Recent Storms Notwithstanding, Nation Much Safer from Tornado Damage

Published May 20, 2011

By any reasonable measure, the windstorms that ravaged the South in April present a massive tragedy: the most disaster-caused deaths in a single day since Sept. 11, 2001, and more deadly than all but three post-World War II natural disasters.

Communities will mourn, ponder what-ifs and rebuild. Federal, state and local authorities and dozens of community organizations will do everything they can to help those left without homes, neighbors and loved ones.

And many of those involved in the public policy debate over global climate change will use the storms to push for agendas they already support.

Groups that favor controls on carbon dioxide emissions will point to research showing such emissions could produce the conditions that cause tornados; groups that oppose restrictions will point out that strong tornadoes have become less frequent in recent decades. The debate will rage on. For all of the argument, however, there’s a good case that climate change and its politics should have nothing to do with the way the nation responds to tornado activity.

Here are the facts: The overall U.S. response to tornados through stronger building standards, better technology and improved insurance practices has made the nation much safer. Even after the recent storms, the number of deaths from tornados has dropped every decade since World War II. A thousand or more people died from tornados in a typical year in the early 20th century, whereas few years in the 2000s brought more than 100 such deaths.

If we want to make sure we don’t return to those earlier numbers, continuing efforts to improve buildings, technology and insurance — not an emphasis on climate change — will save the most lives.

Building standards around the nation have helped make structures in tornado-prone areas much safer over the past century. Tying roofs to house frames so they won’t blow away, required in many windstorm-prone areas, means even people who fail to take shelter in basements will usually remain safe when storms roll through. Siding secured directly to house frames with staples, clips and epoxies, rather than simply nailed on, also helps. But these efforts aren’t as widespread as they should be, because most houses predate the standards requiring them. Buildings all across the country need reinforcement.

While strengthening building standards is common sense, developing better technology has saved even more lives. Developments, such as Doppler weather radars that convey information about the velocity of funnel clouds, have obvious benefits in increasing safety during windstorms. But even bigger declines in tornado deaths have occurred as a result of broadly useful technologies such as radio broadcasts that allow for advance warning, and automatic gas line shutoffs that prevent storm-caused fires.

But there is more to do. For example, although smartphone technology makes it possible to send most people severe weather alerts for their exact locations (current tornado warnings cover huge areas, so many ignore them), there’s no system that actually does so.

Finally, insurance also has saved many lives, although less directly. Over the past several decades, most states have moved toward “open competition” systems for setting insurance rates, which let market forces rather than government agencies determine what people pay for insurance. These prices convey information about safety, because people who live in dangerous places pay more.

This trend, like the others, could go still farther. Although the sheer number of factors affecting tornado damage makes it nearly impossible to draw firm conclusions, it’s interesting to note that the states with the most damage from the recent storms — Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina — have not historically allowed for much choice or flexibility in their insurance markets.

In short, we have good evidence for what works. The climate change debate matters quite a lot in many areas of public policy. But the evidence about what has worked to reduce losses from tornados indicates that public policy should focus on things other than climate change if we want to make the nation even safer from severe windstorms.