March 18 is an infamous day in weather circles. It was on this date in 1925 that the deadliest tornado event in American history transpired.
The horrendous "Tri-State Tornado" raced across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana that day.
It claimed 695 lives and caused seventeen million dollars property damage. That doesn’t sound like much in 2009 dollars, but whole towns were virtually obliterated as the twister moved at forward speeds of over 70mph, with winds of 250-300mph (EF-5).
In these days before weather radar or even very many radio sets, there was little if any warning of this speed demon storm’s approach.
It cut a swath of destruction 219 miles long and as much as a mile wide beginning about 1 PM and lasting until 4 PM. The legendary tornado flukes were well in evidence: it leveled a school in West Frankfort IL, picking up sixteen students and setting them down unharmed 150 yards away. Meanwhile, the town of Parrish, IL was 90% destroyed. It rolled across the countryside dealing destruction at terrific speed, even for a tornado.
In addition to the hundreds killed, 2,000 more were injured, many of them seriously. An incredible 15,000 homes were destroyed, a single-storm record which endures to this day.
One account of the day chronicled the aftermath of devastation and despair in the Indiana town of Griffin:
" When the cloud, bloated with debris and tons of river mud, had passed over a slight rise of land to the east of the village, it left behind a landscape that passed beyond the bounds of despair into unreality. The handful of unscathed citizens from Griffin and surrounding districts were confronted with destruction so complete that some could only guess where they had once lived. The search for family and friends had a special hellishness, as fires flickered over the ruins and the injured wandered about in a daze, mud so thoroughly embedded in their skin that identification was all but impossible."- “The Tri-State Tornado”, by Peter S. Felknor
Statistical highlights of this terrible twister:
1:01 p.m.: tornado touched down 3 miles NNW of Ellington, Missouri
4:30 p.m.: tornado dissipated about 3 miles SW of Petersburg, Indiana
219 mile path length (longest)
1 mile average path width
3 hours of continuous devastation (record)
62 mph average speed
73 mph record speed between Gorham & Murphysboro (fastest on record)
EF-5 tornado on the Fujita Scale, with winds perhaps in excess of 300 mph
28.87" lowest pressure measured on a barograph (pressure) trace at the Old Ben Coal Mine in West Frankfort, Illinois
695 deaths: a record for a single tornado
234 deaths in Murphysboro, IL: a record for a single community from such a disaster
33 deaths at the De Soto school: a record for such a storm (only bombings and gas explosions have taken higher school tolls)
15,000 homes destroyed: record
There is little doubt that more recent intense tornadoes such as the Moore, OK EF-5 of May 1999 or the Greensburg, KS EF-5 of May 2007 might have exceeded the death toll of the Tri-State terror, were it not for Doppler weather radar, and today’s advanced communication and spotter network.
So while we cannot say with 100% certainty such a tornado death toll will never happen, the odds are extremely remote unless we experience complete electrical failure over a very large area. Even then, amateur radio, NOAA weather radio, and emergency management would likely make a big difference.