Reducing Tornado Fatalities Outside Traditional “Tornado Alley”

After several decades of decline that largely can be credited to a great increase in forecasting skills and warning lead time, the fatality rate for tornadoes has leveled off and may be slightly on the increase. Although 2011 was a statistical outlier year, that year provides the best sample size to examine the factors that now lead to tornado deaths in the United States, particularly in the Southeast, Midwest, and Atlantic states—areas that do not fall into the traditional designation of “tornado alley.”

Safety recommendations for urban residents

One ugly lesson forced on us in 2011 is that, contrary to the long-standing cultural myth about tornadoes hitting rural farmsteads in the prairie, cities can be hit too, and the safety options for urbanites are arguably more limited. Even in the age of high-resolution radar, real-time reports, live coverage, and long lead times for warnings, we now know that an EF-5 tornado striking an urban center can result in a triple-digit death toll, as happened in Joplin, MO. It is easy, in retrospect, to understand why a densely packed urban area may be the worst possible place to be. Other than the very center of high-rise office buildings, there is no safe place to be. High-rises, according to the EF-scale, will not be demolished even in an EF-5; the maximum expected damage is “permanent structural deformation.” However, directing everyone to the nearest tall office building is a completely infeasible recommendation, needless to say.

Many buildings in the central business district, such as restaurants and small offices, are not constructed to withstand a tornado. Big box retailers will contain very heavy stock that is piled high, creating potentially deadly missiles and collapses. Vehicles are everywhere. There is no easy way to get out of danger; traffic congestion will occur if people try to evacuate en masse, possibly putting people in even greater danger than they would have been if they had stayed put. And, of course, cities will generate more debris than any other type of community.

Communal tornado shelters, which some smaller communities do have, would be useful in cities only if people flocked to these sites well in advance, because congestion on the roads could result in mass fatalities. (Indeed, this very situation almost unfolded in Oklahoma on 31 May 2013, when a newscaster urged people to “get out”—and they did.) Storm cellars are all but nonexistent in cities, and basements are directly beneath the houses, which puts anyone taking shelter therein at risk of exposure to tornadic winds and suction if the house is removed. Nonetheless, being in a basement is better than being above ground, so their construction should be promoted in cities where they are uncommon in homes, i.e., most urban areas outside the East Coast.

It is rare for cities to be struck by violent tornadoes, but it can happen. The only reason why most cities in tornado-prone areas do not get struck is that they do not occupy much land space. With an increase in urban sprawl, this is changing. When cities are hit, the buildings do not provide friction-based wind resistance that would mitigate violent winds; in fact, wind engineering analyses have shown that a wind-tunnel effect actually occurs, which may increase the wind speed to which residents will be subjected. The best suggestion for urban environments consists of promoting structure designs and retrofits that offer increased resilience to natural phenomena.

Dangerous amateur videography

There are a lot of tornado videos online, and many of them were not taken by experienced storm chasers or security cameras—or by people who were a safe distance away. Tornado videos from Alabama (2011) and Illinois (2015) were shot by people who had car accidents due to the wind while taking the video! This trend was generated by social media culture, not professional storm chasers. Responsible chasers and weather spotters make on-site reports, raising awareness and providing information about storms. On the other hand, many people who happen to see a tornado now decide at once to get video of it, and the videographers often are unaware of how far away they should be or where to go if the tornado shifts its path. Amateurs cannot be prevented from shooting videos in dangerous conditions, but newscasters should not air them, as it implicitly encourages the behavior.

Lack of shelter from violent tornadoes

Violent tornadoes, those rated EF-4 and EF-5, will utterly demolish well-built houses, leaving only a pile of debris over a foundation (EF-4) or a bare foundation altogether (EF-5). Unfortunately, a majority of houses in the South and Midwest do not have basements or storm cellars. My position is that storm cellars are preferable to basements. There are enough accounts of people who took shelter in their basements and were sucked out (e.g., the Parkersville, IA EF-5 tornado of 2008, as well as several of the 27 April 2011 tornadoes) that basements and storm cellars cannot be equated. Storm cellars where the entrance is not directly above the main room, but is horizontally removed from it by a small underground passage, are even better. Firmly anchored handrails in the main room are also advised, in case the door was torn away. This event has been documented in damage photographs of EF-5 tornadoes, including the Hackleburg tornado of 27 April 2011.

Above-ground safe rooms are another shelter option that is less than ideal. These structures are engineered, but they are vulnerable on two counts. One, if they are undermined from below, they will roll. Two, the engineering is based on impacts from a flying missile the size of a two-by-four with a speed of 100 mph. EF-5 tornadoes have wind speeds upwards of 200 mph and have even been clocked as high as 300 mph. In Smithville, MS, the town’s water tower was dented 120 feet above ground by a vehicle that became airborne. There is video on the Internet of a Canadian F5 tornado in which a whole house is clearly airborne at a great height before it disintegrates.

It’s easy to say that everyone should have an underground shelter. It is quite another to make it reality. This must be a matter of personal responsibility rather than a mandate, which would be difficult to pass given political gridlock. The decision to install a storm shelter needs to be rewarded with a tax rebate or credit. Such credits have been offered in the past, usually to specific regions after particularly high-profile and destructive weather events; to encourage their adoption, they should be permanent and universal. Disaster preparedness should be encouraged before any disaster has ever struck, instead of being limited to communities that have already been affected.

These are spme suggestions about what should be looked into to reduce tornado fatalities and reverse the beginnings of the unwanted trend we are now starting to observe. Undoubtedly others will focus on other possibilities, but one thing is for certain: As the climate changes, communities will find themselves at greater risk in the future from all kinds of extreme weather, and it is best to make preparations now.