2011 tornadoes: April 25-28 Super Outbreak and Joplin, Mo., May 22
It was one of the world’s worst tornado outbreaks on record. Four days, 362 tornadoes, and more than 320 people dead. Hardest hit was Alabama on April 27, a day on which at least 200 tornadoes terrorized the South. Several communities in Alabama were virtually wiped off the map.
An EF4 tornado, the second most violent on the 0-to-5 Enhanced Fujita scale, plowed through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, killing 64 during its 90-minute rampage. Another tornado, a 1.25-mile-wide EF5, spend 2 hours, 35 minutes on the ground. It lay siege to the towns of Phil Campbell and Hackleburg, killed 72, and went down in the books as Alabama’s deadliest tornado on record. At the time, it was also the deadliest tornado since 1955. The tornado tracked 132 miles — farther than the distance between Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia.
The entire four-day event unleashed swarms of tornadoes from Texas to Maryland and New York. It eclipsed the “big one” of April 3-4, 1974, an outbreak that dropped 148 tornadoes across the Ohio and Tennessee valleys. The 2011 outbreak produced more tornadoes than that in a single afternoon. It was unprecedented and horrifying.
After a morning wave of severe squalls blasted through Dixie Alley and left a quarter-million people without power, multiple waves of rapidly rotating supercell thunderstorms roared across Mississippi and Alabama. Some locations dealt with multiple tornadic storms. Marion County, Ala., endured two EF5s from separate storms less than 10 miles and 90 minutes apart.
Less than a month later, on May 22, a devastating EF5 tornado with 200 mph winds ripped through Joplin, Mo., causing about 160 fatalities. The twister destroyed more than 7,000 homes and 500 businesses.
Hurricane Sandy: Oct. 29, 2012
This massive tempest, part-hurricane, part extratropical storm, killed at least 100 people in the United States and cost $65 billion, primarily due to massive amount of water it pushed into the Northeast coast and the resulting coastal flooding.
The storm formed in the Caribbean, reaching peak strength as a Category 3 hurricane when it hit Cuba on Oct. 25, 2012.
From there, Sandy quickly swept northward ahead of an approaching cold front over the United States. The European’s ECMWF weather model latched onto the idea of Sandy’s virtually unprecedented left-hand turn toward the U.S. Northeast coast as much as a week in advance.
The National Hurricane Center’s forecast called for a hit to New Jersey the evening of Oct. 26, three days in advance.
The “superstorm” roared ashore just south of Atlantic City, on Oct. 29 with 80 mph sustained winds.
Sandy brought ashore an enormous zone of strong winds while atmospheric pressures in the Northeast fell to their lowest levels since the Great Hurricane of 1938. Sandy raised the water level at the Battery in New York to nearly 14 feet, and its storm surge flooded seven subway tunnels in New York City. Winds gusted as high as 96 mph on Long Island.
And yet there were never any hurricane or tropical storm warnings issued by the National Weather Service for New Jersey or New York. Instead, routine “high wind warnings” were up. That was because of technicalities in the storm’s hybrid (part-hurricane, part nontropical) structure. It resulted in an avoidable communications debacle. National Weather Service policy since then has changed.
The storm also produced up to three feet of snow in West Virginia, thanks to the cold air wrapping in behind it.
Catastrophic Oklahoma tornadoes: May 2013
May 2013 featured 63 tornadoes in Oklahoma.
The first and most devastating struck shortly after 3 p.m. central on May 20, 2013. It formed west of Newcastle, Okla., crossing Interstate 44 as it tracked northeast. (The day earlier had featured a deadly EF4 tornado in the same county.) At 3:01 p.m., the National Weather Service in Norman issued a heart-sinking “tornado emergency” for Moore and South Oklahoma City.
The tornado quickly swelled in size to nearly three-quarters of a mile wide, swallowing entire neighborhoods and obliterating sections of Moore, Okla. — tracking just south of where an even stronger F5 carved a path in 1999.
Dissipating less than 40 minutes later, the 2013 Moore EF5 tornado killed 24 people and injured more than 200. It caused an estimated $2 billion in damage.
Eleven days later, a world record 2.6-mile-wide tornado touched down just west of Oklahoma City in the town of El Reno. Its erratic nature and extreme behavior claimed the lives of world-renowned storm chasers. Winds likely approached 300 mph. Hailstones may have approached 8 inches in diameter.
Boston 2015 “Blizzard Blitz”
Winter 2014-2015 in Boston was shaping up to be a cakewalk. Only 10.4 inches had fallen through Jan. 26. Then the Blizzard Blitz happened.
In one month, 94.4 inches of snow came down. That’s more than twice Boston’s average annual snowfall of 44 inches. The previous monthly record? 58.8 inches in 1978.
Four one-foot snowstorms occurred within three weeks. Eighteen out of 28 days in February featured snow. Chaos ensued. Fights broke out over parking spaces. Overwhelmed by snow, the city declared some heavily obstructed roads as one-way streets.
The season wound up as Boston’s snowiest on record, with 110.6 inches coming down — more than in Rochester, N.Y., Minneapolis, Flagstaff, Ariz., or Denver.
Carolinas flooding from Matthew and Florence: October 2016 and September 2018
In an era where tropical cyclones are likely becoming wetter, thanks to our warming world, flooding seems to be increasingly common nowadays. The Carolinas dealt with disastrous flooding from Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018.
