Most violent tornado in history?

Shane Adams

Because it's impossible to record at-ground tornadic windspeeds, determining which one was "most violent" is also impossible. But, here's a list of some of the most-noteworthy F5 tornadoes in recorded history...might be a good place to start the debate:

Tri-State tornado(es) of MO/IL/IN - March 18, 1925

Xenia, OH - April 3, 1974

Andover, KS - April 26, 1991

Jarrell, TX - May 27, 1997

Bridge Creek/Moore/OKC, OK - May 3, 1999

Greensburg, KS - May 4, 2007

This is a conversation that could go on forever. It will be interesting to see who bites.....
 
May 1, 2004
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What criteria are we using for "violent"? It's the Tri-State most ways you can think to slice it.

El Reno isn't even in the running. It sticks out to us because of how recent it was and its personal impact, but the capability of that tornado to cause death and damage is far less than many other tornadoes. Keep in mind, the bulk of that 2.6 mile width contained F1-ish winds, and the 300 mph subvorts weren't present the whole time and covered a relatively small area. The width is not a good indicator of tornado strength, and there could have been many other tornadoes that were as large or larger than El Reno. We just don't know since we didn't have mobile radars to measure them all.
 

James Gustina

Supporter
Mar 9, 2010
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I'd also throw in the 1947 Glazier/Higgins/Woodward tornado. The tornado reduced Glazier to a ghost town (it's essentially still one now), obliterated Higgins and went through Woodward killing 180 in all three towns. It traveled somewhere in the 100-130 mile range. That definitely fits the bill of a violent, long-track tornado.
 
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Feb 1, 2012
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This topic is one of those that will always be open to interpretation. The Tri-State Tornado caused major damage while having an incredible forward speed while a tornado such as Jarrell caused complete destruction while moving very slowly. I've always wondered how much that has to be taken into account.
 

Rob H

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Mar 11, 2009
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I can't find my video, so here is someone else's of the infamous Bonny Reservoir tornado:

Watch video >

edit: Seriously though, this is a tough question because you're comparing what are essentially poorly documented tornado myths (Tri state/Xenia/etc) with poor visibility (Greensburg, Bridge Creek, etc.). Do you take the largest amount of damage in the smallest physical area to infer intensity - letting Elie and Pampa win?

Although "only" an EF-4, Tuscaloosa is one of the most evil looking tornadoes to me, and reminded me a lot of Andover. Any time you get those rolling horizontal waves and appendages, that's nature's way of saying "back off". Manchester and Bowdle looked pretty wicked too, and might have gone higher than 4s if they actually hit anything.
 
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Shane Adams

As far as pure visuals, Andover has long been my choice for "most violent." Not just the motion itself, but the speed with which the transitions from phase to phase occur are mind blowing.

Watch video >
 
Mar 28, 2010
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My vote goes to Hackleburg/Phil Campbell, AL of 4/27/11 - 132 mile path, multiple areas of EF5 rated damage (read somewhere it had more F5/EF5 damage than any other modern tornado), 72 fatalities to just 150-something injuries (didn't hit any major cities, very high fatality to injury rate). Not a ton of pictures or videos of it as most attention went to Tuscaloosa/Birmingham at the time.

For pure damage intensity you gotta consider Jarrell. I think some under-rated or overlooked ones are Brandenburg, KY (4/3/74) and El Reno (5/24/11). The Udall, KS tornado is another among the older ones that I've been very impressed with damage pics of.
 
The tri-state was probably one of the big ones since it caused so much damage and loss of life but its hard to document those old tornadoes. Tuscaloosa did look pretty wicked to me. If your house was in the path of the El Reno tornado you probably survive unless you were really unlucky and one of the subvorts hit you. el reno tornado.jpg tusk tornado.jpg El reno looked like it would do damage but the main part was EF1ish
Keep in mind, the bulk of that 2.6 mile width contained F1-ish winds, and the 300 mph subvorts weren't present the whole time and covered a relatively small area. The width is not a good indicator of tornado strength, and there could have been many other tornadoes that were as large or larger than El Reno. We just don't know since we didn't have mobile radars to measure them all.
It may look violent except not really.
 
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Oct 10, 2004
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Here's an interesting "top 20." This writer only considers tornadoes that occurred since Fujita's time (thus this is his list of the top 20 most violent tornadoes since 1970) and only considers tornadoes that were killers. Still, he makes a compelling case for why each one deserves its place on the list. To start from the bottom and work your way up, scroll to the bottom of each post:

http://extremeplanet.me/2012/11/27/...he-strongest-tornadoes-ever-recorded-part-iv/

http://extremeplanet.me/2012/10/03/...e-strongest-tornadoes-ever-recorded-part-iii/

http://extremeplanet.me/2012/09/09/...he-strongest-tornadoes-ever-recorded-part-ii/

http://extremeplanet.me/2012/07/01/...est-tornadoes-ever-recorded-damage-intensity/

I found his method of comparing degrees of ground scouring and vegetation damage interesting...thoughts?
 
