Why tornadoes are more destructive than ever in the U.S.
May 22, 2011, began as a beautiful day in Joplin, Missouri. Families and friends gathered outside. Suddenly, the sky changed. Troy Bolander, who grew up in nearby Kansas, noticed the clouds beginning to swirl. He began to prepare his crawl space. Ann Leach, a life coach, was also at home. Tornado sirens blared. Ann took cover on her bathroom floor as a massive EF5 tornado descended upon Joplin. Troy sheltered in his crawl space.
One hundred sixty-one people were killed in the Joplin tornado. Both Troy, a city official, and Ann survived. The May 2011 Joplin tornado left behind almost $3 billion in damage, making it the costliest U.S. tornado on record.
Tornadoes are a billion-dollar problem in the United States. From 2018 to 2023, there have been 17 billion-dollar climate disasters involving tornadoes. And the costs are expected to grow.
The U.S. sees about 1,200 tornadoes each year. That’s more than anywhere else in the world.
“Tornadoes are a big problem in the United States,” said Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.
In 2022 alone, the U.S. experienced two separate billion-dollar tornado outbreaks.
Based on estimated wind speeds and damage, tornadoes can range on a scale from EF0 to EF5.
“This rating scale came to us because wind engineers went out into the field to look at the damage,” Cope said. “And then based on the damage, they were trying to predict what the wind speeds are … so we have developed this system based on how the buildings react.”
That means a tornado’s rating is directly related to the resilience of the buildings in the community it hits.
The powerful EF5 tornado that struck Joplin 12 years ago had estimated winds of 200 miles an hour, according to Joplin city records. It was initially one half mile wide and expanded to three-quarters of a mile wide, traveling on the ground for about 13 miles across the city limits and beyond.
“My place was totally destroyed,” Joplin resident Ann Leach said.
In total, 7,500 residential dwellings in the city were damaged or destroyed. According to the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce, 553 businesses were destroyed or severely damaged in the tornado.
But Joplin rebuilt.
“It was phenomenal how swiftly the community came together to respond and help their neighbors out,” Leach said.
“Rebuilding is a very long process and it’s one that is arduous,” said FEMA Associate Administrator for Resilience Victoria Salinas. “It oftentimes takes years to be able to rebuild communities, homes, [and] businesses. And it takes communities coming together to really think about the future and what they’re going to do differently to build more resilience into their communities as they move forward.”
The central Great Plains of the U.S., including states like Kansas and Texas, have historically experienced more tornadoes than anywhere else in the nation.
However, experts say tornadoes can occur across the U.S.
“If you were to ask a thousand tornado scientists where Tornado Alley is, they’re all going to give you different definitions,” said Victor Gensini, associate professor in the Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Northern Illinois University. “The reality is, is that all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, receive tornadoes.”
“That is really important because we have way more people living east of the Mississippi River,” Gensini said. “And so basically, we have more targets, more exposure, more vulnerability as humans, our built environment, where these tornadoes are happening, and that creates more and more tornado disasters.”
Some cities in these regions include Memphis, Indianapolis and Nashville.
In March 2020, a deadly tornado hit Nashville, leaving behind over $1.5 billion in damage.
“It’s kind of like this two-sided coin, if you will, where we have this change in probability due to climate. But we also have this increasing footprint and exposure and vulnerability that are going to continue to drive the losses in the future,” Gensini said. “And that’s really how we have to look at this problem. It’s a multifaceted issue.”
Investing in resilience
The U.S. is not helpless when it comes to tornado damage. Engineers know how to build stronger structures that can withstand high winds.
“A lot of tornado damage is preventable,” Cope said. “The EF0 and EF1 portion of the storms, that type of damage can be prevented with strong, resilient building construction. Costs a little bit more than typical building construction, but it’s definitely resilient and it prevents that type of damage.”
The IBHS has some specific recommendations for building resiliently, including having a wind-rated garage door and when reroofing, choosing a stronger option.
In the 2011 Joplin tornado, 84% of deaths resulted from building and structural failures. Missouri does not have a mandatory statewide building code, but in the wake of the massive EF5 tornado, the city of Joplin made some changes to protect its buildings and people from damaging winds. The new codes require anchor bolts every four feet and require hurricane clips to connect the roof to the walls, among other provisions.
“When you’re in an EF5 tornado and the winds are over 200 miles an hour, that system is still going to fail,” said Bolander, Joplin’s director of planning, development, and neighborhood services. “But many of the homes that were on the edge of that zone probably could have been spared if we had that in place.”
Not all communities have building codes in place. As of November 2020, 65% of counties, cities and towns in the U.S. are not covered by modern building codes.
“We should have building codes in all of the places in the United States where the wind can impact us, which is the whole of the United States,” Cope said. “But sadly, only 17 states in the U.S. have a statewide building code and many states that don’t have a statewide building code; it’s a patchwork of counties or local municipalities that might have one and then large unincorporated areas that don’t have one.”
Part of the challenge with building tornado resilience in the U.S. is that building codes are generally a local and a financial decision.
“So we’re talking about counties and municipalities who all have to make a choice or not make a choice,” Cope said. “And these are sometimes tough financial decisions.”
“We didn’t want to increase the cost of housing so much that people couldn’t rebuild or some people couldn’t afford to rebuild,” Bolander said. “So that was a debate amongst ourselves, you know, how far do we want to go with these building code changes?”
Federal resources are also available when it comes to building resiliently. In 2022, FEMA released the FEMA Building Codes Strategy to advance its building code efforts and strengthen resiliency nationwide. The Biden administration has also designated billions of dollars for climate resilience and weatherization through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Watch the video above to see how the U.S. can work to try and fix its billion-dollar tornado problem.