15 Biggest Tornados in History (and How Deadly They Were)

Biggest Tornados in History

15 Biggest Tornados in History (and How Deadly They Were)

Key Points

  • The El Reno Tornado in 2013 was one of the most powerful tornadoes on record, stretching 2.6 miles wide and killing eight people.
  • The Middle Tennessee tornado outbreak in 1909 claimed 62 lives and is considered the deadliest tornado outbreak in Middle Tennessee history.
  • The Liberty Tornado in 1925, part of the Tri-State tornado outbreak, was the deadliest tornado in Tennessee history, causing 39 deaths.
  • The Joplin tornado in 2011 was an F5 tornado that killed 158 people and caused $2.8 billion in damages, making it the costliest tornado in US history.
  • The Soviet Union experienced its worst tornado outbreak in 1984, with 11 tornadoes forming north of Moscow and causing an estimated death toll of around 400.

Have you ever wondered about the biggest tornadoes in history and how deadly they were? These incredible natural storms are extremely violent. They have shredded homes and other buildings, lifted vehicles off their wheels, and turned debris into deadly missiles of destruction. Anyone who has lived through one never forgets the experience. Many struggle with the trauma of a tornado for years afterward. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a tornado as “a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, it is hard to see a tornado unless it forms a condensation funnel made up of water droplets, dust, and debris. Tornadoes can be among the most violent phenomena of all atmospheric storms we experience.” 

Explore our list of the 15 biggest tornadoes in history and discover just how deadly they were. 

15. El Reno: 2013

deadliest tornadoes in history
The El Reno tornado, shown above, stretched a staggering 2.6 miles wide.

The El Reno Tornado, the second of an outbreak near Oklahoma City lasting from May 31-June 1, 2013, is “one of the most powerful tornadoes sampled by mobile radar and also the widest known tornado on record.” It eventually stretched 2.6 miles wide and killed eight people as it overtook them on Interstate 40 in Oklahoma, including three storm chasers. 

  • Year: 2013
  • Location: Union City, El Reno, Oklahoma City, OK
  • Deaths: 8

14. Middle Tennessee: 1909

biggest tornadoes in history
The most lives were lost in the small community of Bee Spring, TN.

I’m from Tennessee, so this outbreak sticks out to me personally. On April 29, 1909, six tornadoes raged through Middle Tennessee and claimed 62 lives. It is considered the deadliest tornado outbreak ever in Middle Tennessee and one of the worst outbreaks in United States history. 

  • Year: 1909
  • Location: Waverly, Columbia, Murfreesboro, Cookeville, Clarksville, TN
  • Deaths: 62

13. Liberty: 1925

biggest tornadoes in history
Multiple tornadoes, like those that devastated Tennessee in 1925, are thankfully rare.

The second-worst tornado spawned in the “Tri-State” tornado outbreak, ranking at #2 on our list, is the Liberty Tornado that occurred in Sumner County, TN. At approximately 5 PM, on March 18, 1925, an F4 tornado developed near Gallatin, TN, and carved a 60-mile swath of destruction through Keytown to Liberty, TN, before crossing into Kentucky. It is known as the deadliest tornado in Tennessee history, claiming 39 lives and injuring 90. Two other F3 tornadoes also occurred in Tennessee on the same day, killing 3 and injuring 24 more. 

  • Year: 1925
  • Location: Sumner, Williamson, Rutherford Counties, TN
  • Deaths: 39

12. Joplin: 2011

deadliest tornadoes in history
The Joplin, Missouri tornado was rated F5, the highest rating on the Fujita Damage Intensity Scale.

In more recent history, an F5 tornado struck Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011. It measured almost a mile wide and ripped through rural areas surrounding the city, killing 158 people and injuring 1,150 more. Damage estimates of $2.8 billion make it the costliest tornado in United States History. 

  • Year: 2011
  • Location: Joplin, Missouri
  • Deaths: 158

11. Glazier-Higgins-Woodward: 1947

deadliest tornadoes in history
This was the only structure left standing in Glazier, TX after the deadly tornadoes.

This 12-tornado outbreak in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas on April 9, 1947, spawned at least one F5 tornado and went 125 miles, destroying everything in its path. Strangely, a snowstorm followed shortly after the tornado, covering the devastation and making cleanup and identifying the dead even more difficult. The total damage was placed at $10 million, with 181 dead and 980 injured. 

