Remembering the largest tornado outbreak in Arkansas state history, 22 years later


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KARK) — The year 1999 was the busiest year on record for tornadoes in Arkansas with a total of 107 tornadoes throughout the year. However, there was one event that accounted for nearly half of the 107 tornadoes.

22 years ago in late January, a strong storm system swept across much of the south, resulting in a large tornado outbreak. 127 tornadoes were spawned in ten states including Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.

On January 21-22, 1999, the largest tornado outbreak in state history occurred in Arkansas with a total of 56 tornadoes. The previous state record for one outbreak was 34 tornadoes on June 5, 1916.

Most of the 56 tornadoes formed along the I-30 and US 67/167 highway corridors, from southwest to central and northeast Arkansas.

Map graphic showing the locations of the tornadoes along the highway corridors.
Credit: National Weather Service, Little Rock

According to data from the National Weather Service (NWS) in Little Rock, 30 tornadoes tracked across 15 counties. White County (10 tornadoes) and Independence County (6 tornadoes) were hit the hardest.

Tornado formation peaked between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. CST. Severe storms started developing, also threatening baseball to grapefruit sized hail.

An image of the radar picture from 1999 showing several tornado-producing supercells in central Arkansas.
Credit: National Weather Service, Little Rock

By the end of the event, Little Rock’s office of the NWS issued 48 tornado warnings, 80 severe thunderstorm warnings and 22 flash flood warnings.

Eight tornadoes were rated F-3. The strongest, however, was an F-4 in Clay County (far northeast Arkansas).

Images of destroyed buildings are superimposed above the image of the map showing the locations of the tornadoes.
Credit: National Weather Service, Little Rock

An F-2 tornado in Joy, AR (White County) caused serious damage to a volunteer fire station. Meanwhile, another F-2 in Newark (Independence County) took out several roofs of homes and businesses.

An image of a grocery store destroyed on 17th and Main in Little Rock in 1999, showing heavy damage inside with ductwork and concrete blocks along the floor from the walls, but the medicine bottles on the pharmacy shelves inside the store were unharmed.
Credit: National Weather Service, Little Rock

The city of Little Rock also took a direct hit when an F-3 tornado severely damaged several homes, including destruction at the Governor’s Mansion downtown. A local grocery store was also ripped apart. Three people were killed in the area.

As a result of this natural disaster, eight people perished and an additional 140-150 people suffered injuries.


The F-Scale or Fujita Scale was developed in 1971 and used to estimate tornado wind speeds based on damage left behind from a tornado. In 2007, it was replaced by the EF Scale or Enhanced Fujita Scale which takes into account more variables than the original scale including building type, structures and trees.

Graphic depicting first, the Fujita scale in use through Jan 2007 with the F-0 through F-5 ratings highlighted in different colors. An F0 has winds less than 73 miles per hour with expected light damage. An F1 has winds between 73 and 112 mph with moderate damage. An F2 has winds between  113 to 157 mph with considerable damage. An F3 has winds between 158 to 206 mph with severe damage. An F4 has winds of 207 to 260 mph with devastating damage. An F5 has winds of 261 to 318 mph with incredible damage. 

The second part of the infographic from the NWS shows the Enhanced Fujita Scale, implemented in Feb. 2007 and currently in use.
The EF0 through EF5 ratings are highlighted in different colors. An EF0 has winds of 65 to 85 mph with expected minor damage. An EF1 has winds between 86 and 110 mph with moderate damage. An EF2 has winds between 111 to 135 mph with considerable damage. An EF3 has winds between 136 to 165 mph with severe damage. An EF4 has winds of 166 to 200 mph with extreme damage. An EF5 has winds over 200 mph with incredible damage.
Credit: National Weather Service

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