10 years of the EF Scale – Top Tornadoes 5-1

This is the final part of five in my ranking of the top 25 tornadoes of the EF scale era.  The top four tornadoes all happened within less than one month in 2011.

5. Yazoo City, MS – April 24, 2010 (EF4 rating)  Path 149.25 miles; Maximum Width 1.75 miles; 10 Fatalities; 146 Injuries

After a very slow start, the tornado season of 2010 ramped up with several outbreaks, starting with a major outbreak on a high risk Saturday in Mississippi.  The most impressive of these was an EF4 tornado that struck numerous cities, the most notable being Yazoo City, on the morning of April 24th.  What made this tornado even more noteworthy was it’s path – a staggering 149.25 miles – and it’s width – at times reaching 1.75 miles!  This is the longest path for a tornado according to tornadohistoryproject.net since a November 1992 EF3 in North Carolina that was on the ground for 160 miles.  Wrapped in rain, there is surprisingly little quality video or photos of this tornado – but it gained additional fame when it was featured in an episode of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers titled “Why We Chase”.

4. Tuscaloosa, AL – April 27, 2011 (EF4 rating)  Path 80.7 miles; Maximum Width 1.5 miles; 64 Fatalities; 1,500 Injuries

You could probably make a case for any of the top four tornadoes in this list to be number one.  The April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak was the tornado event of the last 40 years, possibly the last century – and the live TV coverage of a monster tornado approaching and plowing thru a significant metropolitan area like Tuscaloosa was shocking and historical.  Several other major tornadoes had already touched down on April 27th, but they had hit much smaller population centers.  ABC 33/40’s James Spann was outstanding in his coverage of the outbreak (as were numerous meteorologists from other networks) and the below video shows live coverage as the tornado plows thru Tuscaloosa.

After plowing thru Tuscaloosa, the tornado continued on the ground, growing in size and becoming more rain-wrapped as it approached the suburbs of Birmingham – raining debris from Tuscaloosa on the area.  Other communities like Concord and Pleasant Grove were also devastated.  In all, 64 people were killed and roughly 1,500 were injured.  The 64 fatalities from this one tornado would be the most since 1955 – but another tornado slightly earlier in the outbreak, not nearly as publicized, would kill even more.  At 2.4 billion dollars in damage, this tornado set a new record for most expensive tornado in U.S. history – but that mark would be eclipsed within less than a month by another historic tornado event.  The tornado occluded not far after Birmingham, and the parent supercell put down another strong EF4 tornado – the Shoal Creek-Ohatchee tornado rated #14 on this list.  The final “high-end EF4” rating drew much controversy and many believe this tornado should be rated EF5.

3. Joplin, MO – May 22, 2011 (EF5 rating)  Path 22.1 miles; Maximum Width 1.2 miles; 158 Fatalities; 1,150 Injuries

April 2011 set a record for most tornadoes in the United States – largely in part to the April 27 Super Outbreak – but May was historically low in it’s tornado activity, until the May 21-26 tornado sequence.  A few tornadoes, one rated EF3, hit mostly in Kansas on Saturday, May 21st… then the probabilities for tornadoes increased for Sunday, with a large section of the Midwest at 10% tornado probabilities and some towards Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois at 15%.  Another EF1 tornado caused a fatality in the suburbs of Minneapolis, but it was a supercell near the border of southeast Kansas moving into Missouri that would become historic for all the wrong reasons.

The tornado is listed officially touching down at 5:34pm just west of Joplin, Missouri, and video shows how fast it went from a small funnel to a monstrous wedge.  It quickly became rain-wrapped as it approached the city – one which had grown largely complacent to tornado warnings and sirens over the years.  The results were disastrous – the 158 fatalities were the most, by far, for any tornado since 1947.  More than 1,000 were injured and the cost of the damage is a record-setting three billion dollars, surpassing the Tuscaloosa tornado from less than one month prior.  The Weather Channel’s Mike Bettes and crew arrived in Joplin minutes after the tornado and live coverage showed the emotions and severity of what had just happened.  St. John’s Regional Medical Center was in the direct path, and six died there – with the hospital eventually being torn down and re-built.

You could easily argue this tornado should top the list, simply based on the highest fatalities and highest cost – but the top two tornadoes could have exceeded Joplin’s devastation had they gone thru similar population.

2. El Reno, OK – May 24, 2011 (EF5) Path 41 miles; Maximum Width 1.2 miles; 9 Fatalities; 70 Injuries

While almost everyone knows about the Joplin tornado, few outside of the weather community know that a potentially more dangerous tornado and likely more impressive and powerful tornado touched down in Oklahoma just two days later.  The tornado probabilities for May 24, 2011 over Oklahoma were noticeably higher than two days prior – a whopping 45% – leading to a High Risk day.  A strong EF3 tornado was recorded by many chasers in the Canton Lake area of Oklahoma, then as multiple supercells formed to the south, the tornado of the day formed in Caddo County.  A large tornado was on the ground for nine miles (also rated EF3), then after occlusion, a monster touched down that stayed on the ground for 65 miles, often wrapped in rain, more than a mile wide, causing extreme damage rarely seen.  The communities of El Reno, Piedmont and Guthrie all had near misses with this colossus, but for the most part the tornado stayed out of heavily populated areas just north of Oklahoma City.  Still, nine were killed by the tornado.

Other strong tornadoes touched down after this just south of the Oklahoma City metro area, including two rated high-end EF4 – but again, these struck areas with less population and only one person was killed.  During the night another large EF4 tornado struck the community of Denning, Arkansas – killing four and injuring many.

