The damage potential of anything in motion (like the wind) is not determined from a simple scale. This means that a 100mph winds does not simply have double the destructive power of a 50mph wind: it actually has FOURT IMES as much. This is because the equation of kinetic energy )motion) is related to the velocity of the moving object squared. So in the example, 50 times 50 is 2500 at 50mph while 100 times 100 is 10,000 (100mph).
Given this, the destructive power of a tornado can far exceed that of a hurricane within a small area. Moore, OK, May 3, 1999: An EF-5 tornado kills 36 people in just a few minutes as it crashes through the Oklahoma City metro area. Winds were clocked at 301mph on Doppler radar; the highest ever recorded on the Earth’s surface.
Jarrell, TX, May 27, 1997: 27 perish within minutes as a half-mile wide EF-5 funnel literally wipes homes from their foundations 40 miles north of Austin. Winds are estimated at 260mph.
In both cases, residents were under tornado warnings, and most had taken shelter. But the vortex was so intense that you had to be below ground or extremely lucky to make it through within the EF-5 damage zones.
On the other hand, very few hurricanes are capable of this type of damage using wind speed alone. Even a moderate “EF-2” tornado can generate winds as strong as a Category 5 hurricane. So “pound for pound”, tornadoes are without question capable of greater wind damage within a concentrated area. Please bear in mind as well the immense size of a hurricane compared to a tornado. When you weigh this factor, the tornado clearly wins in terms of outright fatality potential per acre, if you will.
Since World War 2, hurricane deaths have gradually decreased. Katrina was the exception to that. There are on average 80 tornado deaths per year versus 20 for hurricanes. In addition, some of the tropical storm statistics are misleading the way they are compiled today. If a man slips and hits his head while looking for a flashlight during a hurricane power failure, and dies, then they blame that on the storm. If someone dies while cleaning up afterwards, this too is counted as a “storm death”.
Such inclusions are pretty flimsy: so if we consider only direct storm-related deaths and discard these questionable instances, then the actual total is less in most cases. You don’t find such statistics to be an issue with tornadoes: people in their path are either survivors, or casualties.
Hurricane storm surges, as “Ike” recently showed us in 2008, can exceed the destructive power of twisters in absolute dollars, but the posed question is “which is deadliest?”. A final comparison: On February 5-6, 2008, a major outbreak of tornadoes raked across a half dozen states from Arkansas to Kentucky. There had been two days’ worth of forecasts that a dangerous tornado situation was developing. Tornado Watches and warnings were in place the day the funnels hit ground. Despite the expectation, many died (over 40).
On the other hand, when Category 3 (120mph winds) Hurricane “Ivan” crashed into the heavily populated western Florida coast in 2004, only 25 were killed although the storm spanned an area larger than 1,000 tornadoes could cover at one time.
Conclusion: tornadoes “win” the deadliest contest by virtue of established weather records, much higher local wind speeds, and far greater unpredictability.