Tornadoes form where warm, moist air is trapped below cold, dry air; when the cold air is punctured, the rapidly rising warm air begins to rotate as it cools. That creates clouds and thunderstorms – but it can also form a funnel that spins at speeds of up to 400 kph (250 mph). When the spinning funnel of cloud touches the ground, it becomes a tornado.
They can happen anywhere, but the USA has more of them than anywhere else in the world. Americans understand that tornadoes are killers – and the tri-state tornado was the biggest killer of all.
The tri-state tornado of 1925 is the statistical Big Daddy of tornadoes. It spun faster, from 416-510 kph (261-318 mph); travelled faster, at an average 100 kph (62 mph), double the average speed of any other tornado; lasted longer, for three and a half hours instead of the usual 15 minutes; and went further, 350 km (219 mi), at least treble the average distance. It touched ground near Ellington in Missouri, on the edge of the Ozark Mountains, splintering trees as it took off on its rampage across Illinois into Indiana.
It levelled whole villages and towns like Gorham, where it killed half the population. In Murphysboro it ripped apart three schools made of brick and stone, killing 25 of the 234 townsfolk who died there. It tore like shrieking Velcro across the countryside, tearing up farms and cattle, whirling cars, trucks, people and furniture into its vortex and spitting them out in broken shreds. It destroyed 15,000 homes across 164 square miles – roughly 50 times a greater area than other severe tornados.
The Tri-State Tornado was travelling so fast, across such a wide front (up to 1.4 km/1 mi), that people died because they couldn’t believe it actually was a tornado.
When was the The Tri-State Tornado: March 18 1925
Where was the The Tri-State Tornado: Ellington, Missouri, northeast across Illinois to just north of Princeton, Indiana
What was the The Tri-State Tornado death toll: 652 people died and more than 2,000 were injured (more than double the casualty list of the USA’s next worse tornado). Because it was ‘just’ a freak of nature (i.e. there was nobody to blame) newspapers pursued the extraordinary human-interest stories that the tornado provoked – like the 800 miners near West Frankfort, Illinois, who were stranded 167 m (500 ft) down a shaft without any power or light, and survived the tornado only to find that 127 of their women and children had been killed, and 450 injured. The Tri-State Tornado really was a monster.
You should know: a Tornado Watch (as posted on the radio or in a newspaper, for example) means that conditions in the area are prone to severe weather. Be alert. A Tornado warning means that a tornado has been sighted or tracked on radar in the vicinity. Go immediately to a safe shelter.