And at #1 – Hackleburg-Phil Campbell, AL – April 27, 2011 (EF5 rating) Path 132.1 miles; Maximum Width 1.25 miles; 72 Fatalities; 145 Injuries

While the Tuscaloosa tornado and aftermath was getting most of the attention after the April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak, it was this tornado that occurred in the northern part of Alabama earlier in the event that was the most lethal, and in my opinion the most powerful and impressive overall tornado likely since the 1925 Tri-State Tornado.  This area is no stranger to violent tornadoes, and some of the most impressive tornadoes from the April 3, 1974 Super Outbreak devastated communities like Guin and Tanner.

Touching down at 3:05pm in Marion County, Alabama this fast-moving tornado stayed on the ground for 132 miles and well over two hours, producing more F5/EF5 damage than has been recorded in any previous tornado.  The tornado plowed into Hackleburg (destroying a Wrangler jeans plant) and then Phil Campbell at EF5 intensity, leaving at least 45 dead.  It then reached peak intensity in Oak Grove, where damage was rated “well into the EF5 range”.  The tornado continued, causing extreme damage and more fatalities in Mount Hope, Moulton and Trinity and cutting power from the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant (which was narrowly missed from a direct strike).  Tanner, in Limestone County, was struck again at high EF4/EF5 intensity, and the tornado continued into Harvest causing major damage.  The tornado continued over the border into Tennessee for several miles before finally dissipating after it’s historic march.

The first video below captures the tornado (around the 7:00 mark) as it moves through Limestone County, and the two additional videos are great examples of the tornado’s strength, even from considerable distance.  Pictures show damage in Hackleburg and Phil Campbell.

***Sources include ExtremePlanet.me, Wikipedia, spc.noaa.gov, YouTube (TVNweather), YouTube (Admin Rustrod), YouTube (Bamawxcom), YouTube (joshtv5), YouTube (Tornado Alley Video), YouTube (John Brown), YouTube (TVNweather).

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10 years of the EF Scale – Top Tornadoes 10-6

This is the fourth part of five in my ranking of the top 25 tornadoes of the EF scale era.

10. Parkersburg, IA – May 25, 2008 (EF5 rating)  Path 41 miles; Maximum Width 1.2 miles; 9 Fatalities; 70 Injuries

This monster tornado was part of a multi-day tornado outbreak from May 22-25, 2008 – just two weeks after the Picher tornado event ranked #11.  143 tornadoes resulted in 13 fatalities, nine from this tornado.  Touching down just before 5pm, the tornado struck the southern part of the city, destroying many homes, businesses, two banks and a high school.  A surveillance camera in one bank captured the storm’s fury as it tears apart the structure.  Extreme damage included a well-constructed metal frame industrial building where metal beams were mangled in some cases sheared off at their base – seven were killed in Parkersburg.  After exiting Parkersburg, the tornado struck neighboring New Hartford, where more EF5 damage was also noted as homes were destroyed and vehicles thrown great distances and torn apart.  Two more people were killed in New Hartford.  The video below, at the 7:20 mark, shows an example of the extreme damage from this tornado – considered by many among the most powerful tornadoes in recent history.

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9. Smithville, MS – April 27, 2011 (EF5 rating)  Path 37.1 miles; Maximum Width .75 miles; 23 Fatalities; 137 Injuries

Yet another of the 2011 Super Outbreak tornadoes – I ranked this one the 3rd most impressive of the outbreak – but many argue the severity of the damage from this tornado, much like Parkersburg, is as violent as any in recent history.  Extreme damage included a brick funeral home reduced to a bare slab, a concrete foundation slab pulled up and dislodged at one residence, and an SUV thrown 1/2 mile into the Smithville water tower, bouncing off, and hurled an additional 1/4 mile!  The video below shows the incredible motion and speed of this tornado, the pictures show the above-mentioned slab and SUV.  16 were killed in Smithville and an additional seven were killed in Shottsville, AL where damage was rated at high-EF3 level.

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8. Greensburg, KS – May 4, 2007 (EF5 rating)  Path 28.8 miles; Maximum Width 1.7 miles; 11 Fatalities; 63 Injuries

The first tornado to be rated EF5 on the new scale, also the first F5/EF5 tornado since the May 3, 1999 Bridge Creek-Moore, OK tornado, an unusually long eight year period without an F5/EF5 rated tornado.  While the Friday night forecast was fairly high for severe weather – moderate risk with 15% tornado probabilities – it was the Saturday forecast that was higher risk and a probable large tornado outbreak in the area.  This impressive supercell, beginning in Clark County, OK would produce 22 tornadoes on Friday night!  The massive tornado approached Greensburg just before 10pm at a slow rate as sunlight faded, and initially looked as if it might be a near-miss on the cities southeast corner, but the tornado began to occlude, turning back northwest, striking the city very nearly straight on and inflicting massive damage and 11 fatalities in Greensburg.  Three more large tornadoes would touch down in Kansas as this supercell moved northeast, killing two additional people.  The damage in Greensburg may not have been quite as extreme as others on this list, but it likely reached maximum strength before hitting the city.  Over 80 tornadoes would be reported on Saturday, May 5 in Kansas – some in the same area – but none were particularly significant or destructive.

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7. Atkins-Clinton, AR – February 5, 2008 (EF4 rating)  Path 121.8 miles; Maximum Width .75 miles; 13 Fatalities; 139 Injuries

Somewhat forgotten after the incredible 2011 Super Outbreak, the 2008 “Super Tuesday” Outbreak remains a historic outbreak of it’s own, with 57 fatalities the most in one day or one outbreak in the USA since May 31, 1985.  Dubbed the Super Tuesday Outbreak because primary elections were taking place across many states that day, this high risk forecast produced 87 tornadoes on the night of February 5 and the morning of February 6, somewhat earlier in the year than peak tornado season typically.  The most impressive of these tornadoes was this EF4 that touched down just before sunset in central Arkansas, leaving a path of destruction well over 100 miles and killing 13.  Four other tornadoes from this event were rated EF4, but the largest number of fatalities came from an EF3 that touched down northeast of Nashville, Tennessee leaving 22 dead along it’s 51 mile path.

