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A history of natural disasters in Missouri

Missouri has a wild weather past and history of resilience worthy of reflection.

December 20, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

In Missouri’s recent history, tornadoes and floods have ravaged towns, and the state has suffered devastating droughts. Missourians can’t shake the memories the 161 lives lost in the Joplin tornado or the wave of destruction left behind by the flood of 1993. Aside from the supposed apocalypse, Missouri has a wild weather past and history of resilience worthy of reflection.

1.5 billion years ago to 200 million years ago
The St. Francois Mountains in southeastern Missouri were once explosive volcanoes that covered the state with ash and debris 1.5 billion years ago. 200 million years ago, meteorites that broke into smaller pieces midair smashed into the earth. Some fell along what is now Missouri’s Highway 5, just north of Lebanon in southeast Missouri. Geologist and director of the Missouri Institute of Natural Science Matt Forir says Columbia would have had a front row seat to the action and even felt the shock wave and seen a bright flash.

1811-1812 Earthquakes
Beginning December 16, 1811, a series of earthquakes in the New Madrid Seismic Zone shook the country. Church bells rang in Washington D.C., and the tremors woke people as far away as Pennsylvania. The worst earthquake, with an estimated 7.7 magnitude, destroyed two towns in Missouri’s Bootheel, New Madrid and Little Prairie, now Caruthersville.


Early depiction of the effects of the December 1811 New Madrid Earthquake. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Flood of 1844
Missouri’s flood of 1844 rivals the record-setting 1993 flood in magnitude and damage. In the spring, the river began rising rapidly at 12-18 inches a day. Still, people didn’t panic because they had never lived through a major flood. Then, on June 18, 1844, The Missouri Register described the flood as “distressing calamity” with the Missouri River “bursting from its banks.” Families waited for rescue on the tops of their houses.

1917 Boone County Tornado
From 1900 until the present day, the tornado of 1917 remains Columbia’s most damaging tornado. It killed 20 people and spread across 42 miles, according to the Missouri Climate Center, forming near Clark Ford before crossing the Missouri River into Boone County and becoming an F4, or “devastating,” tornado on the Fujita scale.


The St. Louis to E. St. Louis Tornado. Photo courtesy of US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

1956 Drought
The drought of 1956 consumed 58 percent of the country, including Missouri. In some regions, crop harvests dropped 50 percent. A report by the NOAA describes the conditions: “With grass scarce, hay prices became too costly, forcing some ranchers to feed their cattle a mixture of prickly pear cactus and molasses.” This summer’s drought was a close second, with 55 percent of the United States affected.

Flood of 1993
During this record-setting flood, the Missouri River in Boonville was overflowing for nearly two months. Between 15,000 and 17,000 Missourians were homeless. That summer, there were 49-flood related deaths, according to the Missouri Department of Health.


Flood waters inundated parts of Jefferson City, Missouri, and threatened the Missouri State Capitol during the "Great Flood of 1993". Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

2011: Joplin Tornado
In 2011, the National Weather Service ranked Missouri second for most dangerous weather, largely because of the twister that swept Joplin in May. The tornado killed 161 people. According to FEMA, it was the deadliest tornado in nearly 60 years with winds up to 200 mph. Total weather damage in Missouri in 2011 reached $3,259.85 million, 30 times more than 2010.


An apartment in the Plaza Apartments complex lies exposed to the elements after the tornado in Joplin. Photograph by Kristan Lieb

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