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The Most Destructive Twister on Record

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Tristate Tornado, 1925 Ironwood, Michigan Daily Globe - 03/19/1925

Tristate Tornado, 1925 Ironwood, Michigan Daily Globe - 03/19/1925 Courtesy

This twister surpassed in sheer size the tristate tornado of March 18, 1925, which stands as the nation’s worst in property damage and loss of life. This one struck in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana along a path of 219 miles, killing 742 and injuring 2771 persons and damaging property to the tune of $16,532,00. Few persons reported seeing the familiar funnel. The storm seems to have been so close to the ground that there was no room the typical pendent cloud.

One of the most spectacular twisters was the double-header which whipped through Gainesville, Georgia, on April 6, 1936. Two separate twisters met just west of the city to form a half-mile-wide ribbon of destruction that grew as it swept the town, destroying 285 buildings, taking 203 lives and injuring 934 persons. The tornado split apart east of Gainesville, one part ending three miles away, the other continuing for another twenty miles.

Damaging horizontal winds, the lifting force of upward-spiraling winds and the exploding effect account for the destructiveness of tornadoes. The horizontal wind velocity, in and at the extreme edge of the Woodward tornado funnel, was estimated as being in excess of 400 miles an hour.

The outstanding example of lifting force was the tornado which struck the Empire Builder, a train from Seattle to Chicago, as it sped along at sixty miles an hour near Moorhead, Minnesota, late in the afternoon on May 27, 1931. The tornado hit at almost a right angle. Five of the coaches, each weighing sixty-four tons, were torn loose from the engine and lifted from the rails. One, with its 117 passengers, was carried through the air and laid down in a ditch eighty feet away. The seven other coaches were derailed; only the engine and tender remained on the tracks. One passenger was killed when hurled through a window, and fifty-seven others were injured.

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Tornadoes have these five other unusual effects:

1. Stripping. Cats and dogs have been found after a twister with all or part of their fur missing; harnesses have been stripped from horses; chickens have been plucked clean by the wind action.

2. Scattering. Objects often are strewn over wide areas. The bodies of persons known to have been together at the time of a storm have been found miles apart afterward.

3. Selectiveness. A common occurrence is that a house will be demolished without disturbing the lighter objects within it. In the tornado that wrecked the Empire Builder, a farmer watching it from the doorway of his barn was left unharmed when the tornado carried off the barn. A less fortunate victim was the man who was carried away with his house, walked out the front door to investigate the commotion and fell thirty feet to the ground. In the Woodward tornado the walls and roof of a lumber mill were carried off, but the lumber was all left behind- neatly stacked.

4. Carrying. Objects are carried for great distances and set down or dropped. Mail and papers from Woodward were found in Kansas. A twister which skipped through Fort Smith, Arkansas, carried a child for three miles, and let her down, scratched, but not otherwise injured.

5. Driving. Straws or shingles have been driven into boards and trees. Straws have been found driven into automobile tires between the casings and the wheels.

Information courtesy of NOAA.

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