The Great Tri-State Tornado

March 18th, 2013 at 7:30 pm by under Bill's Blog, Weather

  Today (Monday, March 18) is the anniversary of the worst tornado in U.S. history (in 1925). It set records for longest tornado on the ground (219 miles) , most fatalities (695), fastest forward speed (average 56 mph, nearly 75 mph at the beginning). The twister crossed the Mississippi River about 75 miles southeast of St. Louis, moving from Missouri, across southern Illinois and into Indiana. The tornado followed a railroad line, destroying towns (four towns were completely destroyed) that had sprung up along the railroad. The twister averaged 3/4-mile wide and at times was over a mile wide. Survivors described the approaching storm as a rolling, boiling fog. Fires set by the tornado could be seen 60 miles from the tornado’s path.

A few years ago, my wife and I drove along the path of this storm and stopped at libraries and city halls to see what I could learn. At a mine, the entire above ground structures were destroyed, trapping miners underground (they were later rescued. Nine schools were destroyed and 69 children lost their lives that day. There were 2027 recorded injures (not counting those who were not counted at overcrowded hospitals). Fifteen thousand homes were destroyed. The twister occurred before the F-scale for rating tornadoes was established, but there is agreement that this one was an F5. Seven other tornadoes caused fatalities that day, another 52 total in tornadoes that occurred in northern Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Indiana. Thorough new and continuing research has found no break in the path and also that the tornado touchdown may have occurred approximately 15 miles before previously thought, bringing the total path length to around 234 mi. Damage from the tornado totaled nearly 17 million dollars, which adjusted for inflation would be close to 2 billion dollars today.

Also, check out the squall line of storms moving thru Alabama and Georgia this Monday evening.  Six injuries at Seney, GA.  They’ve had softball-sized hail and gusts over 75 mph with these storms.

43 Responses to “The Great Tri-State Tornado”

  1. Jack says:

    WOW. Hope and Pray, We NEVER See THIS….AGAIN. EVER !!!! (first). ;-)

  2. John Farrer says:

    THat sounds Bad. I remember the one we had in 1980. My wife was driving a head start bus then and was near downtown Kalamazoo when it hit. Never want to see another one of those.

  3. INDY says:

    Bill it could happen tomorrow!! I hope everyone made it !!! INDYY..

  4. Dan (Rockford) says:

    I went to Southern Illinois University which is just a few miles down the road from Murphysboro, IL (the town in the newspaper clipping that Bill linked to). That tornado still looms large in the collective memory of the region.

  5. Uncle Sparkee says:

    I married a tornado, her names Edna. She’s large and in charge. You can watch her crazy ways, but you better respect her. 48 years of strong swirling winds that will knock the hell out ya in a second.

  6. Paul says:

    Bill, what are the chances of a major tornado outbreak simular to that happening here?

    1. Cort S. says:

      In any given year, small, but not zero. Here are two of West Michigan’s most historic tornado outbreaks:

      April 3, 1956
      (In later research, that F5 tornado on this map was split up into a Saugatuck-Holland F4 and a Hudsonville-Lakeview F5.)

      April 11, 1965

      In recent decades, West Michigan has dodged quite a few bullets, in terms of being part of a large outbreak. There have been a few significant tornadoes on occasion, including the Kalamazoo F3 in 1980. We seem to be less immune to receiving wide swaths of damage from derechos and MCS thunderstorm complexes. Those are nothing to forget about either… most famously, May 31, 1998. But someday, a big tornado will hit West Michigan again. Hopefully we don’t get lulled into a false sense of security.

      1. Paul says:

        Thank you Cort S.!

      2. Jim says:

        Cort- I am curious how accurate the tornado paths are on that site.
        They show the Palm Sunday tornado path crossing Alpine Ave about a
        mile south of 6 Mile, where it heavily damaged the Swan Inn Motel.

        1. Cort S. says:

          Tornado tracks back then are likely not completely accurate. Those paths back then come from the NCDC Storm Events Database. Thorough investigations of nearly every point along the tornado damage path were not conducted back then as they are today. To me, it looks like those paths were obtained by just drawing a straight line between the starting point and ending point.