Feb 18, 2005
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I like the posted links Andy. My mind can't help but wonder why the F4 "Terrible Tuesday" Wichita Falls tornado 4/10/1979 isn't included somewhere on those list. 42 dead and the video I have seen is competitive with any tornado out there. Have to cut it off at 20 I suppose, just saying the field gets crowded competing for number 21 :)
 
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I'll have to break this into a few posts because apparently there's a limit to the number of photos per post.

It's an interesting question, even though we'll never be able to do more than speculate. The most likely candidate for most violent tornado ever recorded is likely one we'd never suspect. Consider how many large, potentially violent tornadoes form every year and simply don't strike anything of note during their lifespan, and then consider how many other potentially violent tornadoes just don't happen to hit anything substantial while they're at their most violent. It's extremely unlikely that the most violent tornado to ever form would have actually crossed paths with a structure that could record such violent damage, much less done so at peak intensity.

But, moving past that, I think there are basically two ways to look at candidates for "most violent." Both of them obviously involve evaluating damage in some way since, except in rare cases where we have mobile radar obs, the resulting damage (with all the problems and inconsistencies that entails) is the only useful proxy we really have for intensity. So, the first category to consider is tornadoes that caused the most intense individual instance(s) of damage. There are many, many tornadoes that could fall under this criteria, but there are several that immediately come to mind for me (not necessarily in order).

May 27, 1997 - Jarrell, TX
The poster boy for truly complete devastation; damage simply does not get more intense than what the Jarrell tornado produced in and around Double Creek Estates. Every home in the core of the tornado's path was swept completely away, the debris ground up into woodchip-sized pieces and scattered for hundreds of yards. The survival rate in the core of the tornado was zero. The ground scouring was probably the most intense ever documented, with the soil scoured out to a depth of more than one foot in some places. Grassy fields and front lawns were reduced to nothing more than mud. I won't recount the full aftermath of this tornado, but I wrote an article (including lots of photos) if anyone is unfamiliar.

There's an argument that the slow forward speed may have played a significant role in the damage caused, and that may be the case. However, I think there are almost always other factors beyond pure wind speed that contribute to the amount of damage a tornado causes, so I'm not sure forward speed is relevant. Also, we've seen plenty of tornadoes with similarly slow forward speed, and yet none of them has caused the same level of damage as Jarrell. One thing that I think did play a big role was the tremendous amount of dirt, sand and rocks scoured from the ground, which likely produced the "sandblasting" effect noted in Jarrell.

June 1, 1990 - Bakersfield Valley, TX
Almost always overlooked due to the very remote, rural area in which it occurred, I think the Bakersfield Valley tornado belongs on any list of most intense tornadoes. This tornado averaged nearly 3/4 mile wide, reaching a max width of 1.3 miles. It's officially rated F4 because it only impacted a few structures. Two people were killed when they separately drove into the heavily rain-wrapped multivortex tornado and their vehicles were thrown from the road. This tornado produced tremendous ground scouring, leaving nothing left but dirt, rocks and a few stripped and mangled mesquite stumps. Three hundred feet of asphalt was stripped from a nearby road. Three oil tanks, full of oil and weighing between 70 and 90 tons, were torn from their battery and tossed/rolled/tumbled three miles. Two of the tanks came to rest 600 feet up the side of a hill with a 40º incline, and the other tank was actually rolled up and over the other side of the hill. Before the tornado became heavily rain-wrapped, witnesses described it as looking very similar to the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado.

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At left is an aerial view of the tornado's path, which is clearly visible as a streak through the center of the image due to the extraordinary scouring. At right is a ground-level photo showing virtually nothing left but dirt and rocks. This was previously a field. The photos are poor quality but you get the idea.

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Also hard to see, but this is the road from which 300+ feet of asphalt was scoured.

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A heavy steel anhydrous ammonia tank which was torn from its anchoring and rolled some distance by the tornado.

