How Green Clouds Killed 700 People in One Afternoon
March 18th, 1925. Bettye and her sister Marie’s class were outside for recess. The weather had taken a sudden sharp turn for the worse— the wind was so strong it almost knocked little Bettye off her feet, and as the skies quickly turned black, the children stuck to the wall to escape the wind, ushered into their classroom by the school principal, calling an early end to recess. The building shuddered, and the howling wind forced the window shutters wide open. Bettye’s teacher asked the boys to shut the windows and girls to remain at their desks.
Suddenly, Bettye heard screams and prayers. Calling out for her sister, she got no answer. Within 10 minutes, every building was flattened, everything was gone. Little did they know, at 2:38pm on that day, the deadliest tornado in US history had just hit their school, flattening the city as it passed. Today, if a tornado were to strike, we have weather forecasters warning us, headlines, and even alerts sent to our phones to tell us to take shelter.
But back in 1925, these life-saving measures weren’t in place yet, people had only minutes to react to extreme changes in the weather. Bettye Moroni, from De Soto, Illinois, experienced that exact scenario when she was only seven years old. She recalls the day being unusually warm for March, but with strong winds in the air. Bettye and her siblings, nine-year old Marie, twelve-year-old Tina Mae, and their fifteen-year-old brother Herschel walked home in the rain for their lunch break. Their clothes were so soaked that the kids had to change, but the girls were thrilled that they were allowed to wear their pretty new Easter dresses back to class. The four school children said goodbye to their mother, Minnie, six-year-old Elsie, and baby sister Ruth, and headed back.
While they walked to school, Herschel and some other boys were laughing and throwing their hats in the air to see how far the wind took them. The students went inside until 2:30, when Bettye and Marie’s class went outside for recess. The weather had taken a sharp turn for the worse—the wind was so strong it almost knocked little Bettye off her feet, and the skies quickly turned black as the children stuck to the wall to escape the wind. The school principal called an early end to recess and hurried the kids to their classrooms. The building shuddered, and the howling wind forced the window shutters wide open, so Bettye’s teacher asked the boys to shut the windows and told the girls to sit at their desks.
In one moment, the whole world changed. Bettye remembers that she had only just sat down next to Marie when something crashed into the school at 2:38PM. The windows exploded as the kids screamed, and Bettye felt something in her side crack as she was thrown against a wall. The entire second floor above her, where Tina Mae and Herschel’s classrooms were, jumped four feet into the air, turned, and crashed down onto Betty’s classroom. Giant hail the size of golfballs attacked her as she saw large objects flying above her in the wind—roofing, the sides of houses, mattresses, and lumber.
Bettye heard screams and prayers, and she yelled for her sister Marie, but got no answer. She was covered in rubble, but saw a window hole nearby and clambered out before the walls collapsed. Outside, De Soto was in ruins. Every building was flattened, everything was gone.
Bettye was terrified, and cold, and her pretty new dress was ruined. She wondered if she had just died. Very few survivors of the disastrous tornado who can remember it would be alive today. But a few first-hand accounts, like Bettye’s, were recorded. Another woman, Lela Hartman, was only four years old in 1925. In her 70s, she recalled the disastrous event as well as she could.
Lela had been visiting her Grandma Lipsey at the family farm near West Frankfort, Illinois. Like Bettye, she also remembers the day being uncommonly beautiful for March. But in the afternoon, the beautiful sky showed its deadly side. The weather suddenly turned dark and stormy, and the wind was becoming terrifyingly strong. Lela and her other family members wanted to go into the cellar to take shelter, but her grandma resisted.
She had weathered so many storms that they didn’t faze her, but as it got pitch black outside, something told her that this one was different. With grandma convinced, the family went down to the basement for safety. As they huddled together, the incredible noises of destruction they heard were unlike any other storm they’d ever seen or heard. When it was finally over, the family was horrified to learn that they were trapped inside the basement as the door was stuck shut by something heavy. Lela’s father, a strong young man, worked tirelessly at the door until he could force it open enough to escape.
It was a large tree that had been uprooted by the tornado and blown across the door, shutting the family in. This devastating event, now known as the Tri-State tornado, occurred on March 18th, 1925. It got its name because it wreaked havoc across three states—Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri—spending three and a half hours on the ground and travelling 219 miles, an American record for longest time spent on the ground. The Tri-State tornado is the deadliest tornado in recorded US history, as it took at least 695 lives, injured over 2000 people, and forever changed the lives of thousands of others. In several towns, including De Soto, Murphysboro, Bush, West Frankfort, Gorham, and Parrish, almost every building was destroyed as the disaster wiped out 15,000 homes and left behind $17 million dollars of property damage, equal to $2 billion dollars today. In Murphysboro, Illinois, over 230 people passed away as a result of the event—a record for tornado casualties in a single community.