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6. Moore, OK – May 20, 2013 (EF5 rating)  Path 17 miles; Maximum Width 1.3 miles; 24 Fatalities; 212 Injuries

Residents of Moore, OK – hit hard by a historic F5 back on May 3, 1999 – probably didn’t expect to be hit by another F5/EF5 tornado, but this tornado enhanced the reputation for the Oklahoma City area as being possibly the most tornado-prone region on earth – especially if also taking into account the El Reno area.  Moore has also had near or partial strikes from F4/EF4 tornadoes in 2003 and 2010.  EF4 tornadoes struck on May 18 in Kansas and May 19 in Shawnee, OK, but were not nearly as destructive as the May 20 Moore tornado.  Touching down at 2:56 and covered by multiple local channels on live TV, the tornado grinded slowly for 17 miles in 37 minutes, causing destruction just as extreme as the May 3, 1999 tornado – striking a pair of elementary schools (killing seven at Plaza Towers Elementary) – and killing 24 people total (injuring over 200).  At a cost of two billion dollars in damage, this is the third most expensive tornado in U.S. history, coming in just ahead of the 1999 Bridge Creek-Moore tornado – but some exceptional and historic tornadoes keep it just outside of the top five.

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***Sources include ExtremePlanet.me, Wikipedia, spc.noaa.gov, YouTube (StormChasingVideo), YouTube (surveyormike1), YouTube (StormSpotterMike).

10 years of the EF Scale – Top Tornadoes 15-11

This is the third part of five in my ranking of the top 25 tornadoes of the EF scale era.

15. Philadelphia, MS – April 27, 2011 (EF5 rating)  Path 29 miles; Maximum Width .5 miles; 3 Fatalities; 8 Injuries

This was the first really major tornado of the April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak, touching down about 2:30pm just east of Philadelphia, MS in Neshoba County, and it was recorded by many storm chasers.  It left behind extreme damage that gets this tornado much consideration in any discussion of strongest or most extreme tornadoes.  Extreme ground scouring was noted in multiple locations, up to two feet deep in some places.  The only reasons it doesn’t rank higher is the low loss of life due to not going thru much population and the path length that is shorter than many other major tornadoes on this list.  Born from the most prolific supercell of the entire outbreak, this same parent storm would put down the Cordova tornado, Rainsville tornado and the Ringgold tornado later- all of which were EF4 or stronger, and earned a place on this ranking.

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14. Shoal Creek-Ohatchee, AL – April 27, 2011 (EF4 rating)  Path 97.3 miles; Maximum Width 1 mile; 22 Fatalities; 85 Injuries

After the Tuscaloosa tornado lifted, the same supercell quickly put down this equally impressive tornado.  This one was actually on the ground longer than the Tuscaloosa tornado, but luckily didn’t go thru nearly as much population – still it killed 22 people, proof of it’s violence.  Amazingly there are still four more tornadoes from April 27, 2011 that were more impressive.  The Tuscaloosa tornado and Shoal Creek-Ohatchee tornado combined were on the ground for nearly 180 miles!

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13. Vilonia, AR – April 27, 2014 (EF4 rating)  Path 41.1 miles; Maximum Width .75 miles; 16 Fatalities; 193 Injuries

If I had to pick one tornado that would have rated F5 on the old scale, or should have been rated EF5, it would probably be this tornado.  April 27, 2014 (three years exactly after the 2011 Super Outbreak) was tagged as a high risk day for Arkansas – while the event was largely a bust, one very powerful tornado did touch down and cause considerable damage and loss of life.  Vilonia, Arkansas had taken a heavy hit from an April 25, 2011 EF2 tornado, but this one was considerably more powerful.  The tornado touched down just after 7pm in Pulaski County and stayed on the ground for an hour, with the heaviest damage occurring in the towns of Mayflower and Vilonia.  Much controversy arose from the final high-end EF4 rating, and Arkansas remains the only state in prime tornado country to not yet have an official F5/EF5 tornado.  The next day, April 28, resulted in a high risk day and large tornado outbreak over Mississippi and Alabama with another 50 tornadoes and 19 fatalities – the most notable another powerful EF4 that struck Louisville, Mississippi.

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12. Rainsville, AL – April 27, 2011 (EF5 rating)  Path 36.6 miles; Maximum Width .75 miles; 25 Fatalities; Injuries N/A

Another tornado lost amidst the attention that the Tuscaloosa tornado got on April 27th was this very violent tornado in northeast Alabama/Georgia.  Touching down in DeKalb County at 6:19 pm, the tornado would track just east of Highway 75, hitting the towns of Fyffe, Rainsville and Sylvania, Alabama hardest.  The tornado appears most violent in Rainsville and Sylvania, where numerous homes and businesses were destroyed and damage was rated at EF5.  Vehicles were thrown long distances and a school bus was stripped to it’s chassis.  Perhaps most impressive, an 800 pound safe was ripped from it’s anchoring and thrown 600 feet – when found the door had also been ripped off.  Pavement was scoured from several roads.  This incredible supercell would not yet be done, and the EF5 Rainsville tornado was quickly followed by the powerful EF4 Ringgold, GA tornado.