  • Year: 1947
  • Location: Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas
  • Deaths: 181

10. St. Louis: 1896

deadliest tornadoes in history
The St. Louis–East St. Louis tornado of 1896 killed 255 people.

St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois, suffered destruction from an F4 tornado on May 27, 1896. In less than a half hour, the tornado killed 255 people, destroyed the homes of over 5000, and caused an estimated $10 million in damages. It stands as the third deadliest tornado in United States history.

  • Year: 1896
  • Location: St. Louis, Missouri
  • Deaths: 255

9. Great Natchez: 1840

deadliest tornadoes in history
View of Natchez by Henry Lewis (1819-1904), thought to have been painted shortly before the Great Natchez Tornado.

The Great Natchez Tornado that struck that city on May 7, 1840, is the second deadliest tornado in the United States. This massive storm moved along the banks of the Mississippi River, destroying boats and drowning crews before desolating the town of Natchez and surrounding communities. Many deaths were not recorded because they were plantation slaves. An estimated 317 people were lost and over 100 suffered injuries. 

  • Year: 1840
  • Location: Natchez, Mississippi
  • Deaths: At least 317

8. Dixie: 1908

biggest tornadoes in history
The Dixie tornadoes spanned from Texas to Georgia, then north from Oklahoma to Tennessee.

Early tornado facts are hard to nail down, but residents across the Midwest and South still talk about the outbreak of 31 tornadoes between April 23 and 25, 1908. At least three F4 tornadoes were reported, and 13 states received damage. Approximately 324 people were killed, and 1,720 were injured. These numbers are inaccurate mainly due to the fact that African Americans were not included in the official numbers. 

  • Year: 1908
  • Location: Midwestern and Southern United States
  • Deaths: At least 324

7. Soviet Union: 1984

biggest tornadoes in history
A multiple vortex tornado, like the one shown here, touched down near Ivanovo, a city north of Moscow, Russia.

The Soviet Union is known for extreme weather conditions, but most would not include tornadoes. However, the worst in its history occurred on June 9, 1984, when an outbreak of 11 formed north of Moscow, two of them F4s. They also produced terrible thunderstorms and the heaviest hailstones in history, weighing over two pounds. The Soviets have never been forthcoming with facts about their country, but the death toll is estimated at around 400. 

  • Year: 1984
  • Location: Soviet Union
  • Deaths:  400

6. Tupelo-Gainesville: 1936

biggest tornadoes in history
The destruction of buildings resulting from the tornado in Gainesville, GA in April of 1936.

This tornado outbreak gets its name from the region that was devastated on April 5, 1936. A total of twelve tornadoes struck near Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, Georgia, including at least two F5 tornadoes. Others touched down and caused considerable damage in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, including massive flooding. The death toll reached 454 before it was all over.  

  • Year: 1936
  • Location: Southeastern United States
  • Deaths: 454

5. Madaripur and Shibchar: 1977

biggest tornadoes in history
The Bay of Bengal is prone to these types of tropical cyclones, which can also produce tornadoes.

Bangladesh, as you will discover, receives more tornadic activity than other areas due to its proximity to the Bay of Bengal, which sends moist, warm air into the region. Several of the biggest tornadoes in history have hit this unfortunate region. On April 1, 1977, Madaripur and Shibchar were struck by a deadly tornado that claimed 500 lives and injured thousands. 

  • Year: 1977
  • Location: Madaripur and Shibchar, Bangladesh
  • Deaths: 500

4. Sicily: 1851

biggest tornadoes in history
The outbreak in Sicily may actually have been a single multiple-vortex tornado, like the one shown above.

On December 8, 1851, two waterspouts converged in Western Sicily to form a giant supercell tornado that became the second largest in Europe. Estimates of the death toll stand around 500, but record-keeping was sparse, and no one really knows how many were lost. Thousands were injured, and the destruction was impossible to calculate at the time. 

  • Year: 1851
  • Location: Western Sicily, present-day Italy
  • Deaths: approximately 500

3. Bangladesh: 1973

biggest tornadoes in history
The third deadliest tornado in history is estimated to have killed over 1,000 people in the Dhaka District of Bangladesh, shown above.

