Discover the Most Powerful Tornado to Ever Hit Georgia

Written by Rob Amend
Published: June 30, 2023
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Tornadoes can be terrifying weather events. These storms pack the power of a hurricane into a tight, localized spiral. They cause intense paths of destruction through some parts of the world. The United States is particularly susceptible to these winds. Many of these states experience some of the most powerful tornadoes on the planet. The state of Georgia has experienced a large number of tornadoes. So, what is the most powerful tornado ever to hit Georgia? Read more to find out.

Georgia’s Tornado Index

How often does Georgia get tornadoes? Well, Georgia’s Tornado Index score is 179.92, which is above the national index of 136.45. Marietta, Georgia, has an index of 289.44, making it the Georgia city most likely to be hit by a tornado.

Aerial View of the Atlanta Suburb of Marietta, Georgia. Did this city experience the state's most powerful tornado?

Marietta, Georgia, has a Tornado Index score of 289.44. Was this the city that experienced the most powerful tornado to hit Georgia?

©Jacob Boomsma/Shutterstock.com

So what does this index mean? The Tornado Index is an indicator of regional or localized tornado likelihood based on historical data. Oklahoma is first on the Tornado Index at 363.83 for comparison’s sake. On the other end of the spectrum, Alaska is last, with a paltry 0.01 score. The higher the score, the higher the likelihood of experiencing a tornado.

Measuring the Power of a Tornado

The Tornado Index only measures the likelihood of a particular place experiencing a tornado. It does not measure tornadoes themselves. To calculate the destructive power of a tornado, you must use the Fujita Scale. Meteorologist Ted Fujita created this scale to estimate wind speed based on damage done by the tornado. This is necessary because it is not always possible to measure the wind speed of a tornado directly. This scale rates tornado intensity on a scale of F0 to F5. Today, meteorologists rank tornadoes by the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is similar. Historical records refer to the original Fujita Scale, though.

The Fujita tornado intensity scale

The Fujita Scale was developed to measure the power of a tornado. Meteorologists have since replaced it with the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

©Dimitrios Karamitros/Shutterstock.com

Is Georgia in Tornado Alley?

Within the United States is a region that experiences frequent tornadoes every year called “Tornado Alley.” Considering that tornadoes are common in Georgia, you may wonder if Georgia is part of Tornado Alley. It is not. Tornado Alley generally includes Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Texas, Minnesota, and North and South Dakota. Sometimes, meteorologists include Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. The current thought is that this region is slowly shifting east, though.

Tornado hitting a house

Tornado Alley is a multistate region of the United States which frequently attracts powerful tornadoes.

©EmiliaUngur/Shutterstock.com

The Most Powerful Tornado to Ever Hit Georgia: The Contenders

Determining the most powerful tornado to hit Georgia is a tricky proposition. Given the lack of direct measurement and the limited historical documentation, any judgment will be subjective. With that in mind, though, here are three tornadoes for consideration. All of these are estimated to have been at least F4 tornadoes.

1936 Gainesville, Georgia Tornado Outbreak

On April 6, 1936, at 8:30 a.m., two F4 tornadoes moved into downtown Gainesville and merged. The resulting F4 tornado destroyed everything in the downtown area. The destruction of the Cooper Pants Factory claimed the lives of about 70 people. This was the worst death toll from a building destroyed by a tornado in U.S. history. The storm resulted in a loss of 203 lives in Gainesville.

2011 Rainsville Tornado

A tornado left Rainsville, Alabama, on April 27, 2011, as an EF5. It arrived in Georgia as an EF4 and tore through the town of Ringgold on its way to Tennessee. It was on the ground for 13 miles and was nearly a third of a mile wide. Around 75-100 homes were destroyed, with the worst damage occurring on Cherokee Valley Road. Twelve homes were destroyed there. Four lives were lost, and 30 people were injured.

1884 Enigma Tornado Outbreak

A tornado during a February 19, 1884 outbreak swept through Waleska, Cagle, and Tate. It killed 22 and injured 100s. The death toll could have been higher. The tornado removed well-built homes from their foundations, causing destruction indicative of an F5 tornado. The tornado cut a nearly 3-mile path through the forest and flattened about 50 square miles of trees.

Tornadoes in an Oklahoma farmyard

The Gainesville tornado was the result of two tornadoes merging.

©Eugene R. Thieszen/Shutterstock.com

The Most Powerful Tornado to Ever Hit Georgia

The 1936 Gainesville tornado was the most powerful tornado to hit Georgia in recorded history. There are some indicators that the Enigma tornado may have been as powerful as the one in 1936. However, the death toll and widespread destruction of the Gainesville tornado give it its grim supremacy.

The storm came in from Alabama. The two tornados that merged came from the Atlanta and Dawsonville highways. They met at Grove Street and destroyed the entire downtown area, piling wreckage as high as 10 feet in spots. In addition to the Cooper Pants disaster, 20 people were killed seeking shelter in Newman’s department store. The 550 employees of the Pacolet Mill were more fortunate, surviving huddled together in the northeast corner of the building. The tornado destroyed 750 residences and damaged over 250 more.

There are even additional narrative accounts that speak to the ferocity of the tornado. Witnesses tell of telephone poles twisted like corkscrews, a huge sign from a Gainesville mill ended up in a South Carolina community over 80 miles away, and the massive one-ton bell from the courthouse was carried over 350 yards. There is a, perhaps apocryphal, tale of three frightened boys running underneath the front steps of their house to hide. The storm took the house and foundations but left the steps and the boys unharmed.

Survivors of tornado damage

The most powerful tornadoes create damage on an almost unimaginable scale locally.

©Gregory Simpson/Shutterstock.com

The Aftermath

Though the official death toll was 203, another 40 were reported missing. After the destruction, fires broke out in many collapsed buildings, making it difficult to get an accurate count. Damages amounted to $13 million, which comes to about $280 million when adjusted for inflation. Both tornadoes were later rated as F4s according to the Fujita Scale.

The devastation was such big news that President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the trip to Georgia a few days later and spoke to the people from a train platform. The Gainesville tornado is considered one of the deadliest tornadoes in the United States.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Minerva Studio/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Rob Amend is a writer at A-Z Animals, primarily covering meteorology, geology, geography, and animal oddities. He attained a Master's Degree in Library Science in 2000 and served as reference librarian in an urban public library for 22 years. Rob lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and enjoys spending time with his family, hiking, photography, woodworking, listening to classic rock, and watching classic films—his favorite animal is a six-foot-tall rabbit named Harvey.

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