          A recent research project conducted by Ernie Ostuno of the NWS Grand Rapids has improved the accuracy of the tornado paths in the 1956 outbreak:

        2. Cort S. says:

          I should note that the NCDC Storm Events Database is something that was more recently established, and (I think) they had to retroactively construct tracks for tornadoes that happened in the past. There is usually not a lot of information readily available for those early tornadoes.

          A map in Ernie’s research article shows where the 1956 and 1965 tornado paths crossed in Belmont:

        3. Jim says:

          Ernie’s tracks look more like what is described to me by my father and others about these two tornadoes that went through my neck of the woods, Comstock Park. Thanks!

    2. mr. negative says:

      Zero -

  7. Cort S. says:

    This happened back when tornado forecasting was a banned practice in the Weather Bureau, as it was thought tornadoes were unpredictable and the mention of the word would send the public into a panic.

    After the Tri-State Tornado happened, people realized… The tornado had moved in essentially a continuous straight line, so maybe it wasn’t totally unpredictable. What if someone were to telephone ahead to the communities in the path of the tornado? It wouldn’t be such a complete surprise then, and people might have a chance to protect themselves.

    You might say that the Tri-State Tornado marked the beginning of the end of the tornado dark ages. There is evidence of the use of storm spotters sometime after this tornado. Though mention of the word tornado was still frowned upon for a few decades, quiet advancements in tornado research were slowly made, and eventually tornado forecasts came to be.

    How far we have come in one human lifetime. Now we have a well established tornado watch and warning program, spotter programs, and communication technology that allows to see live videos of tornadoes as they happen. We can issue warnings for tornadoes an average of about 15 minutes before they strike, and we are able to predict the possibility of historic tornado outbreaks days before they happen. We’ve scanned tornadoes with high-resolution Doppler radar from close distances:
    (Radar animation of the Goshen County, Wyoming tornado, June 5, 2009. 29 megabyte file, not friendly to slow internet connections.)

    There’s still lots of room for improvement. Meteorologists have a lot left to learn about tornadoes, and also how society responds to warnings. Social scientists are teaming up with meteorologists to make tornado warnings more useful for the public, and to find ways to make the public more aware, prepared, and able to respond appropriately to protect themselves.

      1. Cort S. says:

        Haha, no, that’s a good one!

    1. Bruiseviolet (Cedar Springs) says:

      Thanks for the great info Cort!

    2. GunLakeDeb says:

      Ernie’s book detailing the 1956 Tornado arrived yesterday, and it’s a fascinating read! (And something I shouldn’t be reading just before bed on a windy night…every time a gust slammed us, I’d nearly jump out of my skin….LOL!) The personal accounts are also a scary look at attitudes in the ’50′s about tornadoes: I’m blown away by how many people thought “Michigan doesn’t have tornadoes” so ignored the ominous skies; or people who chose to get in their cars and drive TOWARDS the tornado thinking it was smoke from a fire (!); or those who decided to “drive to safety” rather than head for the basement….

      My husband saw it from a mile away, as a 9-yr-old living next to Richmond Park; and his memories agree with the majority: it was a “dry” tornado – no rain preceded it; then it poured after it passed. They were lucky they weren’t in the path of the tornado because HIS family was oblivious to any any weather forecasts/warnings, etc. Hubby kept looking (north) out the window, asking his Dad “are you sure that’s not a tornado??” “Sure looks like a tornado” – finally his Dad took a glance – and yelled at the kids to get to the basement!!…LOL!!

      My earliest memory – EVER (I was only 3) – was of my Mom telling me to come in the house and we were going to hide in the basement for a while. She must have been watching the TV reports.

      Back in the ’90′s, I owned a building in Standale that we had remodeled. As the work was being done, we realized that the building had been added-onto; later, a man stopped by with some pictures: he was the original owner of the building (identified in Ernie’s book at the Lincoln Dairy Bar) and told how the tornado had ripped the roof off; but the building’s walls remained. It was one of the few that wasn’t completely demolished and the people inside were unhurt. There’s a couple of pictures of it in the book.

      Anyway – I’m sure glad we live in an age where these things are WARNED about.

      1. Cort S. says:

        Should have waited to read that when it was calm and sunny! Sounds like you made a great purchase.