This powerful tornado was, at its strongest, up to a mile wide and had winds of over 300 miles per hour. No photos or videos of it are known to exist, but it was later determined that on the Fujita Scale of tornado intensity, the Tri-State tornado registered at the top of the scale at F5 strength. A tornado this severe is violent, characterized by winds of 150-318 miles per hour.
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But some modern meteorologists disagree. Tornado expert Thomas Grazulis believes that the first 60 miles of the tornado track were the work of two or more tornados, with the main tornado causing a 157-mile track. Another examination from the Electronic Journal of Severe Storms Meteorology did not have definitive conclusions, but also supports the idea that most of the event was a single tornado, about 174 miles long. The report suggested that some damage on either end of the track was caused by separate tornados. By now, you might be wondering, “How does such a powerful and destructive force even happen?” Well, to create a tornado, first you usually need a thunderstorm, which requires an upper layer of cold, dry air, and a lower layer of moist, warm, and unstable air. Thunderstorms occur along the warm side of the line that separates the layers, and the level of instability depends on the contrast in temperatures.
For a tornado to form, you need a certain type of wind called a veering wind, which turns as it increases in height. Veering wind can be caused by the same temperature contrast that powers a thunderstorm, as warm air rises through the colder air and causes an updraft that can start rotating. In the northern hemisphere where the Tri-State tornado happened, a veering wind goes clockwise, but in the southern hemisphere, it shifts counterclockwise. The combination of a large thunderstorm with strong rotating winds is called a supercell—about one in a thousand storms becomes a supercell, and one in five or six supercells creates tornadoes.
Supercells often result in “tornado families” that spawn multiple tornadoes. The duration of a tornado depends on its intensity, with the majority of them being weak and only lasting about two to three minutes. A strong tornado lasts about eight minutes, while the average for violent tornadoes is closer to 25 minutes. Remember, the Tri-State tornado was over 3 hours long! Most tornadoes form in the late afternoon, after the sun has heated the ground and the atmosphere enough to create thunderstorms. The Tri-State tornado began at 1:01 PM near Ellington, Missouri, and finally ended at 4:30 PM by Petersburg, Indiana.
Tornadoes can form at any time of the year, but are most common during “tornado season”, which starts in early spring in the American states along the Gulf of Mexico. The season, and the tornados, then swing into the north, meaning northern American states will have more risk of tornado activity later in the summer. The region of the US that experiences most of this activity is known as “Tornado Alley,” and it includes South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas, and eastern Colorado.
In America, tornadoes take 80 lives per year and cause over 1500 injuries. At the time of the Tri-State tornado, the Weather Bureau was tracking a cold, low-pressure system that bent down from western Canada into Wyoming, Texas, and then Missouri. A warm front from the Gulf of Mexico raised the temperature in the area by 10 degrees, so warm air rushed upwards and caused an updraft as the merged storm system combined into a tornado-producing spiral as the sky went dark. A pillar of twisting air formed near Ellington, Missouri and the Tri-State tornado was alive. It claimed up to 13 lives in the first 83 minutes before crossing into Illinois, where it turned much deadlier.
Outside the rubble of her schoolhouse in De Soto, Illinois, Bettye was one of the lucky students still alive. She couldn’t find her siblings, and ran into the street to go home and spotted a man she knew as Mr. Tippy, the owner of the town’s restaurant.
Relieved to see a familiar face, she desperately asked, “Mr. Tippy, did the world come to an end?” He told the little girl no—what they had just survived was a tornado. Mr. Tippy had no idea that the tornado would become infamous as the
deadliest one to ever hit America, a title that it still holds today. He held his son in one arm and the little girl’s hand in the other and walked with her to the decimated town, where survivors were gathering to reunite with their families. At late dusk, Bettye’s mother Minnie and her father Martin, arrived with little sisters Ruth and Elsie. Minnie and Ruth had been blown into a treetop but were mostly unhurt, but Elsie and Martin had suffered head injuries. Elsie was unconscious, and passed away shortly after. Sadly, both Tina Mae and Marie had passed away at the school.
Herschel, who had survived by diving under his desk when the teachers screamed for the students to save themselves, had recovered Marie’s body and was still at the school to help. Their family home was destroyed, along with every other house in De Soto. The tornado had claimed 69 lives, 33 of them children, and injured many more people.
In Bettye’s class, 18 children were lost, and all but three boys in the room died because the boys were all less protected while shutting the windows. De Soto lost 20% of their population on that first day, but the death toll didn’t stop there—some people, like their dad Martin, succumbed to their injuries months after the Tri-State Tornado struck. Over near West Frankfort, Illinois, when Lela and her family finally got out of the basement, they saw nothing but destruction.
