Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Dallas Morning News ran an op-ed I wrote about where to spend tornado safety funds.  The most tragic element of last week’s tornado in Moore was that an EF-5 tornado, an extremely rare event, hit two elementary schools with full force.  Few structures are designed for that type of stress but engineered buildings would be about the best choice you could have.  Most residential structures would be leveled.

The public policy question here is what, if anything, can we do to minimize casualties?  And how should we fund those efforts?  Currently, FEMA and the state of Oklahoma has a program to pay for most of the costs to engineer saferooms in new Oklahoma schools which would provide protection from even the largest tornado.  Currently, only 100 schools in Oklahoma have received this funding and regrettably, Plaza Towers Elementary in Moore was not one of those.  If you consider that Oklahoma has 1,780 campuses and estimates to provide a safe room run from $500,000 to $1,000,000 per campus, the outlay to protect all schools would be immense, $1 to $2 billion dollars.  FEMA’s HazardMitigation Grant Program (HMGP) provides grant money to areas declared by the President of the United States to be disaster areas.  This designation releases money that can be used by residents to install a FEMA approved safe room or communities to designate for other mitigation uses like sheltering options for mobile home parks.  The most recent iteration of this program in Oklahoma was so oversubscribed that grantees were determined by lottery.

In general, my research suggests that using public money to save lives from tornado fatalities fails the benchmark that spending is considered reasonable if the cost per avoided fatality is less than $10 million.  In our book Economic andSocietal Impacts of Tornadoes and the follow up to that book DeadlySeason:  An Analysis of the 2011 TornadoOutbreak, Dan Sutter and I show that these programs are well outside that benchmark for most uses of the program.  Using the funds to reduce fatalities in mobile homes is the one exception for some states.

These events define tragedy and emotions run high, as they should.  My suggestion as we go forward to implement these programs would be as follows:  1)  For school districts, instead of outright grants, use Federal money to provide the financing at 0% interest to cover the additional costs in new schools to provide a safe room.  For existing schools who wish to modify campuses to provide a safe room, provide financing at 0% interest as well.  Each district and its residents must decide whether or not this expenditure is the optimal use of limited funds, but for those that do, make it possible by providing the money at no interest.  2)  Grants for use in residential housing should be strictly limited to the most vulnerable structures, mobile homes, or to low income families.  The HMGP currently addresses this by providing a higher percentage of the safe room covered by the grant, from 75% to 90%.  But, again, funds are very limited and it seems to me that more affluent families should be able to make the choice to build a safe room without help (see my previous post on the safe room my wife and I installed) and that if we do anything, it should be directed at the most vulnerable structures.

Monday, May 27, 2013

I was interviewed on Bloomberg Friday.  The video link is here.  One of the questions was about saferooms and given the horrible tornado in Moore last week it is an important topic.  I live in North Texas and have seen my share of tornadoes.  Surviving one depends on many factors but the most important are the size of the storm, the amount of time you have to prepare and the type of structure you are in when the storm hits.  A well-built engineered structure is the safest.  The worst is a mobile home.

Permanent homes provide reasonable shelter from small tornadoes and with modest enhancements in construction can also provide reasonable shelter from many strong storms.  That would account for almost 98% of all tornadoes (EF0-EF2).  The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety suggests building homes to meet their Fortified Home Program.   Some communities are adopting aspects of the program in their building codes.  Moore OK, is one of those.  But that would not apply to homes built prior to the enactment of enhanced codes.

For residents of permanent homes to get protection from violent tornadoes some type of shelter is required, in residence or underground, and the options for those are growing every year.  We recently converted our hall closet to a shelter.  Retrofitting an existing structure is not ideal and if an EF-5 tornado took a direct hit on our house, it’s not a sure bet we would survive.  But since 1950, there have only been 59 EF-5 tornadoes, including the one last week, out of more than 60,000 tornadoes.  So we are talking about an extremely rare event.  And also remember that to receive the EF-5 rating, the tornado does not have to exhibit EF-5 winds for the entire path.  The tornado that hit Joplin 2 years ago was rated EF-5 but that rating applied to about 6 miles of the 21 mile path.  The tragedy there, like the tragedy in Moore is that the strongest winds occurred over a populated area.

