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Tornado Alley: Twister damage a risk to more homeowners than previously thought

It’s hard not to cringe when viewing pictures of homes destroyed during recent tornado outbreaks in states like Alabama and Texas. While many homeowners may consider such devastation to be unlikely in their own backyards, a new study finds that tornado risk extends well beyond the states traditionally considered to be in “Tornado Alley.”

Although Tornado Alley doesn't have official boundaries, it refers to an area of lots of tornado activity in the Great Plains, which includes parts of South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado and Illinois. However, homeowners who live outside that area and think they're in the clear may be grossly misinformed, according to the study, conducted by business information provider CoreLogic.

According to the research, 16 other states reported a high number of tornado touchdowns between 2000 and 2011: Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Georgia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky.

tornado_alley“It is clear from the data that more than a dozen states outside the traditional Tornado Alley should be concerned about the potential for damaging wind or hailstorms,” Tom Jeffery, chief hazard scientist at CoreLogic , and Howard Botts, vice president and director of database development at CoreLogic, say in a statement. “While not all areas are of equal risk, at least parts of these states need to be aware of the increased potential for damaging storms.”

'Extreme risk'

The study was better able to pinpoint parts of high-risk states that have a lower level of tornado risk than previously thought. Most people consider the states in Tornado Alley to be at “extreme risk” of tornadoes. However, no state falls entirely under the “extreme risk” label.

“While they may not contain an area classified as ‘low’ risk, they certainly do have areas with less than ‘extreme’ risk,” Jeffery and Botts say.

Likewise, only three Tornado Alley states – Kansas, Oklahoma and Illinois – rank among the 10 states with the most tornado touchdowns.

The amount of damage that tornadoes produce can be catastrophic. In 2011, insured losses from tornadoes and thunderstorms exceeded $25 billion, according to risk management firm Munich Re. That number is more than twice the $9.5 billion in insurance losses in 2010. As a whole, tornadoes were the costliest natural disaster in 2011.

“Everyone is at risk,” says Amy Preddy, a spokeswoman for State Farm. “I think the last few years have shown us that no matter where you are in the country, a tornado can come to you.”

Not an isolated event

While the past couple of years have yielded several severe tornado outbreaks that amassed plenty of media attention, the CoreLogic study actually takes into consideration many years of severe weather activity.

“One year or one decade of event data does not provide nearly enough information to make an accurate assessment of risk,” Jeffery and Botts say. “TheCoreLogicrisk analysis for damaging hail, tornadoes and straight-line wind is generated from the analysis of 30 years of data that are then modeled over a 10,000-year period to generate a statistically viable historic record.”

So if more homeowners are at risk of experiencing severe weather events, what does that mean as far as home insurance rates are concerned? Some insurers may adjust their insurance rates, charging higher premiums for homeowners who live in regions that are more at risk of sustaining tornado damage. Likewise, homeowners who live in parts of Tornado Alley that aren’t at “extreme risk” for tornadoes might see their premiums go down.

“After last year’s dramatic losses, most insurers are trying to get a better understanding of their true exposure to wind and hail losses,” Jeffery and Botts say.

At the very least, insurers are working to educate their customers that tornadoes and other types of severe weather are possible and even probable for a larger slice of the country than previously thought.

Preparing for the worst

Regardless of where a homeowner lives, he or she should prepare for tornadoes and other weather emergencies:

1. Develop a home safety plan. Make an emergency kit, which includes such necessities as your insurance information, water, non-perishable food and a weather radio. Also, determine the safest place in your home and let family members know where everyone should go if a tornado hits, Preddy says. A basement is the best option, followed by a room in the middle of the house away from windows.

2. Create a home inventory. Come up with a list documenting all of your possessions. Including photographs of valuable items can add clarity. Not only will the home inventory help you value property that's been lost or damaged, but it can speed up the claims process. The aftermath of a tornado is the worst time to be trying to take an inventory of what was damaged because “in the time of disaster, it’s hard to remember everything you had at the house,” says April Eaton, a spokeswoman for Allstate.

3. Make copies. While your first inclination may be to keep your inventory in your home office, “if your house is blown away, so is your inventory,” Preddy says. Have extra copies on hand somewhere else, such as on a "thumb" drive stored in a safe deposit box.

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