As I drove the wind-swept plains of South Dakota that rolled gently into the sweltering heat of the open plateau, I recalled telling my friend in Kentucky on the phone earlier that there wasn’t a speck of shade to be had—whereupon she’d laughed and reminded me that she’d warned me of just that very thing: east of Rapid City and the Black Hills there is no shade to be found. The next day, as I adjusted my Armstrong Air-Conditioning (e.g., I opened all the windows of the car), I had to laugh out loud when I spotted a sign on the interstate that advertized trees and shade. It was so hot that even the chocolate biscuit of my ice cream sandwich melted! When I checked later I found that the temperature had been in the mid nineties (34 degrees Centigrade), which is nothing compared to the record temperature for that time period of 109 degrees F (and that was just last year!).
As I entered Wyoming I almost immediately got into some "weather". I was barely past the welcome sign when I spotted a weather-advisory sign and remembered that I wasn’t far from “Tornado Alley” in eastern Wyoming. No sooner had I seen the sign when the wind picked up and dark clouds swept in toward me. Lightning struck several times. It began to rain. Then it pelted.
Toulouse didn't like it...right after I took this picture of him, a major lightning strike occurred that seemed to connect directly with the road ahead of me. It pelted so hard I couldn’t even find the ruts in the road to avoid. Then it started to hail. We eventually got through it and the sun came out blazing. The carbon sky behind me formed a dark screen for the sun-lit landscape. It was a photographer’s dream.
That didn’t last long, though; within moments a huge dark cloud mass boiled overhead, brought in with a hot wind. It was positively eerie and I gasped. I stumbled out of the car to stare as a dark “funnel” swirled down over me like a living thing. Toulouse hid behind the seat as I sat on top of my car and stared in a daze, heart pounding. Then the sky opened up to the left and lit up and “lightness” flowed down like a waterfall. I’m sure my mouth gaped open. I was mesmerized. It was amazing. Whew... that was Wyoming...
The Climate Atlas of Wyoming notes that “Wyoming's life and property losses due to severe weather are among the lowest in the country. This is due in part to the state's very low population density and its geographical location. Clashes between contrasting air masses that produce severe weather are minimized in part because of the Rocky Mountains' ability to separate and block prevailing air flows from the Gulf of Mexico, north central North America, and the Pacific Ocean. As a result, Wyoming has had the fewest one billion dollar weather disasters in the US during the past two decades. However, severe weather's impact on transportation, agriculture, ranching, tourism, and industry is still a force to be reckoned with.” I can vouch for that.
Tornadoes are the most intense wind events on earth, with winds in excess of 315 mph having been recorded. About 1,214 tornadoes happen in the United States each year; four times the number found in Europe. In contrast, Canada experiences about 100 tornadoes annually. Violent tornadoes—those rated EF4 or EF5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale—occur more often in the United States than in any other country. Because Wyoming lies west of "tornado alley" the frequency and intensity of tornadoes are greatly diminished, ranking this state as 25th in the number of annual tornadoes. Wyoming experiences about 6 tornadoes a year on average. In contrast, on February 5-6 of this year eighty-seven tornadoes raged through tornado alley, making it the deadliest outbreak in Tennessee and Kentucky since the 1974 Super Outbreak.
To get to northeastern Wyoming, I’d driven across the path of America’s most devastating and powerful tornado, the Tri-State Tornado of 1925. This tornado, which ripped through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana and eventually claimed 695 people, injured 2,000 people and completely destroyed four towns, developed during an afternoon thunderstorm near Ellington in southeast Missouri on March 18, 1925. It swiftly crossed the Mississippi River about 75 miles southeast of St. Louis, then followed a northeast course as it plowed through southern Illinois and southwestern Indiana, leaving a 219 mile long wake of destruction before finally dissipating.
During a 3.5-hour lifespan, the devastating funnel cloud averaged a quarter-mile in width but at times grew as wide as a mile. The tornado and its debris cloud were so large that they could scarcely be distinguished by some witnesses. The enormity of the tornado and its ranking as the greatest tornado in American history can be summarized by the following statistics:
- longest continuous contact on the ground
- third fastest traveling speed
- continuous exertion of force resulting in damage throughout most of its lifespan
- a record 3.5-hour duration.