The public policy question is whether or not we should require the installation of shelters by homeowners.  They do add a significant cost to the price of a home.  Some homeowners, myself included, are willing to pay the added cost but I’m not sure that most people would, even those that live in tornado alley.  A second policy option is to offer a subsidy to homeowners for a shelter.  Dan Sutter and I have written extensively about this.  This is a very expensive program and will reduce fatalities but at a higher cost than programs to reduce casualties from other risks we face.  Oklahoma has such a program but the recipients are decided by a lottery.  My state, Texas, has a similar program and we live in a county that participates in it.  But I feel strongly enough about this that I did not apply for the subsidy.  (That was a popular decision in my house.)  If public money is to be used in this way, it should go to vulnerable structures like mobile homes.  And if it is decided that public money will be used to subsidize the installation of shelters in permanent homes, it should be means tested so that people with the income to bear the cost are not receiving the subsidy at the expense of those who cannot.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Very Sad Day

Once again we are reminded of the violent nature of tornadoes.  Tornadoes are not rare but a violent tornado (EF-4 or EF-5) hitting a populated area will, more often than not, mean tragedy.  This one is personal for me.  My family lived in OKC from 1999 through 2003.  We were a part of the OKC community for the May 3, 1999 tornado and the May 2003 tornado.  Our son and his family still live there.  So there is a visceral feeling as I watch the images of the unfolding event and the tragic aftermath.


At this moment, the OKC Medical Examiner says there are 51 fatalities but no one will be surprised if that number rises.  Some news outlets are reporting fatalities that approach 100.  That is larger than the 1999 tornado.  In fact, you have to go back to the 1947 Woodward tornado to exceed the number of fatalities from this storm.  Injury numbers have not been released but it is likely that the number of injuries will be over 1000.


I’m often asked about damage the day after an event has occurred.  At this point, only broad guesses are possible but if you consider the 1999 tornado as a guide, the damages will be in the billions.  That tornado created damage of $1 billion and adjusted for inflation that number would be about $1.5 billion.  I would consider that a good guess for a lower end for estimated damage.  The Joplin tornado two years ago suffered $3 billion in damages.

As the days unfold, people will form opinions about this event.  There are three storylines that I expect will dominate the coverage and I’d like to address those.

First and foremost this is the story of a violent tornado in an urban area.  As more and more people move into areas vulnerable to tornadoes, the population density rises.  Tornadoes are a normal part of life in the plains and sometimes the atmospheric conditions are conducive to creating a monster storm.  If that storm races across an open field, it’s an interesting event to watch, from a safe distance.  But if that storm strikes a populated area, buildings will be destroyed and people will suffer injuries and regrettably some will perish.  Urban sprawl is not going away so the job of researchers is to search for ways to minimize those casualties.

 This is the fourth violent killer tornado to hit Moore in the last 15 years.  The tempting storyline is to ask, “What is unique about Moore?”.  But the question pre-supposes that tornadoes return to paths they visited in the past.  It certainly appears that way.  Several times in the last few hours I have seen the path of the 1999 storm overlaid with the path of this one.  I’m surprised that the 2003 path has not been on the same graphic as it also had a similar path through Moore.  Harold Brooks did a very good job in attempting to dispel this analysis when he was interviewed on MSNBC.  He pointed out that central Oklahoma is located where the warm, moist air from the Gulf collides with the cool dry air coming off the Rockies and that this confluence provides the necessary ingredients for violent tornadoes.  Any community in central Oklahoma has the same chance of witnessing a violent tornado.  In 2011, an EF-5 tornado hit El Reno which is located northwest of the OKC metro area.  Fewer people were killed simply due to the lower population density.

The final storyline that I expect will be discussed deals with the two schools tragically hit by this tornado.  Briarwood Elementary and Plaza Tower Elementary are about a mile apart and both were in the path of the storm.  As of this writing there are no fatalities at Briarwood and many from Plaza Tower.  Why?  This is an important area of inquiry and the reasons are likely complex.  It could be engineering.  Was one school built differently from the other?  It could be storm intensity.  Along a tornadoes path, the intensity will vary.  A small change in intensity can have different effects on buildings and it could be that the change in intensity was sufficient to create very different outcomes on buildings so close to each other.  It could be location.  The path of the storm is estimated to be a mile wide.  But wind intensities vary within the path with the strongest winds toward the center.  Or it could be tragic luck.  Where in the building were the children when struck by the storm?

