Tornadoes give little warning and strike suddenly with devastating—and sometimes deadly—power. Here are the 15 deadliest tornadoes in United States history.
The 15 Deadliest Tornadoes in U.S History
(Note: These are the deadliest individual tornadoes, not the deadliest “tornado days.”)
- March 18, 1925 – Tri-State (MO/IL/IN) – 695 deaths
- May 6, 1840 – Natchez, MS – 317 deaths
- May 27, 1896 – St. Louis, MO – 255 deaths
- April 5, 1936 – Tupelo, MS – 216 deaths
- April 6, 1936 – Gainesville, GA – 203 deaths
- April 9, 1947 – Woodward, OK – 181 deaths
- May 22, 2011 – Joplin, MO – 158 deaths
- April 24, 1908 – Amite, LA; Purvis, MS – 143 deaths
- June 12, 1899 – New Richmond, WI – 117 deaths
- June 8, 1953 – Flint, MI – 115 deaths
- May 11, 1953 – Waco, TX – 114 deaths
- May 18, 1902 – Goliad, TX – 114 deaths
- Mar 23, 1913 – Omaha, NE – 103 deaths
- May 26, 1917 – Mattoon, IL – 101 deaths
- June 23, 1944 – Shinnston, WV – 100 deaths
Where do Tornadoes Form?
In the U.S., an average of 1,200 tornadoes form each year, many of which occur in an area called “Tornado Alley.” Why there, you ask? Located in the Great Plains, this area receives warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico. Heat and moisture can build up near Earth’s surface if a stable air layer called a “cap” lies on top. Then, if the cap weakens, the lower, unstable air rises rapidly, often forming super-cell thunderstorms that are the harbingers of tornadoes.
Statistics show that most tornadoes in the U.S. occur between 5 P.M. and 6 P.M. However, those times vary by region; for example, Florida tornadoes are just as likely to occur after midnight as in the afternoon.
Although the U.S. is certainly a hotbed of tornado activity, tornadoes do happen in other parts of the world. Significant tornadoes have been recorded in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Russia, Bangladesh, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, among other places. In fact, the deadliest tornado on record occurred in April 1989 in Bangladesh, where a tornado reportedly killed more than 1,200 people after two entire towns were leveled.
Where Tornadoes Don’t Typically Form
Luckily, tornadoes don’t touch down very often in the downtown centers of big cities. Tornadoes require three factors to grow: vertical air movement, which generally comes from thunderstorms; a significant variation in both wind speed and direction within the thunderstorm or air mass; and plenty of space for the rotation to develop.
That need for wide, open spaces is why you hear about tornadoes so much in the plain states and flat areas of the Midwest and West. Tornadoes are unusual in large cities because they lack the open space needed for the tornado to develop.
However, it’s not impossible for tornadoes to form around cities and in mountainous areas. On May 12, 1997, a tornado struck very near downtown Miami, Florida, and lasted about 15 minutes. A number of people were injured and it caused $525,000 in damages. That tornado developed over open water, which provided the space for it to grow, and then move onshore.
Cities surrounded by flat land are also susceptible to tornado strikes. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, holds the “honor” of being the city that’s been struck by the most tornadoes—over 100!
The costliest single tornado to touch down in the United States was the one that struck Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. It caused $2.8 billion in damage.
When you look at it in terms of average annual dollars of damage, Texas tends to see the costliest storms, where tornadoes cause an average of $43 million in damage each year. Second place goes to Indiana, and Kansas ranks third.
For what it’s worth, the states of West Virginia, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Vermont, Washington, Rhode Island, Nevada, Utah, and Alaska don’t even make the charts in terms of annual damage from tornadoes, since significant tornadoes are rather rare.
Remember, tornadoes can form at any hour, so if your area is prone to these storms, have an emergency plan in place. For safety tips, see our related article: “How to Survive a Tornado.”