Yearly tornado death toll spikes in 2023 despite average season

A dozen states reported tornado fatalities in 2023, with the highest concentration of impacted communities being in the southern U.S. Mississippi and Tennessee saw the most tornado fatalities this year.

A year that produced about an average number of tornadoes saw a spike in deaths despite Tornado Watches being in place for more than 96% of this year's deadly storms.

According to a preliminary count by NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center, 1,423 tornadoes were responsible for 83 deaths across the country.

During a typical year, the National Weather Service reports 71 people are killed by tornadoes – an average that has seen drastic declines over the last several decades.

A dozen states reported tornado fatalities in 2023, with the highest concentration of impacted communities being in the southern U.S.

A significant tornado outbreak in the spring and a severe storm system in December pushed Mississippi and Tennessee to the top of the list of this year's deadliest events.

In 2022, storms produced 1,143 confirmed tornadoes that were responsible for 23 deaths.

Despite an average number of twisters in 2023, hail and wind reports were significantly above typical values. Reports of hail were up 12%, and wind reports saw a 32% increase above the running mean.

The highest frequency of tornadoes happened during meteorological summer, which normally sees a lull in tornadic activity. June was the busiest month for these powerful cyclones.

Over half of all deaths occurred after sunset, reinforcing studies that long warned of the dangers posed by nocturnal tornadoes.



Deadliest tornado of 2023

A multi-day severe weather outbreak that produced more than 33 tornadoes across the South, including an EF-4 that rolled through Mississippi, was the deadliest event of the year.

NWS meteorologists estimated wind speeds reached upwards of 195 mph as the tornado spun through rural communities such as Rolling Fork and Silver City.

After the storm, officials said 17 people were killed in Rolling Fork, and another six people perished in other communities across Mississippi and Alabama.

"It just looked like the apocalypse, like a movie or something," Rolling Fork resident Darren McGee recounted after the tornado struck. "It was just pitch black. Everything was dark, and then I could see the stars. The rain stopped."

Nearly 60% of the deaths this year involved manufactured homes, including many of the deaths in Rolling Fork.


Preview of 2024 severe weather

The outlook for severe weather during the spring remains complicated and will be dictated by the influence of El Niño or a lack of it in the Pacific Ocean.

As expected by the FOX Forecast Center, 2023 was not a year dominated by severe weather outbreaks. The new year could resemble the old one.

The spring severe weather season, which happens during the months of March, April and May, is typically the busiest period for severe weather as the jet stream allows plenty of warm air and moisture to stream north and aid in the instability needed for thunderstorms.

During 2023, La Niña was collapsing, and ENSO-neutral conditions were taking shape across the central and eastern Pacific.

Neutral conditions are known to produce middle-of-the-line outbreaks, with La Niñas tending to produce more historic events across the U.S.

The 2024 season finds itself at the same crossroads, with an El Niño that is expected to rapidly collapse through the spring and ENSO-neutral conditions taking shape by the summer.

Due to a lag in the change in weather patterns that are associated with a particular phase of the ENSO, it remains to be seen when the proverbial switch from El Niño-associated weather events to more neutral-associated weather events will happen.

The longer climate patterns take to switch, the more likely the country will be dealing with a docile spring severe weather season, like those experienced during an El Niño.