Tornado Deaths and the Limits of Tornado-Related Technologies

Author: Bill Yates
Published: April 29, 2011 at 10:43 am
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Deaths in the southeastern United States related to the April 27, 2011 tornadoes prompt an examination of tornado safety. A key question is whether modern tornado detection and warning technology significantly reduces risk of tornado-related death.
The over 300 deaths in the recent southeastern U.S. tornado make 2011 already one of the top three years for tornado deaths in the U.S. since 1950.
Storm and tornado tracking technology has exploded over the last 30 years. Doppler radar technology continues to improve and national and regional news channels trumpet their own systems with names such as SkyTraK DopplerMax, First Alert Mega Doppler Radar and Doppler 9000 HD. Local news stations in the the Midwestern and southern U.S. regions frequently break into regular programming to alert viewers to potential dangerous storms and tornado watches.

In 1982, The Weather Channel started broadcasting in the United States. This 24-hour channel monitors severe weather across the U.S. providing access to instant weather information.

But what has been the effect of these tornado technologies in the trends for tornado-related deaths? The trends to do not appear to support these technologies ability to reduce tornado-related death. Below is a plot of the yearly number of tornado-related deaths in the U.S. between 1950 and 2011 (year-to-date) from data published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tornado-related deaths have dropped dramatically in the United States but the biggest declines occurred between 1925 and 1980. Between 1875 and 1925, the U.S. averaged nearly two deaths per million residents. Since 1980, the U.S. death rate has averaged around .2 deaths per million people. This is around a 90 percent decrease and a significant advance in public health safety.

The problem for tornado technology advocates is the trend in tornado-related deaths between 1980 and 2011. The number of deaths so far in 2011 is topped by only by 1953 with 519 deaths and 1974 with 366 tornado-related deaths . Yearly death rates vary significantly and should be corrected for total population to compare trends. Taking a look at the rates of tornado-related deaths per million population finds the following results in the last six decades:

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Article Author: Bill Yates

I am a physician interested in clinical neuroscience research. My science training is in epidemiology and preventive medicine. My clinical training is in family medicine and psychiatry. I use my Brain Posts blog to provided analysis and commentary on recent research in clinical neuroscience. …

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