From Urban Legends:
Description: Viral image / Hoax
Circulating since: Sep. 2010
Status: Fake (see details below)
Analysis: Though they’re a rare phenomenon in New York City (fewer than a dozen occurrences in the past 60 years), a pair of tornadoes did touch down in Brooklyn and Queens on September 16, 2010. The storms were relatively small but caused significant damage and left one person dead in their wake.
Thanks to email and social networking, New Yorkers were able to share dramatic photos of the weather-related havoc instantaneously.
They were also able to perpetrate hoaxes, of which the image above stands as an epic example.
It was created by combining a fairly standard image of New York Harbor with a 2004 photo of a supercell thunderstorm taken by professional storm chaser Mike Hollingshead (viewable in its original context here).
Nor is this the first time Hollingshead’s work has been appropriate for use in an online hoax. The same supercell image went around in May 2005 labeled “Storm Near Bunbury, Australia,” and again a few months later attached to an email entitled “Pictures of Hurricane Katrina.”
Another viral image purporting to show a tornado forming near the Statue of Liberty proved to be authentic, albeit 34 years old.
2012 update: The tornado image circulated again in Oct. 2012, falsely identified as a photo of Hurricane Sandy (“Frankenstorm”).