JOPLIN, Mo. — Disaster officials estimate the killer tornado that tore through here two weeks ago caused as much as $3 billion in damage.
They said the twister destroyed or seriously damaged 18,000 vehicles, 8,000 housing units, 400 business buildings, several schools, two fire stations and a hospital.
With winds ranging beyond 200 mph, the twister cut a six-mile long, half-mile wide swath through the city's south side.
At least 141 people died, making it the deadliest U.S. tornado since 181 deaths in Woodward, Okla., in 1947.
The experts said the tornado's overall path was 13.8 miles long, but built up intensity and ferocity as it approached, then ripped through Joplin, a city of 50,000 in southwest Missouri, at dinner time on May 22.
"It remained on the ground the entire length of Joplin," said Steve Runnels, National Weather Service meteorologist. "That led to it being more destructive."
A tornado research team from Iowa State University, in Joplin within hours of the twister, said it gained in intensity from an EF-3 (130-165 mph winds) to an EF-4 (165-190 mph) to the ultimate EF-5 (more than 200 mph)as it crossed the city.
Researcher Partha Sarkar said an EF-5 tornado is so rare that only 56 of them have been recorded in the U. S. since the Weather Service began keeping records in 1950.
Oddly, he said, there have been four EF-5 tornadoes this year.
Sarkar said an EF-5 tornado is "born at 65,000 feet" from the clash of cool air from the north, warm and humid air from the Gulf of Mexico, and dry air from the west. This year, he said, there has been unusual drought conditions in the west and warmer-than-normal water in the Gulf.
The Weather Service's Runnels said a likely major factor in this year's record outbreak of tornadoes across the south and midwest is La Nina, the lower-than-normal sea surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean that, in turn, affects the jet stream of air moving across the country.