Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Natural Disaster History: The Tri-State Tornado

March brings us the 91st anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado. March 18, 1925, a deadly tornado swept through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, killing almost 700 people.  Though the Fujita scale was not in use then, photos of damage lead most people today to agree it was an EF5 tornado.

Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin via Wikimedia Commons

A mile wide, with multiple satellite tornados (as in the modern photo, above) forming and dissipating and forming once again, the primary tornado stayed on the ground for an astonishing four hours, with another forming immediately in its place and lasting another three hours. This is a rare, rare event. Usually, when a tornado appears to exist for that long, careful examination of the track shows it was actually several tornados, forming and dying along the same track. This mile-wide tornado just lasted and lasted and lasted. The meteorological requirements for this are complicated and not likely to happen often. Perhaps once every 200 years, such a tornado will be seen, or perhaps even less often.

Unfortunately, “seen” is something this tornado often was not. As in my novel Storm, it was for long periods, a rain-wrapped tornado in a high precipitation cell. If you can imagine living in a world without The Weather Channel, where radios were not all that common. It’s early afternoon, and the sky has gone dark with the thunderstorm activity. At most, you might detect a denser darkness in the west, visible when the rain eases up for a moment. You would have no idea that darkness held your doom.

And then, it is on you, with its cloud of deadly debris.

Southern Illinois towns took the brunt of it, with a few small towns being wiped from the face of the earth. 33 children were killed in one DeSoto school (the worst school tornado fatality number in US history). 91 meters of train track was yanked out of the ground and scattered. Lumber was tossed up and driven through the steel walls of a water tower. Murphysboro Illinois lost 234 residents, 2% of its population. This too is a record, the most deaths in one municipality from a U.S. tornado. Illinois saw the most deaths any state has seen in a single tornado in just a few hours.

And if this wasn’t terrible enough, because of the way people cooked and heated their homes in 1925, fires caught after the tornado and some people trapped in debris were burned to death before they could be rescued. And for people who think there were some “good old days” when people behaved better, think again. Looting occurred, and intact but empty homes of those who had died at work or while out shopping were broken into and robbed.

This was a horrifying event in natural disaster history that broke so many records, it’d take too much space to list them all. Let’s hope we don’t see another one like this in our lifetime.


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