The monster tornado that cut a four-mile path through Joplin, Mo., Sunday evening killed at least 90 people and caused catastrophic damage, making it one of the worst in U.S. history. Its focus was on a city of 175,000 people.
But on March 18, 1925, a single tornado in the Midwest killed 695 people as it traveled northeast, starting in southeast Missouri, moving across Illinois below St. Louis, and finally diminishing in southwest Indiana. The so-called Tri-State tornado traveled 234 miles in 3.5 hours, causing more than $16.5 million (1997 dollars) in damage. The size of the tornado, which was rated an F5 on the Fujita scale of tornado intensity, was so large that many residents in its path thought it was a huge harmless cloud, rather that a focused vortex of winds traveling up to 300 miles per hour. More than 15,000 homes were destroyed, and nine schools were flattened, killing 69 students. At least eight other tornadoes caused damage that day in the Midwest and Southeast United States.
The U.S. Weather Bureau's forecast for that day called for rains and strong shifting winds.
The second deadliest U.S. tornado hit Natchez, Miss., on May 7, 1840, killing 317 people. The twister is noted for being the only tornado of its size to kill more than it injured (109 people). Evidence and eyewitness accounts indicate the tornado was a mile wide. An estimated 60 flatboats were sunk, killing crew and passengers.
Third on the list is the 1896 St. Louis--East St. Louis tornado, which touched down in a city of 575,000--the fourth most populated in the country at the time. The resulting death toll was somewhere between 255 and 400, with homes, schools, factories and railyards destroyed. An estimated $520 million in property was damaged by that May 27 twister. More than 2,000 people were injured.
The fourth deadliest tornado hit Tupelo, Miss., on April 5, 1936, killing 216. The fifth worst struck Gainesville, Ga., on the same day, killing 203.
The total cost of the Joplin tornado won't be finalized for some time. The costliest tornado in U.S. history to date is the twister that hit Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999, causing $1.3 billion in damage in 2011 dollars, including more than 8,000 homes. The F5 twister had winds of 318 miles an hour. While 36 people were killed by the tornado, the Oklahoma governor's office issued commendations to local meteorologists, as the death toll would likely have been higher without their intensive coverage of the storm.
The April 10, 1979, tornado that hit Wichita Falls, Texas, is second on the costliest list, at $1.2 billion in lost property.
Third on the list is the May 6, 1975, twister that wrecked $1 billion, with the May 11, 1970, event in Lubbock, Texas, coming in fourth with $763 million lost. The fifth costliest tornado in U.S. history was the Topeka, Kansas, tornado that touched down on June 8, 1966, causing $676 million in damage.