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11. Picher-Neosho, OK-MO – May 10, 2008 (EF4 rating)  Path 75.5 miles; Maximum Width 1 mile; 21 Fatalities; 350 Injuries

In mid-May 2008, a series of tornado outbreaks resulted in 147 tornadoes between May 7 and May 15, the most notable was this tornado on May 10th.  While the primary tornado target appeared to be Arkansas, northern Mississippi and northern Alabama, it was an afternoon supercell in Oklahoma that produced this monster.  The tornado touched down near the Oklahoma-Kansas border, tracking east, and into the town of Picher, Oklahoma, killing six and injuring over 150.  Tracking into Missouri, the worst damage occurred at an intersection of Highway 43 and Iris Road, near the community of Racine.  Many were killed in their cars – some thrown as far as 1/2 mile – apparently caught by the rain-wrapped tornado unexpectedly.  Among those killed was young firefighter Tyler Casey, who died warning others of the approaching twister.

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***Sources include ExtremePlanet.me, Wikipedia, spc.noaa.gov, YouTube (TVNweather), YouTube (Cotton Rohrscheib), YouTube (mark simp), YouTube (Brandon Ivey) and alamy.com.

10 years of the EF Scale – Top Tornadoes 20-16

This is the second part of five in my ranking of the top 25 tornadoes of the EF scale era.

20. Washington, IL – November 17, 2013 (EF4 rating)  Path 46.2 miles; Maximum Width .5 miles; 3 Fatalities; 125 Injuries

A high risk day led to a major outbreak of 73 tornadoes across Illinois, Indiana and Ohio (primarily) and eight fatalities on this late fall Sunday.  The most impressive of the tornadoes was an EF4 (high end, rated at 190mph max winds) that did heavy damage in the town of Washington, Illinois, killing three and causing $935 million in damage.

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19. Raleigh-Rose Hill-Enterprise-Uniontown, MS-AL – April 27, 2011 (EF4 rating)  Path 122 miles; Maximum Width .6 miles; 7 Fatalities; 17 Injuries

With so many high-end tornadoes on April 27, 2011, several other very impressive tornadoes are largely unknown or forgotten – one of those is this tornado that traveled an amazing 122 miles across two states for nearly three hours – in just about any other tornado outbreak this would be the most talked-about tornado – but for the 2011 Super Outbreak it’s down the list a bit.  One of the more interesting notes of this tornado is it is the first tornado ever recorded in 3D by Sean Casey (TIV) as it crossed I-59 near Enterprise, Mississippi (not the video below).  A path that crossed relatively minimal population kept this from being a more devastating tornado.

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18. New Pekin-Henryville, IN – March 2, 2012 (EF4 rating)  Path 49 miles, Maximum Width .5 miles; 11 Fatalities; Injuries N/A

One of the largest tornado outbreaks of this time period was the March 2-3, 2012 outbreak which saw 70 tornadoes, hitting Indiana and Kentucky particularly hard.  An outbreak of tornadoes on February 29 (Leap Day) killed 15 people, including eight by an EF4 tornado in Harrisburg, Illinois, then this event just two days later was rated as a high risk, with 30% probability of strong tornadoes in a large area.  Tornadoes early in the day hit parts of Alabama that were had been devastated less than a year earlier on April 27, 2011.  Tornado activity in the afternoon focused on Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.  Hardest hit were the communities of New Pekin and Henryville, Indiana.  An entire family of five was killed near New Pekin when their mobile home was thrown.  The tornado then struck Henryville as school was dismissing – most students had already left the area, but some stayed behind at the school and rode out the storm.  The school was destroyed, but the students survived without major injuries.  School busses were thrown, one into the wall of a neighboring restaurant.  Marysville, Indiana was also hit hard before the tornado moved into Kentucky.  Later that day a high-end EF3 tornado traveled 86 miles in Kentucky (most notably near West Liberty), killing ten additional people.  In all, this outbreak produced 70 tornadoes and killed 41.

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17. Cordova-Blountsville, AL – April 27, 2011 (EF4 rating)  Path 127.8 miles; Maximum Width .8 miles; 13 Fatalities; 54 Injuries

Another monster tornado from April 27, 2011 that hasn’t garnered much attention because it was “only” an EF4… 2nd longest tornado path of the day, a staggering 127 miles – well over two hours on the ground.  Parts of Cordova had been damaged earlier in the morning round of storms by an EF3 rated tornado, this tornado did considerably more damage – destroying much of the historic downtown district.  On the ground at roughly the same time as the Tuscaloosa tornado it received far less attention even as it was happening.

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16. Ringgold-Apison, GA,TN – April 27, 2011 (EF4 rating)  Path 48 miles; Maximum Width .5 miles; 20 Fatalities; 335 Injuries

Another high-end, violent tornado from April 27th was this early evening tornado that touched down in Catoosa County, GA, heavily damaging the town of Ringgold (killing eight) before crossing into Tennessee (Hamilton County), hitting the town of Apison hard, at high-end EF4 strength according to NWS surveys (and killing eight more).  It then moved into Bradley, Polk and McMinn counties, killing a total of 12 people in Tennessee.  The Cherokee Valley Road (road running at far right of picture below) video is particularly interesting at the 1:45 – 3:00 mark as it passes thru the area in the picture, travelling from bottom to top.

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*** Sources include Storm Prediction Center (www.spc.noaa.gov), Wikipedia (Mrluckypants), YouTube (kris Lancaster), YouTube (Storm Focus), YouTube (Amber AMGraphics), YouTube (Taylor Campbell), YouTube (Bryan Davis), NWS Jackson, wbrc.com, Stormtrack.org

10 years of the EF Scale – Top Tornadoes 25-21

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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*** 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.

