23 May 2011

Are tornadoes scary?

The question, from a backbencher: Are tornadoes frightening?

The answer: I used to say "no." But this summer has me reconsidering my answer.

One of the nice things about growing up in the Midwest/Mid-South region is that you are inured to the idea that tornadoes are scary. Hurricanes are frightening. Earthquakes are terrifying. City buses are the worst--just ask the kids in Adventures in Babysitting. But tornadoes? Nah. It's fun watching out-of-towners freak out about tornado watches. I don't even notice until there's a warning, and even then not until they actually interrupt a live program.

I understand that this is not how other people see it. And I am beginning to understand why.

There are unspoken rules. Tornadoes kill people in trailer parks, not people in hospitals. Tornadoes hit farms, not airports. And tornadoes are expected to keep the death toll in the high single digits, maximum.

So the tornadoes are breaking all of the rules this week.

These past few weeks have pushed 2011 into the realm of genuine statistical anomaly. The long-term trend for tornado fatalities over the past several decades has been for tornado-related deaths to gently, gently trend toward zero; I even recall reading a NOAA or an NWS report some time ago that argued, in essence, that at current rates we might more or less "solve" tornado-related deaths by 2030 or thereabouts.

Why? Because natural disasters aren't so natural, after all. Although the cause of the "disaster" might appear to be natural--e.g., the cyclonic winds, the hail, lightning, excessive rain, or what have you--the process of turning that exogenous shock into a disaster requires a society to either be poor or backward. I use those terms in their precise sense. "Poor," in the sense that if you don't have well-built buildings or a well-organized state to begin with, that there is simply very little to shelter you from the storm (sometimes literally) and nothing to help you cope with the aftermath. "Backward," in the sense that since about 1950, and really since 1980 or so, there have been almost no states that have failed to stock up on weather radars, public announcement systems, and so forth except as a failure of policy or a success of a diabolical policy. (One of the most fun and most frightening papers I've ever read was an entirely persuasive formal model showing exactly how an authoritarian but perverse government would use a disaster as a way to extort revenues from aid NGOs.)

In other words, given constant weather conditions, increasing prevention and response management should really make most disasters manageable. And, largely, in the developed world, they do. The Japanese earthquake is mostly notable for how few people died, and most of those who did die perished in the tsunami, which is rather harder to stop. My semi-informed guess is that a similar seismic event in, say, California, would easily top the death toll from the Japanese quake by mid-morning--before we found out that all the beach communities were floating in the middle of the Pacific.

The question, then, is whether 2011 is an outlier or the beginning of a new trend. The data are not clear, although the trend lines are way up--indeed, running ahead of what NOAA's model calls the "maximum" number that we should be expecting. Maybe it is a coincidence. Maybe there has been some sort of a change in the underlying weather-generating mechanism. But I am now actually a little afraid that these past few weeks could be the new normal. And if so, that would make the Midwest rather less tame and less placid. And what the region would gain in excitement it would more than lose in actual danger.


  1. It's critical that we don't view these tornadoes as a pattern.


  2. Daniel ZaccarielloJune 18, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    The Gendered Nature of Natural Disasters: The Impact of Catastrophic Events on the Gender Gap in Life Expectancy, 1981–2002by Eric Neumayer, Thomas Plümper


    Earthquake Propensity and the Politics of Mortality Prevention by Philip Keefer, Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper