Yesterday, I sat through my first tornado warning of the season. It got me thinking about tornados past. The following is an excerpt of an arcticle I wrote for my old website.
Every year the National Weather Service records about 1,000 tornadoes in the U.S.. It’s possible that as many as 1,000 more weak tornadoes go unnoticed. Tornadoes are ranked on the Fujita Scale (or F-Scale) according to how much damage they do to manmade structures.
While a tornado can strike just about anywhere in the world, some places get hit more often than others. (Tornadoes touch down in Sedalia so often, that I once called my niece up there after a tornado and she told me, unconcerned, “Oh, it didn’t hit here. It was three streets away.”) Areas prone to a high incidence of tornadic activity, or to a high percentage of violent tornadoes, are known as “Tornado Alley”. While there is a great deal of disagreement among storm chasers as to where, exactly, “Tornado Alley” is in any given year, Missouri is often included.
At this point I’d just like to say for the record that I’ve never personally seen a tornado, in spite of walking home through a storm in Columbia one night when eight of them touched down within two hours. I’d also like to say, for the record, that I’d just as soon keep it that way!
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925
March 18, 1925. One minute past one P.M. The deadliest tornado in U.S. history touched down in southeastern Missouri, three miles north-northwest of Ellington and continued on a 219-mile long path through southern Illinois and into Indiana before finally dissipating three miles south of Petersburg at 4:30 P.M.
An F5, the strongest catagory of tornado, the Tri-State Tornado set many tragic records that day. The average tornado stays on the ground for about ten minutes. The Tri-State monster was down for three and a half hours. It travelled through three states, killing a combined total of 695 people, injuring more than 2,000 and destroying 15,000 homes. In Murphysboro, Illinois, 234 people died, a record number of deaths for a single community from a tornado. (The Great Cyclone of 1896 doesn’t meet this because the deaths were divided between two communities: St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois.)
Parrish, Illinois, and Griffin, Indiana, were completely destroyed. Seventeen children died when Longfellow School in Murphysboro, Illinois, partially collapsed. In DeSoto, Illinois, the tornado killed 33 school children. That’s the largest number of children to die in an American school from this type of disaster.
To be thorough, I should note that some historians believe the Tri-State Tornado was not actually one continuous tornado, but rather a close family of smaller tornadoes. Technically, a tornado is only a tornado when it is actually touching the ground. If it pulls up it becomes a funnel cloud and if it touches down again that is considered a separate tornado. Thus, the question becomes “did the Tri-State Tornado remain on the ground for its entire 219-mile track?” At this point, it’s probably impossible to tell. What is known is that the tornado cut a 3/4 to 1 mile wide path of destruction across three states, it held the same heading for 183 miles of that distance and nowhere along that path was spared. Eighty-five years later the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration maintains a memorial website to commemorate that deadly day and to teach new generations about the awful power of the wind.