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Smithfield Tornado May Have Been Deadliest in New York History

By Nick Wiltgen
Published: July 13, 2014

The storm that killed four people in Smithfield, New York, on Tuesday evening may have been the deadliest tornado in New York state history.

A survey team from the National Weather Service in Binghamton, New York, determined that a tornado destroyed the homes where four people were killed in this upstate New York town.

The survey crew completed its survey Wednesday afternoon, concluding that the tornado packed winds of up to 125 mph, earning it an EF2 rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

Deadliest Tornado Status Disputed

The status of New York's deadliest tornado is in dispute. According to official data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that dubious distinction belongs to a storm that killed nine children at the East Coldenham Elementary School in Orange County on Nov. 16, 1989.

The children died when a wall fell on them during the storm. While the National Weather Service concluded that the damage was caused by an F1 tornado, the pioneer of modern tornado survey techniques disagreed.

Dr. Theodore Fujita surveyed the damage from that event and concluded that a microburst, rather than a tornado, caused the damage. His findings were later rejected by the governor of New York at the time, and NOAA continues to list the event as a tornado in its Storm Data catalog.

(MORE: Worst November Tornado Outbreaks)

Even in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 tragedy, there was disagreement over what caused it. A Nov. 17, 1989 article in the New York Times called it a "hurricane-force gust of wind" while noting that several eyewitnesses and the county police believed it to be a tornado.

According to tornado historian Tom Grazulis, the next-deadliest tornadoes on record in New York history each killed three people and each occurred over 100 years ago:

  • A tornado moved from Onondaga Lake to just north of Syracuse on Sept. 15, 1912, killing three and injuring 40.
  • A tornado slashed through the town of Willing in Allegany County on Sept. 28, 1884. Three died and 31 were hurt.

Tuesday's tornado will go into NOAA's record books as the second-deadliest tornado in New York history. But in the view of some meteorologists, the Smithfield tornado qualifies as the deadliest in state history.

Governor Sees "Pattern of Extreme Weather"

In a press conference Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo lamented the number of disasters during his tenure in office.

"Unfortunately, in my three and a half years as governor, I've seen too many disasters," Cuomo said. "And I've been in settings like this too often."

Citing 11 federally declared disasters in his tenure, Cuomo added, "There is a pattern of extreme weather that is different. We're seeing things that we've never seen. We see floods where homes that have been dry for 100 years get hit with floods and get totally destroyed."

Cuomo said the state had begun citizen preparation training sessions to cope with the spate of natural disasters. "We don't get tornadoes in New York, right? Anyone will tell you that. Well, we do now."

In fact, according to The Weather Channel severe weather expert Dr. Greg Forbes, 418 tornadoes struck the Empire State from 1950 through 2012, ranking New York 30th among all states in total tornadoes, and 36th in tornadoes per square mile.

Is New York Actually Seeing More Tornadoes?

New York's tornado density was 2.10 tornadoes per 10,000 square miles per year from 2000 to 2012, a 71-percent increase from 1.22 in the 1950-1999 period.

However, improved reporting methods have vastly increased the annual number of reported tornadoes in the United States. Many experts believe there is no long-term upward or downward trend in the actual number of tornadoes in the U.S., noting that reports of the most obvious, powerful tornadoes have not shown any upward trend.

For the nation as a whole, the tornado density went from 2.30 in the second half of the last century to 3.66 for 2000-2012, an increase of 59 percent. New York's tornado counts are growing slightly faster than the nation as a whole, but it is unclear whether that is due to increased tornado activity above and beyond the improved reporting system.

MORE: Deadly Storms Strike Northeast, July 8, 2014

A house is covered with the debris of another house that was blown onto it during Tuesday's storm, on Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in Smithfield, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

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