I’ve never lived through a tornado but they fascinate me. The randomness of them and the way they form out of thin air gives them an almost spectral quality. All that power concentrates into one narrow funnel that can tear a home to pieces, hurling pieces in all directions, until a stranger driving past the next day wouldn’t know a home had ever been there.

Tornadoes are measured on the Fujita scale. F0 tornadoes have winds that blowing less than 73 mph. They account for more than 40% of all tornadoes, and they can do light damage. An F2 tornado will uproot old, sturdy trees and destroy mobile homes. An F3 is between 158-206 mph, and can tear roofs and walls off of homes, pull trains off the tracks, and lift cars and throw them. F0 – F3 storms make up 98.9% of all tornadoes.

F5 tornadoes account for just .1% of all tornadoes. These violent storms are a real rarity and are the most severe rating on the Fujita scale. The winds reaching 261–318 mph (that’s 419–512 kilometers, per hour). An F5 tornado will rip strong buildings from their foundations and disintegrate them. Glass and other debris are sent flying with such force it acts as shrapnel. An F5 can pick up cars, trucks, and even train cars and fling them hundreds of yards away. A direct hit from an F5 tornado is likely not survivable above ground.

F4 on the left; F5 on the right. NWS photo by Mike Branick

 

These pictures from Wikipedia show the difference of the aftermath of the F4 vs F5. You see there’s a lot of wreckage after an F4, but almost nothing is left after an F5.

In the summer of 1944, Bob Hope visited the South Pacific and joked with an audience, “Out here in the Pacific, they have typhoons and hurricanes that blow over 200 miles an hour. We have tornadoes and hurricanes back home, but I don’t worry about them. The mortgage on my house is so heavy that nothing could budge it.”

Front page of the St. Paul Globe, 1904

 

At the turn of the century, most Americans had never seen a tornado and didn’t even know what they looked like. But for people in the middle of the country, these powerful, frightening storms were all too familiar. They usually called the storms “cyclones”. Today experts classify cyclones as a different type of storm that usually occurs in the South Pacific. When you look at historical records though, they usually refer to tornadoes as cyclones.

The first two pictures of tornadoes emerged in 1884.

The first picture of a tornado, taken in April 1884. There is some contention that this photo may have been ‘doctored’.

 

A. A. Adams’s photograph of a tornado in Garnett, Kansas (1884)

 

I recently came across a list of the top 25 deadliest tornadoes to ever occur in the United States, According to homeadvisor.com, the criteria for ranking tornadoes varies. It might be ranked based on property damage or human death or the strength of the storm. This list was based on the number of human casualties. I was surprised that only one of the tornadoes happened in the 21st century (Joplin, Missouri in 2011). Even the catastrophic Moore Tornado in 2013 didn’t make the list, most likely because our advanced warning capabilities have given people life-saving seconds and minutes to reach shelter.

On June 12th, 1899, a tornado hit New Richmond, Wisconsin. That afternoon, the Gollmar Brothers Circus had just come into town and was preparing for their first performance. People poured into town for the circus, probably paying little attention to the weather. The tornado formed on Lake St. Croix as a waterspout (basically a tornado on water) and it grew in strength rapidly. It passed on to land and began to level farms. By evening, the tornado had grown into a monstrous F5.

Shortly after the circus ended, the tornado hit New Richmond and moved through the center of town, leveling over 300 buildings in its path. A 3,000 pound safe disappeared and was found a block away. In the end, 117 people were killed, and 150 more were injured in the New Richmond tornado, making it the ninth deadliest storm in US history. See these pictures of the damage:

Panorama photograph of New Richmond, post-tornado, shows the total devastation
Wreckage a building in New Richmond, with the body of a horse, photographed the day after the tornado. Note the buildings in the background that the storm missed.

 

New Richmond, WI, the day after the tornado. Survivors of the storm stand in front of a ruined barn. (Photo from RubyLane.com)

 

I meant to write about a few tornadoes but this post is quite long so I’ll save them for future posts!