Arkansas’ lack of F5/EF5 tornadoes

Below is a map showing the 58 “official” F5 or EF5 tornadoes since statistics began being kept by the Storm Prediction Center branch of the National Weather Service.  You will notice tornadoes of this magnitude have struck in 19 different states.  Some states, like Alabama and Oklahoma (with seven F5/EF5 strikes each – most of any state), have been hit several times.  Somehow, right in the middle of this, Arkansas has yet to be struck by a highest end tornado.  This post takes a look at the events that came closest to breaking the F5/EF5 barrier in Arkansas.

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Since 1950, 28 tornadoes have been rated F4 or EF4 in Arkansas.  On March 21-22, 1952 a major tornado outbreak resulted in 33 known tornadoes (there were certainly more, but tornadoes were not tracked as well then) resulting in 209 fatalities across five states.  Arkansas was hit hardest with 112 fatalities.  Five of these tornadoes were rated F4.  The first F4 with a path of 13 miles struck in Howard County, particularly the small community of Dierks, resulting in seven fatalities.  Just over two hours later the same supercell produced a massive tornado in White County, one mile wide at times, along it’s 14.6 mile path.  The town of Judsonia was hit hardest, with 30 fatalities as the tornado tore through the business district.  385 homes were destroyed and 560 were damaged.  Ten more were killed near Bald Knob, and ten others were killed in rural areas and near Russell.

Ten minutes later another F4 struck in Lonoke County near Wattensaw, killing two along a 7.6 mile path – some dispute remains over this tornado and it’s possible it’s path length.  Another F4 struck in Woodruff county just 30 minutes later – all 29 deaths occurred in the town of Cotton Plant and the northwestern portion of the town was devastated.  The town of Hilleman also was heavily damaged.  Just 30 minutes later another F4 strength tornado – possibly the same one that struck Wattensaw – struck in Cross County, killing four in the community of Hickory Ridge.  It is possible these were not two separate tornadoes, but one long-track tornado (with a path of roughly 65 miles) – but for now the record book indicates separate tornadoes.  In all this outbreak produced 11 “violent” tornadoes (tornadoes of F4/F5 or EF4/EF5 strength) – the fourth most in a single outbreak since 1950 – surpassed only by the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak, the 1974 Super Outbreak and the 2011 Super Outbreak.

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Other F4 rated tornadoes struck on December 19, 1957 (two fatalities), April 10, 1965 (a day before the Palm Sunday outbreak, a tornado in Faulkner County resulted in six fatalities, and two hundred injuries), April 3, 1968 and April 19, 1968.

On May 15, 1968 a significant tornado outbreak struck the Midwest and the South.  46 confirmed tornadoes (again, there were certainly more) resulted in 72 fatalities, including 45 in Arkansas.  The first F4 struck in Independence County, killing seven and causing heavy damage in the town of Oil Trough.  Just a few minutes later, another tornado touched down in Jackson County, starting a 21 mile path through Jackson, Craighead and Mississippi Counties, killing 35 people and injuring nearly 400.  The university town (Arkansas State) of Jonesboro was hit particularly hard.  Numerous fatalities occurred in automobiles, thrown and wrapped around trees.  Other towns hit by this twister included Fairview, Nettleton and Manila.  Two tornadoes on this same day in Iowa were both rated F5, though neither resulted in the sheer quantity of damage and loss of life as the Jonesboro F4 tornado.

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A long-track F4 tornado sturck Woodruff, Jackson, Poinsett and Craighead Counties on May 26, 1973 resulting in three fatalities and 289 injuries – alarmingly close to the 1968 storm.  This same day another F4, with a path of over 120 miles devastated Brent, Alabama.  On March 28, 1975 another F4 in Bradley County killed seven and injured 51.  On April 2, 1982 a long-track F4 tore through Sevier, Howard and Hempstead Counties, killing three and injuring 23 along it’s 54.8 mile path – this was part of a large outbreak resulting in 29 fatalities nationwide, with Oklahoma and Texas hit particularly hard.  On Christmas Eve 1982, an even longer track tornado struck Sharp and Fulton Counties in Arkansas before crossing into Missouri, traveling 63 miles total but fortunately resulting in no fatalities.  On March 15, 1984 a pair of F4 tornadoes struck – the first in Van Buren, Cleburne and Independence Counties, traveling 41 miles and killing two – the second in Jackson and Poinsett Counties, traveling 26 miles, and killing five.  It would be over a decade before another F4 would strike, but on April 14, 1996, an F4 traveled 44 miles through Stone and Izard Counties killing seven and injuring 35.

A major tornado outbreak on March 1, 1997.  39 tornadoes struck Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, with Arkansas hardest hit.  Five tornadoes would be rated F4.  The first killed six in Clark County, with the town of Arkadelphia hardest hit – 60 blocks were severely damaged and 400 homes, mobile homes or businesses were destroyed.  A second F4 would strike Hot Spring County but some show this as the same tornado that struck Clark County.  If combined, the path is 51 miles.

Almost simultaneously, two significant tornadoes touched down shortly after the Arkadelphia tornado.  The first was an F3 that traveled for 68 miles, killing four and causing it’s worst damage in the town of Marmaduke.  The second was an F4 that touched down in Saline County, traveled for 14 miles and killed ten.  Some dispute again exists with the Saline County tornado.  The official SPC database shows two separate tornadoes traveling through Saline and Pulaski counties, but others show them as one tornado with a combined path of 25 miles and a combined 15 fatalities.  The Shannon Hills area southwest of Little Rock was devastated, and the second tornado (or latter parts of one tornado) caused significant damage to south and eastern suburbs of Little Rock.  Both the Arkadelphia tornado and the Saline/Pulaski County tornado(tornadoes) were from the same supercell thunderstorm.  Another F4 struck in Mississippi County but caused minimal damage.

