing 315 people and injuring more than 5,000. The most notable individual tornado was the one that moved into Xenia, Ohio, just before 4:30 p.m. It destroyed much of the town, including the town square and high school, killing 35 people.
During the Tupelo/Gainesville outbreak on April 5-6, 1936, 17 tornadoes were scattered across parts of northern Mississippi and northern Georgia. A massive pair of tornadoes hit Gainesville, Ga., in the morning, killing 203 people and causing 1,600 injuries.
A total of 154 people died and nearly 1,000 were injured on June 23, 1944, as tornadoes struck parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. The worst areas affected were parts of northeast West Virginia and western Maryland, where a tornado family killed 30 and injured 300.
On April 9, 1947, a tornado outbreak that included eight tornadoes raked across parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. One tornado killed 107 people in Woodward, Okla. Devastation covered 100 city blocks and 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Cost of the damage at that time was estimated at $6 million. Clean-up afterward was hampered by cold and snow.
A tornado outbreak in early June 1953 produced two major tornadoes. On June 8, a tornado hit in Flint, Mich., leaving 116 people dead. The next day, June 9, a tornado described as "a huge cone of black smoke" carrying debris eastward over the Boston area and out over the Atlantic Ocean caused 94 deaths and nearly 1,300 injuries in Worcester, Mass. In the United States, the death toll was 116 from tornadoes in Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Other tornadoes occurred in Canada.
The hardest-hit area from a tornado outbreak in Oklahoma and Kansas on May 25, 1955, was Udall, Kansas. Eighty people were known dead and 270 were injured, which was more than half of the people in Udall, and the town was destroyed. For the entire outbreak, tornadoes killed 102 people and injured 563.
A tornado moved across southeast parts of Kansas City hitting the area of Ruskin Heights on May 20, 1957. Forty-four people were killed and 531 were injured. More than 825 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, including the local high school. The outbreak itself spread from northeast Kansas and northeast Oklahoma through Missouri into Iowa and Illinois. In all, 17 tornadoes killed 59 people and injured 665 others.
On June 8, 1966, a tornado
brought massive damage to Topeka, Kansas, causing $100 million
in damage. This became the most expensive tornado to date.
Five years later, a tornado hit Wichita Falls, Texas, on April 10, 1979, killing 42 people and injuring 1,740.
Another outbreak moved across Iowa and Minnesota into Wisconsin on June 7-8, 1984. The town of Barneveld, Wisc., was hit by a tornado just before midnight. All but the water tower was demolished and nine people were killed. As many as 45 tornadoes in the entire outbreak killed 13 people.
Most recently, a large tornado mowed through areas of southwest Oklahoma City and Moore, Okla., on May 3, 1999, demolishing or damaging more than 8,000 homes and ringing up more than $1 billion in damage. This tornado was part of an outbreak of 74 tornadoes that affected parts of Oklahoma and southern Kansas, killing 48 people.
Advancements in communications
through radio and television helped issue advanced watches and
warnings to the public. Plus, meteorological advancements from
research in storm structure using Doppler radar helped forecasters
identify tornadic storms, improving warnings from a few minutes
to as many as 20 minutes and increasing public response.