Tornado outbreak sequence of May 2003

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Tornado outbreak sequence of May 2003
2003-05-08 OKC tornado.jpg
The MooreSoutheast Oklahoma City tornado hitting the GM motor plant on May 8.
TypeTornado outbreak
DurationApril 30–May 11, 2003
Tornadoes confirmed401 confirmed (most ever recorded in a continuous period of tornadic activity)
Max. rating1F4 tornado
Duration of tornado outbreak212 days
Damage$4.1 million (2003 USD)[1]
1Most severe tornado damage; see Fujita scale
2Time from first tornado to last tornado

The Tornado outbreak sequence of May 2003 in the United States and Canada (Ontario) was a series of tornado outbreaks that occurred from May 3 to May 11, 2003. Tornadoes began occurring over the affected area on April 30, but the most prolific continuous period was the seven-day period of May 4–10. There were 401 tornado reports in 19 states and 1 Canadian province, 1,587 reports of large hail, and 740 reports of wind damage.[2] More severe weather broke out this week alone than any other week in U.S. history.[2] The old record for most tornado reports in one week was 171 during the week of the May 1995 tornado outbreak sequence (May 12 to May 18, 1995).[3]

Meteorological synopsis[edit]

The main meteorological factor for this series of tornado outbreaks was the presence of a persistent 500 mb trough over the western United States, coupled with a series of shortwave disturbances which propagated through the central and eastern United States. These shortwaves provided a mechanism for the deepening of surface low-pressure areas, which followed the upper level flow from southwest to northeast. The cyclones induced a strong north to southeasterly flow in the low levels of the atmosphere (1000 mb, 850 mb) off the Gulf of Mexico. This persistent flow provided an abundance of warm, moist maritime tropical air in the central and eastern US.

The interaction between warm, dry air from the western United States and the moist Gulf airmass resulted in a boundary known as the dry line. This boundary, along with other factors provided a source of lift promoting thunderstorm development. CAPE describes the instability in the atmosphere and the tendency for it to rise; high CAPE values are usually associated with severe weather. CAPE values during the period of April 30–May 11 were extremely high in the affected areas. A strong, persistent southeast to northwest upper level flow contributed to wind shear, and induced strong rotation in many of the thunderstorms that developed. These rotating thunderstorms, or supercells, are capable of spawning tornadoes.

Total confirmed tornadoes[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 213 123 39 20 6 0 401

April 30 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 18 3 0 0 0 0 21

May 1 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 8 4 2 0 0 0 14

May 2 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1

May 3 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 11 2 1 0 0 0 14

May 4 event[edit]

May 4, 2003 Tornado Tracks
Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 32 29 13 8 4 0 86

Most prolific day of the sequence[edit]

The meteorological ingredients that made conditions favorable for devastating severe weather came together early in the day on May 4. One of the 500 mb shortwaves that had propagated from the Rocky Mountains into the Central Plains states had induced the deepening of a 990 mb low over northwestern Missouri. A warm front extended from this low through Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee. South of this front, southerly winds at the surface had advected unseasonably warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi Valley and surrounding states. Temperatures reached the mid 80s(°F) and dew points had risen above 70 °F (21 °C).

In the upper levels of the atmosphere, the left exit region of a 250 mb jet streak had been positioned over the affected area, providing enhanced lift. This in combination with low level instability contributed to explosive thunderstorm development. Winds at the 850 mb level were enhanced as the day progressed, and velocity maxima exceeded 70 kts by 0300 UTC.

The thunderstorms that developed in the region quickly began rotating, due to the enhanced environmental wind shear. Long-lived supercells were prevalent; many of which produced families of strong to violent, long-tracked tornadoes. Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Tennessee were hardest hit. A total of 86 tornadoes touched down, making May 4, 2003 one of the largest single-day outbreaks in history. Thirty-eight people were killed, and nearly 400 injured by the twisters.

Southwest Missouri/Southeast Kansas tornadoes[edit]

Tornado Tracks in Southwest Missouri

Franklin (F4)[edit]

