Worst tornadoes in U.S. history

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Susan Meyer

Senior Editorial Manager

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Susan is a licensed insurance agent and has worked as a writer and editor for over 10 years across a number of industries. She has worked at The Zebr…

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Ross Martin

Manager, Content Quality

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Ross joined The Zebra as a writer and researcher in 2019. As a licensed insurance agent, he specializes in writing insurance content to help shoppers…

Tornadoes can occur at any time of year. However, they are most common in the early spring in the South and in the summer months for the North. 

Tornadoes can also occur anywhere. While they are most common in the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Appalachians, they have been documented in every U.S. state. Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota in the aptly-named Tornado Alley see the greatest number of tornadoes each year[1]

More tornadoes occur in the United States than any other country. In fact, we see an average of 1,200 tornadoes a year here. Here are some of the worst tornadoes in U.S. history[2].

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How tornado severity is determined

To determine the strength of a tornado, the National Weather Service created the Enhanced Fujita Scale or EF-Scale. The EF-Scale takes into account 28 damage indicators including building type and degree of damage, trees downed, etc. Based on this information, storm experts can also estimate wind speed. The categories range from EF-U (no damage) and EF-0 (light damage) all the way up to an EF-5 (incredible damage).This scale replaced the original Fujita scale in 2013. The original Fujita scale had been used since 1917. 

There have been almost 60 storms classified as an F5 or EF-5 (depending on what scale was used when they occurred) from 1950 to the present[3]

Tornadoes are also measured in terms of their deadliness and how many people were killed as a direct result of the storm. Another measure of tornado damage is the estimated cost to repair the damage caused. For this article, we’ll look at both the five deadliest storms and five most damaging (which incidentally have no crossover).

Deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history

These five storms caused the greatest loss of life. 

1. The Tri-State Tornado

On March 18, 1925, the deadliest single tornado in the history of the United States occurred. The enormous storm affected people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, hence the name. As a result, almost 700 people were killed and over 2,000 were injured. The storm destroyed more than 15,000 homes and caused $1.4 billion in property damage (adjusted for inflation)[4].

2. Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak

While technically more than one storm, in April of 1936 an outbreak of tornadoes killed more than 450 people. This is the only outbreak where two seperate tornadoes resulting from the same storm outbreak each killed more than 200 people. The storms largely impacted people in Tupelo, Mississippi and Gainesville, Georgia[5]

3. The Great Natchez Tornado

On May 7 ,1840, the second deadliest tornado in the U.S. hit Natchez, Mississippi. It caused over 300 people to lose their lives. One of the reasons the storm killed so many is because it not only hit Natchez, which sits along the Mississippi River, but also swept across the river sinking many of the flatboats carrying freight and their crews[6]

4. The 1896 St Louis Tornado

On May 27, 1896, a historic tornado swept through St Louis, which was one of the larger and more influential inland cities in the U.S. at the time. The result was catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure. The storm killed at least 255 people and caused around $352 million in damages (adjusted for inflation) in about 20 minutes[7]

5. The Joplin Tornado

Jumping ahead in history, on May 22, 2011, a devastating multiple vortex tornado struck Joplin, Missouri. The EF-5 tornado was nearly one mile wide and cut a path through the city damaging 8,000 buildings. Sadly, over 150 people were killed and over 1,000 were injured[8].

Most damaging tornadoes in U.S. history

While not as tragic as a loss of life, these five storms left the greatest monetary amount of damage in their wake. 

1. The Joplin Tornado

This is the only storm to make both lists. In addition to the number of casualties, damages from this tornado reached $2.8 billion. It resulted in the largest insurance payout in Missouri history. 

2. Tuscaloosa-Birmingham Tornado

Like the Joplin tornado above, this storm occurred in 2011 (which incidentally was a rough year for tornadoes as this storm was one of 360 in the 2011 Super Outbreak). The EF-4 multiple-vortex tornado swept through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Alabama leaving significant destruction in both cities. The storm led to $2.4 billion in damages. It would remain the costliest tornado in U.S history for almost a month until the Joplin storm happened[9].

3. Moore Oklahoma Tornado

Just two years later in 2013, an EF-5 tornado (as of 2023, the last tornado to strike the U.S. that was so rated), touched town in Moore, Oklahoma. The storm destroyed an estimated 1,150 homes and caused damages of around $2 billion[10]

4. Tornado Outbreak in Dallas

In October of 2019, an outbreak of tornadoes affected the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. One of the storms, rated an EF-3 did extensive damage to a suburb of Dallas, making it the costliest tornado event in Texas history. The resulting damage was around $1.55 billion dollars. Combined the 10 tornadoes in the outbreak caused damages closer to $2 billion[11]

5. Bridge Creek-Moore Tornado

Back on May 3, 1999 a powerful F5 (predating the EF scale) tornado registered the highest wind speeds ever measured globally. The tornado affected portions of Oklahoma City and surrounding towns. One town affected was Moore, which you may remember from up the list, would be yet again struck fourteen years later. Adjusted for inflation, damages from this tornado were around $1.5 billion[12].

Protecting your home from tornadoes

You may have noticed that most of the deadliest storms occurred in the late 19th or early 20th Centuries, and the most expensive storms occurred within the last 30 years. This makes sense when you consider that the country is much more built up now than it was in the 1930s. We have better medical infrastructure, but also more buildings. People are less likely to die from storms, but there is more for them to destroy.

 

If you live in a tornado prone area make sure you’re taking steps to be safe. And from an insurance perspective, tornadoes are covered by a standard homeowners policy, but make sure you have the right amount to cover all your potential losses.

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