Tornadoes are both fascinating and terrifying events.  I have lived in this part of the country all my life and have developed a respect for the power of nature.  It is my hope and prayer that the victims of this tragedy find the help that they need as they put the pieces of their lives back together.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Dan Sutter and I have a new book released this week from AMS Books and the University of Chicago Press.  You can order the book from AMS Books at:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Tornado Visits My Hometown

I’m an economist who studies natural hazards.  Over the last few years, tornadoes have dominated that research agenda.  It’s a fascinating topic for social scientists and most of the time I can separate the emotions of a horrifying event allowing me to conduct dispassionate analysis.  But yesterday the research came home.  Both my wife and I went to high school in Arlington, Texas.  Most people know Arlington as the home of the Texas Rangers, Six Flags and now the Dallas Cowboys.  But for those of us who were raised there, it’s home like any town is home.  We know the streets, not as markers on a map but places in our lives.  We remember when the mall was an open field as well as the name of the local college before it was subsumed into one of the state university systems.  As I was watching TV coverage of the tornadoes, it became clear that my home town had been struck by the very monster I have spent the last 10 years studying.  It’s not the first tornado to hit Arlington, or the DFW metroplex, for that matter, but it was the first time since the incredible and horrifying death toll from last year’s tornado season.  It also happened as the National Weather Service is conducting an effort, known as Weather Ready Nation, to help prepare for future outbreaks.  I’ve been involved in that effort and I have no doubt that yesterday’s outbreak will become one of the talking points.  The main point for the researcher in me is that a tornado outbreak hit a major population area and as of now, there are no fatalities.  Over 6 million people live in the Dallas/Ft. Worth metropolitan area.  By some estimates somewhere between 6 and 12 tornadoes touched down, some large enough to send 5 ton tractor trailers into the air like match sticks.  Significant to major damage occurred in Kennedale, Arlington, Lancaster and Forney, all suburbs on the southern and eastern side of the DFW metroplex but across a 50 mile swath.  This is the nightmare scenario that keeps forecasters and emergency managers up at night.  And when the previous season saw death tolls in the hundreds, it brings a keen focus to bear.  Teams of engineers will descend on my home town in the ensuing days to assess the storm path and damage.  They should talk to Dale Stubblefield, who went to high school with my wife and me.  He posted an eye witness account on Facebook with a description of the path, the damage he witnessed but most importantly the speed with which the neighborhood began the process of recovery.

“The damage to the neighborhood is heart breaking. We were lucky and had minor damage, a broken window, some roof damage, we lost a tree and our fence. Our neighborhood got nailed. The tornado crossed 287 at Sublett, turned north and passed Corey Elementry creating havoc. It crossed I-20 and blew up homes as it headed to St. Barnabus Church up on the hill. The pre-school was in session with over 85 kids as the storm ripped off the roof of the chuch education building and then ripped though my neighborhood before hitting a nursing home on Green Oaks. 

Help was immediate. The Martin HS football team came in by the truckloads and started stacking fence panels, moving brush and helping a family move their valuables out of their home. Members of St. Barnabus, even though their church had been heavily damaged brought food and drinks to those working to secure homes. Wow - what a day.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More Thoughts on the Tornado Outbreak of 2011

I've just completed  participating in a conference sponsored by the Geneva Association where I presented my thoughts on this years tornadoes.  In preparing for the presentation, I used our casualty models to see if this year suffered from any of the vulnerabilities we had identified that will inflate fatalities.  The answer to that question is yes.  Compared to previous outbreaks, this one occurred predominantly in the southeast which has the highest fatality rate from tornadoes than any other region.  As an example, the fatality rate for the US is .45 per million calculated using data from 1950-2010.  Mississippi has a fatality rate of 2.8, six times the US average.  Secondly, there is a greater proportion of mobile homes than previous outbreaks.  As a comparison, consider the tornadoes of 1953, the last year we suffered more than 500 deaths.  For the counties affected by those tornadoes, the percentage of mobile homes in the housing stock was 6 tenths of one percent.  It was 10 percent for the counties affected by this years tornadoes.  Our research confirms the observation that you are 10 times more likely to die in a mobile home struck by a tornado than a permanent home.  As more mobile homes are in the path of the tornado, higher casualties will likely follow.  Finally, one third of this years fatalities occurred on a weekend including the tornado in Joplin.  We have found that casualties are significantly higher on either Saturday or Sunday than during the week.  People are safer in the buildings they work or go to school in than they are in their own homes.  I used our casualty model to estimate the change in fatalities for the Joplin tornado if it had occurred on a Monday rather than a Sunday and found the expected fatalities would have been reduced by 23%.