A large tornado touched down in Neosho County, Kansas at 4:32 pm on May 4. The tornado was initially about 250 yards (230 m) wide and produced F2 damage as it crossed into Crawford County. Aerial damage surveys indicate an increase in width and intensification as the tornado approached the community of Ringo (5 miles (8 km) east of Girard), in Crawford County. Dramatic scouring of the ground was observed, homes were swept from their foundations, and heavy objects such as vehicles were tossed long distances (over 100 yards (90 m)). The NWS described the damage in this portion of the track as "high-end F4", though it is speculated that they tornado could have reached F5 intensity in this area. As it passed Ringo and entered the unincorporated town of Franklin (5 miles (8 km) north of Frontenac), the path reached over 12 mile (0.8 km) wide at points. Major devastation occurred in Franklin, as numerous buildings and homes were demolished, with some swept away. and Three people were killed in town, and 20 others were injured. The tornado continued producing "high end F4" damage to homes as it passed the town of Mulberry, where a train was derailed from the winds of the storm, and crossed into Barton County, Missouri. In Missouri, the twister demolished several farm houses, killing an 88-year-old man. Some of the homes were swept completely away. Its path began to narrow several miles into Missouri; video and eyewitness accounts suggest that the tornado was "roping out" at this point. It finally lifted to the north of Liberal, Missouri after having traveled for approximately 35 miles (56 km). Almost immediately after the Franklin tornado lifted, a second large tornado was reported to have touched down on the east side of Liberal. The Franklin tornado was covered on an episode of The Weather Channel's Storm Stories, and was described by meteorologist Jim Cantore as "one of the most violent tornadoes ever caught on film- a twister that would shred southeast Kansas".

Tornado near Franklin
The Tornado Intensifies

Stockton (F3)[edit]

The second major tornado produced by the Franklin supercell was initially observed to the east of Liberal (5:31 pm). Analysis indicated a 12 mile (0.8 km) wide damage path through rural portions of Barton County, Missouri. Several structures received F1 to F2 damage. The tornado crossed into Cedar County and continued to produce high-end F2/low-end F3 damage. One man was killed east of Liberal when his home was destroyed. As it approached the town of Stockton, several framed houses were swept off of their foundations. Structural analysis indicated poor anchoring of the homes, thus warranting a high-end F3 rating. The funnel then proceeded to travel through the center of Stockton, causing considerable devastation and killing three. The tornado was approximately 34 mile (1.2 km) in diameter as it left Stockton. A two-story framed home to the east of Stockton was almost entirely destroyed and several vehicles were tossed hundreds of feet (also high-end F3). Almost all the buildings in the downtown square of Stockton were destroyed and the only thing left at one bank was the vault. Most of the roof was torn off of the Stockton school but the court house, just 18 mile (0.2 km) south of the square, sustained only minor damage. The city was closed off to the public for nearly two days. The tornado then crossed into northern Polk County and appeared to weaken slightly. A handful of structures received F1 and F2 damage. Continuing all the way through Polk County, it shrank to approximately 300 yards (274 m) in diameter as it entered Dallas County. Damage analysis indicated twin funnels in western Polk (another tornado touched down just to the south of the parent funnel) (Observers did confirm twin tornadoes on the ground near Humansville, Missouri in northwest Polk County). Over 48 homes were destroyed in northern Dallas county (again F3 damage) and two additional fatalities occurred. South of Tunas, the track shifted from northeasterly to almost east-southeasterly. It then proceeded to abruptly weaken and dissipate. The Stockton tornado had traveled for 86 miles (138 km), across four counties in their entirety. One year after the tornado hit, a plaque was placed at the town park in honor of the three men who lost their lives there. The tornado killed a total of 6 people along its path.

Camden County (F3)[edit]

Yet another tornado touched down in Camden County, Missouri, several minutes after the Stockton tornado dissipated (7:31 pm). This tornado quickly grew to 400 yards in diameter, and destroyed 50 homes near Camdenton. Two homes (considered to have been well anchored) were swept free short distances from their foundations. Vehicles parked in the driveways of these homes were only shifted slightly, preventing a higher rating. 4 fatalities were reported in the Camdenton area. The tornado then moved northeast and dissipated near Montreal. Its path length was 15 miles.

Carl Junction (F3)[edit]

Weather spotters reported a funnel that may have touched down briefly several times in western Cherokee County, Kansas. The first observable damage was observed to the north of Melrose. It initially produced minimal F0 and F1 damage. One death occurred south of Columbus, Kansas where the tornado produced some F2 damage to several structures. It widened and intensified as it approached the Kansas/Missouri border; several homes were almost entirely destroyed and numerous structures were severely damaged. A couple was killed in their home by flying debris in this area. The now 1/2 mile wide tornado crossed into Jasper County, Missouri and raged through the center of Carl Junction, Missouri. More than 500 structures were damaged or destroyed and 2 additional deaths occurred. F2 to F3 damage was observed in Carl Junction. The storm then veered north and dissipated, moving just north of Oronogo. It had traveled approximately 25 miles.

