Kevin Simmons, an economist at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, has analyzed what it would cost for Oklahoma or Alabama to fund shelters for every single household, and found that it would cost Oklahoma between $5 million and $10 million per tornado-related death and Alabama about $40 million per fatality – an expense that may be hard to justify.
That’s because dying from a tornado is only slightly more likely than being killed by lightning. About 70 people a year are killed by one of about 1,200 tornadoes that hit the United States, according to government data. Lightning kills about 54 people a year.
Even in 2011 – a horrible year with 500 more tornadoes than is typical – the storms killed 553 people. Car accidents, meanwhile, killed about 690 people per week in 2009, and that was an unusually low number.
“If you’re going to force people to spend money, is it logical to force them to spend an extra $10,000 on a house when their biggest risk is dying in a car?” asks Tim Reinhold, chief engineer at the Institute for Business and Home Safety.
For anyone who’s been through a tornado, perhaps the real value of a shelter is peace of mind.
Rita White experienced an EF-5 tornado in Athens, Ala., in 1974, when she was a seventh-grader. “It was very, very scary,” she said of her memories of that storm, which made the 2011 tornado even worse.
Athens did not change building codes following the May 2011 tornadoes. Limestone County itself has no building codes, even though housing development is happening in unincorporated parts of the county.
The steps Limestone County did take involved getting better at communications and warnings. It added five satellite phones because of troubles with cell phone communications after the tornado, and it built a small call center so volunteers after a storm won’t have to use the desks of the three-person emergency management staff.