This Month in Climate History: May 1999 Tornado Outbreak

Image of May 3, 1999 tornado

This tornado was spotted on May 3, 1999, seven miles south of Anadarko, Oklahoma. Credit: NOAA Photo Library

What started out as a normal Monday over fourteen years ago became anything but when the skies darkened over Oklahoma and Kansas on the evening of May 3, 1999. Several devastating tornadoes hit the area that evening, killing nearly 50 people and causing over one billion U.S. dollars in damages.

The most destructive tornado of the outbreak, an F-5 on the Fujita-Pearson Tornado Scale, formed about 45 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. The tornado stayed on the ground for about four hours and cut a path at least a half-mile wide as it moved north and east across the Oklahoma City area. In the wake of this single tornado, nearly 40 people were killed and several hundred were injured. The damage left behind by this tornado made it the most costly in U.S. history until the 2011 Joplin, Missouri, tornado. Shortly after the Oklahoma City tornado, another violent tornado, rated F-4 intensity, plowed through Haysville in suburban Wichita, Kansas. This tornado was responsible for several more deaths and over 150 additional injuries.

While these tornadoes received the greatest attention, they were just two of a rare and significant outbreak of violent tornadoes. By the time the storm system moved out of the area on May 4, over 70 tornadoes, many of them rated F-3 or stronger, had hit parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The total tornado count in Oklahoma makes the May 3–4, 1999 tornado outbreak the largest ever recorded in the state. In Oklahoma, officials estimated that over 8,000 homes or businesses were damaged or destroyed, and Kansas officials estimated that over 1,100 homes or businesses were destroyed in that state.

Check back next month for a new edition of This Month in Climate History.