5 Of the Worst Tornadoes In The History Of United States

WRITTEN BY: Emily Retherford


Tornadoes are one of the most destructive natural disasters in the United States. They can all cause widespread damage and loss of life. But some stand out more than others. Let’s look at the worst tornadoes in the history of the United States.

Tornado severity metrics

Tornadoes, nature’s violent and unpredictable whirlwinds, aren’t only known for their fierce appearance and the considerable destruction they can leave in their wake. 

Scientists and meteorologists employ several metrics to quantify this destruction so people can take necessary precautions. These metrics help understand the tornado’s potential and prepare for its aftermath.

Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale)

The Enhanced Fujita Scale, commonly known as the EF Scale, is the modern gold standard for determining tornado strength. Developed by the National Weather Service, this scale gauges the intensity of a tornado based on observable damage caused by human-made structures and vegetation.

EF Scale’s damage indicators 

The EF Scale isn’t merely about the wind speed. It considers 28 damage indicators, including the type of buildings affected, the degree to which trees are downed, and fatalities. By analyzing these indicators, meteorologists can estimate the potential wind speeds a tornado may have had.

Categories of the EF-Scale

Tornadoes are classified on a scale from EF-0 (indicating no damage) to EF-5 (indicating incredible damage). Each category gives us a glimpse into the storm’s power. The EF-5 tornado is one of the most destructive forces of nature.

EF Rating3 Second Gust (mph)
5Over 200

Other measurements to consider

While the EF-Scale provides us with an understanding of a tornado’s strength, it’s not the only metric in use. To determine the worst tornadoes in the history of the U.S. these things also need to be considered:

  • Deadliness (human casualties): Sometimes, the real severity of a tornado is measured by the number of lives it takes. This grim metric offers insight into the tornado’s path, duration, and the affected communities’ preparedness (or lack thereof).
  • Financial cost (property and infrastructure damage): Another assessment begins in the storm’s aftermath — evaluating the financial toll. This metric puts a dollar amount to the storm’s destruction, from destroyed homes and infrastructures to business losses. Often, these figures can help insurance companies and emergency aid organizations determine how resources should be allocated for recovery.

Deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history

Throughout the history of the United States, tornadoes have left indelible marks on communities, altering the course of lives and reshaping landscapes. Here, we chronicle five of the deadliest tornadoes the nation has ever witnessed based on the number of lives they claimed.

Tri-State Tornado (1925)

Often referred to as the deadliest single tornado in U.S. history, the Tri-State Tornado struck on March 18, 1925.

Its vast path of destruction spanned three states – Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. As a result, the storm claimed the lives of almost 700 individuals and injured over 2,000. Its financial toll was no less devastating, destroying more than 15,000 homes and incurring around $1.4 billion in property damage, adjusted for inflation.

Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak (1936)

This tragic event is unique because it wasn’t a singular tornado but an outbreak of multiple tornadoes in April 1936.

More than 450 people lost their lives in this catastrophic event. It remains the only known outbreak where two tornadoes stemming from the same system took more than 200 lives. Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Georgia, felt the most significant impacts.

Great Natchez Tornado (1840)

Dating back to the mid-19th century, this tornado is the second deadliest in U.S. history.

On May 7, 1840, the storm ravaged Natchez, Mississippi. It claimed over 300 lives, a large number due to its path that tore through Natchez and the Mississippi River. The river became a grave for many as the tornado sank numerous flatboats, taking down freight and their crews.

The 1896 St. Louis Tornado

This storm is notorious not just for its death toll but also for the location it hit.

On May 27, 1896, the tornado tore through St. Louis, one of the U.S.’s most influential cities of the time. The 20-minute onslaught resulted in the tragic loss of at least 255 lives. Additionally, the storm caused around $352 million in damages, a staggering amount when adjusted for inflation.

Joplin Tornado (2011)

A leap forward in time brings us to one of the most recent deadly tornadoes on our list.

On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado, spanning nearly a mile in width, descended upon Joplin, Missouri. The storm’s wrath damaged 8,000 buildings, tragically ending the lives of over 150 people and injuring more than 1,000.

Most damaging tornadoes in U.S. history

While the number of human lives lost to tornadoes is undeniable, these storms also wreak havoc on infrastructure, properties, and the economy. Often running into the billions, monetary damages highlight the extensive physical devastation tornadoes can cause. 

Joplin Tornado (2011)

The Joplin Tornado stands out for its deadliness and the staggering financial devastation it left behind.

Beyond the tragic loss of life, the Joplin tornado racked up a bill of $2.8 billion in damages. Such was the extent of the destruction that marked the largest insurance payout in Missouri’s history.

Tuscaloosa-Birmingham Tornado (2011)

Tornadoes in 2011 were notably destructive, with the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado being another catastrophic event from that year.

This EF-4 multiple-vortex tornado swept through both Tuscaloosa and Birmingham in Alabama, causing extensive damage. Financially, the storm’s destruction amounted to $2.4 billion, making it, for a brief period, the costliest tornado in U.S. history until the Joplin event surpassed it.

