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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.

Billion-dollar disasters

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.” 

Shifting patterns

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…



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