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It's time to add another billion-dollar weather disaster to the growing 2011 total of these costly disasters: the extraordinary early-season Northeast U.S. snowstorm of October 29, which dumped up to 32 inches of snow, brought winds gusts of 70 mph to the coast, and killed at least 22 people. Not since the infamous snow hurricane of 1804 have such prodigious amounts of October snow been recorded in New England and, to a lesser extent, in the mid-Atlantic states. Trees that had not yet lost their leaves suffered tremendous damage from the wet, heavy snow. Snapped branches and falling trees brought down numerous power lines, leaving at least 3 million people without electricity. The damage estimate in Connecticut alone is $3 billion, far more than the damage Hurricane Irene did to the state.
The October 29 snow storm brings the 2011 tally of U.S. billion-dollar weather disasters to fourteen, thoroughly smashing the previous record of nine such disasters, set in 2008. Through August, the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) estimated that ten weather disasters costing at least $1 billion had hit the U.S., at total cost of up to $45 billion. However, the October 29 snow storm brings us up to eleven billion-dollar disasters, and a new disaster analysis done by global reinsurance company AON Benfield adds three more. Flood damage from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee in the Northeast on September 8 is now estimated at more than $1 billion, and two outbreaks of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes--one in April and one in June--now have damage estimates exceeding $1 billion. A remarkable seven severe thunderstorm/tornado outbreaks did more than $1 billion each in damage in 2011, and an eighth outbreak July 10 - 14 came close, with damages of $900 million. In total, the fourteen billion-dollar disasters killed 675 people. Tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods in these fourteen disasters killed over 600 people, putting 2011 into fourth place since 1940 for most deaths by severe storms. Only 2005, with over 1,000 deaths caused by Katrina, 1969, with over 700 hurricane and flood-related deaths, and 1972, with 676 hurricane and flood-related deaths, were deadlier years for storms, according to NOAA. The fourteen billion-dollar weather disasters of 2011 caused $53 billion in damage, putting 2011 in fifth place for most damages from billion-dollar weather disasters. The top damage years, according to NCDC in adjusted 2011 dollars, were 2005 (the year of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma), 2008 (Hurricane Ike), 1988 (Midwest drought), and 1980 (Midwest drought).
|October Northeast Snow Storm**||October 29, 2011||$3+ billion||27|
|Tropical Storm Lee**||September 8, 2011||$1+ billion||13|
|Hurricane Irene||August 26-28, 2011||$7.2 billion||46|
|Missouri and Souris River Flooding||Spring-Summer 2011||$2 billion||5|
|Texas Drought & Wildfires||Spring-Summer 2011||$5.2 billion||2*|
|Mississippi River Flooding||Spring-Summer 2011||$5.0 billion||1*|
|Midwest, Southeast, Plains Severe Storms**||June 16-22, 2011||$1.25 billion||0|
|Midwest/Southeast Tornado Outbreak||May 21-27, 2011||$8 billion||177|
|Midwest, Southeast, Plains Severe Storms||April 19-21, 2011||$1.0 billion||0|
|2011 Super Outbreak||April 25-30, 2011||$9.0 billion||321|
|Midwest/Southeast Tornado Outbreak||April 14-16, 2011||$2.5 billion||38|
|Southeast/Midwest Severe Storms||April 8-11, 2011||$2.25 billion||0|
|Midwest/Southeast Severe Storms||April 3-5, 2011||$2.5 billion||9|
|Groundhog Day Blizzard||January 29-February 3, 2011||$3.9 billion||36|
October Northeast Snow Storm
The most extraordinary October snowstorm in over two centuries hit the Northeast U.S. on October 29, bringing snow amounts as high as 32" to Peru, Massachussetts. Not since the infamous snow hurricane of 1804 have such prodigious amounts of snow been recorded in New England and, to a lesser extent, in the mid-Atlantic states. Trees that had not yet lost their leaves suffered tremendous damage from the wet, heavy snow, and snapped branches and falling trees brought down numerous power lines, leaving at least 3 million people without electricity. Damage in Connecticut alone was estimated at $3 billion, exceeding the damage from Hurricane Irene.