Pierce City (F3)[edit]

A second supercell south of the storm that spawned the Franklin/Stockton/Camdenton tornadoes produced several funnel clouds through Newton county before any tornado touchdown was reported. Damage was first observed south of Ritchey, in Newton county. Several structures were moderately damaged. The most significant damage in Newton county was rated F2. The tornado reached over 1/2 mile wide as it crossed into Lawrence county, and abruptly strengthened to a multiple-vortex F3 as it entered the town of Pierce City.

The tornado tore through the business district of the small town and nearly every commercial structure was either damaged or destroyed (including several buildings of historical significance). One person died when the National Guard Armory, used as a tornado shelter, was struck. Rumors of a high death count and the total destruction of Pierce City were exaggerated and adopted as part of the media stories surrounding the outbreak. In truth, about a quarter of the city was impacted directly. (This portion edited by a resident at the time of the tornado.)

The tornado continued through Lawrence County, traveling forty-five miles diagonally across the county in an almost unbroken track. Two people were killed three miles north of Monett and two more north of Marionville. One person was killed near Clever and another near Battlefield.[4]

It then crossed into Christian County, passing to the north of several large population centers. In Christian County, dozens of structures were damaged and one fatality was reported. Damage here ranged between high-end F2 and F3. After passing Clever, the path veered north into Greene County (toward Springfield). 100 homes were destroyed in the Springfield suburb of Battlefield. One fatality was also reported here. The damage path abruptly ended several miles past Battlefield, just before the tornado would have entered Springfield. NWS gave this tornado an F3 rating overall. It traveled across 4 counties. A total of 6 people were killed.

Kansas City tornado family[edit]

Tornado Tracks in Kansas City Area
The Kansas City Tornado

Linwood (F2)[edit]

The first tornado of the Kansas City storm touched to the Northwest of Linwood, just South of the Kansas Turnpike near Shoal Creek. It initially produced considerable F1 damage as it crossed the Turnpike, and was reported to have been approximately 250 yards wide before intensifying into an F2 where significant damage occurred. Spotty F2 damage was observed near the intersection of 166th and Kansas Avenue. Numerous homes and buildings were damaged, and 2 injuries were reported. The tornado lifted just to the south of Basehor. It had traveled just over 6 miles.

North Kansas City (F4)[edit]

Several minutes after the first tornado dissipated, a second larger funnel touched down North of Edwardsville, Kansas. It initially produced light damage (F0 to F1); however, 2 homes were almost destroyed near I-435, indicating F3 damage. The tornado rapidly intensified and grew to nearly 500 yards in diameter as it passed through Northern Kansas City, Kansas, and a few well constructed homes were leveled near 91st and Leavenworth Road. NWS rated this portion of the track F4. The only two fatalities attributed to the storm occurred here. To the northeast persistent F2 and F3 damage was observed through 84th street. In the vicinity of 79th Street and Cernech additional F4 damage was produced. Several structures were demolished, and metal power poles engineered to withstand 200 mph winds were tossed to the ground. The tornado then crossed the Missouri River into Platte County, Missouri. The path width decreased and high end F1 damage was observed for the remainder of the tornado's track. It dissipated just to the south of Gladstone, after having traveled for 22 miles. Wyandotte county also had $15.5 million in damage, with 69 buildings destroyed, and 390 suffering damage. Leavenworth county had 9 homes destroyed, 8 with major damage and 17 with minor damage. Damage estimates for Leavenworth county are around $4 million. 2 people were killed by this tornado, and at least 30 others were injured.

Another image of the Kansas City Tornado
Damage from the Gladstone Tornado

Gladstone (F4)[edit]

The third tornado touched down in Gladstone (reportedly as a new circulation developed in the thunderstorm). Like the others, it was initially weak (F1), but quickly strengthened and widened to approximately 300 yards in diameter. Near the intersection of NE 63rd Terrace and N Jackson, marginal F4 occurred in the Carriage Hill subdivision. A few homes were flattened there. Just to the Northeast of this location, NWS noted an additional pocket of F4 damage. The tornado continued producing F2 to F3 damage before dissipating, after having traveled for only 5 miles. No one was killed in this tornado, though a few injuries occurred.

Liberty (F2)[edit]

The fourth and final tornado of the Kansas City Supercell touched down in Liberty, Missouri around 5 p.m. Substantial damage occurred in the downtown square, into William Jewell College (high end F2) and continued tracking east along Route H into unincorporated Clay County. The total track length was 8 miles. The funnel was reported to have been 200 to 300 yards in diameter, though photographs suggest that it may have been somewhat larger. It continued tracking east along Route H into Clay County, and then lifted. The total track length was 8 miles. No injuries or fatalities occurred as a result of this tornado.

