The record-breaking tornadoes that swept the United States, by the numbers

Tornadoes ripped through parts of the South and Midwest, leaving behind loss and destruction on a scale difficult to fathom. Here are the key numbers to know.

Rocky Howton in the rubble of his home in Dawson Springs, Ky., on Saturday.
Rocky Howton in the rubble of his home in Dawson Springs, Ky., on Saturday. (Austin Anthony/Austin Anthony for The Washington Post)

As rescue teams and volunteers combed through debris across nine states this weekend looking for survivors, the unprecedented scale of devastation left behind by the storm began to come into focus.

Homes and businesses had been torn from their foundations. Two warehouses had collapsed, trapping and killing employees. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were left without power in mid-December, forcing Kentucky and Tennessee to open shelters where people could warm themselves.

(Video: Brandon Clement)

In hardest-hit Kentucky, where multiple tornadoes touched down Friday night and into Saturday morning, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) said Monday that 74 deaths had been confirmed.

“Thousands of homes are damaged if not entirely destroyed,” Beshear said, “and it may be weeks before we have final counts on both deaths and levels of destruction.”

From a meteorological perspective, the storm will also stand out for its timing, duration and strength. For decades to come, meteorologists will focus on a particularly large supercell, or rotating thunderstorm, which spurred two twisters that caused the majority of the destruction, leading researchers to investigate if such events will happen more often in a warming world.

Both the human and economic costs of this 200-mile-long extreme weather event are still being tabulated. Here is a look at the devastation, by the numbers.


9

States impacted by the outbreak of tornadoes

The National Weather Service received tornado reports from nine states, but most destruction was concentrated in northeast Arkansas, southeast Missouri, northwest Tennessee and western Kentucky. The two most intense tornadoes carved a path of over 200 miles across the four states and caused numerous deaths and major damage.

How the rare and deadly December tornado outbreak unfolded

(Video: Jordan Hall and Scott Peake)

Significant tornado damage was first noted near Monette, Ark., where a nursing home collapsed. The system continued through Mayfield, Ky., where the town was largely demolished and multiple fatalities took place at a candle factory. The storm continued to travel parallel to the Ohio River, about 35 miles to its south. It would eventually dissipate and join up with other storms as it entered Ohio.

Another tornado hit the St. Louis metropolitan area in Missouri and southwest Illinois. As it tore through Edwardsville, Ill., it killed at least six people at an Amazon warehouse and reduced large parts of the building to rubble, trapping employees beneath the debris. A seventh person was airlifted to a hospital.

Tornadoes were also reported in Indiana, Alabama and Mississippi.


88

Deaths confirmed as of Monday

Reports of deaths from the storm have ranged widely. After initially estimating that as many as 100 people were likely killed in Kentucky, Beshear said Monday that state officials had confirmed 74 deaths.

Of those, 20 deaths have been confirmed in Graves County, where some of the worst damage was inflicted on the city of Mayfield. Seven other counties reported deaths from the tornadoes, Beshear said, with victims ranging in age from 5 months to 86 years.

(Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

With more than 100 Kentuckians unaccounted for as of Monday morning, Beshear said he expected the death toll would rise in the coming days and weeks as emergency workers continue to comb through the rubble.

“Undoubtedly, there will be more,” he said. “We believe it will certainly be above 70, maybe even 80.”

Authorities in other states are still trying to determine the total dead. At least six deaths have been reported in Illinois, two in Missouri, two in Arkansas and four in Tennessee.

Kentucky officials struggle to count the dead after tornado disaster


1

The deadliest tornado event in December in modern U.S. history

Before this year, the highest number of tornado-related fatalities during the month of December was 49 deaths in 1953.

December tornadoes aren’t exceptional. About two dozen form in the contiguous United States during the month. Two of the 15 deadliest outbreaks since 1950 have occurred outside of peak season, which lasts from March until June. But the violence and longevity of this storm was exceptional for December and any time of the year.

Why the December tornado outbreak was something totally different


11

At 88 deaths, this storm ranks as the 11th deadliest tornado event in modern U.S. history

The event, which has 88 confirmed deaths as of Monday, so far ranks as the 11th deadliest tornado day in modern U.S. history. If the death toll surpasses 100, the outbreak will become a top 10 deadly tornado day since 1950.

Until Friday, only a dozen days since 1950 have experienced more than 60 tornado-related deaths. Nine tornadoes have caused more than 100 fatalities in a single day.

Deadliest tornado in U.S. history hit the Midwest nearly a century ago

Friday’s event is almost certainly the deadliest since a tornado killed more than 150 in Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011.