Tropical Storm Lee Flooding
Tropical Storm Lee made landfall on the Lousiana coast on September 4, 2011, as a very wet tropical storm with 45 mph winds. Lee dumped over 10" of rain over Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, but flooding damage was limited in these states due to pre-existing drought conditions. However, Lee's remnants reached the Northeast U.S. on September 8, where soils were already saturated from heavy August rains due, in part, to Hurricane Irene on August 28. Irene set the stage for what was to become the greatest flood in recorded history on the Susquehanna River. On September 5, a front stalled out over Pennsylvania and New York. Tropical moisture streaming northwards in advance of Tropical Storm Lee was lifted up over the front, and heavy downpours resulted. The rains continued for four days, and were amplified by the arrival of Tropical Storm Lee's remnants on September 7, plus a stream of moisture emanating from far-away Hurricane Katia, 1,000 miles to the south-southeast. Binghamton, New York received 8.70" of rain in 24 hours September 7 - 8, the greatest 24-hour rainfall in city history. This was nearly double the city's previous all-time record (4.68" on Sep 30 - Oct. 1, 2010.) The record rains falling on soils still saturated from Hurricane Irene's rains ran off rapidly into the Susquehanna River, which rose an astonishing twenty feet in just 24 hours. By noon on September 8, the rampaging Susquehanna River crested in Binghamton at 25.71', the highest level since records began in 1846. Record flood heights were recorded downstream in Pennsylvania as well, where damage is estimated at over $1 billion.
Hurricane Irene roared ashore over the Outer Banks of North Carolina on August 27, 2011, as a Category 1 hurricane with 80 mph winds. Irene made a second landfall on Long Island, NY on August 28 as a tropical storm with 65 mph winds. Major coastal damage resulted from the hurricane's storm surge and battering waves; two new channels were carved through the Outer Banks, isolating the barrier islands from the mainland. However, the main damage from Irene occurred due to the storm's heavy rains of 8 - 12 inches that fell over much of the Northeast. Record flooding hit rivers in NJ, NY, VT, PA, and CT, resulting in billions in damage and dozens of lives lost.
Missouri River Flooding
Winter snowfall was abnormally heavy in the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Wyoming this past winter (over 200% of average), and record rainfall fell over the Upper Midwest this Spring, the effects of which continue to be felt along the Missouri River. In May, the Army Corps of engineers began releasing a record amount of water through the dams above Gavins Point, including the Garrison Dam in Central North Dakota. The flooding has kept many bridges closed, making it impossible to cross the river for a hundred miles at a time in some places.
Texas Drought & Wildfires
Texas is in the midst of one of the worst droughts of its history. As of June 28, 2011, 91% of Texas was in extreme or greater drought, and 47% of the state was in an "exceptional drought," the most severe category. In April and May of 2011, wildfires burned over 3 million acres across the state. The governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has declared a State of Disaster every month since December 2010. As of June 16, NCDC estimates that the drought and fires in Texas have cost $3.0 billion—an amount that is likely to rise as the event continues.
Mississippi River Flooding
Between the spring snow-melt and two storms that dumped massive amounts of rain in the Mississippi watershed in April, the Mississippi was in for a flood of record proportions. The river began to bulge by the beginning of May, flooding every state from Illinois to Louisiana and Mississippi. A federal disaster was declared by the President in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. In an effort to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, the Army Corps of Engineers opened the Morganza Spillway on May 14, which flooded 4,600 square miles of Louisiana. The NCDC estimates $4 billion in damages from this flood, although the final amount might not be fully realized yet.
Midwest, Southeast, Plains Severe Weather Outbreak (June 16-22)
This seven-day outbreak of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes featured four EF-3 tornadoes. The worst storm damage occurred in Wheeling, Illinois. The whole event is estimated to have done $1.25 billion in damages.
Midwest/Southeast Tornado Outbreak (May 22-27)
This six-day tornado outbreak killed approximately 180 people, and includes the EF-5 tornadoes that rolled through Joplin, Missouri on May 22, and El Reno, Oklahoma on May 24. Tornadoes in this storm were spawned from central Texas to the Upper Midwest. The whole event is estimated to have done $7 billion in damages.
2011 Super Outbreak (April 25-30)
Most of the tornadoes spawned in this storm happened in the Southeast, from Mississippi to Virginia, though a total of 334 tornadoes have been confirmed in 21 states from Texas to New York. April 27th, in particular, was a notably destructive and deadly day, as 188 tornadoes touched down in the Southeast, four of which were rated EF-5. The NCDC estimates that the Super Outbreak resulted in at least $5.5 billion in damages.
