Kentucky is no stranger to extreme weather. From flooding in the western part of the state and ice storms in the east, Kentucky residents are no strangers to challenging conditions brought forth by Mother Nature. Unfortunately, tornadoes are frequent visitors to the Bluegrass State. Over the years, several powerful storms have ripped through the region, leaving destruction in their wake.
Here is a look back at some of Kentucky’s deadliest ones to date and how they affected those affected as well as their communities. While statistics vary due to reports being incomplete or lost over time, this list contains some of Kentucky’s most catastrophic storm events since 1884 and provides a glimpse into how powerful Mother Nature can be when she has her sights set on an area.
The Top 9 Deadliest Tornadoes in Kentucky
Kentucky has a long history of experiencing destructive and powerful tornadoes. In this piece, we’ll take a look back at the 9 deadliest tornado events in the state’s history. Each tornado event will be discussed in detail – including the death toll, rating on the Fujita scale, property damage, and the areas affected.
Let’s get started!
1. Tri-State Tornado of 1925
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 is the deadliest one in Kentucky’s history and one of the worst in United States history. It ravaged three states on March 18, 1925, and fortunately did not affect any major metropolitan areas. However, the storm still managed to claim at least 695 lives before it finally dissipated and became known as one of the most destructive tornadoes in recorded history.
It formed near Ellington, Missouri, moved northeast into Illinois, and then veered towards Indiana. It eventually cut a 50-mile path into southwest Indiana before crossing into southeast Illinois, where it was devastatingly strong between 2:20 p.m. and 4:20 p.m., reaching an estimated wind speed of 300 mph, as well as speeds up to 73 miles per hour afterward – making it among one of the strongest ever recorded!
Overall, 12 counties across southwest Indiana, northwest Kentucky, and southeastern Illinois were affected by this powerful tornado which produced tremendous wind damage along its path for over 300 miles – with some buildings blown apart up to 30 miles away from its official track! Fortunately, conditions were aided by mostly clear skies which gave people ample time to prepare for its approach; however, despite warnings, many people were still taken off guard when it came roaring through their towns at speeds surpassing those of a train or an airplane for several terrifying hours!
The initial death toll was estimated at 695 with over 800 injured – property damage exceeded three million dollars (with 1918 value). Tragically due to its expansive route, many more victims may have been missed in counting which would bring the total number passed 700 lives lost in one day due to this powerful storm.
2. Brandenburg Tornado of 1974
At 9:35 PM on April 3, 1974, a terrifying F4 tornado powered through Brandenburg in Meade County, Kentucky. One of the strongest and most destructive tornadoes to ever hit the state, it was an all-too-real reminder of nature’s power. It left 31 people dead and destroyed or damaged over 400 homes. The path of destruction stretched for 51 miles and devastated several towns before finally dissipating near Nazareth in northeastern Jefferson County.
It left residents traumatized and reeling as it streaked across the landscape at up to 60 mph. Its 130 mph winds up-rooted large trees and obliterated homes; witnesses described seeing pieces of lumber flying hundreds of feet into the air like kindling. There were reports of outbuildings being spattered with mud and some highways blocked by heavy debris falling from the sky. Thousands were without power for weeks amid extensive damage from fallen trees, roof tiles scattered across streets, and wrecked cars and buildings that had been transformed to rubble in mere seconds.
While no amount of preparedness could have saved lives or spared property, recovery efforts showcased the strength of Kentucky’s citizens as they pulled together in an effort to heal both their wounded communities and battered psyches as this deadly storm moved into history books as one of Kentucky’s deadliest tornadoes ever recorded.
3. Louisville Tornado of 1890
It is widely considered the deadliest twister in Kentucky’s history. It started in Louisville on March 27, 1890, and killed over 100 people, as well as injured nearly 400 others. It also caused a considerable amount of property damage, with some estimates suggesting that upwards of $600,000 (20$ million today) worth of losses occurred.
The devastating storm occurred at 8:30 pm and struck without warning, leaving widespread destruction in its wake. It formed near the town of St. Matthews and moved southeastward at 40 mph, quickly becoming one of the largest tornadoes ever recorded in the United States. The tornado passed through downtown Louisville at around 7 pm, wreaking havoc on structures ranging from single-family homes to industrial sites; it also destroyed many bridges and train lines before dissipating just northeast of Lexington, Kentucky.
