What Is a Tornado?
Some people, especially those in the Midwest, are familiar with tornadoes. Forming a narrow column of air that touches the ground, tornadoes are the most violent kind of thunderstorm. Rotating winds can exceed speeds of 300 mph. Tornado damage can span more than a mile wide to 50 miles long.
The U.S. experiences over 1,200 tornadoes of varying strength annually. Although every state has experienced one, they most commonly happen in the Great Plains.
A closer look at tornado statistics emphasizes the value of a home insurance policy. There is even greater value in obtaining a home insurance policy for homeowners who live in areas prone to tornado activity.
It's always good to know how to prepare for natural disasters, such as tornadoes. While most people are familiar with the visual of a tornado, fewer know how they form and how their strength is measured.
There's a lot of science involved in a tornado's formation, but it boils down to its root: severe thunderstorms.
The air temperature in thunderclouds varies, and this affects their movement. Warm, humid air rises while winds with lower temperatures tend to go down, which results in spinning air. When it drops to the ground, it becomes a tornado.
Tornadoes are most common in the Great Plains, where atmospheric conditions are unstable. It's the ideal condition for supercell thunderstorms that create tornadoes.
Each year, around a thousand tornadoes hit the U.S., but the average number of reported incidents has increased significantly since the 1990s.
How Bad Can Tornadoes Get?
No analysis of tornado statistics would be complete without looking into how much damage they cause. Dr. Tetsuya Theordore Fujita developed the Fujita Scale (F Scale), now the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF Scale). Since 1971, it's been the accepted tool for estimating tornado strength and wind speeds based on the resulting damage.
The EF Scale, developed in 2007, includes 28 damage indicators, allowing for a more accurate wind speed estimation.
Out of the many federal agencies in the U.S., only the National Weather Service (NWS) has the authority to release official EF ratings.
Estimated Winds (mph)
3-Second Gust (mph)
Light: Damage is usually limited to chimneys and
Moderate: The wind may strip off roof shingles
Considerable: The tornado can cause the actual
Severe: Solidly-constructed homes may lose roofs
Devastating: Well-constructed houses are no
Incredible: The tornado lifts homes with solid
Although reports of tornadoes happen in all 50 states, they occur more frequently in a specific area of the U.S., labeled the “Tornado Alley.” The image below gives a better picture of which states encompass Tornado Alley.
Source: University of Iowa
Knowing where most tornadoes happen allows you to determine your level of emergency preparedness. This information is critical if you live within Tornado Alley, which includes portions of the following states:
- South Dakota
More tornadoes form in this area because of its unstable atmospheric conditions. The primary contributors are the cold winds from Canada, which are moving downward, and the warm winds coming from the Gulf of Mexico. These converge over Tornado Alley, making conditions ideal for tornado formation during severe thunderstorms.
Tornado Occurrences and Related Deaths
Identifying where tornadoes most often occur is one thing. Knowing how many tornadoes happen a year is another consideration. It’s essential information when traveling or buying a house. MoneyGeek looked at tornado frequency and the fatalities over the years.
Based on the number of recorded tornadoes, a distinct pattern emerged from 2018 to 2022. Although this natural disaster hits every month of the year, the frequency increases as December approaches. The last month of the year consistently has had the most incidents from 2018 to 2021. Keep in mind that tornado statistics for 2022 are only available through August.
If we look at the figures per decade, 2019 stands out. While other years before 2019 had anywhere from approximately 6,800 to 8,200 tornadoes, 2019 had 11,018.
However, more tornadoes do not necessarily mean more fatalities. Although more than 11,000 tornadoes happened in 2019, fatalities totaled 365. In contrast, 2020, which had 8,145 reported incidents, resulted in 716 deaths.
Tornado Activity and Time of Day
MoneyGeek analyzed the data further. Not only did we look at when in the year tornadoes are likely to happen, but we also gathered data showing when during the day most tornadoes occur.
Tornadoes can happen at any time during the day. However, the trend is that incidents increase dramatically from 2 to 3 p.m. and continue upward until they peak at 5 to 6 p.m. local time of day.
From then, tornado frequency begins a downward slope, but the chances of a tornado happening remain moderately high until 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. local time of day. However, nocturnal tornadoes are twice as dangerous as those that occur during the day.
Tornado Occurrences per State, 2021
In 2021 alone, there were 1,376 tornadoes in the U.S. That is a 28% increase from 1,075 in 2020. States in darker shades experienced more tornadoes, while those with lighter hues had fewer. Breaking this down per state confirms the Tornado Alley hypothesis.
In 2021, 34.2% of all tornadoes in the U.S. originated in five states. These states were:
- Texas: 155
- Kansas: 96
- Florida: 66
- Oklahoma: 62
- Nebraska: 57
Around two-thirds of all U.S. states had at least ten tornadoes in 2021. The rest experienced five or fewer. Those with only one recorded incident in 2021 were Delaware, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Two states were fortunate enough to be spared from tornado activity in 2021: Alaska and Rhode Island.