Incidentally, another potentially extremely violent but little-known tornado struck just two weeks later. On June 15, 1990, a monster tornado (up to 1.5 miles wide) struck largely rural areas of Hitchcock and Red Willow Counties in Nebraska. It leveled a handful of homes, but it also did incredible damage to a number of vehicles and farm equipment. In many cases these vehicles literally disappeared, with only pieces and parts remaining scattered for many miles. Dean Cosgrove has some incredible photos and more of the story on this tornado, and the June 1990 issue of Storm Data has info on both of these tornadoes

http://windsweptchasetours.com/JUNE_15_1990_Damage.html

May 15, 1896 - Sherman, TX
Given that it took place well over 100 years ago, reliable details are somewhat scarce. What we do know, however, is extremely impressive. The Sherman tornado was very narrow - the worst of the damage often only 50-100 yards wide - but the damage was very intense. There was pronounced ground scouring, with one reporter stating "not one tree, shrub or blade of grass was left." The Houston Street bridge, an iron bridge weighing "hundreds of thousands of tons," was said to have been torn from its anchoring and twisted into unusable scraps. Railroad tracks on the edge of town were reportedly torn up and twisted. Virtually every home in the path was completely swept away, and in some cases whole families were killed. Victims were badly mangled and dismembered.

8634b2927f62f118e22c39b8a7554b57.png
 
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Mar 3, 2012
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April 27, 2011 - Smithville, MS and Rainsville, AL
Two of several (more on that later) exceedingly violent tornadoes during the April 27 outbreak, the Smithville and Rainsville tornadoes produced a number of instances of extreme damage. For example, this is - or was - a Ford Explorer.

d993ccc13ca91fcc698e189b0d10437a.jpg

It was lofted by the Smithville tornado, thrown half a mile into the top of the town's 130-foot water tower, and then thrown a further quarter of a mile where it landed as an unrecognizable, twisted ball. Here is the water tower, you can see the dent clearly. Paint analysis confirmed the dent was from this vehicle.

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Dozens of well-anchored homes were swept completely away and the debris was heavily granulated, which is a sign of extreme intensity. Widespread ground scouring was also present, and low-lying shrubs were completely debarked, denuded and sometimes ripped from the ground. Tree damage was perhaps as intense as any I've seen in some areas. This was an apparently well-constructed brick home:

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The ground was scoured to a depth of nearly a foot in some areas. This is shortly after touchdown, when it had already rapidly intensified into a violent tornado.

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And here is probably the most impressive video of this tornado. Note the rapid forward speed, which means its damage was done in a short period of time.

Watch video >

The Rainsville, AL tornado also belongs on this list, in particular the incredible damage along Skaggs and Lingerfelt Roads. A stone home was swept cleanly away on Skaggs Road, and a section of the concrete foundation was dislodged:

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Also, from the NWS storm survey:

At 1608 Lingerfeldt Road/CR 180 a large two story brick home was completely obliterated with several of the supporting anchors ripped out of the ground. A concrete porch was ripped off with pieces strewn up to 150 yards. A section of the asphalt driveway was pulled up. In addition, an anchored liberty safe weighing 800 pounds was pulled off its anchorage and thrown into a wooded area 600 feet away. When found, the safe`s door had been ripped open and completely off. A large pick-up truck at this residence was found mangled in pieces over 250 yards away in the same wooded area. The residents of the home survived in a nearby storm pit. Of note the storm pit was partially exposed by the tornado with dirt being sucked up and pulled away around the opening. Next door a mobile home was completely disintegrated. The residents of the mobile there also survived in a storm pit.

July 6, 1893 - Pomeroy, IA
To save space I won't comment on this one, but I have an article on this tornado as well.


May 24, 2011 - El Reno, OK
I firmly believe this was one of the most violent tornadoes on record. In addition to the well-built homes that were swept cleanly away, the damage at and near the Cactus 117 drilling rig was extremely intense. That's not far from where the RaXPol's 125 m/s measurements were recorded. The drilling rig itself, which weighed very nearly two million pounds, was tipped over and rolled several times. The workers were huddled in a shelter that was strapped to the ground with four 10,000-pound straps, one of which was broken. Just to the west of the site was a scrap yard where an auto repair shop, a garage and two other buildings were almost completely destroyed. A number of steel shipping containers were thrown well over 100 yards from that area, and a farmhouse was essentially obliterated. Several vehicles were also thrown from nearby I-40 and completely mangled, including the now-famous red Chevy Avalanche that was thrown 700 yards and wrapped around a debarked tree. Almost every tree in the area was totally stripped bare and denuded, as were the majority of low-lying shrubs. Ground scouring was also very intense.

The Chevy Avalanche that was thrown 700 yards and wrapped around a tree.

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Trees stripped bare near the Cactus 117 site.

