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,” said 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. Tightened building standards and storm shelters are obvious tools to brace for vicious wind and debris, but tornado veterans balance those steps with pragmatism. Rigid building codes and shelters cost money, and the odds of being hit by one of the storms are actually relatively low.
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,” said Keith Stammer, director of emergency management for Joplin and Jasper County, Missouri, which withstood a massive EF-5 tornado — the top of the scale, with winds reaching 200 to 250 mph — 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 in Jasper County and Joplin means planning ahead. Stammer is involved in roughly nine emergency planning drills a year with other agencies and non-profits. 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,” said Stammer.
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 said. “Overwhelm yourself.”
Planning to respond to tornadoes and actually building for them are different, however. Model building codes would require contractors to frame houses and roofs that withstand hurricane-force winds. But not all states adopt those models, and the ones that do frequently lower wind standards, according to a study of coastal states last year by the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.
Even after a tornado, a community may not change building codes for a variety of reasons, including fear from homeowners who were unscathed that their lack of tornado-resistant features could affect their property values.