165.7

The length in miles of the longest tornado track

Radar

Tornado reports

7 p.m. Dec. 10 - 5 a.m. Dec. 11

Stronger

storms

Rain

NORTH

4 p.m.

5 p.m.

MISSOURI

ARKANSAS

6 p.m.

Defiance

7 p.m.

Trumann

Monette

St. Louis

Hornersville

8 p.m.

MISS.

Pontoon

Beach

Samburg

9 p.m.

Cayce

ILLINOIS

Mayfield

10 p.m.

TENN.

Earlington

Bremen

Dickson

11 p.m.

ALA.

INDIANA

Nashville

Midnight

Bowling

Green

1 a.m.

50 MILES

2 a.m.

KENTUCKY

Radar imagery composite summary created by Alex Schueth

Tornado reports

7 p.m. Dec. 10 to 5 a.m. Dec. 11

Radar

Rain

Stronger

storms

St. Louis

Pontoon

Beach

INDIANA

Defiance

2 a.m.

ILL.

1 a.m.

Midnight

MISSOURI

11 p.m.

KENTUCKY

10 p.m.

Cayce

9 p.m.

8 p.m.

Samburg

Nashville

Hornersville

7 p.m.

Dickson

ARKANSAS

Trumann

TENNESSEE

6 p.m.

5 p.m.

4 p.m.

MISS.

ALABAMA

50 MILES

Radar imagery composite summary created by Alex Schueth

Radar

Tornado reports

7 p.m. Dec. 10

to 5 a.m. Dec. 11

Rain

Stronger

storms

4 p.m.

NORTH

5 p.m.

MISSOURI

ARKANSAS

6 p.m.

7 p.m.

Defiance

Trumann

Monette

St. Louis

8 p.m.

Pontoon

Beach

Samburg

9 p.m.

ILLINOIS

Mayfield

TENN.

10 p.m.

Earlington

Bremen

Dickson

11 p.m.

Nashville

IND.

Bowling

Green

Midnight

1 a.m.

50 MILES

KENTUCKY

2 a.m.

Radar imagery composite summary by Alex Schueth

Carbondale

NORTH

MISSOURI

OHIO

ILLINOIS

INDIANA

Poplar Bluff

Evansville

Cincinnati

ARKANSAS

Paducah

Louisville

Madisonville

Jonesboro

Frankfort

Little Rock

4 p.m.

5 p.m.

6 p.m.

7 p.m.

8 p.m.

9 p.m.

10 p.m.

11 p.m.

Midnight

1 a.m.

2 a.m.

Lexington

Bowling Green

Memphis

Radar

Jackson

TENNESSEE

KENTUCKY

Tornado reports

7 p.m. Dec. 10 to 5 a.m. Dec. 11

Stronger

storms

Rain

Nashville

London

MISSISSIPPI

75 MILES

Radar imagery composite summary created by Alex Schueth

The Mayfield tornado, part of the quad-state storm that swept from northeast Arkansas to western Kentucky, was on the ground continuously for 165.7 miles from the near the Tennessee-Kentucky border to Short Creek in west central Kentucky. That path length places is among the 8 longest since 1950 and in the top 0.01 percent of longest-track tornadoes out of more than 65,000. It was the longest on record during December by more than 40 miles. The other tornado from the same storm, which ravaged Monette, traveled about 80 miles from northeast Arkansas to northwest Tennessee before a 15-mile gap.

The deadly path of how the tornadoes ripped through several states

The 165.7-mile track is now the longest documented since a January 1975 tornado in Florida. It surpasses the Yazoo City tornado of 2010 that traveled 149 miles through parts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Only four tornadoes on record have journeyed beyond 200 miles, and there are questions about the reliability of their path length. The 1925 Tri-state Tornado is generally accepted as producing the longest track on record at 219 miles, but it is unclear whether the same twister was on the ground for this entire path.


11

The life span of the storm in hours

The rotating thunderstorm that tore through four states began around 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 10 and continued through 2:40 a.m. the following day, according to one analysis. A typical supercell lasts about two hours. A long-lived supercell may last for four hours or more.

Even produced from these engines of nature, tornadoes tend to last mere seconds or minutes. While it’s possible this storm “cycled” during its path — wherein a tornado dies off as a new one forms — at least one tornado was on the ground for at least two hours. The total amount of time that tornadoes were on the ground during the storm is likely to double or more.