Worst Tornados in US History
The country has had its share of devastating natural disasters — and tornadoes are no exception. Here are the ten worst incidents in recorded history on the Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF Scale).
In the below table, most of the tornados received EF-4 and EF-5 ratings and caused hundreds of fatalities.
March 18, 1925
MO, IL, IN
May 6, 1840
May 27, 1896
April 5, 1936
April 6, 1936
April 9, 1947
TX, KS, OK
May 22, 2011
April 24, 1908
June 12, 1899
June 8, 1953
*Insufficient data available to make an accurate measurement of intensity.
The Economic Impact of Tornadoes
Experiencing a natural disaster, whether a flood, wildfire or hurricane, leaves a toll. The damage encompasses an individual’s mental and physical well-being and finances.
The financial burden brought by tornado damage isn't limited to homeowners. Sometimes, the damage is so significant that the economy takes a hit.
Source: National Weather Service
In 2021, the damage caused by tornadoes totaled almost $229 million. The estimated damage to crops was worth $2.24 million and a whopping $226.56 million to property.
Surprisingly, 2021 is one of the less affected years economically than the previous 26 years. Only 2016, with damages amounting to $183 million, was comparably less destructive than the other years.
2011 experienced the most financial damage at $9.49 billion. Of the contributing factors, one was the super outbreak from April 25 to 28. Across several states, 362 tornadoes formed, resulting in over 300 deaths. Alabama suffered the most damage — 65 deaths, more than a thousand injured and over $100 million worth of destroyed property from an EF-4 tornado.
The other traumatic incident in May of 2011 was the Joplin Tornado. It was an EF-5 tornado that caused almost $3 billion in damages and is still considered one of the ten worst tornadoes the country has seen.
A tornado can have devastating effects. Even an EF-1 may cause your home to sustain some damage. At worst, it can result in the loss of lives, the loss of your home, the loss of finances, trauma and PTSD. Some financial loss is inevitable in severe cases, but having an insurance policy against hazards can help minimize it.
Tornado Statistics FAQ
Being informed of tornado statistics can help with disaster preparedness and protecting your finances and loved ones. MoneyGeek answered some commonly asked questions about tornadoes.
The year with the most expensive damages was 2011, totaling $9.49 billion. The Joplin Tornado in May and the tornado outbreak from April 25 to 28 contributed to the devastation of 2011.
Expert Insights on Tornado Statistics
There’s more to learn about tornado statistics by gleaning from those who can offer subject matter insight. MoneyGeek reached out to experts about the financial implications of tornadoes and how homeowners can better protect themselves from damages.
- How significantly can tornadoes impact businesses and consumers financially?
- What advice can you give homeowners, especially those in Tornado Alley, to help them minimize tornado damage?
Owner & CEO of Denver Home Buyer
CEO of iPropertyManagement Leasing
CEO & Co-Founder of Fig Loans
Surviving a tornado, among other natural disasters, can leave a lasting impact on your life. Fortunately, there's no lack of online resources to help you protect your loved ones and finances.
- Protecting Your Home Against Hurricane Damages: Know whether or not you’re in a hurricane-prone area. If you are, MoneyGeek provides strategies to hurricane-proof your home.
- How to Protect Your Home From Wildfires: The damage your property can sustain from a wildfire can be significant. Learn how to mitigate the risks with advanced planning.
- How to Prevent Floods from Damaging Your Home: Among all natural disasters, floods are the most common. Read about flood prevention tips and decide whether or not you should purchase flood insurance.
- Financial Preparedness and Recovery From a Natural Disaster: Any natural disaster can put a considerable dent in your finances. Here’s how to ensure you are financially prepared for emergencies.
- Wildfires and Hurricanes: The Economic Impact of Natural Disasters: There’s no denying the cost of damages brought about by natural disasters. Read more about how it’s affected home construction and insurance premiums.
- How Much Home Insurance Coverage Do You Need to Protect Your Home?: One of the best ways to protect yourself, your loved ones and your finances from the damages of a natural disaster is by having an active home insurance policy. Ensure that your plan’s enough to cover you if disaster strikes.
About Angelique Cruz
- Insurance Information Institute. "Facts + Statistics: Tornadoes and Thunderstorms." Accessed October 25, 2022.
- National Centers for Environmental Information. "On This Day: 2011 Tornado Super Outbreak." Accessed October 25, 2022.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Joplin Missouri Tornado 2011." Accessed October 25, 2022.
- National Weather Service. "The Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF Scale)." Accessed October 24, 2022.
- National Weather Service. "Tornado Graphs." Accessed October 31, 2022.
- NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory. "Severe Weather 101 — Tornadoes." Accessed October 24, 2022.