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Mississippi County didn’t have to wait long for another F4 tornado – on April 16, 1998 an F4 struck killing two and injuring 12, this was part of a large outbreak that resulted in 16 fatalities nationally, and an F5 tornado in Tennessee.  On January 21, 1999 a major tornado outbreak struck Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee – the largest ever recorded in the month of January – resulting in 127 tornadoes over three days and nine fatalities.  Only one was rated F4, a tornado striking in Clay County, Arkansas which fortunately hit very little and caused no fatalities or injuries.  Unfortunately an F3 hit the suburbs of Little Rock, killing three

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More than a decade would pass before Arkansas’ next F4.  By February 5, 2008, the old Fujita Scale had been replaced by the Enhanced Fujita Scale.  Another unusually early season outbreak was forecast for “Dixie Alley”, and Arkansas would not be left out.  The Super Tuesday Outbreak (named so because 24 states were holding primary elections for the upcoming presidential election) would see 87 confirmed tornadoes result in 56 fatalities – the most in a tornadic event since 1985.  While Tennessee suffered the most fatalities, the most spectacular tornado of the outbreak was one of it’s earliest which struck in Arkansas.

At 4:49pm a tornado touched down in Yell County and began what would be a 121.84 mile trip across Yell, Pope, Conway, Van Buren, Stone, Izard and Sharp Counties before dissipating.  The tornado hit hardest in the communities of Atkins, Clinton and Mountain View, and resulted in 13 fatalities and 139 injuries.  The 121 mile path is, by official records at least, the longest tornado path in Arkansas history (1950-present).

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On May 24, 2011 – just two days after the historic Joplin EF5 tornado, another major tornado outbreak struck Oklahoma, carrying over into Arkansas in the evening hours.  A tornado would strike the town of Denning in the dark, killing four and injuring 27 along a 45.7 mile path.  Oklahoma would also record a pair of EF4 tornadoes this day, as well as an EF5.

Three years to the date of the largest tornado outbreak in recorded United States history, the SPC issued a high risk of severe weather squarely over Arkansas.  While activity was less than expected, a powerful tornado struck the communities of Mayflower and Vilonia, which had been hit by an EF2 tornado three years earlier.  It was part of a multi-day outbreak which resulted in 35 fatalities and 84 tornadoes.

The tornado that would devastate Mayflower and Vilonia touched down at 7:06pm in western Pulaski County.  After crossing over Lake Maumelle, the tornado crossed into Faulkner County and reduced two-story homes to piles of debris in Mayflower.  Concrete road barriers were blown over, and as the tornado crossed Arkansas highway 365, cars and semi-trucks were thrown.  After briefly weakening while crossing Lake Conway, the tornado re-intensified before plowing into Vilonia at 7:50pm.  Homes were obliterated, swept from their foundations, and cars were thrown hundreds of yards.  The tornado dissipated at 8:06 near the community of El Paso.  The tornado was on the ground for an hour, traveled 41 miles and killed 16 people.

The EF4 rating for the Vilonia tornado received considerable criticism.  The Little Rock office of the National Weather Service noted that if this tornado had occurred prior to the change in the EF scale in 2007, it likely would have been rated as an F5 due to numerous homes being swept clean from their foundations.  However, it was revealed that almost every home in Vilonia lacked anchor bolts and were anchored with cut nails instead.  The new scale accounts for homes that use cut nails instead of anchor bolts, which do not effectively provide resistance against violent tornadoes.   The final decision on an EF4 rating was based on this as well.  Despite this, further inspection from surveyors revealed that one home that was swept away along East Wicker Street was indeed properly bolted to its foundation.  However, an inspection of the context surrounding the house revealed that small trees in a ditch near the home were untouched, and that the residence had possibly been pummeled by heavy debris from Vilonia, exacerbating the level of destruction.  Surveyors decided against an upgrade to EF5 as a result.

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Thomas Grazulis is a meteorologist who has researched and written about tornadoes extensively.  His book “Significant Tornadoes” attempts to document all significant United States tornadoes (F2-F5 or causing a fatality) dating as far back as 1680.  While tornadoes are only officially rated F5/EF5 starting in 1950, Grazulis has named 63 tornadoes from 1880-1949 as F5 based on his extensive research.  One of those does belong to Arkansas.

On the late afternoon of April 10, 1929, a violent tornado touched down in Independence County, then crossed into Jackson County in the Black River bottoms north of Centerville.  The tornado reached its maximum intensity in Jackson County around Pleasant Valley, known locally as Possum Trot, and then on through the community of Sneed.  Both communities were virtually destroyed.  Historical accounts indicated the tornado was 1/2 mile wide at this point.  23 people were killed and 59 others were injured.  The storm made a clean sweep of the area – homes were left in splinters with very little left.  Huge trees were torn apart.  At the home of one family, the mother, father and seven children were at home.  The family members were scattered for 200 yards.  The father and three of the children died, and the survivors all had injuries.  The Pleasant Valley School was destroyed.  The tornado then weakened and lifted in Lawrence County.  Several other tornadoes touched down on this day.   The towns of Sneed and Pleasant Valley have since become abandoned ghost towns, though an old storm shelter used on that day can still be found.

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*** Sources include Tornado History Project, Wikipedia, the Storm Prediction Center, W. Irving Skipper’s images, argenweb.net, TalkWeather.com, NWS Little Rock, TheCabin.net and YouTube.

Chicago tornadoes part 3 – Plainfield

This is the third in a series of three posts about the worst tornadoes to strike the Chicago-area in modern times.  Two of the three happened on the same day in 1967, with one being just a few miles from where my family lived at the time (I was not yet born).

