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06 May 14 00:45

The last week of April was not a good week for the residents of the Midwest and South. A multi-day tornado outbreak, compliments of a potent, slow moving weather system, affected numerous states, from Kansas east to North Carolina. The states of Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi were particularly hard hit; a pair of EF4 tornadoes affected Arkansas and Mississippi, and an EF3 tornado devastated Tupelo, MS. A comprehensive technical description of the outbreak and preliminary intensity estimates are available in Kirsten's blog post.

The stories and images are heartbreaking. People have lost their homes, businesses, memories and, most tragically, their lives. Neighborhoods, vibrant communities just days ago, now lay in ruins. Cherished possessions, such as wedding photos, are found blowing across lawns and wedged in trees. The randomness of tornadoes is one of the characteristics which make them so seemingly cruel. Some towns have been spared for years, even decades, while others, like Moore, OK and Vilonia, AR, have been hit multiple times in recent memory.

It is this tendency of tornadoes towards chaos which also makes them so inherently difficult to model, in both a predictive sense and a probabilistic sense. In a forthcoming publication from Swiss Re, we discuss the challenges of producing a full catastrophe model for tornadoes and related perils. We also deploy a pragmatic methodology to determine what the impact would be if a severe and violent long track tornado, like those observed in late April, moved through the downtown area of a major city, such as Chicago or Dallas. A look back at history reveals this is not an impossible scenario. Numerous EF3 tornadoes have moved through the Dallas suburbs and in 1876, a tornado thought to be the equivalent of an EF3 moved directly through downtown Chicago. The most recent outbreak has produced devastating results; however, once again, the damage is largely in rural and suburban areas. The SPC reports tornadoes near Jackson, MS, Tuscaloosa, AL, Birmingham, AL and Little Rock, AR, in their Storm Reports from April 27 – 29, but none in densely urbanized areas (severe weather reports from April 28th are shown in the image).

It will take weeks to months to perform damage and loss assessments for the late April 2014 tornado outbreak. It will take years for those impacted to recover fully. At Swiss Re, we hope that publications such as our soon-to-be released tornado study will help remind those in areas prone to natural disasters to always be aware, and remind those decision makers and emergency managers to always be prepared, especially for the worst case scenario.


Category: Climate/natural disasters: Disaster risk, Floods/storms, Resilience

Location: Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas


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