Midwest, Southeast, Plains Severe Weather Outbreak (April 19-21)
This three-day outbreak of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes featured 61 tornadoes. In the early hours of April 20, 2011, a tornado tore through a neighborhood in Oregon, Ohio leaving some significant damage and no injuries.
Midwest/Southeast Tornado Outbreak (April 14-16)
This storm generated at least 200 tornadoes across 16 states in mid-April, leading to 38 deaths. The system moved quickly from the Plains to the Mid-Atlantic, where the most notable tornado of the outbreak occurred near Raleigh, North Carolina. This tornado was rain-wrapped as it headed in the direction of Raleigh, and was later rated an EF-3. The NCDC estimates that this outbreak resulted in $2 billion in damages.
Southeast/Midwest Severe Storms (April 8-11)
Tornadoes were reported in Virginia and Iowa from April 8-11. A significant day of severe weather occurred on April 9th, as a powerful storm over the Upper Midwest spawned tornadoes in Iowa. The strongest of these tornadoes was the huge, 3/4 mile-wide tornado that plowed through the tiny town of Mapleton, Iowa on Saturday evening, leaving a trail of destruction 3.5 miles long. The tornado, preliminarily rated as an EF-3 with 136 - 165 mph winds, flattened 20% of the town of 1200 residents and damaged half of the buildings. The NCDC estimates that this weekend of severe weather caused $2.2 billion in damages.
Midwest/Southeast Severe Storms (April 4-5)
Damaging straight-line winds and tornadoes were spawned by a storm that pushed through the central U.S. in early April. Power outages were extensive across the southern and eastern U.S., and many people were killed by falling trees and branches. Tornadoes touched down in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi. 1,318 reports of damaging wind were submitted to local Weather Service offices on April 4th alone. The NCDC estimates that this tornado and wind event caused $2 billion in damages.
Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011
This storm stretched from northeast Mexico to Canada, but is most memorable for its effect on Chicago, where 1-2 feet of snow fell, combined with winds over 60 mph which led to blizzard conditions. 21.2 inches of snow fell at Chicago O'Hare International Airport, making it the third largest snowfall total in Chicago history. Blizzard conditions were reported in many other large cities during the storm's lifetime, including Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York. This storm also brought ice and wintry mix as far south as Albuquerque, Dallas, and Houston. At least 36 deaths were caused by this storm, most of which were vehicle-related. NCDC estimates this storm did at least $3.9 billion in damage.
Severe Weather Blogs
Six EF-5 tornadoes have been confirmed by the National Weather Service in 2011:
1) The April 27, 2011 Neshoba/Kemper/Winston/Noxubee Counties, Mississippi tornado (3 killed, 29 mile path length).
2) The April 27, 2011 Smithville, Mississippi tornado (22 killed, 15 mile path length).
3) The April 27, 2011 Hackleburg, Alabama tornado (71 killed, 25 mile path length).
4) The April 27, 2011 Dekalb County, Alabama tornado (26 killed, 34 mile path length).
5) The May 22, 2011 Joplin Missouri tornado (156 killed, 14 mile path length).
6) The May 24, 2011 Binger-El Reno-Peidmont-Guthrie, Oklahoma tornado (9 killed, 75 mile path length).
- The April 25 - 28 tornado outbreak, with 330 tornadoes, was the largest tornado outbreak of three days or less duration on record. The previous record was 148 tornadoes, set during the April 3 - 4, 1974 Super Outbreak.
- For April 27, 186 tornadoes have been confirmed. This is the largest 1-day tornado total on record, beating the 148 recorded in 24 hours on April 3 - 4, 1974.
- The April 14 - 16 tornado outbreak, with 162 confirmed tornadoes, ranks as the fourth largest tornado outbreak of three days or less duration on record.
- The May 21 - 26 tornado outbreak, with 158 confirmed tornadoes, ranks as the 5th largest 6-day or shorter tornado outbreak on record. A May 2003 6-day outbreak had 289 tornadoes, and a May 2004 6-day outbreak had 229 tornadoes. The year 2011 now has three of the top five tornado outbreaks on record.
- April confirmed tornado total was 683, making it the busiest tornado month on record. The previous record was 542 tornadoes, set in May 2003. The previous April record was 267 tornadoes, which occurred in April 1974. The 30-year average for April tornadoes is 135.