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There wasn’t a tornado warning… there wasn’t even a tornado watch.  On August 28, 1990 an F5 tornado struck Plainfield, Illinois killing 29 people and injuring 350.  470 homes were destroyed and 1000 more were damaged.  Damages totaled an estimated $160 million.  It is the only F5 tornado recorded in August and the only F5 tornado to strike the Chicago area.  There are no known videos or photos of the heavily rain-wrapped tornado.

At 10am on August 28, the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City (now the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma) upgraded their severe storm outlook for northern Illinois from a slight risk, issued earlier that morning, to a moderate risk.  At 1:28pm the NSSFC issued a severe thunderstorm watch for portions of northern Illinois.

Conditions were favorable for severe thunderstorms.  A cold front was forecast to move southeast across northern Illinois during the afternoon.  Ahead of the cold front, the atmosphere was unstable with CAPE (Convective Available Potential Energy) values over 4000 J/Kg when thunderstorms initiated near the Wisconsin/Illinois border around noon.  However, weak wind shear in the lower atmosphere suggested more of a wind/hail threat than for tornadoes.

The atmosphere became more unstable during the afternoon as temperatures soared into the 90’s and dew point temperatures reached the upper 70’s.  Thunderstorms grew to a height of 65,000 feet and began to exhibit supercell characteristics.  As the Plainfield storm moved southeast the low level wind shear increased.  By 3pm, CAPE values had climbed to an astonishing 7000 J/Kg.  A series of downbursts and funnel clouds occurred in rural southern Kane County before the increasing wind shear combined with the intense updraft eventually led to the development of the main tornado near Oswego in Kendall County.

The tornado reached its peak intensity between 3:15pm and 3:45pm as it moved from Kendall County into northwestern Will County and through the communities of Plainfield and Crest Hill.  After the main tornado dissipated in Joliet, the parent thunderstorm continued producing damage as it moved through Kankakee County and into Indiana.  The storm produced nearly continuous damage over northern Illinois for 4 1/2 hours.

I started the day like I had started the day so many other times that summer – in hopes of seeing a good storm.  August 28, 1990 started out warm and very humid.  A very unstable air mass promised big storms but the lack of vertical shear led everyone to believe that storms would be big and rainy but not tornadic.

After departing soon after the noon weather report by WGN’s Tom Skilling, I took off from my home in Glen Ellyn to an area just northwest of DeKalb.  I observed a storm very similar to storms I had seen often during the summer of 1990.  There were reports of golf ball hail to my north, but nothing in my immediate area indicated what was soon going to become of this tremendous storm.  I worked my way down through DeKalb where rain and hail started to fall.  I struggled through worsening conditions onto eastbound I-88 where I decided to head south on Route 47.  As I pulled out of the rain near the Sugar Grove airport, I was amazed to see the storm change it’s characteristic of being a big rain producer to being something a bit more scary!  It was a little after 3pm when I started video-taping a very intense-looking storm about to cross the road to my south.  Torn between what I now know to be a rear flank shelf cloud and an area almost directly on top of me just to my northwest, I decided to try to head south to Route 126 and head to Plainfield.  Unfortunately it was not to be that day.  The rear flank of this now 65,000 foot tall storm surged across the road, knocking down power lines right behind me and doing a significant amount of damage at the airport.  As the driving conditions became impassible I took shelter in a BP station on the corner of Rt. 47 and Rt. 30.  People were all commenting about the storm.  I had no cell phone at the time, and the phone in the station was being used.  I remember thinking to myself “This storm might produce a tornado!  I’ll bet that someone is reporting this!”

I was right with my first prediction but terribly wrong with the second.  The storm soon put down the tornado just to the southeast of my location.  It was not until a few hours later that I became aware of how significant of an event this was.

-Paul Sirvatka (video below)

The tornado formed from a supercell thunderstorm which initially formed near Janesville in south-central Wisconsin, producing a tornado near Pecatonica in Winnebago County, Illinois (near Rockford) which touched down at 1:42pm.  Continuing to move to the southeast, the supercell spawned the Plainfield tornado which touched down at 3:15pm near Oswego in Kendall County.  The tornado rapidly strengthened into a violent, rain-wrapped tornado, traveling southeast into Wheatland Township of Will County, near the Wheatland Plains subdivision northwest of Plainfield, damaging many homes and causing several injuries but no fatalities.

Past Wheatland Plains, the tornado continued to strengthen as it tore across open farmland, and reached F5 intensity in this area.  A narrow swath of very intense ground scouring was observed, as mature corn crop was completely stripped from the ground, leaving nothing but bare soil behind.  Several inches of topsoil were removed as well.  As the tornado crossed US-30,a 20-ton tractor-trailer was thrown more than half a mile from the road, killing the driver.  Three other motorists were also killed in this area as their vehicles were thrown from the road.

The tornado struck Plainfield around 3:28pm at high-end F4 intensity.  Around 3:30pm the tornado directly struck the Plainfield High School, killing three people, including a science teacher and two maintenance workers.  Students who had been out practicing for the fall football programs ran into the high school to take shelter a few minutes before the storm hit.  After an alarm was pulled by a dean in the main office, the volleyball players preparing for a game in the gymnasium rushed to the nearest door and took shelter in the hallway.  It is reported that as soon as the last player was through the door, a coach quickly closed it, only for it to be immediately ripped back off by the storm.  They gymnasium proceeded to fall apart and crash down filling the gap in the doorway.  They took shelter in the same hall as the football team, and once the tornado had passed, that was the only hallway left standing in the building.