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Video of an oil tanker that was thrown more than a mile.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7dfzLj3u5n4
 
Mar 3, 2012
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Other tornadoes that I feel belong on this list (among others) include 5/25/55 Udall, KS; 6/8/53 Beecher, MI; 3/18/25 Sumner County, TN; 4/3/74 Brandenburg, KY; 6/12/1899 New Richmond, WI; 5/3/99 Bridge Creek, OK; 6/8/95 Pampa, TX; 5/25/08 Parkersburg, IA; and 5/22/11 Joplin, Mo. I'd like to share photos and summaries on each of them but I'm pretty busy at the moment so I'm just gonna share a few quick photos.

3/18/25 Sumner County, TN:





6/8/53 Beecher, MI:



4/3/74 Brandenburg, KY



6/12/1899 New Richmond, WI:



5/3/99 Bridge Creek, OK:



5/25/55 Udall, KS:

 
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Mar 3, 2012
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The second category, and the one that OP apparently has in mind, is the tornadoes which caused the largest total extent of catastrophic, F5/EF5-type damage. There are several possibilities here, but for the sake of brevity I'd say it comes down to the 3/18/25 Tri-State and 4/27/11 Hackleburg - Phil Campbell tornadoes. The entire 219+ mile path was likely caused by a family of tornadoes, but the primary damage path, which stretches for ~175 miles from near Fredricktown, MO to near Princeton, IN, may very well have been one tornado. This would obviously be far and away the single deadliest and most destructive tornado ever recorded, and even the reduced path length would be a record. There were many instances of extremely intense damage (ground scouring, damaged/twisted railroad tracks, homes cleanly swept away, vehicles and heavy objects thrown great distances, etc.), but many of the structures were somewhat more frail and IMO could have been destroyed by less than F5 winds.

The Hackleburg tornado may have produced the greatest areal extent of violent (F4-F5) damage on record, while also producing some truly extreme instances of damage. The tornado remained extremely intense over a large portion of its 132-mile path, and traveled at 70+ mph. The Wrangler plant was completely mangled, severe ground scouring and denuding/debarking of plants and low-lying shrubs was noted at many locations, many homes - including well-built brick homes - were swept cleanly away, etc. Note the extensive ground scouring along with dozens of homes swept away and a section of trees virtually gone at the center of the path:





It's quite possible the 149 mile long, 1.75 mile wide Yazoo City, MS EF4 would have belonged on this list as well had it passed through more populated areas, but fortunately most of the path was through rural country. The 11/21/92 Brandon, MS (128 mi), 4/27/11 Cordova, AL (128 mi) and Raleigh, MS -Uniontown, AL (124), and 2/5/08 Clinton, AR (122) tornadoes are also deserving of consideration, though none of them matches the sustained intensity of the Hackleburg and Tri-State tornadoes. The 4/9/47 Woodward tornado (likely somewhere between 90 and 120 mi) may warrant a place on such a list as well, but I'm only now beginning to research it for my blog so I don't have a strong opinion on it yet.
 
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Sorry for clogging up the thread, by the way. I get carried away sometimes. I'd like to have included more detail but didn't have enough time at the moment. One other tornado that's at least worth considering is the 6/8/84 Ivanovo, Russia tornado. The Wikipedia page has some basic details. The reports of extreme damage may be apocryphal since there's no solid information, but it's intriguing anyway. The death toll estimates range from about 90 to as many as 400.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1984_Ivanovo-Yaroslavl_tornado_outbreak#Ivanovo.2FLunevo

I have more information about the tornado and the meteorological setup that day, as well as more photos that I'll share later. The 1/10/73 San Justo, Argentina tornado was likely an F5 tornado as well, and is another contender for most violent tornado outside of North America.
 

MaximilianH

I did not add the Wichita Falls tornado onto the list because I, personally, do not believe the tornado was especially intense. The fatality rate versus the number of homes affected was very low (only 5 deaths in homes) and the full aerial survey reveals large patchworks of F3 damage but very little F4 damage. I did not see any photographs that showed fully debarked trees or empty foundations.

In my mind, the storm was a low-end EF4 while passing through Wichita Falls (using the more stringent EF-Scale).

A few of the listings probably shouldn't be on there anymore (Barneveld in particular, maybe Xenia) but I haven't had the heart to remove them as it took forever to find some of those damage shots - contacting local media and such.

My changing list of the most violent tornadoes of the past 30 years would be (no fatality requirement):

Jarrell, Texas - '97
Smithville, Mississippi - '11
Kellerville, Texas - '95
Philadelphia, Mississippi - '11
Bridge Creek, Oklahoma - '99
Bakersfield, Texas - '90
Harper County, Kansas - '04
Phil Campbell, Alabama - '11

But the list would change depending on criteria (most extreme point damage, most extreme damage with respect to wind duration, highest winds etc...)
 
