The State of Arkansas is no stranger to tornadoes. Since 1950 to present day there have been 1714 recorded tornadoes in Arkansas which averages out to 23 tornadoes per county. Faulkner County has had 53 tornadoes, and only two counties have had more, Pulaski County and Lonoke County. Pulaski County has had 86, Lonoke County — 74, Saline County — 48, White County — 37, Conway County — 36, Van Buren County –— 34 and Cleburne County — 28. Faulkner County ranks third in the state for the number of tornadoes since 1950. The counties with the fewest number of tornadoes are Scott County — 7, Lafayette County — 8, Cleveland, Lee and Newton Counties — all with 11 each.
The most recent tornado of April 27 is only the second time since 1950 that Faulkner County has had a tornado that registered on the Fujita scale as an F4 or on the Enhanced Fujita scale as an EF4. The differences between the two scales will be explained later in this article. This article looks at tornado activity in Faulkner County from 1950 to present. Much of the statistical information contained in this article came from the Tornado History Project (tornadohistoryproject.com) which received its information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.
Not all tornadoes are the same. They vary in wind speed, width, distance or length of time on the ground, and the severity of damage left in their wake. In order to rank the intensity of tornadoes a rating system was created in the early 1970s.
Many people are familiar with the Fujita scale that was created by Dr. Tetsuya Theodore Fujita of the University of Chicago, and Allen Pearson of the National Severe Storms Forecast Center, (now the Storm Prediction Center). The Fujita scale rates the intensity of a tornado and goes from the mildest tornado, an F0, to the most intense, an F5. Even though it was 1971 when the Fujita scale was developed an effort was made to go back in history and examine the damage created by tornadoes that occurred prior to 1971, and give them a Fujita scale rating.
The Fujita scale used the following wind speeds (in miles per hour – mph) to rate tornadoes; a tornado that is an F0 has a minimum speed of 40 mph to a maximum 73 mph; an F1 tornado is 74 to 112 mph; an F2 is 113 to 157 mph; an F3 is 158 to 206 mph; an F4 is 207 to 260 mph; and an F5 is 261 to 318 mph. However, scientists felt the Fujita scale needed some adjustment and thought that its wind speed rating was too high. To remedy this situation the Fujita scale was modified and the Enhanced Fujita scale was created. The Enhanced Fujita scale is used to measure the intensity of tornadoes that occurred after February 1, 2007.
The Enhanced Fujita scale takes many factors into account when it is used to estimate the strength of a tornado. According to NOAA National Weather Service, the criteria used to determine the intensity of a tornado includes damage done to hardwood and softwood trees and 26 types of manmade structures. According to the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman, Oklahoma, "The Enhanced Fujita Scale or EF Scale, which became operational on February 1, 2007, is used to assign a tornado a ‘rating’ based on estimated wind speeds and related damage. When tornado-related damage is surveyed, it is compared to a list of Damage Indicators (DIs) and Degrees of Damage (DoD) which help estimate better the range of wind speeds the tornado likely produced. From that, a rating (from EF0 to EF5) is assigned."
"The EF Scale was revised from the original Fujita Scale to reflect better examinations of tornado damage surveys so as to align wind speeds more closely with associated storm damage. The new scale has to do with how most structures are designed." The Enhanced Fujita scale is as follows: an EF0 has winds from 65 to 85 mph; an EF1 tornado has winds from 86 to 110 mph; an EF2 has winds from 111 to 135 mph; an EF3 has winds from 136 to 165 mph; an EF4 has winds from 166 to 200 mph, and an EF5 has winds over 200 mph.
Scientists believe that the Enhanced Fujita scale is a more dependable method of estimating a tornadoes’ intensity due to the number of factors it takes into consideration. Interestingly, the damage done by tornadoes with the various EF ratings corresponds very well with the damage done by tornadoes that were rated on the old Fujita scale with the same number.
Of the 53 known tornadoes to have touched down in Faulkner County since 1950, four were in the weakest category, F0 and EF0. None of those weak tornadoes caused any deaths or injuries and no significant damage. The widest of those tornadoes was 250 yards wide and the longest path on the ground was four miles.
Faulkner County has experienced 18 tornadoes that fall into the F1 and EF1 category. There were no deaths caused by F1 and EF1 tornadoes, but three people were injured by an F1 tornado on May 5, 1961. That F1 tornado was 833 yards in width, almost one-half mile. The longest path of an F1 or EF1 tornado in Faulkner County was 16 miles long and occurred on January 21, 1999 near Naylor, and injured seven people. The seven injured were treated for minor injuries at Conway Regional Medical Center and then released. Other parts of Arkansas were not as fortunate as Faulkner County and six people died from tornadoes that occurred on January 21, 1999.
