There are approximately 1,000 to 1,200 tornadoes a year in the United States. Known as “nature’s most violent storms,” the U.S. is home to more tornadoes than any other country in the world. A decidedly American phenomenon, every state averages at least one twister per year. Typically, tornadoes kill about 60 Americans, injure 1,500 and cause at least $400 million in economic damage in the U.S. annually.

The National Weather Service defines tornadoes as “a violently rotating column of air touching the ground, usually attached to the base of a thunderstorm.” They are created when cold, dry air combines with warm, humid air producing a thunderstorm as the colder air pushes over the warmer air. As the warm air begins to rise it creates an updraft. Any thunderstorm is capable of developing a tornado, but the most severe twisters are created inside supercell thunderstorms, which are defined by a rotating updraft. This rotation pulls in warmer air causing its rotation speed to increase. This is met by the cooler air which creates energy within the storm.

They are measured using the Enhanced Fujita Scale which rates tornadoes from EF0 to EF5. Scales are determined by the National Weather Service after a tornado based on the amount of damage viewed on the ground. This helps investigators estimate the highest approximate wind speed that was sustained for at least a three second gust. This system is based on the Fujita Scale originated by Dr. T, Theodore Fujita, in 1971. An EF0 tornado includes winds of 65-85 miles per hour while an EF5 includes winds more than 200 miles per hour. An EF1 may topple trees and billboards while the EF5 will move a strong-frame home from its foundation and carry it some distance.

During a 15-day stretch in May 2019, nearly 500 tornadoes were reported across the Great Plains, Midwest and western states like Idaho and Colorado. The twisters destroyed homes, uprooted trees, killed several people and injured more than 100. The stretch was part of the most active season since 2011, which was particularly devastating, with 1,782 tornadoes claiming 549 lives. A so-called “Super Outbreak” April 25-28, 2011 alone caused 324 deaths, or more than half of that year’s twister-related fatalities. The outbreak spawned 360 tornadoes across 21 states from Texas to New York, with Alabama and Mississippi being severely affected.

“Tornado Alley” is a swath of the country that stretches from Texas to eastern South Dakota in the north, and from Kansas west to eastern Colorado. Tornado season begins in early spring as warm air from the Gulf of Mexico pushes north and collides with cool air off the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

Forecasters issue watches for storms capable of producing tornadoes, and later update with a warning if a twister is spotted on the ground or indicated by radar. Tornado forecasting technology has increased the average warning time to 14 minutes notice, from just a few minutes in the 1980s, but a high number of false warnings has led to a general public that may not act in time to mitigate damage and destruction. Also, a particular storm may not produce a tornado that makes contact with the ground and/or the funnel may hit an area without homes, damaging only trees.

Most tornado deaths are caused by flying debris, which is why people are advised to go to a basement or an interior room in the home if one is approaching. People who live in mobile homes are advised to seek shelter underground or in a permanent building. The National Weather Service says historically about 40 percent of all tornado deaths occur in mobile homes.

Key Facts

  • Tornadoes tend to follow a fairly set pattern, though aberrations do occur. They typically move from the southwest to the northeast, though they have been reported in all directions. Most tornadoes occur between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., though they have occurred in all parts of the day.
  • For those who live in the most tornado-prone areas, an understanding of the way tornadoes “usually” occur may lead to complacency. In addition, many myths about tornado safety have not been replaced with facts, leading to confusion. Valuable time often is wasted when those in the path of the storm should be seeking shelter instead. For example, it is a common myth that  a vehicle can outrun a tornado or drivers should hide under an overpass. The fact is that people should be looking for a nearby building or getting out of their cars and into a low-lying ditch.
  • In early 2012, the National Weather Service released a new tornado warning system, designed to overcome the delays that occurred during the Joplin, Missouri tornadoes. During that outbreak, a study found that a majority of residents did not heed the first warning but looked for additional confirmation. The new system includes a standard tornado warning; a potentially dangerous situation tornado warning, meaning that one has been spotted on the ground; and a tornado emergency, which means that a large tornado is on the ground and headed towards a populated area.
  • Know where you live. The NWS issues Tornado Warnings that are polygon-based and may include an entire county or portions of several counties. During the 2019 spring outbreaks, meteorologist James Spann bemoaned the fact that many people could not pick out their area on a multi-county map without much detail.

How to Help

Donors hoping to mitigate the effects of future tornadoes and provide long-term recovery solutions could:

  • Support improving the accuracy of prediction and warning systems. Though many improvements have been made, tornadoes remain difficult to predict. Improved warning systems, such as those that call a home or wireless phone, are more reliable than warning sirens.  FEMA introduced the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which allows text messages to be delivered via wireless phones in the event of an emergency. The National Weather Service can send severe weather alerts during a tornado.
  • Help fund informational programs for those living in the most vulnerable areas. Some simple steps, such as anchoring manufactured homes to concrete foundations or reinforcing garage doors, can help a structure withstand a tornado. However, overcoming misinformation related to tornadoes is also Myths, like seeking shelter under an overpass, related to tornadoes must be debunked.
  • Fund research into improved structures. In the areas most vulnerable to tornadoes, codes are aimed at building homes to withstand winds of 80 miles per hour, roughly equivalent to an EF0 tornado. Improved building methods could help many structures stand, reducing future death and destruction.
  • Encourage individual preparation plans, even at the family/business level. Each family member should know where to go in the house during a tornado warning, as well as how to understand community warning systems (sirens, texts, etc.). Homes also should be equipped with crank-style radios. Diseased and damaged tree limbs should be removed and in preparation for coming storm, lawn furniture, trash cans, hanging plants and other items that might become projectiles should be secured. In addition, simple low-cost solutions such as hurricane clips in the rafters can help reduce damage. For businesses, each employee should know where to seek shelter and how to secure hazardous materials onsite. A plan should be in place to account for the whereabouts of all personnel, as well as methods of protecting workers during and immediately after the storm.
  • In the immediate aftermath of a devastating tornado, needs often are met by an outpouring of response, but full recovery can take years. Tornadoes do not discriminate, leveling government buildings, businesses and homes. When schools are damaged, particularly in small communities, life cannot return to normal. When businesses are damaged, the community’s economy suffers. Long-term recovery efforts must focus on creating a plan to minimize future damage, such as strengthening buildings and building codes, helping disadvantaged populations to receive legal aid to navigate FEMA rules and providing low-interest loans to small businesses.

What Funders Are Doing

  • Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund focuses on low-attention disasters that do not receive a FEMA federal disaster declaration. It has funded recovery efforts for 11 tornadoes (one each in Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri and Iowa, two in Kansas, and five in Oklahoma). Tornado funding from the Fundis $411, 401, which equates to 13.4 percent of grant dollars distributed by the fund. A few examples of CDP tornado grants include:

– United Way of the Flint Hills received $3,000 to support reconstruction management and volunteer coordination in response the EF3 tornado that tore through Eureka, Kansas in June 2018, damaging 78 homes.

– Center Associates received a $65,000 ERF grant following an EF3 tornado which devastated Marshalltown, Iowa in July 2018. The grant funded outpatient mental health services for children of all ages in tornado-affected areas and schools, including an equine therapy program.

– Child Care Aware of Minnesota received a $25,000 grant following a tornado in Morristown, Minnesota to help day care providers recovering from disasters in Minnesota.

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