National Weather Service officials said a tornado that killed 15 people as it ripped through Little Rock’s suburbs in late April was just shy of being rated Arkansas’ first top-of-the-scale storm in 85 years.
A survey team said based on damage assessments the Arkansas storm was rated a “high-end” EF4, with winds near the top of the 166-200 mph range. Part of the trouble rating the storm was that flying debris caused a lot of damage, too, officials said.
A tornado spawned by the same storm system killed one person in Quapaw, Okla., and moved northward to Baxter Springs, Kan. It was rated EF2. The Oklahoma twister started at 5:29 p.m. Sunday, April 27 about 3 miles southwest of Quapaw. The tornado packing maximum wind speeds of 115 to 130 mph traveled more than 11 miles and crossed the Kansas border to Baxter Springs before it ended at 5:42 p.m. The tornado had a maximum width of 325 yards.
A man was killed in Quapaw when he and his wife pulled over into a parking lot and concrete wall fell on the car. At least 36 other people sustained injuries in Quapaw and Baxter Springs.
John Robinson, the warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service’s North Little Rock office, said officials try “to rate a tornado based on what the tornado did, rather than how much damage was done by other houses coming apart and then hitting your house.”
After forming near Ferndale, the Arkansas funnel was on the ground for 41 miles until lifting near El Paso. It then skipped to Pleasant Plains. The weather service said five separate tornadoes covered a distance of 80 miles.
The nation hasn’t had an EF5 storm since last May, when Moore, Okla., was hit by a twister that killed 24 and destroyed 1,000 homes. There have been only 59 EF5 storms since modern record-keeping began in 1950.
Some residents in the hard-hit communities of Vilonia and Mayflower, Ark., described hearing the storm, comparing it with the roar of a freight train or jet engine. Mayflower Mayor Randy Holland described it as “the loudest grinding noise I’ve ever heard.”
It was difficult to find one Mayflower resident along the Pine Tree Cove area overlooking Lake Conway whose home or property had not sustained major damage — 100-year-old oak trees smashed through their homes, roofs sheared off, decades-old brick homes smashed to bits.
On April 10, 1929, a storm rated at F5 on a previously used scale traveled from south of Batesville to Sneed, north of Newport, and killed 23. Forecasters now use the Enhanced Fujita scale, which evaluates damage across 28 parameters and, from that data, lets forecasters arrive at approximate wind speeds.
Arkansas was last hit by an EF4 storm Feb. 5, 2008. The Super Tuesday twister, so named because it hit when several states held primaries early in the 2008 political campaign, killed 13 people in a path from Atkins to near the Missouri border, a distance of 120 miles.
The death toll of 15 on April 27 was the state’s highest since 1997, when 25 people were killed in storms that tracked from Arkadelphia to the Missouri Bootheel.
“When you lose 15 folks in one tornado, that’s an awfully big toll in Arkansas,” Robinson said.
The storm was also the 28th EF4 tornado in the state since 1950.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Mary Fallin toured tornado-ravaged Quapaw on April 28, telling residents the state has issued an emergency declaration to kick-start cleanup and rebuilding efforts.
Quapaw Police Chief Gary Graham said about 60 structures sustained some damage. Authorities said the tornado that hit Quapaw, a town of about 900 residents, was a “bit of a strange anomaly” with the governor noting that tornado warnings had been not been issued at the time.
After hitting Quapaw, the twister continued north into Kansas and struck Baxter Springs, about 5 miles away. Cherokee County, Kan., emergency manager Jason Allison said 60 to 70 homes and 20 to 25 businesses were destroyed. No deaths were reported in Baxter Springs.
Bill Davis, a meteorologist in Springfield, Mo., said tornado sirens didn’t sound in Baxter Springs until right before the twister hit the town because it formed so quickly.
“That’s what happened in Quapaw, too,” Davis said. “It’s that worst-case scenario where a tornado forms right in a populated area. It was within a minute of the warning.”