Jackson, Tennessee area tornadoes[edit]

Jackson Area Tornado Tracks

First tornado (F4)[edit]

A large tornado touched down in southwest Madison County, Tennessee after dark. It was initially 200 to 300 yards in diameter; however, rapid intensification occurred as the funnel approached Jackson. The now 1/2 mile wide tornado plowed through downtown Jackson and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings and homes. Several structures were leveled, warranting an F4 rating. 66 people were injured and 11 fatalities were reported, most of which occurred downtown. The tornado continued into Henderson county, though aerial damage surveys indicate significant weakening occurred just to the east of Jackson. Sporadic F0 to F1 damage was observed for the remainder of the tornado's path. It lifted just to the west of Lexington, after having traveled for an impressive 39 miles.

Second tornado (F3)[edit]

The second Jackson area tornado touched down to the south of the initial track. It was reported to have been up to 1/4 mile wide, and produced F1 damage to the southwest of Jackson. The tornado then moved south of the Jackson city limits, destroying several homes and businesses. The damage in this area was rated by NWS officials to be F2 to F3. The track became sporadic and narrow as the tornado crossed from Madison county to Henderson county, and damage surveys indicated that the tornado dissipated to the south of Lexington. The total path length was 21 miles. A few people were injured.

May 5 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 17 7 0 1 0 0 25

May 6 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 41 27 5 1 1 0 75

Paducah area tornadoes[edit]

Jackson, Missouri (F3)[edit]

At approximately 8:45 pm, a small tornado touched down in Jackson, Missouri. The tornado initially tore the roof off the town police station and the fire department, which share the same structure. It also damaged the roof of a pottery factory, destroyed a local bakery, and destroyed the gymnasium of a local Catholic elementary school, with some walls partially remaining. It passed directly through downtown Jackson with a width of about 50 yards, tossing vehicles and uprooting trees. Roofs were torn from many structures as well. Just outside downtown several homes were destroyed, with only a few interior walls remaining (F3 damage). Many other homes in this area were severely damaged. The tornado lifted to the northeast of Jackson, after having traveled for just over 2 miles. Only two injuries were reported.

Pulaski, Massac County (F4)[edit]

A very large tornado touched down in Pulaski County, Illinois at approximately 9:32 pm. The funnel was estimated to have been 2/3 of a mile in diameter as it moved into Massac County, blowing a few framed homes off their foundations, and severely damaging others. A mobile home was literally wrapped around a tree and its occupant was killed. Another fatality occurred in an unanchored home as it was destroyed. Damage in eastern Massac County was consistent with F4 intensity. Many structures were also severely damaged even further east in the Mermet Lake Conservation Area. Many vehicles were lifted, rolled, or thrown 100 yards or more; glass was impaled into trees; some trees were either debarked or uprooted. The tornado continued into northern Pope county before it dissipated at 10:42 pm. The path length was 33 miles. The tornado killed two people and injured several others.

May 7 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 16 11 4 0 0 0 31

May 8 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 26 9 3 3 1 0 42

Central Oklahoma tornadoes[edit]

Oklahoma City area (F4)[edit]

Radar shot of the Moore/Oklahoma City supercell at its peak intensity in southeastern OKC

Four years after an F5 tornado caused incredible damage across much of the Oklahoma City metropolitan area during the 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak, another strong tornado affected the area. The storm responsible for the tornado developed across Grady County during the mid-afternoon hours and produced a weak tornado near Newcastle and west of Moore. Just after 5:00 pm, a new tornado touched down on the west side of Moore west of Interstate 35 and moved east northeast across the city; the tornado proceeded to cause damage across southeastern sections of Oklahoma City, including Tinker Air Force Base near Interstate 40, and also near Midwest City and Choctaw.[5] Despite extensive damage along the path, no fatalities were caused by the tornado, although dozens of injuries were reported across Cleveland and Oklahoma Counties.