The difference in damage, injuries and death, increases significantly when a tornado becomes an F2 or EF2 level tornado, as evidenced by the following statistics. Faulkner County has had 18 F2 or EF2 tornadoes. A total of 65 people were injured by F2 or EF2 tornadoes in Faulkner County with the most injuries occurring in the EF2 tornado that struck Vilonia on April 25, 2011.
The 2011 Vilonia tornado injured 16 people and also claimed five lives. Initially four people were reported to have been killed, but according to the Log Cabin Democrat, Faulkner County Coroner Patrick Moore said a fifth death was related to the tornado. Four days after the storm the American Red Cross of Greater Arkansas said that 87 homes in the Vilonia area were destroyed and 146 other homes suffered severe damage and were unlivable.
The 2011 tornado has the distinction of being the widest tornado to ever hit Faulkner County and is the widest tornado in the history of the State of Arkansas. According to the records of the NOAA Storm Prediction Center it was 2,900 yards in width, or 1.65 miles wide, it was on the ground for 68.1 miles and did $53,405,000 in damage. The widest tornado in U.S. history was 2.6 miles wide and struck near El Reno, Oklahoma on May 31, 2013.
Another F2 tornado that hit Faulkner County was on April 7, 1980. It was 1,320 yards in width or about three-fourths of one mile wide, and was on the ground for 37.5 miles. There were no deaths reported with that particular tornado, but 15 people were injured, some seriously, and 37 homes suffered damage.
Faulkner County has had 11 tornadoes that fall into the F3 or EF3 category. Those tornadoes had a cumulative death toll of 8 people and 145 were injured. The most recent EF3 tornado occurred on May 4, 2003. That particular tornado was 500 yards wide and was on the ground for 34.9 miles.
There have been two tornadoes in Faulkner County that were rated F4 or EF4 since 1950. The first tornado of that strength took place on April 10, 1965, and it cut a swath through Conway 200 yards wide and was on the ground for 4.7 miles. It touched down south of Favre Lane and just north of Stanley Russ Road, west of South German land and east of South Donaghey Avenue. It traveled in a northeasterly direction and its path ended just east of East German Lane and north of Rumker Road. It was the deadliest tornado in Faulkner County history until the most recent tornado of April 27.
The 1965 tornado struck at 6:25 p.m. on a Saturday and destroyed 75 homes and damaged as many as 200. It was estimated that approximately 250 people were homeless. At least 200 people were injured and six were killed. According to the Log Cabin Democrat, "The storm formed and swooped down near the southern city limits on Highway 65, then veered northeast toward the Municipal Airport and ripped a trail of destruction as far as the Arkansas Children’s Colony. The hardest hit residential areas were along and on either side of Ingram street from Sixth street to Highway 64 and the Brown Addition on the north side of Highway 64…About 300 colony children were taken to the gymnasiums at Arkansas State Teachers College and Hendrix College, where they were treated, calmed and put to bed."
Conway resident Jim Schneider, a reporter for the Log Cabin Democrat at the time, took refuge under a bed in his apartment just as the tornado hit. Schneider stated, "Everyone wants to know what the tornado sounded like. Stand between two freight trains the next time they pass through Conway, then multiply that sound several times and you’ve got it."
Schneider continued, "The sights are unforgettable, nightmarish. Whole houses mutilated like an egg crushing in your hand; automobiles hurled into the air like 10-cent toys thrown by an angry child, and huge trees ripped from the earth like a blade of grass pulled from around a flower. And afterwards, nothing but destruction where moments earlier there were houses where happy families lived – streets littered with debris when less than an hour before they were occupied by playing, skate-boarding children."
Even though the 1965 tornado left its victims with indelible memories of that horrible evening, the tornado that recently devastated Mayflower and Vilonia took almost twice as many lives. The tornado of April 27 claimed 11 lives and injured more than 100. Three days after it struck officials with the National Weather Service gave it a rating of EF4. The information about the most recent severe tornado and its impact on families and communities has been well covered by the reporters of the Log Cabin Democrat.
The following is a quote from a Log Cabin Democrat reporter after the traumatic F4 tornado of April 10, 1965, "Those who are sleeping in their homes surely had given thanks for their deliverance. Those who have no homes surely had given thanks for their lives. And those who lost their lives became a symbol of heartbreak and tragedy for everyone." In total there have been 30 people killed and over 500 injured by tornadoes in Faulkner County since 1950. Faulkner County has not had an F5 of EF5 tornado.
Sources for this article include: the Log Cabin Democrat, National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center, Tornado History Project – tornadohistoryproject.com accessed on April 28, 29, 30, May 1, May2, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (https://www.nssl.noaa.gov/) accessed on April 29, April 30, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center (http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/) accessed on April 30, May 1 and May 2, and the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman Oklahoma (http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/) accessed on May 1.