Which Is Worse: Hurricanes or Tornadoes?

Hurricanes can pack a double punch as they roar through a region. Not only do they lash out with winds and rain, some also spin out deadly tornadoes. Hurricanes may produce tornadoes, but, as far as storms go, the two are very different kinds of creatures.

Tornadoes, as defined by the National Weather Service, are "a violently rotating column of air with the ground and pendant from a thunderstorm," that can host winds with an estimated speed of up to 200-300 mph.

Hurricanes, on the other hand, are powerful tropical storms that develop in a circular pattern over tropical or subtropical waters. Hurricane winds reach 74 mph or faster.

So, which is worse? Meteorologists say the call depends on what you're comparing. While tornadoes may be more intense storms, hurricanes tend to stick around much longer, cover more ground and cause more damage.

Here's a look at both kinds of storms, as assessed with information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Winds from the strongest tornadoes far outblow those from the strongest hurricanes. The strongest tornadoes — those in categories 4 and 5 — have estimated winds of 207 mph and higher, while the strongest hurricanes — those of 4 and 5 rating — have winds of 131 mph and higher.

Size and Scope

A tornado's width is generally measured on the scale of hundreds of meters and the twisters are produced from a single storm, such as a thunderstorm.

The breadth of a tropical cyclone is measured on the scale of hundreds of miles and is made up of several to dozens of convective storms.


Tornadoes generally form over land as heat from the land surface causes air to rise. The rising humid air eventually cools and condenses into huge clouds, forming thunderstorms. The air rising into the storm clouds is called an updraft, and this is where tornadoes form.

Sometimes hurricanes can spawn tornadoes when they make landfall as winds at the land's surface fade more quickly than winds spinning higher up in the storm. This creates a vertical shear that can foster a tornado.

Hurricanes, which start out as tropical disturbances, only form over oceans and maintain their force by sucking up moisture from the water's surface. They are powered by the heat that's released when the warm water vapor condenses into clouds and rain. As rising air converges, it pushes upward and swirls in a circular pattern. Once hurricanes hit land they lose their moisture source and fade out.


Hurricanes generally stick around for days, while tornadoes typically last about 10 minutes, although they can last for over an hour.


An average of 1,000 tornadoes strike the United States every year, while an average of six Atlantic Basin hurricanes form each year. Of those six annual hurricanes, about 26 percent make landfall in the United States.


Hurricanes cause about $3 billion in damage each time they touch ground in the United States and about $5 billion annually, according to a 1998 NOAA study.

The roughly 1,000 tornadoes that strike the United States each year cause about 10 times less in damage — or about $500 million in total, according to a 2001 NOAA study.

A historical look reveals an even starker difference in the two storms' destructive power.

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