The catastrophic tornadoes that roared through Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2011 killed hundreds and caused more destruction than any previous tornado/thunderstorm season. They also led to record insurance payouts. It was in many respects the worst year ever for tornadoes.
The Alabama super outbreak—a designation reserved for an extremely rare cluster of storms—began on April 25 and lasted three days, striking Tuscaloosa on April 27. It left destruction in eight states; the largest of Tuscaloosa’s tornados was EF-4 on the enhanced Fujita scale, a designation meaning gusts between 166 and 200 mph inflicted “devastating” damage.
Less than a month later, on May 23, Joplin was slammed by a tornado that measured EF-5, the highest on the scale, with gusts above 200 mph and inflicting “incredible” damage.
Some facts about the 2011 storms:
As horrific as the numbers are, scenes of the spring destruction are difficult to see, just five years later.
Officials in Tuscaloosa and Joplin chose different paths to fix municipal property. The Alabama city took the opportunity to revitalize its city, while its Missouri counterpart opted for rebuilding the destroyed properties quickly.
In Tuscaloosa, a new fire station is complete, as well as infrastructure improvements. A school for the performing arts is planned. Most of the housing stock destroyed was low-income apartments or for students. The revitalization plan called for new uses for the damaged area.
In Joplin, many businesses have been rebuilt, and a new hospital replacing one destroyed in the tornado opened in 2015. It was built to withstand the next big storm.
The big question facing the insurance industry today is whether the storms of 2011 are a harbinger of a change in the weather patterns. The answer isn’t clear, but statistics collected by Munich Re show that damage from hail and tornadoes has been higher since 2008 than in the 28 years prior, although 2011 remains a high-water mark for destruction.
Insurance Information Institute, Facts and Statistics: Tornadoes and Thunderstorms
Munich Re, 2011 Natural Catastrophe Year in Review
National Institute of Standards and Technology, Tornado, Joplin, Missouri, 2011
National Weather Service, Birmingham AL: Historic Tornado Outbreak April 27, 2011
National Weather Service, Norman, OK: 2011 Killer Tornadoes/Updated 2011 Fatality Statistics