On March 3, 2019, the small sleepy town of Beauregard Alabama began the day just like any other. By 2:00 pm, the chaos began. A violent long track tornado ripped through the town causing 27 fatalities and 97 injuries. By 2:30, the chaos was over. This rural community was devastated. The peak of the tornado season is April through June and, as evidenced by the Beauregard storm, the 2019 season is shaping up to be an above-average year for these storms. Tornadoes are unpredictable and destructive. In order to be well prepared as a homeowner, adjuster, insurer or legislator, it is important to understand the basics about tornadoes, their history as well as how they are changing.
What is a tornado?
A tornado is a mobile, destructive vortex of violently rotating winds having the appearance of a funnel-shaped cloud and advancing beneath a large storm system. Tornadoes are typically associated with cumulonimbus clouds in large thunderstorms. During a thunderstorm, a tornado can form when wind direction and speed change at high altitude and cause the air to swirl horizontally. The rising air from the ground pushes up on the swirling air and tips it over. The funnel of swirling air begins to pull up more warm air from the ground. The funnel cloud grows longer and stretches toward the ground until it touches the ground and then becomes a tornado.
Tornadoes range in their severity. Measurement indicators attempt to determine the strongest 3-second gust of wind during the event. Meteorologists survey a storm after it occurs and compare the damage based on a list of Damage Indicators (DIs) and Degrees of Damage (DoD) indicators, which help estimate the wind speeds the tornado likely produced. Following a storm survey, an official rating is assigned to the tornado based on the below Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale.
Tornadoes vs. Hurricanes
EF4 and EF5 tornadoes both have sustained winds stronger than most Category 5 hurricanes. However, a single tornado is typically much less destructive than a hurricane. The most notable difference is that a hurricane is much larger than a tornado and therefore creates a broader path of damage. The widest tornado ever recorded was around 2.5 miles wide, while the average tornado is only 300 to 500 yards wide. An average hurricane is 300 miles wide with an eye up to 40 miles wide. Another key difference is the amount of time the storm is active. The average tornado is only on the ground for a few minutes, although the longest tornadoes have lasted for several hours. Hurricanes, on the other hand, last much longer than tornadoes. Hurricanes form over warm tropical oceans and can last up to 3 weeks.
More tornadoes occur in the southern plains of the central United States than any other place in the world. Therefore, this area was nicknamed “Tornado Alley.” Although it does not have official boundaries, its core extends from northern Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, into South Dakota. States such as Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and western Ohio are often also included in Tornado Alley. The term “Tornado Alley” began in 1952. It was the title of a research project by U.S. Air Force meteorologists Major Ernest J. Fawbush and Captain Robert C. Miller. This research team coined the phrase as part of their study of extreme weather events in an area from Lubbock, Texas, to Colorado and Nebraska. The term gained national attention when the New York Times published an article in 1957, titled “Tornado Alley.” The article focused on some of the nation’s recent tornado activity. The below chart supports the significant tornado activity in the general area known as Tornado Alley.
However, recent data suggest that the highest frequency of tornadoes may be in an area that is shifting east. This area is transitioning from the central US towards the mid-west, southeast, and even the northeast. Below is a map that displays the change in tornado frequency from 1979 to 2017, per significant tornado potential calculations. The red areas are increasing, while the blue areas are decreasing. This particular study found the most significant increase in tornado frequency across a region including Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
The 2019 year continues to track as an above-average year in terms of the frequency and severity of tornadoes. In fact, the March 3rd Beauregard tornado ended a 673-day streak without a strong (EF4 or EF5) tornado in the United States. So far this year, five other tornadoes resulted in fatalities.
Below is a list of the costliest tornadoes since 1950, four of which occurred during the past decade. One of the worst tornadoes in US history was the 2011 Joplin, MO tornado. This storm had sustained winds excess of 200 miles per hour and gusts up to 250 miles per hour. The storm resulted in 158 fatalities and cost 2.8 billion in losses.
* Uses the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank and Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index calculations.
Insurance and Rebuilding Challenges
During a tornado, the high winds are capable of tearing off roofs, overturning vehicles and damaging the structural integrity of buildings. Rain typically follows this initial destruction and causes additional damage. Property adjusters must pay careful attention to determine what damage is due to wind and what damage is solely the result of rising water and likely not covered.
For these reasons, tornado damage claims can be challenging to adjust. Tornadoes destroy property and landscape in their path while avoiding damage to adjacent areas. In a hurricane, the damage is widespread but usually less violent than a strong tornado. In the example of the Beauregard storm, however, the tornado destroyed the town. Rebuilding a town and restoring services to its people is challenging. Rebuilding after a tornado presents difficult considerations. In contrast to hurricane-prone coastlines, the likelihood that a single town or neighborhood will experience a strong tornado, especially a 2nd time, is extremely low. Homeowners and city and state legislators must wisely set affordable code standards that are also as effective as possible in the event of strong storms. A homeowner in Beauregard, AL would have to pay out of pocket significantly in order to rebuild an upgraded home capable of withstanding a strong tornado.
As the tornado-prone area continues to shift, particularly to more urban areas, it is important for property owners, legislators, insurers, and adjusters to begin conversations around sound and economic construction practices. The question is not if we will experience another EF4 or EF5 tornado, the question is simply when and where? The most important question remains will everyone be adequately prepared?