Violent Tornado Outbreaks: March

Every year meteorologists, storm chasers, and weather-lovers alike circle March 1st on their calendars as the unofficial beginning of tornado season. 2015 has been largely void of tornadoes, as the overall weather pattern has not favored the spring variety of severe weather. This is not completely uncommon, but with only 28 tornado reports this year is certainly off to a very slow start. Historically, March averages 80 confirmed tornadoes across the United States. Of course, some years bring violent and deadly tornadoes early and often. As we leave the winter behind and move towards the winds of spring, we will recap some of the biggest March tornado outbreaks in US history.  While this is a “top ten” of sorts, it is hard to rate the outbreak events on a scale of 1 to 10.  There were certainly deadlier storm systems and some produced higher numbers of tornadoes, but together it presents a picture of a few of the biggest storms to come our way in the past 125 years during the month of March.

Average number of March tornadoes by state.

Tri-State Tornado Outbreak

March 18th, 1925

The Great Tri-State Tornado on March 18, 1925, is the deadliest tornado in US history.  It was one of at least twelve significant tornadoes which occurred in the Midwestern and southern US.  The Tri-State Tornado alone accounted for 695 of the 747 deaths reported.  The tornado was not officially rated, but historians believed it to be an F5.

Ruins of the town of Griffin, Indiana, where 26 people were killed.

The tornado was just one part of a larger tornado outbreak, known as the Tri-State Tornado Outbreak, the deadliest outbreak in US history. Other destructive tornadoes touched down in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, and Alabama.  In addition to those killed, the storms were responsible for 2298 injuries.

The storm system spread as far east as Ohio, to the southwest in Louisiana, and to the southeast in Georgia.  Strong storms were also reported in Oklahoma, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  The day began with discrete supercell thunderstorms and eventually developed into a potent squall line.

Arkansas/Tennessee Tornado Outbreak

March 21st, 1952

A significant surface low, strong southerly winds, and dew points in excess of 64 degrees set up the ninth deadliest tornado outbreak.  On March 21, 1952, strong upper level winds intersected with the warm, moist air mass over Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee – the right ingredients for several strong tornadoes.

Cleaning up at Judsonia Tennessee after a tornado caused significant damage

This outbreak resulted in 209 deaths, 50 of which resulted from a single tornado in White County, Ark., making it the fourth deadliest in the state.  There were 11 violent F4-F5 tornadoes produced during this outbreak.

The same weather system which brought the tornadoes to the south, produced several inches of snow across the central and northern Great Plains and Upper Midwest.  Blizzard warnings were reported in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

Deep South Tornado Outbreak

March 21st-22nd, 1932

The deadliest tornado outbreak to hit the state of Alabama occurred March 21-22, 1932, and was known as the Deep South Tornado Outbreak.  There were 36 total twisters, 27 of which were killers, and several long-lived tornadoes to hit the area.  More than 330 were killed and 268 from the state of Alabama alone.

March 21, 1932 near Northport, AL,

This was one of the worst outbreaks in US history and for a long time trailed only the Tri-State Tornado Outbreak of 1925 and the Tupelo-Gainesville Outbreak of 1936.  The 1932 Deep South Outbreak produced ten violent tornadoes of F4-F5, 8 of them were reported in Alabama.

The set-up for this storm system was generated by a low pressure of 991 mb over eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, with warm air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi Valley.  Temperatures were in the low 70s and upper 60s in Mississippi and western Tennessee early in the day, but by afternoon the temperatures had risen into the mid-to-upper 70s across the entire region.  As a cold front approached Alabama, the strong to severe storms began to fire, taking many meteorologists by surprise at their intensity.

Easter Sunday Tornado Outbreak

March 21st-23rd, 1913

The Easter Sunday Outbreak of 1913 was the most violent outbreak to hit the northern Great Plains on so early a date in the year.  Four F4 tornadoes touched down in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, killing at least 168 people.  The deadliest of the day was an F4 which passed through northern Omaha, Neb., killing 94 in the city, and 3 more rurally. No other violent tornadoes would affect Omaha for 62 years.

Outside the Great Plains, the Easter Sunday Outbreak spawned two other F4 tornadoes, one in Missouri and one in Indiana. The Terre Haute, Ind., tornado tore a half mile path, killing 21 people and injuring 250 along the way.

Actual photo of the 1913 Easter tornado in Omaha (courtesy: Douglas County Historical Society)

The Easter outbreak was one of two outbreaks to hit the US – March 21-23, 1913. The first one affected the southern US beginning in Mississippi on March 21st. Several significant tornadoes occurred, one which killed seven people in one single family and another twister which destroyed much of Lower Peach Tree, Ala., with 27 deaths in that town.

In all, the two outbreaks accounted for 241 deaths in 19 total tornado events. It caused at least $9.68 million in damage.