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The tornado then demolished the Plainfield School District Administration building, where the wife of a custodian was killed.  The tornado crossed Route 59 (Division Street) and ripped into St. Mary Immaculate Church and school, claiming an additional three lives, including the principal of the school, a music teacher and the son of the cook at the rectory.  55 homes were destroyed in Plainfield itself, some of which were swept away.  A grocery store east of the high school was badly damaged, gravestones in a nearby cemetery were toppled and a metal dumpster was found wrapped around the top of a partially debarked tree.  Damage in Plainfield was rated as high-end F4.

The storm worked its way southeast towards the large city of Joliet, damaging homes in the Crystal Lawns, Lily Cache and Warwick subdivisions killing five more people.  An additional three people would later succumb from injuries sustained during the tornado.  The tornado ripped through the Grand Prairie Elementary School causing significant damage.  Observers watched from the doors at the Louis Joliet Mall as the tornado passed just southwest of them.  Many more homes were destroyed in Crystal Lawns, Peerless Estates, Lily Cache and Warwick – many of which were newly built.

The tornado then moved towards Crest Hill.  At 3:38pm the storm ripped through the Crest Hill Lakes Apartment complex, causing F3 damage and claiming another eight lives, destroying one apartment building and half of another.  Neither have been rebuilt.  The tornado also ripped through the Colony West subdivision, destroying town homes, and killing a married couple in their car on Cedarwood Drive outside the apartment complex.    The tornado then destroyed three apartment buildings on Elizabeth Court and more homes in Bridalwreath, southeast of Elizabeth Court.  Homes were damaged on Arden Place, and two high tension wire structures were destroyed at Black Road and Arden/Mason.  They were replaced with different structures than the previous two and can be seen as such today.

CREST HILL TORNADO DAMAGE

Further southeast, the tornado lost strength until lifting near Woodlawn Avenue and Campbell Street in Joliet.  The parent thunderstorm continued until it crossed over the Indiana border, dissipating around 4:30pm.

In the months following the tornado, the National Weather Service was heavily criticized for providing no warning of the approaching tornado.  The NOAA Disaster Survey Report was highly critical of the forecast process within the Chicago office as well as coordination with local spotter networks and the preparedness of these groups.  Prior to 1990, the National Weather Service in Chicago was responsible for providing forecasts for the entire state of Illinois.

As the Chicago office was overwhelmed with its workload, no warnings were issued by the office until 2:32pm – nearly an hour after the first tornado was sighted southeast of Rockford.  A second severe thunderstorm warning was issued almost an hour later at 3:23pm, but this provided no indication that a tornado was on the ground and did not mention the area where the tornado had tracked.  No tornado warning was issued until after the tornado lifted.

According to the Chicago Tribune, NWS Chicago had “the worst record in the nation” for issuing warnings for severe storms, only issuing warnings 24% of the time when a warning was justifiable.  Even today, many meteorologists refer to the “Plainfield Syndrome” as the idea that it’s better to issue too many warnings and be wrong than to miss one critical warning, as was the case for the Plainfield tornado.  At some point after 1990, the National Weather Service reduced the Chicago office’s workload by creating an office in Romeoville, Illinois and allowing offices in the Quad Cities, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Paducah to issue forecasts for their respective areas.

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The tornado that devastated portions of the southwestern suburbs of Chicago on August 28, 1990 came as a surprise to forecasters and the general public alike.  During the past 20 years there have been so many incredibly important advances in the science of meteorology, and in particular in forecasting severe weather and tornadoes.  Some of the data that is available today would likely not have been even dreamed of by many forecasters 20 years ago.  In addition to a greater understanding of how and why tornadoes form, meteorologists today also have a wealth of observational data that was not available back in 1990 as well as far more accurate and higher resolution numerical models.

One of the newer computer models that is getting a lot of use by both operational forecasters and researchers is the WRF model (Weather Research & Forecasting model).  One of the nice features of the WRF model is that it can easily be used for research, allowing meteorologists to run the model for past events.  The National Weather Service office in Chicago modeled the Plainfield event to see if the WRF would do a better job of identifying a greater tornado potential.

The WRF model forecast generated using data three days prior to the tornado really did not suggest any appreciable tornado threat.  In fact, the forecast showed a cold front down to the I-70 corridor by afternoon and no thunderstorms developing within 300 miles of Chicago.  While the atmosphere was forecast to be hot and very unstable, the model was maintaining a strong cap (layer of warm air aloft preventing thunderstorms from forming).

The WRF model’s forecast for the event using data the day before the tornado was an improvement.  The front was forecast to move slower and still be over northern Illinois in late afternoon, and the WRF was also showing a much weaker cap and thunderstorms developing over northeast Illinois and Indiana, Ohio and southern Michigan.  Still, the parameters did not suggest much of a tornado threat, let alone conditions for an F5 tornado to occur.

A subsequent run of the model using data from the morning of August 28 really did not show any appreciable change in the forecast.  The forecast data produced by re-running of the WRF did improve somewhat as the event drew nearer, but there was never any indication using the WRF model that there would be an enhanced tornado threat for northern Illinois.  While this is not the result that was hoped for, all hope is not lost.  The forecasting of tornado potential does not rely solely on forecast model data.  As an event nears the forecast hinges much more on observational data such as satellite, radar, upper air soundings and surface observations.  The other thing to consider is that the WRF model was run using data that was available in 1990, and that 20 years later much more observational data is fed into the WRF model, which would likely result in a different and possibly more accurate forecast.

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*** Sources include NWS Chicago “The Plainfield Tornado of August 28, 1990”, Paul Sirvatka, Jay Orbik (Youtube videos), Wikipedia and Gino Izzi’s “Examining the Forecastability of the Deadly Plainfield F5 Tornado Using the WRF Model”.