When you think of the deadliest tornadoes to have ever ravaged the US, it’s easy to wonder if they were really bigger or more powerful than the ones we see today. Most of the deadliest tornadoes occurred nearly 100 years ago or longer. Were tornadoes simply stronger in the past?
It seems more likely that technology, building quality, and advanced warning techniques have more to do with how much less deadly modern tornadoes are than any reduction in the storms’ power. Let’s take a closer look at the deadliest tornado in US history for some context.
Storm chasers know the name “Tri-State Tornado,” and many have written about this behemoth of a storm. It struck on March 18, 1925, impacting first Missouri, then Illinois, and finally Indiana. As storm watching wasn’t as prevalent in the 1920s, the storm has no official rating by the NOAA. Most experts agree, however, from descriptions of the tornado and the damage it wrought that it was likely an F5.
There’s also been some speculation that the 219-mile path cut by the Tri-State Tornado could have actually been caused by a series of tornadoes. The path that is ascribed to the Tri-State event would be tremendously long for a single tornado funnel, and storm experts have expressed doubt that such a duration is probable for a tornado of any size.
Why Was It So Deadly?
The Tri-State Tornado killed 695 people and injured over 2,000 others. Four of the nineteen affected communities were essentially destroyed outright since people never rebuilt the towns that were destroyed there. Most of the deaths occurred in southern Illinois.
The danger the storm posed came from its highly unusual shape and the strange conditions that spawned it. The tornado was quite wide, as much as a mile at points, and looked to viewers like an amorphous, rolling fog. It was also surrounded by a high-precipitation supercell that shrouded it from easy view.
As such, a number of otherwise weather-savvy farmers and onlookers who would have evacuated ahead of a tornado were unaware of the danger the storm they were looking at posed. By the time the unusual storm arrived, it was too late.
What Would It Be Like Today?
It’s highly unlikely the powerful storm would have been nearly as deadly today as it was in the 1920s. Advanced weather monitoring technology, mass communication, and the internet make it much easier to do research and share information. If a strange storm appeared over the Midwest today, people would immediately turn on the TV or check the internet to find out what was going on.
Advanced warning would be sent to people in the storm’s path, those in the area would take cover or evacuate, and the tornado would pass with a much lower death toll. However, in the 1920s, the Tri-State Tornado was simply the perfect storm to cause as much carnage as possible.