Violent storms hit Massachusetts on Wednesday, leaving widespread damage. The worst of the destruction was found in Springfield where tornadoes swept through the town leaving three dead in their wake. As AP reported:

Tornadoes roared through Massachusetts on Wednesday, as violent winds caused damage in about two dozen communities, ripping off roofs, uprooting trees, scattering debris and leaving at least three dead throughout the state.

The storm pulverized or sheared off the tops of roofs on Main Street in Springfield, a city of more than 150,000 about 90 miles west of Boston. A mounted video camera captured dramatic footage of a debris-filled funnel as it swept into downtown from the west, then crossed the Connecticut River.

Gov. Deval Patrick declared a state of emergency and called up 1,000 National Guardsmen after the storms, which brought scenes of devastation more familiar in the South and Midwest to a part of the country where such violent weather isn’t a way of life.

The governor said the death toll was preliminary and police and firefighters were going door to door in Springfield to assure that no one was trapped in damaged buildings.

While Massachusetts does not see many tornadoes annually, Wednesday’s storms were not unprecedented. As Jason Samenow explained:

The tornadoes that struck Birmingham and Tuscaloosa in Alabama, St. Louis and Joplin in Missouri, and now Springfield, Massachusetts should put to rest the myth that twisters don’t hit urban areas. And yesterday’s tornadoes in Springfield and the surrounding region also serve as a powerful reminder that deadly tornadoes can occur almost anywhere - geographically - in the United States. How typical or unusual were the tornadoes in central and western Massachusetts that killed at least three people?

I reviewed the Tornado History Project database and found that from August 21, 1951 to July 23, 2008 - there were 152 recorded tornadoes in Massachusetts or, on average, almost three per year. The majority of the tornadoes to strike the state were of the weaker variety, that is, F0 and F1s on the Fujita Scale. However, around 30 F2s, several F3 and three F4 tornadoes occurred during the period of record.

Surprisingly, Massachusetts (and Connecticut) average(s) just as many strong to violent tornadoes per 10,000 square miles as Texas, Missouri and Tennessee.

The two most notable F4 tornadoes to hit Massachusetts - prior to yesterday - occurred on June 9, 1953 and May 29, 1995. The 1953 storm, which touched down around Worcester, killed 94 people. The 1995 storm, which carved a path through Berkshire county, killed three people.

Damage from the storms spread across central and western Massachusetts, uprooting trees, taking houses off of their foundations, and taking down power lines. As AP reported:

Residents of 18 communities in central and western Massachusetts woke to widespread damage Thursday, a day after at least two late-afternoon tornadoes shocked emergency officials with their suddenness and violence and caused the state’s first tornado-related deaths in 16 years.

Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown joined Gov. Deval Patrick on a helicopter tour of the damaged areas, including Springfield, the state’s third-largest city. Kerry said it looked like a “blast zone” and was confident that federal disaster aid would be made available, particularly because of damage to businesses.

Patrick said it was unbelievable that so much destruction was caused in such a short period of time.

“You have to see it to believe it,” he said after a tour of Monson, a town of fewer than 10,000 residents near the Connecticut border. “Houses have been lifted up off their foundations and in some cases totally destroyed or moved several feet.”

Authorities were still calculating how many tornadoes hit the area.

Two people were killed in West Springfield and another in Brimfield, authorities said. A Springfield death previously blamed on storms may have been an unrelated heart attack, Patrick said Thursday. Public health officials said about 200 people sought medical treatment for storm-related injuries.

The death in West Springfield was a woman who used her body to shield her 15-year-old daughter in a bathtub in their apartment, Patrick said. The daughter survived.

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