With the royal wedding, the White House Correspondents Dinner, and the death of Osama bin Laden sending shockwaves through social networks over the last several days, you might have forgotten about the other big story of the past week. Even if you did catch a glimpse of a wrecked home or two, you likely gave only brief notice to the huge storms that ravaged the country’s mid-section as tornadoes tore through the Bible Belt.
Between April 25 and April 28, no fewer than 362 twisters were observed in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia. During one 24-hour period, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) received reports of 226 tornadoes, a record for the monitoring agency. Over 340 people died in the storms, which destroyed nearly 10,000 buildings across a wide swath of Midwestern and Southern states. Preliminary estimates place the insured losses at $2 to $5 billion.
The tornadoes that wrecked Tuscaloosa and other cities reinforced the need for renewed efforts to boost storm resilience in American communities. The dynamics of tornadoes may differ from those of hurricanes, but homeowners in Baton Rouge, Biloxi, and Birmingham all want structures that can better withstand wind damage.
The super cluster that hit last month might have been a rare occurrence, but as population density increases in southern states that are at the mercy of tornadoes and tropical cyclones, the need to shield residents in the firing line of destructive storms grows as well.
Building smarter and developing intelligent ways to warn people about windstorms would create myriad new job opportunities for American innovators. For instance, residents of Fargo, North Dakota ditched sandbags and deployed new devices from far-flung places like Florida and the Netherlands as they held back spring floodwaters from the Red River. In a similar way, the residential populations of coastal hurricane zones and America’s tornado belt could serve as a huge market for protective storm shelters that are less likely to buckle and collapse due to wind stress. In addition, experts in disaster management and mass communication could create more effective warning systems for hurricane and tornado alerts. Finally, insurance companies could partner with contractors and state officials to incentivize storm-resilient repairs on existing structures, which could reduce the human and economic toll of future disasters.
Nothing will bring back the Americans who perished in last week’s twisters. But in the wake of this tragedy, we must find better ways to protect our nation’s citizens from natural hazards.