This region has seen its fair share of tornado destruction. The third biggest tornado in history leveled eight villages in the Dhaka District and claimed more than 1,000 lives, although the official death toll only stands at 681. April 17, 1973, was still vividly remembered and many families were still recovering when the record-breaking Daulatpur-Saturia tornado hit 16 years later.

  • Year: 1973
  • Location: Dhaka District, Bangladesh
  • Deaths: Official number – 681; estimates are over 1,000 

2. Tri-State: 1925

biggest tornadoes in history
The destruction in Griffin, IN in the aftermath of the Tri-State tornado.

The so-called “Tri-State” tornado outbreak is the deadliest such event in the United States and the second deadliest in the world. It actually spanned more than five states, including Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Kansas. At least 12 total tornadoes spawned in the middle of the day on March 18, 1925. The most severe was an F5 tornado that wreaked havoc for seven hours across Southeastern Missouri, Southern Illinois, and Southwestern Indiana. It claimed 695 lives and caused billions of dollars in damages. The second-worst tornado in this outbreak on March 18, 1925, is the Liberty Tornado, ranked at #13 on our list.

  • Year: 1925
  • Location: Midwestern and Southeastern United States
  • Deaths: 695

1. Daulatpur – Saturia: 1989

biggest tornadoes in history
The deadly tornado leveled the town of Saturia, the location of the Baliati Royal Palace.

The deadliest tornado in recorded history occurred on April 25, 1989, in the Manikganj District in Bangladesh. An F4 tornado with winds between 210 and 260 mph drilled a path 50 miles long and left an estimated 80,000 people homeless. The death toll is still uncertain, but the best estimates place the number around 1,300, with more than 12,000 injured. 

  • Year: 1989
  • Location: Manikganj District, Bangladesh
  • Deaths: Estimated at 1,300

Summary of the 15 Biggest Tornadoes in History

RankTornado NameCategoryLocationDate
15El Reno 2013F5 initially but downgraded to F3Union City, El Reno, Oklahoma City, OKMay 31, 2013
14Middle TN 1909UnratedWaverly, Columbia, Murfreesboro, Cookeville, Clarksville, TNApril 29, 1909
13Liberty 1925F4Sumner, Williamson, Rutherford Counties, TNMarch 18, 1925
12Joplin 2011F5/EF5Joplin, MissouriMay 22, 2011
11Glazier-Higgins-Woodward 1947F5Texas, Oklahoma, and KansasApril 9, 1947
10St. Louis 1896F4St. Louis, MissouriMay 27, 1896
9Great NatchezUnratedNatchez, MississippiMay 7, 1840
8Dixie 1908F4Midwest and South United StatesApril 23-25, 1908
7Soviet Union 1984F4North of Moscow, RussiaJune 9, 1984
6Tupelo-Gainesville 1936F5Tupelo, Mississippi, and Gainesville, GeorgiaApril 5, 1936
5Madaripur and Shibchar 1977UnratedMadaripur and Shibchar, BangladeshApril 1, 1977
4SicilyUnratedWestern Sicily, present-day ItalyDecember 8, 1851
3Bangladesh 1973F4Dhaka District, BangladeshApril 17, 1973
2Tri-StateF5Primarily Missouri, Illinois, and IndianaMarch 18, 1925
1Daulatpur – SaturiaAssumed F4Manikganj District, BangladeshApril 25, 1989

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the biggest tornado in history?

The Daulatpur-Saturia tornado is the biggest in history. The exact death toll is estimated to be around 1,300 people, with 12,000 injured. The tornado left 80,000 people homeless.

What is a tornado?

Tornadoes are vertical funnels of rapidly spinning air. Their winds may top 300 miles an hour. Also known as twisters, tornadoes are born in thunderstorms and are often accompanied by hail.

What was the biggest tornado in the United States?

The biggest tornado in the United States was the Tri-State Tornado that happened on March 18, 1925. It actually occurred across more than three states. The F5 tornado traveled for 219 miles and it lasted for 3.5 hours, killing 695 people.

What is the EF scale for rating tornadoes?

The Enhanced Fujita Scale, or EF Scale, uses the damage observed to estimate the tornado’s wind speeds, not the actual recorded wind speeds. 

Why do modern tornadoes seem to be less deadly?

Modern weather forecasting and communications enable us to detect and track tornadoes and warn those in their path ahead of time so they can escape the devastation.

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