Mar 28, 2010
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The Bakersfield Valley, TX tornado of 1990 was one I did not know about - upon doing some google searching what I found particularly interesting (given my interest in the Saragosa tornado of 1987) was the following text:

"Several instances of F4 damage were noted. Such occurences are rare; during the preceeding 40-year period, the Saragosa tornado of 1987 was the only violent tornado documented in this region. Damage was observed and documented in the BV tornado which was not seen in the Saragosa tornado. The removal of asphalt from Co-Op Road and the extensive scouring of vegetation are examples of damage which was documented in the BV tornado but not in the Saragosa tornado. On the basis of this additional damage, we suspect that the BV tornado was at times stronger than the Saragosa tornado. However, insufficient conclusive evidence existed to warrant an F5 rating for BV."
 
Mar 3, 2012
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The Bakersfield Valley, TX tornado of 1990 was one I did not know about - upon doing some google searching what I found particularly interesting (given my interest in the Saragosa tornado of 1987) was the following text:

"Several instances of F4 damage were noted. Such occurences are rare; during the preceeding 40-year period, the Saragosa tornado of 1987 was the only violent tornado documented in this region. Damage was observed and documented in the BV tornado which was not seen in the Saragosa tornado. The removal of asphalt from Co-Op Road and the extensive scouring of vegetation are examples of damage which was documented in the BV tornado but not in the Saragosa tornado. On the basis of this additional damage, we suspect that the BV tornado was at times stronger than the Saragosa tornado. However, insufficient conclusive evidence existed to warrant an F5 rating for BV."
Yeah, I don't think there's much doubt the Bakersfield Valley tornado was more intense than Saragosa. Another interesting, oft-overlooked candidate is the April 16, 1998 Middle Tennessee F5. It's often called "The Forgotten F5" because it was overshadowed by the tornado in downtown Nashville and it occurred in largely rural areas. This was actually a family of three tornadoes, all of which were very large and violent, and two of which were most likely F5s.

Both of the F5s produced exceedingly intense damage, scouring the ground (including a 200-yard strip of pasture grass in which big clumps of sod and dirt were ripped up), peeling the asphalt from several roads, debarking/denuding trees and snapping them close to the ground, and sweeping away a number of homes (including the carpet, linoleum, etc.) that were said to have been well-built. There are also stories of vehicles being thrown several miles, a van "disappearing" altogether, etc.. although those are probably apocryphal.

I don't have an exact location on this one:



One of many debarked trees:



Damaged home:



According to the NWS, this was a brick home:





More damage:







And finally, a spectacular video of the tornado near Lawrenceburg:



Unfortunately there doesn't appear to be many photos of the hardest-hit areas, but I'm working on tracking some down.
 
Mar 3, 2012
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Alright, so I just want to reaffirm my vote for Jarrell. I was able to track down a bunch of new photos a few days ago, and they only reinforce my opinion that the Jarrell tornado produced hands-down the most intense damage I've ever seen. Say what you will about the slow forward speed, but we've seen many slow movers that haven't produced anything close to what happened in Double Creek Estates. I'll have to break this up into several posts because I've got a lot of photos.

Okay, so bear in mind that this is, generally speaking, what the "before" looked like at Double Creek. These photos were taken just on the northeast fringe of the damage path.





In this aerial shot (looking east-northeast) you can very clearly see the path wherein virtually every blade of grass and piece of vegetation has been scoured away, leaving nothing but a streak of mud. Every structure in the core of the path was swept cleanly away. In many cases, the debris was so granulated that there wasn't much left to see. You can see I-35 running diagonally across the top, with downtown Jarrell in the top right corner. If the tornado had been less than a mile southwest, it would have gone directly down I-35 and right through the middle of town. As terrible as it was, it could have been much worse. CR 305 is running vertically along the left side of the photo. The recycling plant was located at the intersection of CR 305 and the first road running to the right (CR 307). Double Creek Drive is the road at the bottom.



A different view, looking north-northwest down Double Creek Drive.



Large stretches of asphalt stripped from CR 305. The utility poles were obviously replaced after the tornado.



This was the frame of a mobile home. Apparently surveyors weren't able to determine exactly where it came from.

 
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Extreme ground scouring throughout the whole path. This is looking east-southeast toward Jarrell.



Notice the stripped trees and mangled bits of unrecognizable debris.



Looking west from CR 307.



Part of a roof truss from a home that was located ~500 yards away, with the nail plates partially sheared off.



Snapped six-inch timber used as a support beam in a garage.



A swept-clean wood frame home with stone veneer. The carpeting and most of the vinyl flooring was stripped away as well.