Tornado sirens blared for 17 minutes on May 22, 2011, before an EF5 twister ripped through the heart of Joplin leaving death and destruction in its path in the deadliest tornado to hit the four-state area where Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas meet.

America’s first-ever tornado forecast was issued on March 25, 1948, just five days after a tornado smashed into Tinker Air Force Base, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

Gone were the days when a church or school bell would alert the community of impending tornado weather. Those primitive air warnings laid the groundwork for future warning systems, including Doppler radar, NEXRAD, satellite imaging, and storm tracking.

Oklahoma City Times on March 26, 1948
Courtesy of the Oklahoma Historical Society

Major Ernest J. Fawbush and Captain Robert C. Miller, two Air Force meteorologists, were picked by military authorities to determine whether tornadoes could be forecasted after a tornado hit Tinker Air Force Base on March 20, 1948.

That early success fueled the men to make strides with further testing. In the spring and summer of 1949, the meteorologists issued 18 forecasts for tornadoes within a 100-square-mile area, and all proved successful, according to a 1951 Saturday Evening Post story.

In the 75 years since the first warning, the jarring sound has alerted Four State residents to impending danger and saved lives.

A review of weather records since 1950 and published reports show how Mother Nature takes no particular aim when the winds start blowing and cool air hits hot air.

Four State Tornado Facts

  • April 27, 2014, an EF-2 tornado hit Baxter Springs, Kan., destroying 61 homes and businesses. A man was killed when a concrete wall fell onto his car in Quapaw and 12 people were injured in Oklahoma.
  • On Dec. 31, 2010, an EF3 tornado hit Washington and Benton counties in Arkansas killing four people and injuring 10.
  • On May 10, 2008, an EF4 tornado ripped through Welch, Quapaw and Picher, Okla. killing seven people and destroying more than 100 homes in Picher, before moving into Missouri. In Oklahoma 150 people were injured, 15 fatalities were reported in Newton and Barry counties in Missouri and one person was killed in Jasper County.
  • On April 24, 1975, a tornado hit Neosho, leaving three dead and a numerous injuries.
  • On May 5, 1971, a tornado struck Joplin killing one man and injuring 50 people.
  • On June 11, 1970, and tornado struck near the Vinita and Welch area killing one person. An F3 tornado hit Springdale, Ark., injuring 45 people and killing one person.
  • On Sept. 27, 1959, an F4 hit tornado hit Craig County, Okla./Labette, Kan., killing one and injuring one person in Kansas.  
  • On April 2-3, 1956, an F4 tornado struck the towns of Miami and Quapaw, Okla. leaving 46 injured and destroying or damaging 61 homes. The tornado then crossed the state line and destroyed 14 homes and damaged 13 homes in Baxter Springs, Kan., before crossing into Missouri damaging 30 homes and several businesses in Webb City.
  • On April 27, 1942, before tornado warnings were invented, a tornado hit Pryor, Okla., killing 60 people and injuring 400.
  • An EF4 or EF5 tornado has never been reported in northwest Arkansas.  

Tornado Facts

What was the largest tornado in history?

The Tri-State Tornado sliced through southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, and southwest Indiana on March 25, 1925 traveling 219 miles and killing 695 people. 

It is currently believed the storm was likely a series of tornadoes developing from a single supercell traversing the area. A 2013 study led by Robert Johns found that the longest truly continuous damage path was 151 miles long, from central Bollinger County, Missouri, to Pike County, Indiana.

What was the deadliest tornado since 1950?

The Joplin Tornado, May 22, 2011. The EF5 twister caused 161 deaths, with 158 direct fatalities.

What states have the most tornadoes?

Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Mississippi.

What was the biggest known tornado? 

A tornado measuring 2.6 miles wide hit near El Reno, Okla. on May 31, 2013.

What was the costliest tornado? 

The Joplin tornado had an estimated $2.8 billion in damage (2011 dollars).

What city has been hit by the most tornadoes?  

Oklahoma City, 170. 

Has there ever been anything done like “Dorothy” in the movie “Twister”? What was TOTO? 

In “Twister”, “Dorothy” was a large, reinforced metal bin containing small instrument pods which, with help from refabricated soda cans, were supposed to be drawn into a tornado when the tornado would crack “Dorothy” open. The idea for “Dorothy” was taken from a real device which University of Oklahoma and National Severe Storms Laboratory weather scientists used in the early-mid 1980s called TOTO – the Totable Tornado Observatory. Both “Dorothy” and TOTO now are on display at the National Weather Center in Norman.

Information provided by the National Weather Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)