The Top 10 Deadliest U.S. Tornadoes

These Tornadoes Have Claimed the Most U.S. Lives

Tornadoes are a weather enigma. To be such violent storms, most don't result in death, and those that do result in death, claim few lives. For example, in 2015, tornadoes claimed a total of 36 lives for the year. But this isn't always the case. Every so often, the atmosphere produces a killer tornado that causes catastrophic damage and loss of life in communities across the U.S. Here's a list of the top 10 deadliest single tornadoes to ever occur stateside, ranked by how many fatalities each is responsible for.

Edited by Tiffany Means

10
of 10

The 1953 Flint-Beecher Tornado

tornado debris us flag
Greg Vote/Getty Images

Topping off the list is an EF5 tornado that killed 116 people and injured an additional 844 in Flint, Michigan on June 8, 1953.

Besides causing triple-digit deaths, the Flint tornado is also significant for its controversy. Many thought it strange that this tornado and the three-day tornado outbreak (which included nearly 50 confirmed tornadoes across the Midwest and Northeast U.S. occurring over June 7-9, 1953) of which it was a part, had occurred so far outside of the tornado alley region. So much so, that they wondered whether the government's June 4, 1953, atomic bomb testing was in fact somehow to blame! (Meteorologists assured the public and U.S. Congress that it was not.)

09
of 10

New Richmond, WI Tornado (June 12, 1899)

Rated an EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the New Richmond tornado caused 117 deaths and is the worst tornado in Wisconsin state history. It actually started out as a waterspout that formed over Lake St. Croix, Wisconsin. From there, it headed east in the direction of New Richmond and produced winds so strong, they carried a 3000-pound safe for an entire city block.

08
of 10

Amite, LA and Purvis, MS Tornado (April 24, 1908)

Responsible for a total of 143 deaths, the Amite, Louisiana and Purvis, Mississippi tornado was the deadliest tornado of the April 23-25, 1908 Dixie tornado outbreak event. The tornado, which has been estimated to be an EF4 on the modern Enhanced Fujita Scale, was reportedly over two miles wide and traveled for 155 miles before finally dissipating. Out of the 150 homes that the tornado passed by in Purvis County, only 7 were left standing.

07
of 10

The 2011 Joplin Tornado

On May 22, 2011, an EF5 wedge tornado (a tornado that's as wide as it is tall) devastated the Missouri town of Joplin. Although tornado sirens went off nearly 20 minutes before the tornado struck, many Joplin residents admitted to not immediately taking protective actions. Unfortunately, this delay coupled with the storm's severity led to its 158 fatalities.

Having caused $2.8 billion 2011 USD in damages, the Joplin tornado also ranks as the costliest tornado in U.S. history.

06
of 10

The Glazier-Higgins-Woodward Tornado

The Glazier-Higgins-Woodward tornado was the largest tornado of an outbreak spawned by a single super cell thunderstorm that swept through the traditional tornado alley states of Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma on April 9, 1947. It traveled a distance of 125 miles, killing 181 people along the way.​

The tornado was at its worst in Woodward, Oklahoma, where it grew to two miles (3km) wide!

05
of 10

Gainesville, GA Tornado (April 6, 1936)

The 5th and 4th deadliest tornadoes were produced by the same family of storms that moved across the southeastern U.S. on April 5-6, 1936.

On day 2 of the tornado outbreak, an EF4 tornado hit downtown Gainesville, killing 203 people. While the death toll was less than that of the Tupelo tornado (below), its injury rate was significantly higher.

04
of 10

Tupelo, MS Tornado (April 5, 1936)

The day before the Gainesville tornado (above) struck, a deadly EF5 tornado touched down in Tupelo, Mississippi. It moved through the residential areas of north Tupelo, including the Gum Pond neighborhood which was the hardest hit. It was responsible for a reported 216 deaths (many of which were entire families) and 700 injuries, but because newspapers at that time only published the names of injured whites and not blacks, it's likely the death toll was much higher. 

Oddly enough, Elvis Presley was a local resident and survivor of this tornado. He was one-year-old at the time.

03
of 10

The Great St. Louis Tornado of 1896

The Great St. Louis tornado was part of a tornado outbreak that affected the central and southern regions of the United States over May 27-28, 1896. An estimated EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, it hit St. Louis, Missouri on the evening of May 27. The time of day and fact that it hit the city center -- St. Louis being one of the largest and most influential cities at that time -- helped it reach its high death toll of 255 souls.

02
of 10

The Great Natchez Tornado of 1840

The Natchez tornado struck Natchez, Mississippi on May 6, 1840, near noonday. It tracked northeast along the Mississippi River and eventually stuck the riverport, killing riverboat crews, passengers, and slaves. While it led to a reported 317 fatalities, the actual death toll was likely much higher (since in those days, slave deaths wouldn't have been counted alongside citizen deaths).

While the Natchez tornado was described as a massive tornado and caused $1.26 million USD in damages (that's the equivalent of $29.9 2016 USD), its intensity remains unknown.

01
of 10

The Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925

To this day, the 1925 tri-state tornado remains the deadliest tornado in United States weather history. The storm, which is rated as an EF5 equivalent, killed 695 people and injured several thousand. It was part of a March 18, 1925, tornado outbreak that included at least twelve other confirmed tornado touchdowns across the Midwestern and Southern U.S. It traveled across three states -- from southeast Missouri, through southern Illinois, and into southwest Indiana.

In 2013, a study and reanalysis of this historic tornado were done. Meteorologists found it to also be the longest lived (5.5 hours) and longest track (320 miles) of any recorded tornado, worldwide.

 

Sources and Links:

U.S. Tornado Climatology: Deadliest Tornadoes NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI)

NWS Weather Fatality, Injury, and Damage Statistics