Matthew brought gusts nearing 100 mph to the coastal Carolinas in October 2016. It also dropped as much as 16.9 inches of rain in South Carolina, and 18.95 in North Carolina. It came barely a year after historic flooding dropped more than 20 inches on some spots in the Carolinas during October 2015, causing disastrous flooding. Rivers, particularly in North Carolina, crested at historic levels during Matthew’s 2016 deluge.
Florence, meanwhile, arrived in September 2018, again dropping astonishing rainfall totals. Nearly three feet fell in Elizabethtown, N.C., while just shy of two feet came down in Loris, S.C. Both measurements set state tropical cyclone rainfall records.
Hurricane Harvey: Aug. 24-Sept. 2, 2017
Long before breaking the United States’ national rainfall record for a tropical storm, Harvey was a rapidly intensifying system over the Gulf of Mexico. It made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane with winds over 130 mph near San Jose Island, Tex., overnight Aug. 25 into Aug. 26. Extreme wind warnings were issued as its powerful eyewall raced ashore, bringing destructive winds, miniswirls and tornado-like vortices.
After moving ashore north of Corpus Christi, Tex., the circulation began to weaken as the cyclone meandered northeast, stalling as an unrelenting tropical rainstorm. Tens of trillions of gallons of water fell over the course of several days, deluging Houston with rainfall measured in feet — not inches. The nation’s fourth-largest city was submerged, its extensive urbanization and semi-impermeable soil complicating factors exacerbating flooding.
The jackpot total came in Nederland, Tex., where 60.58 inches was recorded. That shattered the previous contiguous U.S. record of four feet set by Tropical Storm Amelia in 1978 (also in Texas), and even beat out the 58 inches that Hurricane Lane since dropped in Hawaii. Harvey stands entirely on its own as an unimaginable flood event.
With several feet already pooling and up to two feet more of additional rain on the way, the National Weather Service tweeted that “this event is unprecedented & all impacts are unknown & beyond anything experienced. Follow orders from officials to ensure safety.”
Hurricane Maria: Sept. 20, 2017
Hurricane Maria developed quickly from a tropical wave on Sept. 16, rapidly intensifying between Sept. 17 and 18 into a 165 mph Category 5 monster. It made landfall on Dominica at Category 5 status late on Sept. 18 before slamming into Puerto Rico a strong Category 4 on the morning of Sept. 20.
Maria’s violent onslaught brought about the worst electrical blackout in U.S. history, virtually destroying Puerto Rico’s power grid, and caused nearly 3,000 excess deaths in Puerto Rico. The island’s post-storm trauma elicited widespread criticism over the government’s handling of the disaster.
Hurricane Michael: Oct. 10, 2018
Hurricane Michael was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the mainland United States in a quarter-century, since Andrew in 1992. Michael was blamed for 49 deaths and more than $5.5 billion in damage.
On Oct. 7, 2018, a tropical depression formed east of the Yucatán Peninsula, following a week of the lackluster disturbance refusing to blossom. By the next day, it was a hurricane west of Cuba, and bouts of rapid intensification continued Oct. 9 and 10.
Michael roared ashore near Mexico Beach, Fla., shortly after noontime Oct. 10. It brought winds of 160 mph, brought water up to 20 feet above ordinary high-tide levels and destroyed a portion of Florida’s Big Bend.
Its crystal-clear eye passed just east of Panama City, sunlight emblazoning a jagged yellow glow on the shards of debris left by the first flank of the storm. It was perhaps the clearest Category 5 hurricane eye in recent memory, making for surreal, otherworldly photos for storm chasers brave enough to venture through the furious eyewall.
California’s Camp Fire: Nov. 8, 2018
At 6:33 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2018, a small fire was reported beneath Pacific Gas and Electric power lines near the Poe Dam in Butte County, Calif. Within an hour and half, flames began to consume the town of Paradise.
Strong winds and low humidity helped the fire spread at a rate of 80 football fields per minute. The fire destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, killed 85 and proved the deadliest wildfire in California history. Emergency alerts failed to reach many people with sufficient lead time, coordination proved impossible in the rapidly evolving situation, and many burned alive as they attempted to flee.
All told, flames consumed 153,336 acres. It reawakened discussions about emergency preparedness in fire country and raised concerns about how rising temperatures could intensify fires and lengthen California’s fire season in coming years. And it left a scar that will take decades to heal.
Alaska and Hawaii: 2019 extreme heat
Alaska has never been so warm in recorded history as it was in 2019. More than 90 percent of all days statewide were above average. July was Alaska’s warmest month on record. Anchorage saw its first 90-degree day on record. The humidity reached record levels. The climate there is being pushed “over the edge.”
Ice adjacent to Alaska is disappearing at an incredible rate. That has led to wintertime temperature rises of 8 or 9 degrees across Alaska’s North Slope, and above 5 degrees statewide — in just the past 50 years. That’s the equivalent of New York’s temperature climate becoming that of Atlanta over the course of barely two generations.
Meanwhile, Alaska’s not the only state out of the Lower 48 that has been baking. Hawaii saw a summer of extremes in 2019. Honolulu saw 29 days with record highs between June and August. From 1950 to 2018, only 14 nights failed to drop below 80 degrees. 2019 featured 19 such nights. Honolulu saw its hottest summer on record.
Lihue, on Hawaii’s northwesternmost populated island, tied or broke various high-temperature records every day between Aug. 24 and Sept. 12. They broke 48 such records over the course of the summer.
Stories like this will continue to become routine in an ever-changing and rapidly warming world.
Jason Samenow contributed to this article.