Ask Josh: Deadliest U.S. Tornado

Meteorologist Josh Fitzpatrick talks about the worst tornado in U.S. history.

Kathy in St. Albans asked me the other day "what's the deadliest tornado in U.S. history?" 

Here's the answer:  Widely considered the most devastating and powerful tornado in American history, the Great Tri-State Tornado ripped through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925. In its 219-mile-long wake it left four destroyed towns, six severely damaged ones, 15,000 destroyed homes, and 2,000 injured. Most significantly, 695 people were killed, a record for a single tornado. The Great Tri-State Tornado left a legacy that is evidenced by ghost towns, lost ancestors, and stories passed from generation to generation.

The tornado developed during an afternoon thunderstorm near Ellington in southeast Missouri, crossed the Mississippi River about 75 miles southeast of St. Louis, then followed a northeast course as it plowed through southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana before finally dissipating. 

The tornado put its greatest toll on southern Illinois. Speeds of the tornado reached 60 miles per hour in the region, and although it crossed predominantly rural land its path followed a string of railroads, placing several towns in its way.

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As a result, 540 people died in southern Illinois in the following towns: Gorham (37), Murphysboro (234), DeSoto (69), and West Frankfort (148). In addition, 52 people died on farms and small settlements in southern Illinois. The counties of Jackson, Franklin, Hamilton, and White were affected within southern Illinois.
In Franklin County, two communities were struck by the storm cloud. The town of Parrish was virtually destroyed; the town was never rebuilt and today it exists as a smattering of older homes. One hundred forty-eight lives were lost in West Frankfort, as were 20% of its homes and businesses.
In Jackson County, the towns of Murphysboro and DeSoto were hardest hit. Murphysboro suffered from 234 deaths, while 40 percent of the homes were destroyed and another 30 percent were damaged by strong winds and the fires that swept through town after the tornado. Witnesses recalled seeing the fires from as far as 60 miles away. One person described seeing a Murphysboro house lifted into the air and then explode like a bomb, and others had similar stories. Sixty-nine people died in DeSoto when approximately 30% of the town was destroyed. 

During a 3.5-hour lifespan, the devastating funnel cloud averaged a quarter-mile in width but at times grew as wide as a mile. The tornado and its debris cloud were so large that they could scarcely be distinguished as such by some witnesses. The enormity of the tornado and its ranking as the greatest tornado in American history can be summarized by the following statistics:

  • longest continuous contact on the ground 
  • third fastest traveling speed 
  • continuous exertion of force resulting in damage throughout most of its lifespan 
  • a record 3.5-hour duration. 
devastation 
Residents survey damage in Murphysboro
Photo courtesy Southern Illinoisan
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