128

The speed of rotation in miles per hour

(Video: TWP)

How fast a supercell is spinning or its rotational velocity can be measured by radar. The rotational speed peaked at 128 mph after the supercell passed through Mayfield on Friday, indicative of an exceptionally intense tornado. The storm rotated at an average of 94 mph for four hours. Only 1.5 percent of all tornadoes spin so fast, according to Evan Bentley, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.


70 to 80

Degrees marking record warm temperatures in the zone ravaged by tornadoes

On Friday, scores of record high temperatures were set from Texas to Pennsylvania, including in the nine-state region where tornadoes erupted. Temperatures in many areas were 20 to 30 degrees above normal. Memphis soared to 79 degrees, breaking its previous record for Dec. 10 by four degrees.

The warmth was supplied, in part, by record warm December waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

A warming world could add more fuel to tornadoes, scientists say

The exceptionally warm conditions fast-forwarded the atmosphere to conditions more typical of April, fueling the severity of the outbreak and raising questions about the possible role of human-caused climate change in the disaster.


2

The number of factory collapses responsible for fatalities from the tornadoes

An Amazon warehouse collapse in Illinois killed six and a candle factory collapse in Kentucky killed eight. An Amazon spokesperson reported that the Amazon facility had 11 minutes of warning, with managers “telling people to get to their shelter-in-place-area.”

(Video: Riverbender.com via Storyful)

59

Tornadoes confirmed by the National Weather Service from Friday night to Saturday morning

The unusually powerful storm slammed into parts of the Midwest and Tennessee Valley on Friday and Saturday, with the National Weather Service confirming 59 tornadoes in 9 states.

The Weather Service also received 411 reports of severe winds and 25 reports of large hail.

(Video: Stevie Charles Rees for The Washington Post)

149

Tornado warnings issued over the course of 12 hours

The disaster spurred the most tornado warnings on record from noon to midnight for December. The event also ranks third for the most tornado warnings in winter, trailing major outbreaks in January 1999 and February 2008.

(Video: Eddie Knight)

Eight of the issued warnings on Dec. 10 were tornado emergencies. Another 145 were severe thunderstorm warnings in areas where storms were not tornadic but still intense.


30,000 feet

The altitude that debris hurled by the storm reached in the air

The strongest of the tornadoes caved in roofs, crumbled walls and pulled up trees. All that debris had to go somewhere and, by some estimates, may have traveled more than 30,000 feet, or more than five and a half miles, into the air.

It’s unclear whether that sets a record, but it’s among the most intense. Plumes of debris lofted into the air by tornadoes, called a debris signature, are picked up by radar and used by forecasters to confirm the existence of a tornado, which can be especially helpful at night or in rural areas where it might not have been spotted.


750,000

From Arkansas to New York, the total number of customers without power in the aftermath Saturday

The tornadoes were part of a sprawling storm system that swept from the Rockies to the Great Lakes. In addition to the twisters, the system also generated damaging straight-line winds topping 60 mph in Michigan and New York. PowerOutage.US, a website that collects information on outages nationally, reported more than 750,000 customers were without power across the country Saturday evening in the storm’s aftermath.

In the zone affected by tornadoes, more than 100,000 homes and buildings were without power Saturday evening, with the majority of the outages concentrated in hard-hit areas of western Kentucky.

In Kentucky and Tennessee, at least 97 power towers and poles were also damaged, including at least 60 high-voltage transmission structures, according to the Tennessee Valley Authority. This is the most debilitating hit on the power grid in the region since the “Super Outbreak” of 2011.

Hundreds of linemen and other utility workers worked to restore service on Sunday. But tens of thousands of Americans remained in the dark, and there was limited data on some of the most devastated communities in western Kentucky, suggesting the damage from the tornadoes could be much greater.

Work to assess how many homes and businesses have been completely destroyed, or are not safe to enter, is underway. At least 18 Kentucky counties have reported damage, Beshear said Monday.


500,000 gallons

The storage capacity of a water tower in Mayfield, Ky., destroyed by the tornado

The tornado activity decimated the city of Mayfield, Ky., and outside of the candle factory collapse, the downtown area was heavily damaged. The historic clock tower crumbled, buildings along the main square became a pile of bricks, and a water tower collapsed.

“It looked like a bomb dropped on our town,” Ryan Mitchum, who owns a landscaping business in the region and is a Mayfield native, told Washington The Post.

Reporting by Anna Phillips, Ian Livingston and Jacob Feuerstein. Editing by Dayana Sarkisova, Kasha Patel and Jason Samenow. Video editing by Allie Caren. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof and Olivier Laurent. Design by Garland Potts. Design editing by Madison Walls.

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