Extensive damage was widespread across the southeastern Oklahoma City metro area

Within Moore city-limits, the peak damage caused near the center of the tornado was mostly rated as F2, although a few isolated locations received F3-rated damage; F3 damage in Moore was observed near 12th Street where several businesses, two hotels, an office building, a church, several restaurants, a child center and a Headstart Program building were either severely damaged or destroyed. The tornado also damaged numerous homes in the Highland Park subdivision which was mostly destroyed by the F5 tornado which passed just a few blocks north of the May 8, 2003 tornado. Other homes on the north side of the city also sustained significant damage before the tornado crossed the Cleveland-Oklahoma county line.[5]

In the Oklahoma City area, the General Motors Oklahoma City Assembly sustained major damage as did as a manufacturing plant near Interstate 240 where F4 damage was observed. Several other businesses were either damaged or destroyed. At Tinker Air Force Base, a storage bunker and several fences were damaged. Several subdivisions in eastern Oklahoma City, Choctaw and Midwest City were also affected by the tornado with several homes sustaining significant damage.[5]

May 9 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 19 12 1 1 0 0 33

Central Oklahoma – round two[edit]

Severe damage to a home in Oklahoma County
Tornado in Northeast Oklahoma City at 10:45 p.m. CDT

One supercell across central Oklahoma produced 10 tornadoes from Caddo to Creek Counties during the evening hours of May 9, 2003. The most significant tornado affected central to northeastern sections of Oklahoma County from Interstate 35 and areas along Interstate 44 to near Luther.

The supercell developed across Greer County during the early evening and slowly moved east/northeast and started to produce tornadoes in Caddo County at around 9:00 pm. As it approached Interstate 40 near Bethany the National Weather Service forecast office in Norman issued a tornado emergency citing that the radar was detecting a potentially large and violent tornado in the area. Two tornadoes in Bethany and Warr Acres rated F1 produced minor to moderate damage mostly to trees but several structures were also damaged including churches, a storage facility, car ports, airports hangars at the Wiley Post Airport, several homes, warehouses and businesses. Eight were injured in the Bethany tornado and damage was pegged at $10 million.

Just after 10:30 pm, a large tornado touched down northwest of the Interstate 35 and Interstate 44 interchange in northeastern Oklahoma City, near the respective studios of KWTV and KOCB.[6] The tornado was filmed live by KFOR-TV helicopter reporter Jim Gardner near I-35 at Britton Road (northeast of the NBC affiliate's studio facilities) and large power flashes were seen from the air during the station's live severe weather coverage. The National Weather Service issued another tornado emergency for that particular tornado. Moving parallel along the Turner Turnpike, the tornado produced its worst damage just east of I-35/44 where damage to an industrial building and a horse ranching operation was rated F3. Additionally, the tornado damaged several homes and barns in northeast Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County with one home destroyed. Tornado damage estimates were about $7 million. The tornado lifted shortly after 11:00 pm. Despite extensive damage, only two people were injured as most of the tornado track moved over sparsely populated areas and also near Interstate 44, where there were few structures. Additional tornadoes touched down until after midnight and numerous structures in Davenport and Stroud in Lincoln County sustained significant damage shortly before midnight. No fatalities were reported in Oklahoma during the outbreak.

May 10 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 25 19 10 6 0 0 60

South Pekin, Illinois[edit]

The tornado caused damage across the east side of South Pekin, Illinois and was rated as a quarter mile wide F3. Several homes were severely damaged or destroyed. There were 23 injuries but no fatalities. This storm was the third direct hit in 65 years. The town is also known for Central Illinois' deadliest tornado (March 30, 1938).

May 11 event[edit]

Confirmed tornadoes by Fujita rating
FU F0 F1 F2 F3 F4 F5 Total
0 2 1 0 0 0 0 3

2003 tornado season in perspective[edit]

Outbreak death toll
State Total County County
Illinois 2 Massac 1
Pulaski 1
Kansas 8 Cherokee 3
Crawford 3
Wyandotte 2
Kentucky 1 Mercer 1
Missouri 19 Barton 1
Camden 4
Cedar 3
Christian 1
Dallas 2
Greene 1
Jasper 2
Lawrence 5
Tennessee 11 Madison 11
Totals 41
All deaths were tornado-related

The 2003 tornado season had been relatively slow up until May 1. In fact, around May 1 through July 1 was the most active time of the year in tornadoes. The first tornado report of the year came on February 15. About 400 tornadoes were reported during the first 10 days of May, more than 500 were reported during the entire month.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ a b "May 2003 Tornado Outbreak Sequence". Science Daily. Retrieved 2008-06-02.
  3. ^ "RECORD NUMBER OF TORNADOES, NOAA REPORTS". NOAA. May 13, 2003. Retrieved 2007-07-10.
  4. ^ Tornado track map created by NOAA.
  5. ^ a b c "The May 8, 2003 Oklahoma City Area Tornadoes". National Weather Service – Norman, Oklahoma. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved 2008-06-02.
  6. ^ NCDC: Event Details

External links[edit]

April 30 – May 3
May 4–5
May 6–7
May 8
May 9
May 10
May 11