Carolinas Tornado Outbreak

March 28th, 1984

The most destructive tornado outbreak to strike the Carolina's in over 100 years happened on March 28, 1984 – an event known as the 1984 Carolinas Outbreak. This particular storm system was unusual, not just in intensity, but it had developed near the center of a large-scale low, which some researchers said resembled the Tri-State Tornado of 1925.

Carolina's Tornado Outbreak Map 1984

This outbreak involved several violent tornadoes. One storm produced a family of 13 large tornadoes – 10 of which were F3 or F4. It was responsible for 57 deaths, 1248 injuries and produced damage in 25 counties between South and North Carolina, according to National Weather Service and National Climatic Data Center records.

Palm Sunday Tornado Outbreak

March 27th, 1994

The third notable tornado outbreak to occur on Palm Sunday happened in 1994 in the southeastern US. Twenty-nine tornadoes hit Texas, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina resulting in 40 deaths and over $140 million in damage.

The deadliest tornado, an F4 which hit the Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Ala., killed 20 parishioners. Two other churches were also hit mid-service. The supercell which spawned this tornado tracked for over 200 miles and finally dissipated in South Carolina.

F-4 that crossed into Cherokee County Alabama

There were 29 reported tornadoes that day in a nearly 22 hour period. Aside from the 40 deaths, over 490 people were injured in the storms.

Early March Tornado Outbreak

March 2-3rd, 2012

The March 2-3, 2012 Tornado Outbreak occurred over the southern US into the Ohio Valley, and ranks as the 2nd deadliest in early March. Only the 1966 Candlestick Park tornado had a higher death toll for an early March system. The storms resulted in 41 tornado-related fatalities, 22 of which were in Kentucky. The outbreak followed a very active February which saw 50 confirmed tornadoes across the US.

screen grab from video shot by a family in Borden IN as the tornado was churning towards Henryville.

The event began early in the morning of March 2nd with an initial round of storms and tornadoes riding along a warm front attached to a deep low pressure area over the central Great Lakes. The initial round of storms helped a potent warm air mass to enter the area, and combined with near-record temperatures, helped produce an extremely volatile air mass.

In all there were 70 confirmed tornadoes, causing nearly $3.1 billion in damages.

Mid March Tornado Outbreak

March 9-13th, 2006

March 2006 saw an early tornado season, with a long lasting tornado outbreak occurring from March 9th through the 13th. It spawned 99 confirmed tornadoes and resulted in 11 deaths. The total storm damage was in excess of $1 billion.

This period of active weather began with a derecho on March 9th which marched across the south-central US. It included several tornadoes, though most of the damage was actually caused by straight-line winds.

After a quiet day on the 10th, March 11th brought 18 confirmed tornadoes across Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas. They were accompanied by very large hail, some as large as softballs.

Tornado damage in Springfield, Illinois

March 12th was one of the most active days in recent history with at least 62 confirmed tornadoes. The Kansas City, Mo., metro area was hardest hit with significant wind and hail damage reported, but only two tornadoes.

One very long-lived supercell thunderstorm was responsible for most of the tornadoes on March 12h. It began in Oklahoma and traveled 800 miles until it reached lower Michigan where it finally lost its severe characteristics, 17.5 hours after inception. This is one of the longest documented path and duration of a supercell on record.

Another 15 weaker tornadoes were reported on March 13th. The system finally weakened after passing through Mississippi and Alabama.

Mid Mississippi Valley Tornado Outbreak

March 27th, 1890

The Mid-Mississippi Valley Tornado Outbreak of 1890 occurred on March 27 and remains one of the most deadly in US history. There were at least 24 significant tornadoes resulting in 146 deaths.

Destruction in Louisville Along Main Street Between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets

The most prolific storm was one measuring F4 on the Fujita scale in Louisville, Ky. It had a damage path from the Parkland neighborhood to Crescent Hill and destroyed 766 buildings along the way. At least 55 people died when the Falls City Hall collapsed, which is one of the highest deaths tolls due to a single building collapsed from a tornado in US history.

Mid Mississippi Valley Tornado Outbreak

March 16th-17th, 1942

The March 1942 Tornado Outbreak occurred over the central and southern US on March 16th and 17th. The storms were responsible for 153 deaths and at least 1284 injuries.

Goshen County Indiana tornado damage. (NWS)

At least 5 states reported violent tornadoes making it the 5th most widespread in terms of violent tornado outbreaks and the most violent in the month of March. The outbreak also produced 18 tornadoes which caused at least one death, one of the highest such totals for a single outbreak.

The most notable tornado family occurred in Mississippi. It killed 39 people as it traveled from Leflore County, to Avalon, O’Tuckafola, and into Tula. A report card was reported to have been transported 100 miles away by a twister which hit a school in O’Tuckafola.