JOPLIN, Mo. —
Greg Forbes, the severe-weather expert with The Weather Channel, has crunched the numbers to offer a convincing argument that the May 22 tornado in Joplin was the third worst on record in U.S. history.
To reach that conclusion, Forbes examined both the loss of life and the loss of property.
“It’s open to a little bit of argument,” he said in a recent phone interview from his office in Atlanta. “Identifying the worst tornado based on cost and number of deaths is a very subjective and arbitrary thing.
“If not No. 3, I certainly think it can be justified that the Joplin tornado is in the top five.”
Forbes, whose blog about Joplin and “Superoutbreak 2011” can be read at www.weather.com/blog/weather/8_25880.html, puts what happened in 2011 into historical context to dispute those who might think that this year’s severe weather was “just media hype.”
Forbes, who studied under the late T. Theodore Fujita, creator of the Fujita Tornado Scale, said 2011 brought one of the two worst tornado outbreaks on record in the United States and three of the worst individual tornadoes.
Six tornadoes in 2011 were given the top rating of EF-5. The only other year that had as many was 1974, the year of the first so-called superoutbreak.
Superoutbreak 2011, Forbes contends in his blog, might in some ways be worse than what happened in 1974. He writes: “An interesting result is that, despite earning the first classification as a ‘Superoutbreak,’ none of its tornadoes on April 3-4, 1974, ranked in the top 25 individual worst ones. By contrast, the 2011 Superoutbreak had two of the top 25 worst tornadoes.
“The 1974 Superoutbreak had more killer tornadoes, but the most deaths from an individual tornado were 34 from the Xenia, Ohio, tornado.”
There were three devastating tornadoes in 2011 that killed at least 297 people combined. Two of them came on April 27: an EF-4 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala., along an 80-mile path, killing 64 people, and an EF-5 tornado that hit Phil Campbell and Hackleburg, Ala., along a path more than 106 miles long, killing 72 people. The third — and the worst, Forbes contends — was the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin on May 22, killing 159 people, which is the official death toll of the National Weather Service. The agency did not include two deaths in which the tornado was not the direct cause of the fatality. The local count stands at 161.