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.

Understanding Tornadoes

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)
Damage Description




Light: Damage is usually limited to chimneys and
billboards. Some trees, especially those with
shallow roots, may become uprooted, but most
remain standing despite having some branches
broken off.




Moderate: The wind may strip off roof shingles
and damage surfaces. It may move or turnover
structures on wheels, such as mobile homes or




Considerable: The tornado can cause the actual
roof — not just its surface — to fly off and detach
from a house, especially if made of weaker or
older materials. The wind may push over and
demolish mobile homes and cars. It's strong
enough to uproot large trees and pick up small
objects, turning them into projectiles.




Severe: Solidly-constructed homes may lose roofs
and some walls. Trains fall off their rails, and the
wind carries off heavy cars. It's strong enough to
uproot trees, even those in forest areas.




Devastating: Well-constructed houses are no
longer a match for the tornado. An EF-4 tornado
blows structures with weak foundations into the
distance. The wind is strong enough to throw cars.



Over 200

Incredible: The tornado lifts homes with solid
foundations, carries them across a significant
distance, and may cause them to disintegrate. It
can throw cars for several hundreds of feet and
strip bark from trees.

Tornado Alley

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.

Where is Tornado Alley?

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:

  • Texas
  • Oklahoma
  • Kansas
  • Nebraska
  • Colorado
  • 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.

Numbers of Tornadoes and Related Deaths, January 2018 - August 2022

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.

Usual time tornadoes happen in the US

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.

Estimated Intensity
States Affected


March 18, 1925





May 6, 1840





May 27, 1896





April 5, 1936





April 6, 1936





April 9, 1947





May 22, 2011





April 24, 1908





June 12, 1899





June 8, 1953




*Insufficient data available to make an accurate measurement of intensity.

Economic impact of tornadoes

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.

Economic damage of tornadoes in the US

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.

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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.

  1. How significantly can tornadoes impact businesses and consumers financially?
  2. What advice can you give homeowners, especially those in Tornado Alley, to help them minimize tornado damage?
Jeff Zhou
Jeff Zhou

CEO & Co-Founder of Fig Loans

Leonard Ang
Leonard Ang

CEO of iPropertyManagement Leasing

Shaun Martin
Shaun Martin

Owner & CEO of Denver Home Buyer

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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.

About Angelique Cruz

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Angelique Cruz has been researching personal finance for three years, with expertise in macroeconomics, financial statistics and behavioral finance. After a decade-long stint as a management consultant creating professional and personal development programs, she now specializes in writing informative content around personal, auto and home loans. Angelique has a degree in psychology from the Ateneo de Manila University.