Breakdown: Weather History - Why February 21, 1971 is a day to remember

Published: Feb. 23, 2022 at 5:24 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - It was a busy day in weather history on February 21 in 1971.

An unusually powerful storm system caused a tornado outbreak and blizzard to occur simultaneously in the U.S.

Known as the Mississippi Delta Tornadoes, they were spawned by a very intense storm system that also produced blizzard conditions in western Oklahoma and central/western Kansas. Snow depths of 2 to 3 feet occurred in northwestern Oklahoma.

Surface Map at 2100z (4 PM CST) as killer tornadoes were on the ground February 21, 1971
Surface Map at 2100z (4 PM CST) as killer tornadoes were on the ground February 21, 1971(NOAA)

On the morning of Sunday, February 21, 1971, a surface low was moving into Oklahoma and a warm front extended east across northern Louisiana, Central Mississippi, into Alabama. South of the boundary, winds were southerly and dewpoints were in the middle 60s at moist air surged northward.

By early afternoon, sunshine had driven surface temperatures to near 80 degrees across the Mississippi Delta. Instabilities were sky high and the diffluent pattern aloft made for an explosive situation.

Just before 3 p.m. CST, an F5 tornado touched down near Delhi, Louisiana. It roared northeast, crossing the Mississippi River into Mississippi. Eleven people died in Louisiana and another thirty-six in Mississippi. The town of Inverness was completely obliterated. Twenty-one people died there.

Tornado damage in Inverness, MS
Tornado damage in Inverness, MS(NWS)

Around 4 p.m., a family of tornadoes started in Issaquena County, Mississippi. It would produce damage along a 160-mile path all the way to north of Oxford. F4 damage (207-260 mph winds) was caused along much of the path.

The town of Cary was destroyed and 11 people died in the area. 13 people died in an F4 tornado that cut a 70-mile path of destruction through Warren, Yazoo, and Holmes Counties.

Tracks of the Mississippi Delta Tornadoes - February 21, 1971
Tracks of the Mississippi Delta Tornadoes - February 21, 1971(NOAA)

Overall, 24 twisters were reported. Three tornadoes rated as F4′s accounted for most of the deaths and destruction.

  • Keep in mind, it is possible that some tornadoes were not reported in 1971 or that one or more were classified as one tornado and was actually several.

This outbreak was unusual, particularly for February, as its is not a typical tornado month (But no month comes with a tornado-free guarantee.)

Average number of tornadoes in February per year by state.
Average number of tornadoes in February per year by state.(NOAA)

There were as many as 1,600 injuries, 900 homes destroyed or badly damaged and total damage was $32 million dollars.

The tornadoes claimed up to 121 lives, including 110 in Mississippi, making it one of the deadliest tornadoes outbreaks in United States history.

Click here to read the full Natural Disaster Survery Report.

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