Few things in nature are less predictable than a tornado.
They can form quickly. They strike weirdly, leveling one building while leaving its neighbor untouched. They can fling a car a half mile and turn a piece of lumber into a wall-piercing missile.
In spring 2011, as a series of tornadoes devastated Alabama, Rita White tracked an EF-5 monster moving over Limestone County, where she works as emergency management director. The tornado was miles from her office in Athens, but her husband was texting her about pieces of tin falling on the roof of their house in the northwest Alabama city.
Also falling from the sky over Athens were blue jeans scattered from a Wrangler factory the tornado had obliterated 77 miles away.
“They do baffling things,” says Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, Okla.
How do you prepare for a freak of nature? Even people who live in tornado-tested places have mixed feelings about how much is necessary.
While tornadoes are unpredictable — they can happen any time of year, any time of day and strike all 50 states — they aren’t totally random, either. We’re in the thick of “tornado weather,” March through July, and the storms are far more common in parts of the South, West and Midwest than they are elsewhere.
Tornadoes don’t tend to hit cities, either, if only because of probabilities. There is far more undeveloped land than buildings in the places where tornadoes usually form.
“Most of the time they’re out scaring cows,” says Keith Stammer, director of emergency management for Joplin and Jasper County, Mo.
A massive EF-5 tornado — the top of the scale, with winds reaching 200 to 250 mph — struck there on May 22, 2011. The storm destroyed a third of Joplin, killed 161 people and caused up to $2.8 billion in damage, making it the costliest tornado on record, according to the National Weather Service.
Jasper County gets more tornadoes than any other part of Missouri, Stammer said, but almost all are weak. The enormous tornado in May 2011 was so unusual — it formed in about a minute and plodded along at a fraction of the speed of the typical tornado that size — that Stammer coined a word for it: “oddball-ness.”
Facing tornadoes there means planning ahead. Stammer is involved in roughly nine emergency planning drills a year with other agencies and nonprofits. The city had participated in a four-hour drill for earthquake response just four days before the tornado hit.
Agencies around the area already know who is responsible for what and who has what kinds of equipment. There are agreements in place for things like providing shelter with churches and universities.
“The disaster scene is not the place to exchange business cards,” Stammer said.
Timothy W. Manning, a deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, noted he didn’t need to deploy FEMA’s specialized search-and-rescue teams after the Joplin tornado because local groups did all of that work so rapidly.
Stammer does one thing differently now. He would never have planned for a tornado that large before May 22, 2011. Now, he tells other emergency managers to think big.
“If you’re thinking flooding, think a big flood,” he counsels. “Overwhelm yourself.”
One thing Joplin did not do after the May 2011 tornado is require people to add storm shelters or safe rooms. Well-built shelters protect people from debris — the main source of death and injuries from tornadoes. But shelters cost $2,500 to $10,000 to build.
Many in Joplin assumed the expense anyway, and the city has especially focused on fortifying community shelters and safe rooms in schools. One engineer estimated Joplin and the region are adding 750,000 square feet of public shelter space —about $120 million worth. That’s enough to harbor 100,000 people.
About half of the homes rebuilt within a year of the tornado included a shelter, according to one official’s estimate.
FEMA has helped cover the cost of residential shelters in some states, but some question the practicality of broader government programs or requirements that would force people to install them.
Kevin Simmons, an economist at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, says to fund shelters for every household in Oklahoma would cost between $5 million and $10 million per tornado-related death and in Alabama the price tag would be about $40 million per fatality — an expense that may be hard to justify.
That’s because dying from a tornado is only slightly more likely than being killed by lightning. About 70 people a year are killed by one of about 1,200 tornadoes that hit the United States, according to government data. Lightning kills about 54 people a year.
Even in 2011 — a horrible year with 500 more tornadoes than is typical — the storms killed 553 people. Car accidents, meanwhile, killed about 690 people per week in 2009, and that was an unusually low number.
“If you’re going to force people to spend money, is it logical to force them to spend an extra $10,000 on a house when their biggest risk is dying in a car?” asks Tim Reinhold, chief engineer at the Institute for Business and Home Safety.
Athens did not change building codes following the May 2011 tornadoes. Limestone County itself has no building codes, even though housing development is happening in unincorporated parts of the county.
After the 2011 tornados in Athens, Ala., Limestone County worked to improve communications and warnings. It added five satellite phones because of troubles with cellphone communications after the tornado, and it built a small call center so volunteers after a storm won’t have to use the desks of the three-person emergency management staff.
The county also began registering people with storm shelters, to make sure rescue crews can find those trapped during a future storm. It also got FEMA grants to pay for new $20,000 warning sirens.
Joplin upgraded all 33 of its warning sirens, after surveys found residents jaded by the sound of sirens being tested every week. The new sirens can be tested electronically and are sounded just once a month, to remind residents of how they sound.
When those sirens go off now, people head straight to shelter, said Jane Cage, chief operating officer at Heartland Technology Solutions and chairwoman of Joplin’s Citizens Advisory Recovery Team, a volunteer group formed after the tornado.
“We all act differently now. I would think there’s hardly anyone who, when the weather gets really bad, doesn’t get a little feeling in the pit of their stomach,” she said.
Even so, Cage said the community has to act practically when it comes to preparation.
“How far do you prepare for something,” she said, “with the likelihood that you’ll never use it?”