While it was short-lived – lasting no more than 25 minutes – its powerful winds caused immense destruction along its path that stretched over 15 miles long and 1/2 mile wide in some places.
4. Henderson County Tornado of 1875
On March 27, 1875, a deadly tornado struck Henderson County in southeastern Kentucky. The storm began in Missouri and moved into Indiana and Ohio before ravaging western Kentucky and northern Tennessee. It was estimated to be almost a mile wide and was the worst tornado in the state’s history at that time.
The greatest destruction occurred near Henderson County where two large Catholic churches were destroyed along with several homes. In addition, more than 40 people were killed and hundreds more were injured across the counties affected by this storm.
Following the tragedy, relief efforts were quickly mobilized to help those affected by this powerful storm as communities worked together to rebuild their surroundings. Although devastating, this natural disaster provided much-needed lessons on how communities need to be prepared for such sudden events, helping protect them from future tragedies.
5. New Albany Tornado of 1917
It crossed multiple counties, including Harrison and Clark in Indiana and Jefferson in Kentucky. It was classified as an F4 tornado on the Fujita scale, with a path width of 400 yards and a path length of 33 miles. The tornado struck at around 3:08 pm, causing widespread damage and destruction in its wake.
It passed one mile north of Corydon, causing damage to numerous farm buildings and completely destroying one farm, with the occupant found unconscious and critically injured in a nearby ditch. As it moved east-northeast, it cut a swath of death and destruction through the north side of New Albany, Indiana. It destroyed 500 homes, two schools, and many other buildings, resulting in $1,500,000 in damage.
The tornado caused 46 deaths and injured 250 people, with many deaths concentrated in groups, including at least five at the Olden Street School, eight at a wood specialties plant, and five in one home. Some children were also killed on their way home from school. The tornado dissipated after striking Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky.
It remains a tragic reminder of the destructive power of tornadoes and the importance of preparedness and response efforts. Today, communities across the country continue to work to mitigate the impact of severe weather events through improved warning systems, building codes, and emergency preparedness measures.
6. St. Louis–East St. Louis tornado 1896
The 1896 St. Louis–East St. Louis tornado, also known as the “great cyclone,” was a catastrophic tornado that tore through downtown St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois on May 27, 1896, at around 5:00 pm. The tornado was part of a larger tornado outbreak that affected the central and eastern United States. This tornado was one of the deadliest and most destructive in American history, causing at least 255 fatalities, over a thousand injuries, and more than $10 million in damage (equivalent to $326 million in 2021).
The tornado lasted only about 20 minutes but left more than 5,000 people homeless, as it destroyed homes and businesses in the fashionable Lafayette Square and Compton Heights neighborhoods, as well as the poorer Mill Creek Valley. The destruction caused by the tornado was unprecedented, and the cleanup and recovery efforts were extensive.
The 1896 St. Louis–East St. Louis tornado remains one of the most devastating natural disasters in the history of the United States. The disaster served as a reminder of the unpredictable and destructive power of tornadoes and the need for improved warning systems and disaster preparedness measures. The lessons learned from this tragedy continue to inform tornado preparedness and response efforts today, as communities across the country work to mitigate the devastating effects of these natural disasters.
7. Barren County Tornado of 1890
On March 27, 1890, a powerful twister touched down near Glasgow and continued its destructive path toward Cave City, wreaking havoc along the way. The tornado caused immense destruction in its wake, leaving 2 people dead and 15 more injured.
Along its 43-mile path, the Barren County Tornado caused massive damage to crops, buildings, and bridges. Although exact figures were never recorded due to the lack of technology at the time, it is estimated that thousands of dollars worth of property damage was caused by this devastating storm. The extent of this tornado’s destruction remains unmatched in Kentucky’s history even today.
8. Hopkins County Tornado of 1884
The Hopkins County Tornado of 1884 was a destructive tornado that struck Hopkins County, Kentucky, on April 14, 1884, as part of the “Enigma Outbreak”. It was classified as an F2 on the Fujita scale, with a path width of 200 yards and a path length of 9 miles. The tornado struck at around 4:30 pm, moving east from south of High Grove to seven miles west of Fairfield and then to two miles east of Fairfield.