So it's no wonder that we have now exceeded the largest annual death toll since records were kept beginning in 1950.  Or is it that simple?  I also spoke at the AMS Broadcast Meteorology Conference last month.  Some of the comments I heard from people expressed shock at the casualties but also questioning the value of the warnings that have been celebrated for minimizing casualties.  That started me thinking about how I could test whether or not the warnings were effective.  Keep in mind that the Joplin tornado had 24 minutes lead time.  One way to examine this notion is to compare the fatality rate from this years tornadoes with another outbreak.  Again, consider 1953 which had a similar number of killer tornadoes, 41 versus 56 this year, had a similar number of affected counties, 72 versus 75 this year, a similar percent of F-3 plus tornadoes, 78% versus 79% this year, and a similar number of fatalities, 519 versus 537 this year.  The population of the affected counties in 1953 was 3.9 million giving that outbreak a fatality rate of 167 per million.  Affected counties in this years tornadoes is 8.2 million giving this year a fatality rate of 35 per million, half the rate of  1953.  Can the entire difference be attributed to better warnings?  No, I don't believe so, but it is clear that something profound has changed in the last 60 years and the obvious candidate is the investment we have made in our warning system as well as the enhancement in communication technology that we enjoy today.

There is no argument that we have experienced a terrible tragedy.  But it's my belief that the death toll could have much higher if not for the investment by and the efforts of the National Weather Service and the forecasters that have trained to warn residents of the danger of approaching tornadoes.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

How Could This Happen?

            April of 1974 was a very special month for me.  I met, then asked to my senior prom the young woman who has now been my wife of 33 years.  But April of 1974 has a tragic history for it was on April 3, 1974 that hundreds of people died in what was one of the worst days for tornado fatalities.  Since that time, Doppler radar was installed and increased dramatically the accuracy and timeliness of tornado warnings.  Communication technology has improved beyond anything we imagined in the 1970’s and this has allowed warnings to be disseminated quickly and to virtually anyone with a TV, radio, computer or even cell phone.  As a result, casualties from tornadoes have dropped to an annual average of about 60.  Not until April of this year have we witnessed any tornado event which killed more than 100 people.  So it’s not surprising that we are shocked when we see the death tolls from the tornadoes of the last 6 weeks.  For the first time since 1953 we have exceeded 500 fatalities and by the time this season is over, we may top that total of 519.

            Some are asking if we had bad warnings for these storms.  The answer to that question is a resounding no.  Joplin had over 20 minutes of warning and the same has been true for each of the horrific events that our country has endured.  In fact, a good argument can be made that without our current warning technology and the expertise of our forecasters, the death toll would have much, much higher.  It is true that an EF-5 tornado which makes a direct hit on a home is going to kill and injure anyone inside regardless of the lead time these unfortunate souls had before it struck.  But keep in mind, that not all of the tornadoes we have experienced have been that strong and even the ones that were, may not have been that strong for the life span of the tornado. 

            So how could this happen?  Is it climate change or just bad luck?  I am not a climate scientist, so I will leave that question for more qualified researchers.  But I do have some insight into why this year has been one that we will likely never forget.  First, it has been almost 50 years since we have seen an outbreak of this magnitude.  And over that time we have come to believe that outbreaks of this size are so rare that we just don’t consider that they could happen in our lifetime.  But, 50 years is a blink of an eye to Mother Nature.  Our records and oral history only go back a few hundred years at best.  The Midwest was not aggressively settled until the latter part of the 19th century so our experience with tornadoes is limited.

            Secondly, we have increased the population in vulnerable areas dramatically.  Land that was once uninhabited is now crammed with subdivisions.  When my wife and I attended the prom in 1974 the Dallas/Ft. Worth area consisted of 2 counties, Dallas and Tarrant.  It now stretches across 10 counties with a population of about 6 million.  The same can be said for Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Little Rock and other metropolitan areas in “Tornado Alley”.

            Finally, part of the reason is truly nothing more than bad luck.  Even with the increased population, there are still vast areas of rural land.  An EF-5 tornado that plows through a corn field kills nothing more than the fruits of a farmer’s labor.  A financial blow but not a human tragedy.  Tornadoes go where they do and if they cross human settlement, bad things are going to happen.  It is not the act of an angry god but the unfortunate consequence of living with a sometimes violent environment.