- If the three deaths in the Massachusetts tornadoes are confirmed, this year's tornado death toll will be 522, beating 1953 as the deadliest tornado year since modern tornado records began. That year, 519 people died, and three heavily populated cities received direct hits by violent tornadoes. Waco, Texas (114 killed), Flint, Michigan (115 killed), and Worcester, Massachusetts (90 killed) all were hit by violent F-4 or F-5 tornadoes. A similar bad tornado year occurred in 1936, when violent tornadoes hit Tupelo Mississippi (216 killed), and Gainesville, Georgia (203 killed). During that time period, the tornado death rate per million people was 60 - 70 times as great as in the year 2000, implying that this year's tornadoes would have killed many thousands of people had we not had our modern tornado modern warning system.
- The May 22, 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado killed 138 people and injured 1150, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado since 1947, and 8th deadliest in history. The $1 - $3 billion estimate of insured damage makes it the most expensive tornado in history.
- Damage from the April 25 - 28 super tornado outbreak was estimated at $3.5 - $6 billion, making it the most expensive tornado outbreak of all-time. This record was broken just one month later, as the May 21 - 26 tornado outbreak had insured damages estimated at $4 - $7 billion.
- The tornado that hit Springfield, Massachusetts on June 1 was at least an EF-3 with 136 - 165 mph winds. It was only the 9th EF-3 or stronger tornado to hit Massachusetts since 1950, and the third deadliest, with three deaths.
- The year 2011 now ranks in 3rd place behind 1974 and 1965 for highest number of strong to violent EF-3, EF-4, and EF-5 tornadoes (Figure 1.)
- The year 2011 is now tied with the year 1974 for largest number of EF-5 tornadoes in one year (6).
The severe weather outbreak from May 20–27, which includes the Joplin, Missouri EF-5 and the El Reno, Oklahoma EF-5 tornadoes, is estimated to be the costliest severe weather outbreak in U.S. history. A report from Air-Worldwide states that insured losses to properties in the outbreak totals between $4 billion and $7 billion.
In the period May 21–26, 158 tornadoes touched down, killing 157 people. At least 138 of those fatalities are from the Joplin EF-5 alone. The El Reno, Oklahoma tornado claimed nine lives as it churned across Oklahoma. Reports in both of these tornadoes were of homes swept cleanly from their foundations. The Oklahoma Mesonet station in El Reno recorded winds of 151 mph as the tornado passed nearby. Winds in both tornadoes exceeded 200 mph.
This year's tornado death toll has reached 512 according to NOAA, making it the deadliest year for tornadoes in the U.S. since 1953, when 519 people died. That year, three heavily populated cities received direct hits by violent tornadoes. Waco, Texas (114 killed), Flint, Michigan (115 killed), and Worcester, Massachusetts (90 killed) all were hit by violent F-4 or F-5 tornadoes.
The National Weather Service's preliminary tornado estimate is 1,314 so far in 2011. The previous yearly record number of tornadoes occurred in 2004 with 1,817. The average number of tornadoes that occur per year is 1,247.
The 2011 severe weather season continues to be incredibly violent, its latest target being Joplin, Missouri, where a massive tornado carved a path through the city up to a mile wide. The National Weather Service has rated this tornado an EF-5, upgraded from an EF-4, with winds exceeding 200 mph. As of Tuesday, May 25th, the death count was 122 and growing, which makes this tornado the deadliest since at least 1947. Catastrophe risk modeling firm EQECAT said that insured damages from the Joplin tornado could be between $1 billion and $3 billion dollars. According to NOAA's National Severe Storm Laboratory, this would make the Joplin tornado the single costliest tornado in history. Prior to 2011, the most damaging tornado was the May 3, 1999 Oklahoma City tornado, which did $1 billion in damage (1999 dollars.)
The huge supercell thunderstorm that spawned the Joplin tornado formed over extreme southeast Kansas on the afternoon of May 22, along the boundary between warm, moist air flowing northwards from the Gulf of Mexico, and cold, dry air moving south from Canada. NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) had put the region in its "moderate risk" region for severe weather. As the supercell moved into southwest Missouri, it spawned the tornado that roared through Joplin at 5:41pm CDT. This storm generated other tornadoes, straight-line wind damage, and flash flooding from torrential rains that exceeded six inches as it moved east southeast across southwest Missouri. SPC recorded 48 preliminary reports of tornadoes on May 21, bringing the 2-day total for the outbreak to 70. A tornado also killed one person and injured 22 in Minneapolis May 21. Separate tornadoes killed one person each in Andice, Texas and Reading, Kansas on May 20—the first tornado deaths in the U.S. since the April 25–28 Super Outbreak.
