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Kevin M. Simmons and Daniel Sutter

Abstract

Conventional wisdom holds that improved tornado warnings will reduce tornado casualties, because longer lead times on warnings provide extra opportunities to alert residents who can then take precautions. The relationship between warnings and casualties is examined using a dataset of tornadoes in the contiguous United States between 1986 and 2002. Two questions are examined: Does a warning issued on a tornado reduce the resulting number of fatalities and injuries? Do longer lead times reduce casualties? It is found that warnings have had a significant and consistent effect on tornado injuries, with a reduction of over 40% at some lead time intervals. The results for fatalities are mixed. An increase in lead time up to about 15 min reduces fatalities, while lead times longer than 15 min increase fatalities compared with no warning. The fatality results beyond 15 min, however, depend on five killer tornadoes and consequently are not robust.

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Kevin M. Simmons and Daniel Sutter

Abstract

The impact of the installation of Weather Surveillance Radar-1988 Doppler (WSR-88D) radars in the 1990s on the quality of tornado warnings and occurrence of tornado casualties is examined. This analysis employs a dataset of tornadoes in the contiguous United States between 1986 and 1999. The date of WSR-88D radar installation in each National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office is used to divide the sample. Tornado warnings improved after the installation of Doppler radar; the percentage of tornadoes warned for increased from 35% before WSR-88D installation to 60% after installation while the mean lead time on warnings increased from 5.3 to 9.5 min and the false alarm ratio fell slightly. A regression analysis of tornado casualties, which controls for the characteristics of a tornado and its path, reveals that expected fatalities and expected injuries were 45% and 40% lower for tornadoes occurring after WSR-88D radar was installed in the NWS Weather Forecast Office. This analysis also finds that expected casualties are significantly lower for tornadoes occurring during the day or evening than late at night throughout the sample, which provides indirect evidence of the life-saving effects of tornado warnings.

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David Merrell, Kevin M. Simmons, and Daniel Sutter

Abstract

Over the past several decades, engineers have made significant progress in the design and construction of structures able to withstand tornadic winds and debris. The aftermath of the 3 May 1999 F5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, highlighted the modest market penetration of tornado shelters in metropolitan areas. The authors use historical data from Oklahoma to estimate the potential casualties that tornado shelters could prevent and calculate that the cost per fatality avoided in single-family homes is $29 million while the cost per fatality avoided for mobile homes is $2.6 million. The estimates are sensitive to the proportion of strong (F3 or stronger) tornadoes and the choice of an interest rate for present-value calculations. If the F-scale distribution of Oklahoma tornadoes resembled a reported national frequency distribution and fatalities per category storm are held constant, the permanent home cost per fatality avoided triples to $88 million.

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