The brand-new family car had had its top torn off and was blown out of position from where they had parked it. Even the home, a large and sturdy house, had been turned on its foundation. The minute he went home, Lela’s father began building a storm cellar, and for years afterwards he would collect the kids and take shelter every time a storm even began to form. But they never experienced anything like that tornado again. All these stories really blew me away—ah, poor choice of words. But they made me wonder, what if something like this tornado happened again today? Would there be the same amount of damage and casualties? Well, after the devastation of the Tri-State tornado, there was a shift in public awareness—people were on high-alert and tornado-spotting networks sprang up in local communities.
These programs saved lives and led to a quick decline in tornado deaths. Eventually, “storm chasing” became a hobby and even a career as people sought to learn more about tornadoes and witness them live. It’s extremely sad that one key difference between then and now is that the US Weather Bureau actually had a ban on the word “tornado” since 1887. This was to prevent the public from panicking, and since tornadoes were believed to be unpredictable, issuing warnings for them was seen as pointless. Forecasters weren’t even allowed to study tornados or acknowledge them in public. This meant that the public wasn’t aware of any possible danger, and didn’t recognize early warning signs.
Weather tracking technology has also gotten much better since 1925, and tornado forecasting was born in 1948 after the Tinker Air Force Base was struck. A tornado ripped through the base on March 20th, throwing around several aircrafts and causing $10 million dollars of damage, which is about $115 million dollars today. This was the most damaging tornado ever recorded in Oklahoma. As a result, a general asked two meteorologists if they could explore tornado prediction, and just five days later, they noticed similar weather conditions and issued the first ever tornado forecast, saving the base from more damage. On March 18th, 1925, the forecast for the central Midwest only called for some rain, cooling temperatures, and strong shifting winds.
If the mentality at the time was to prevent as much damage as possible instead of preventing panic, it’s possible many lives could have been saved. The ban on forecasting and mentioning tornadoes was lifted shortly after the first successful tornado prediction on the Air Force Base. So, what would happen if a tornado like that happened today? Today, the focus is on saving lives and reducing injuries, since not much can be done about structural damage.
We have several weather tracking organizations in North America as well as more ways to instantly reach people, to issue warnings through an emergency alert system. The Storm Prediction Center is able to monitor weather conditions that have a risk of storms and tornadoes, so it would have already highlighted the areas of concern and noted a High Risk warning for severe weather. By noon, a Tornado Watch would be issued for parts of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky.
When a watch is issued, it means severe weather is possible during the next few hours. As the storm developed, local officers of the National Weather Services would issue Tornado Warnings for anywhere else that may be at risk. A warning means that severe weather has been spotted already or is expected within the hour—if you are sent a warning, it means to seek immediate shelter. Folks who live in a high-risk area should be sure to stay updated during severe weather—either through the radio, TV news channels, or online.
If you do find yourself in an area with a tornado warning, it’s safest to stay inside. Even if a tornado doesn’t develop, strong winds, rain and lightning can still be a harsh combination. Be sure to keep an eye out for signs that a storm will develop into a tornado, including severe thunderstorms, an extremely dark sky, and sometimes green or yellow clouds. Often, instead of rain, large hail will fall from the sky. Try to listen for rumbling, a loud roar, and whistling sounds, and watch for a cloud shaped like a funnel or an approaching wall of debris. And sometimes, before a tornado hits, the wind may die, and the air might suddenly get still.
It’s important not to waste time in a tornado. The best place to take shelter is in a basement, under a strong table or workbench. If there is no basement, a small interior room like a closet or bathroom is best, preferably one with thick walls away from windows. People are strongly encouraged to avoid windows at all costs, as the flying glass is extremely dangerous. People may be tempted to open windows and minimize glass damage, but the advice is not to waste time doing this and instead take shelter. Things like a mattress can be used for additional cover, and a heavy blanket can protect you from dust.
It’s vital to protect your head and neck—even using your arms to shield them is better than nothing. People who live in mobile homes are most at risk, as they offer no shelter from even weak tornados. If you live in one, the advice is to take shelter in sturdy buildings. If that’s not an option, taking cover in a ditch is better than staying in a mobile home. Cars are also not a safe place to shelter in during a tornado as they can be tumbled over and even carried in the air, with people being thrown from them or blown out through the windows. And if someone is caught in the open during tornado activity, it’s best to stay low to the ground, in a culvert or a ditch if possible, and to hold onto a sturdy object like a tree stump.
This is to prevent being tumbled along the ground and beaten up. As with most dangerous events, staying alert and knowing the risk factors, warning signs, and steps of safety significantly reduces your risk. If you live in an area that is used to tornados, you likely already know several of these warnings and actions to take. Have any of you experienced a severe storm or tornado? What was it like? Tornados may be scary, but we have a lot more resources and systems in place than the victims of the Tri-State tornado did.
Although the intensity, length, and duration of that tornado was remarkable, it might not have been the deadliest one in American history if there were better awareness and harm reduction practices at the time. Thankfully, we know a lot more than we used to about tornados and are safer than ever. Thanks again EcoFlow for sponsoring this episode! Head to our link in the description to visit EcoFlow’s green energy solutions!