The tornado caused one death and injured thirty people, as at least six homes were destroyed in the High Grove area. A man was killed in a tobacco barn, while others were injured as they attempted to seek shelter from the tornado. The funnel may have been aloft over Fairfield, causing additional damage in the area.
The Hopkins County Tornado of 1884 was a devastating event for the local community, and its impact was felt throughout the region. The tornado served as a reminder of the destructive power of these natural disasters and the need for improved warning systems and preparedness measures. Today, Hopkins County and other communities across the country continue to work to mitigate the devastating effects of them and other severe weather events through preparedness and response efforts.
9. Clinton County Tornado of 1974
The Clinton County Tornado of 1974 was a destructive tornado that struck Clinton County, Kentucky, on April 3, 1974. The tornado was classified as an F4 on the Fujita scale, with a path width of 800 yards. The tornado began its path of destruction at around 5:40 pm, moving northeast from two miles south of Kettle to Ida, eight miles northwest of Albany, to 76-Falls, to Piney Woods, and finally to Mill Springs.
The tornado caused significant damage in the region, with 50 homes damaged or destroyed and 96 people injured. Eight people were killed in five different small Clinton County communities, making it one of the deadliest tornadoes in the county’s history.
There are discrepancies in the reported death toll, injuries, path length, and path width, likely due to the tornado being near a time zone boundary and confusion with another F4 tornado in Wayne County on the same day. Nevertheless, the Clinton County Tornado of 1974 remains a tragic reminder of the devastating power of tornadoes and the need for improved warning systems and preparedness measures.
Today, Clinton County and other communities across the country continue to work to mitigate the devastating effects of them and other severe weather events through preparedness and response efforts. The Clinton County Tornado of 1974 will always be remembered as a significant event in the history of the region and serves as a reminder of the importance of preparedness in the face of natural disasters.
When is Kentucky’s tornado season?
Kentucky’s tornado season typically runs from March to June, with the peak season in April and May.
What is the Fujita Scale?
The Fujita Scale is a scale used to measure the strength of them based on the damage they cause. The scale ranges from F0 (weakest) to F5 (strongest).
What is the Enhanced Fujita Scale?
The Enhanced Fujita Scale is an updated version of the Fujita Scale that takes into account more detailed information about the damage caused by them.
What should I do during a tornado warning?
During a warning, seek shelter in an interior room or basement, away from windows and exterior walls. If you are outside or in a vehicle, seek shelter in a sturdy building or lie flat in a low-lying area.
What should I do after a tornado hits?
After it hits, check for injuries and assist those in need. Avoid downed power lines and other hazards, and listen to local authorities for further instructions.
How has technology improved tornado forecasting and warning systems in Kentucky?
Technology has improved their forecasting and warning systems in Kentucky by providing more accurate and timely information about weather conditions and the potential for them. This includes Doppler radar, satellite imagery, and computer models.
How can I prepare for tornado season in Kentucky?
To prepare for it, create an emergency plan for your family and practice it regularly. Have a designated safe room or shelter, and stock up on emergency supplies such as food, water, and first aid kits.
What should I do if I encounter a tornado while driving?
If you encounter it while driving, pull over to a safe location away from traffic and seek shelter in a low-lying area. If there is no shelter available, stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and your head covered.
Can tornadoes occur at night?
Yes, they can occur at any time of day or night. It is important to have a way to receive warnings, even while you are sleeping.
What is the best way to stay informed about tornado warnings and updates?
The best way to stay informed about them is to have an NOAA weather radio or a reliable weather app on your phone that sends alerts for your area. You can also tune into local news stations for updates and information.
It is clear that Kentucky has experienced some of the most devastating severe weather events in modern times. From destructive ones to massive hail storms and flooding rains, no corner of the state has been left untouched by the wrath of Mother Nature.
As Kentuckians, it is up to us to remain aware and prepared for whatever nature may bring our way. By understanding the history of storms that have affected our state, we can better be ready for whatever comes our way in the future. In doing so, we can minimize potential losses from damaging winds and other damaging weather events.