The Joplin tornado is the deadliest single tornado in the U.S. since 1947, when 181 people were killed in an F5 in Woodard, Oklahoma. The Storm Prediction Center has ranked the Joplin tornado the ninth deadliest of all time. This year's tornado death toll now stands at 482, making it the deadliest tornado year in the U.S. since 1953, when 519 people died. The all-time deadliest year was 1925 (the year of the Tri-State Tornado), when 695 people died in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana.
Severe weather is making the search and rescue/recovery process even more difficult. More severe thunderstorms were expected on Tuesday after Monday's thunderstorms and flash flooding. Two police officers were struck by lightning on Monday in the cleanup efforts. On Tuesday, Joplin was in a moderate risk area for severe storms according to the Storm Prediction Center.
Dr. Jeff Masters is interviewed by EarthSky.org for a podcast on the historic April tornadoes.
Use the player below to listen to the podcast.
The greatest tornado outbreak in world history hit the Southeast U.S. during a four-day period from April 25th through April 28th, 2011. Unofficially, 326 tornadoes touched down in what is now being called the 2011 Super Outbreak. This is more than double the previous record for most tornadoes in a 4-day or less outbreak of 162, set just two weeks earlier during the April 14 - 16 Southeast U.S. outbreak. Prior to 2011, the greatest tornado outbreak in history was the April 3 - 4, 1974 Super Outbreak, which had 148 twisters. The 2011 Super Outbreak left at least 321 dead across the Eastern United States with thousnads injured, including over 1000 injured in the town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama alone. The tornadoes carved huge swaths of damage, completely flattening large sections of many towns. Damage from the storms is estimated at up to $5 billion, making it the most expensive tornado outbreak in history. The outbreak is the deadliest in the past 50 years, surpassing the Super Outbreak of 1974 (315 killed), and the third deadliest in history. The Southern Region Headquarters of the National Weather Service is updating this map as survey information comes in. You can click on the individual tracks to bring up more information about the tornado.
Among the 326 tornadoes that have been confirmed, 15 were violent EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes, and 73 were strong EF-2 and EF-3 tornadoes. (More info on the Enhanced Fujita scale here.) Three of the violent tornadoes were rated EF-5.
Smithville Tornado (EF-5)
An EF-5 tornado hit Smithville, Mississippi at 3:44pm EDT on April 27, 2011. The tornado killed 13 people and destroyed 166 buildings, and reportedly sucked fire hydrants out of the ground. Some well-built modern 2-story homes that were bolted to their foundations were completely destroyed, leaving only the foundation. This type of damage is characteristic of an EF-5 tornado with 205 mph winds. The Smithville tornado is the first EF-5 tornado in Mississippi since the Candlestick Park tornado of March 3, 1966.
Another EF-5 tornado of the outbreak was upgraded on May 5th after the National Weather Service in Jackson, Mississippi reevaluated the damage done by the violent tornado that hit Neshoba, Kemper, Winston, and Noxubee Counties. This EF-5 had estimated peak winds of 205 mph, and dug out the ground to a depth of two feet over an area of 25 to 50 yards wide, and several hundred yards long. The tornado killed three people in a mobile home.
A tornado touched down in Northwest Alabama in Marion County at 3pm CDT, and devastated the towns of Phil Campbell and Hackleburg. It passed just north of Decatur, Alabama and continued toward Huntsville, where it spared the city but many were able to capture photos and video (below). The tornado then continued on to southern Tennessee, where it dissipated. Seventy-eight people died in this massive storm, making it the 6th deadliest U.S. tornado since 1950.
Possibly the most destructive tornado of the day began near Union, Alabama and continued on to Tuscaloosa. The tornado moved directly through the center of Tuscaloosa, leaving a wake of devastation in its path, which was 80 miles long and 1.5 miles wide at some points. Sixty-one people died in this tornado, which makes it the 7th deadliest U.S. tornado since 1950. President Obama and the First Lady toured the area two days after the tornado.
More information on the outbreak: