This week marks the two-year anniversary of a string of violent and deadly tornadoes that tore through the southeastern US, specifically Mississippi and Alabama. I live almost smack on the Tennessee/Alabama border and the first tornado siren of the day woke me up at 4:30 in the morning; a weak tornado passed within a few miles of my house. I spent the rest of the day hunkered down with my dogs, cats, TV, and weather radio wondering what would happen as tornado after tornado kept ripping through towns I know. That afternoon, when I heard that an F5 was heading in my general direction, I dashed to the storm cellar. I saw the tornado when it was about 10 miles south of my house. A swirl of violent, angry black and green clouds roared past. It seemed as if the sky had turned on us that day. April 27, 2011 was one of the scariest days of my life.
And yet, I knew it was coming. Weather forecasters had predicted an exceptionally violent tornado outbreak days ahead of time. Local weather forecasters said over and over and over: get ready. I got ready. Many in my community got ready. Although it is almost impossible to hide from an F5 tornado, I wasn’t caught off guard.
The same wasn’t true for tornado outbreaks in the era before Doppler radar. In years past, tornadoes were mysterious and sudden events that appeared without warning, destroyed property, then mysteriously disappeared. That is especially true of the worst tornado disaster in US history, the tri-state tornado of 1925 that affected communities in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. This tornado stayed on the ground for a record 219 miles, crossed through three states, killed 675 people, injured over 2,000, destroyed 15,000 homes, and caused massive destruction for a continuous 3.5 hours. Modern-day forecasters believe that the storm moved between 62 and 73 miles per hour, and that the winds within the tornado itself occasionally topped 300 miles per hour.
But there was no hint of the terror to come on the morning of March 18, 1925. The day started off like a typical spring day. The U.S. Weather Bureau (the forerunner of the National Weather Service) forecast called for “rains and strong shifting winds“. There was no mention of storms, of wind, or tornadoes. In those days, there were no tornado watches, and certainly no tornado warnings. In fact, the U.S. Weather Bureau was forbidden to even mention tornadoes!
In 1925, the word “tornado” wasn’t even in the vocabulary of the U.S. Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service). The word had been banned since 1887, when the U.S. Army Signal Corps managed the country’s weather forecasting. Tornadoes were utterly unpredictable, the logic went, and forecasting them, besides being a fruitless venture, would only spread panic among the public. Forecasters weren’t allowed to study tornadoes, or even acknowledge their existence in public.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the weather that day before the tornado: “All morning, before the tornado, it had rained. The day was dark and gloomy. The air was heavy. There was no wind. Then the drizzle increased. The heavens seemed to open, pouring down a flood. The day grew black.”
At 1:01 in the afternoon, the weather changed from drizzly to terrifying. A dark funnel cloud spun out of the sky, descended from the mist, and touched down near Ellington, Missouri. The storm quickly picked up speed and grew in size. One of the reasons this storm was so very destructive is that is grew to a mile wide and was wrapped in rain and dust. In this storm, 30 farmers were killed, which was really quite unusual during this time.
The above video describes why an unusual number of farmers were killed in this storm: “It’s very rare to have the farm owner killed by a tornado. They are extremely weather wise people, great observers. They had no idea what they were facing. This tornado was surrounded by massive cloud and so shrouded in dust and debris and was unrecognizable to farmers.” This storm was described as a massive, low rolling cloud, not what a typical tornado looks like. Many farmers probably thought the clouds were just a bad storm and didn’t take shelter.
The storm roared through small communities, destroying homes, killing residents, and flattening small towns. One survivor recalled in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that “the air was filled with 10,000 things. Boards, poles, cans, garments, stoves, whole sides of the little frame houses, in some cases the houses themselves, were picked up and smashed to earth. And living beings, too. A baby was blown from its mother’s arms. A cow, picked up by the wind, was hurled into the village restaurant.”
The tornado crossed the state line into Illinois and made its way to the town of Murphysboro, with a population of 12,000. Eugene Porter describes what the tornado looked like: “It was so wide … usually you think about a tornado, it has a funnel, and it may be a block or two or three blocks wide. But something about a mile wide, well it just—” Words seem to have failed him to describe the storm.
The tornado hit homes, businesses, and the local school. Wallace Akin was 2 years old when the tornado crashed through his home. He recounts that day in his book The Forgotten Storm. “An invading army of debris swept over the western hill — trees, boards, fences, roofs. Day became night. The house began to levitate and, at the same time, the piano shot across the room, gouging the floor and carpet where I had played only moments before. The walls began to crack as the roof ripped free and disappeared, joining the swirling mass of debris. But the walls and the floor held as we and the house took flight.” His house flew off its foundation, and crashed onto the top of the garage. The garage flew off its foundation, too, and rested on top of yet another house. Akin and his mother went along for the ride. The local school collapsed, trapping half of the 400 students. 11 students were killed.
The destruction was hard to even comprehend.
Residents stumbled out of their destroyed buildings and started to look for survivors. “Scenes of suffering and horror marked the storm and fire. Throughout the night relief workers and ambulances endeavored to make their way through the streets strewn with wreckage, fallen telegraph poles and wires and burning embers. The only light afforded was that of the burning area.”
As the tornado hit West Frankfurt, Illinois, the power went out in the local coal mine and the miners ended their work day early.
When they climbed out of the 500-ft. mine shaft, they found their town destroyed. Most of the 127 victims were the wives and children of the miners. Perhaps the most heart-breaking loss is the school that was destroyed in De Soto, killing 33 children. By the time the storm crossed the Wabash River into Indiana, 613 people were dead in the state of Illinois.
The storm also hit the small town of Griffin, IN. The town was almost completely destroyed. A Mr. Felknor describes the scene that survivors confronted in the 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.”
By the time it lost its power and dissipated back into the clouds, the tornado had caused an estimated at $16.5 million in damage. When adjusted to today’s dollar value, the toll is approximately $1.4 billion. Many of the towns affected by the tornado took decades to recover. The tornado destroyed essential infrastructure, and by the time towns were starting to bounce back, the Great Depression hit.
However, one good thing did come from this hugely destructive storm.
“The single biggest thing that happened as a result of the Tri-State was the increase in public awareness about tornadoes,” says Harold Brooks of NOAA’s Severe Storms Lab in Norman, Oklahoma. “Even though the National Severe Storms Laboratory had a ban on using the word ‘tornado,’ it was the beginning of local tornado-spotter networks. There were no official programs that we know of, but when you look at old newspapers you start to see mention of these spotters after 1925.” According to Brooks, the storm-spotter programs contributed to a steady decline in the number of tornado deaths in subsequent years. Today, 50 people are killed by tornadoes annually; at the 1925 rate, that number would be 500.
Many of the towns affected by this destructive storm feature historic markers to educate visitors about this important historic event. If you visit any of the small towns along the path of this tornado, keep a lookout for historic markers.
Popular Mechanics, Tri-State Tornado: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, March 1925
The Forgotten Storm by Wallace E. Akin