Spring 2017 marks the 10 year anniversary of the Enhanced Fujita scale (EF scale), a modified version of Theodore (Ted) Fujita’s original F scale for rating tornadoes based on their damage. Fujita’s original scale began in 1971 and was used retroactively back to 1950 in tornado ratings. The new system uses 28 damage indicators – ratings assigned to damage of various types of structures or vegetation – to assign an estimated wind speed and rating for the tornado. It better takes into consideration the quality of the construction. Of course it is not without controversy – the new system is “more strict” and attaining high-end EF4 or EF5 ratings is more difficult – it is widely agreed that several tornadoes from April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak would have been F5 on the old scale, whereas several April 3, 1974 Super Outbreak tornadoes rated F5 would likely be EF4 on the new scale. This compromises historical data to a degree, but with the exception of a few controversial ratings, it’s widely agreed that the new ratings are an improvement.
This five-part series looks at the most significant and memorable tornadoes of the first ten years of the EF scale – a period which saw both extremely violent tornado seasons as well as below-average and relatively calm tornado seasons – and is an arbitrary rating on my part that takes into account the EF rating, fatalities, injuries, tornado path length, tornado maximum width as well as monetary damage. A staggering 11 of the 25 tornadoes on this list come from the same event (April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak) – no other day has more than one tornado on the list.
25. El Reno, OK – May 31, 2013 (EF3 rating) Path 16.2 miles; Maximum Width 2.6 miles; 8 Fatalities; 26 Injuries
One of the most controversial and well-known tornadoes of this period. The last two weeks of May 2013 saw several significant tornado events – including the May 20 tornado that devastated Moore, Oklahoma. Less than two weeks later another significant risk of tornadoes near Oklahoma City was present (15%), and a large multi-vortex tornado dropped near the town of El Reno, approximately 25 miles west of Oklahoma City. It measured a record 2.6 miles wide at one point and it’s rapidly changing form and unpredictable movement unfortunately led to the deaths of Tim Samaras, his son Paul and Carl Young – pioneers in storm research. Mike Bettes of the Weather Channel and his storm chasing vehicle were also overtaken at one point and rolled into a field, luckily all surviving with minor injuries. Thousands of Oklahoma City residents took to the streets at rush hour in hopes of escaping the approaching tornado, adding to the congestion – luckily the tornado dissipated and a major disaster was averted. Mobile weather radars measured winds as high as 295 miles per hour, but because the tornado hit very few structures the tornado – initially rated EF5 – was later downgraded to “just” EF3.
24. Cullman-Arab, AL – April 27, 2011 (EF4 rating) Path 46.9 miles; Maximum Width .5 miles; 6 Fatalities; 48 Injuries
Although there were a few earlier tornadoes in the afternoon of April 27, 2011, for many, the first real indication of what was to come on this day was the live ABC 33/40 coverage as this tornado touched down outside Cullman, Alabama. With it’s horizontal vortices the growing tornado on live television approaching a city of reasonable size was a shocking sight. By itself, it was a noteworthy tornado, I included an incredible 10 other tornadoes from this day ahead of it on this list – truly an outbreak of epic proportion. The tornado was much more narrow in it’s early stages near Cullman, as it tracked northeast towards Arab, it widened significantly.
23. Rochelle-Fairdale, IL – April 9, 2015 (EF4 rating) Path 30.1 miles; Maximum Width .4 miles; 2 Fatalities; 11 Injuries
While the day “only” had an enhanced risk for severe weather and 10% tornado probability, the location so close to the Chicago metro area was cause for alarm. While the day didn’t produce a major outbreak along the lines of April 21, 1967, it did produce one particularly strong tornado (borderline EF5) that produced some of the best tornado videos to this day.
22. Holly Springs, MS – December 23, 2015 (EF4 rating) Path 75.1 miles; Maximum Width .75 miles; 9 Fatalities; 36 Injuries
Tornadoes are relatively rare in December and January, but the next two tornadoes struck just three days apart in December 2015. The first, the most notable of a moderate multi-day tornado outbreak across the South that produced 38 tornadoes across many states and resulted in 13 fatalities – primarily Mississippi and Tennessee. A moderate risk for severe weather had been issued by the Storm Prediction Center, with a 15% probability for tornadoes across northern Mississippi and western Tennessee. This monster twister was on the ground for 75 miles, killing nine.
21. Garland-Rowlett, TX – December 26, 2015 (EF4 rating) Path 13 miles; Maximum Width .3 miles; 10 Fatalities; 468 Injuries
Just three days later an even more destructive tornado occurred in north-central Texas on live television on the Weather Channel. The tornado plowed thru the Dallas suburbs of Garland and Rowlett causing hundreds of injuries and ten fatalities (three others would die in other tornadoes that day). Nine of the ten killed were in vehicles thrown long distances from an elevated highway bridge at the George Bush Turnpike and Interstate 30 interchange. Over three days, 32 tornadoes touched down across the south.
*** Sources include Storm Prediction Center (www.spc.noaa.gov), yx0ify (YouTube), John Brown (YouTube), Live Storms Media (YouTube), Bill Thompson (YouTube), producerpayten (YouTube), StormSquad.net and National Geographic Magazine.