Moore, Oklahoma Tornado (2013)

Moore, a town familiar with tornadoes, witnessed another devastating storm in 2013.

An EF-5 tornado, the most powerful on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, descended upon Moore. In its wake, it destroyed an estimated 1,150 homes and a financial toll of around $2 billion.

Tornado outbreak in Dallas (2019)

The state of Texas faced its costliest tornado event in history during the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex tornado outbreak in October 2019.

While the outbreak comprised ten tornadoes, one particular EF-3 tornado caused extensive damage to a Dallas suburb. The combined damages of this outbreak amounted to nearly $2 billion, with the EF-3 tornado alone accounting for $1.55 billion.

Bridge Creek-Moore Tornado (1999)

This tornado, predating the Enhanced Fujita Scale, is noted for its historical significance in the world of meteorology.

The tornado holds the record for the highest wind speeds ever measured globally. Striking parts of Oklahoma City and neighboring areas, the storm’s aftermath included damages to the town of Moore, which would face further tornadoes in subsequent years. Financially, the 1999 tornado’s damage, adjusted for inflation, was approximately $1.5 billion.

Protecting your home from tornadoes

Tornadoes, while awe-inspiring in their raw power, are a stark reminder of nature’s ability to transform landscapes and lives in moments. 

The rise in the cost of damages over recent decades isn’t solely a testament to the force of tornadoes but also an indicator of the nation’s development, with denser populations and more infrastructure. 

However, with increasing knowledge and technological advances, there are steps homeowners should take to safeguard both their families and their homes.

Historical context and preparedness

While many of the deadliest tornadoes occurred in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, most of the costliest damages have been registered in the last 30 years. This disparity can be attributed to:

  • Urban development: The U.S. is more built-up than in the early 1900s, leading to more structures in the path of potential tornadoes.
  • Medical and technological advances: Improved medical facilities and early warning systems have likely reduced fatalities, but more buildings mean more property damage.

Safety first

If you reside in a tornado-prone zone, prioritize your safety:

  • Safe Room or storm cellar: Consider installing one in your home. This underground space can offer protection during severe tornadoes.
  • Evacuation plan: Ensure that all family members know where to go, be it an internal room or basement, away from windows and outside walls.
  • Emergency kit: Always have a kit ready with essentials like water, non-perishable food, first-aid supplies, a flashlight, and a battery-powered weather radio.

Protecting your home

Even though no structure is entirely tornado-proof, certain measures can increase resilience:

  • Reinforce windows: Using impact-resistant windows or storm shutters can prevent debris from breaking windows and causing injury.
  • Secure outdoor objects: Items like lawn furniture can become projectiles during tornadoes. Ensure they’re safely stored or anchored.
  • Reinforced doors: Installing storm doors or reinforcing garage doors can prevent them from being blown in or off, minimizing structural damage.

Insurance considerations

Most standard home insurance policies cover tornadoes. However, you should review your policy to ensure the coverage matches your needs and the value of your property. 

Also, consider taking inventory of your home. Regularly photograph and video record contents of your home because this documentation proves invaluable when making home insurance claims.


What was the worst tornado in U.S. history?

The worst tornado in U.S. history, in terms of fatalities, is the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. Here are the details:

  • Date: March 18, 1925
  • Affected areas: The tornado traveled through parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, which is why it’s called the “Tri-State” Tornado.
  • Fatalities: The storm is estimated to have killed almost 700 people.
  • Injuries: Over 2,000 people were injured.
  • Damage: The storm destroyed more than 15,000 homes, resulting in approximately $1.4 billion in property damage when adjusted for inflation.

What size was the most deadly tornado to ever hit the USA?

The Tri-State Tornado of 1925, the deadliest tornado ever to hit the USA, is believed to have been an F5 on the original Fujita Scale, the highest rating on that scale. 

The F5 rating indicates tornadoes with wind speeds between 261 and 318 mph. It’s characterized by “incredible” damage, including strong-frame houses being lifted off their foundations and carrying considerable distances to disintegrate.

It’s worth noting that while the Fujita Scale and its successor, the Enhanced Fujita Scale, provide a measure of tornado intensity based on damage, the actual wind speeds of historic tornadoes like the Tri-State event are estimates, as direct measurements were not available.

What is the longest a tornado has stayed on the ground?

The tornado with the longest track (or path) on record is the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. It traveled on the ground continuously for about 219 miles (352 km). This incredibly long path began in southeastern Missouri, continued through southern Illinois, and then ended in southwestern Indiana. 

The duration of this tornado was approximately 3.5 hours, making its extended track and duration exceptionally rare. The Tri-State Tornado holds the record for the longest track and remains the deadliest tornado in U.S. history.

Get insurance coverage for tornadoes

While most standard insurance policies cover tornado damages, you should ensure you have the best coverage at the lowest rates. Use our online quote tool to compare rates from several companies.

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