  8. Larry from Hastings/Barry Co says:

    I remember the April 11, 1965 very well. I was only 5 years old. This storm is when I started to get interested in the weather. Yes, one day we will have another outbreak. Next month, I am sure we will start getting thunderstorms, etc. Until then we will be freezing our backsides off.

  9. Jack says:

    Just lost Power Here for 30 seconds or So, Power back on then back off 4 another 20 seconds, now Back on must BE, From the wind ,which is HOWLIN outside, is My Guess. Stay cued.,! Anybody Else have this HAPPEN???? N.E. G.R. :-(

    1. TomKap (Michigan St. & Fuller) Grand Rapids says:

      Had a brief ‘dim’ that made me slightly panic..but it never went out here.

    2. chuckd says:

      Yes- I lost power at aprox 1:30AM on the NE side.

  10. Ray says:

    I remember the tornado that hit Wyoming Mi April 21, 1967. It damaged Buck Matthews(WOOD-TV8 weatherman)garage!

  11. INDY says:


  12. ~Sherry~(Comstock Park) says:

    It is coming down pretty good here. Got to love winter hanging on.

  13. Brenda (Otsego) says:

    How to tell the day of the week? If it’s snowing…. it’s Tuesday!

  14. GB says:

    I’m wondering if someone could explain what the scientific reason for our current pattern is. Negative NAO?

    1. Nathan says:

      Yes, but I don’t know all the science behind it. Maybe Cort can explain!

    2. mr. negative says:


    3. Cort S. says:

      I am not the biggest expert (yet) in understanding these oscillations and their teleconnections to the hemispheric jet stream pattern. But the NAO (click here) would certainly be a piece of the puzzle. Other things to consider are the current state of ENSO, PDO (both are long-term oceanic oscillations) and the shorter-term atmospheric PNA. And that’s not an exhaustive list either.

      If we want to investigate this from a jet stream perspective, we could. Click here for a current map of the jet stream. The jet stream is generally the boundary between warm and cold air. If the jet stream is well to our south (which it is now), we are in the cold air. There is also an upper-level high pressure ridge over Greenland, which is splitting the polar vortex and forcing some of its cold air equatorward to our latitude. Last year at this time, there was a big northward buckle in the jet stream over the Midwestern US. The jet stream bulged northward all the way up to Hudson Bay. We were in a warm ridge last March, and now we are in a cold trough.

      The positive, negative, or neutral phases of every oscillation will have some influence on the jet stream’s ridge-trough pattern. Each oscillation will make the jet stream prefer to have a ridge in some regions and a trough in other regions. Each oscillation influences the jet stream more strongly in some regions of the hemisphere and has less ability to influence it in other regions. How these all balance themselves out gives us our week-to-week and month-to-month weather patterns.

  15. Nathan says:

    I’m pretty sure GR will see more than 1-3 inches by tomorrow evening! NWS is underplaying this big time

    1. SlimJim NW GR (1) says:

      I am coming up on 5″ here and still snowing good and the wind has now picked up as well…

  16. 1.4 couple days ago, then 1.8 here Monday into early Tuesday, Good heavy snow shower ongoing now with about 1/2 inch in the last hour, not back for a non snowbelt area this year. blowing with vis down to well under 1/2 mile and even 1/4 mile or less at times.

  17. SlimJim NW GR (1) says:

    Have been getting moderate to borderline heavy snow here since early morning coming up on 5″ here in Walker…temp is still only 24° snow is falling nice good sized flacks and having no problem accumulating…the good thing is its light and fluffy lake effect snow…

  18. Nathan says:

    I’m very surprised the lake effect is so well developed for this late in the year!

    1. Brenda (Otsego) says:

      Ditto that!

  19. SW Kent says:

    5 inches in Byron Center

  20. Nathan says:

    Waiting for the factors such as shear to break apart the snow banding… But they should not be a factor tonight which will result in more snow accumulations in the soon to be extended advisory area!

  21. Nathan says:

    Bill what are your thoughts on the advisory? The NWS stated 2-5 inches will fall in the CURRENT advisory area… But if they extend the WWA into tomorrow morning (or later), then how much snow could we be talking about? 6+…

  22. SBPortage002 says:

    Not snowing here right now. Picked maybe an inch but no more than that. Some spots grass showing through the snow.

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