Four Tornado Disasters in 2023: A Lesson in Cascading Risk

“Tornadoes in February – in Michigan! This just happened miles from my house.”

This was the message from my coworker as I started work on Wednesday, February 28. Earlier that morning, an EF-2 tornado struck Grand Blanc, MI, causing residential and commercial damage; fortunately, no injuries were reported. The last time southeast Michigan experienced a significant tornado in February was 1974. Is this the new normal? “Gotta love Michigan weather: 71 degrees yesterday, tornadoes overnight, snow by noon the next day,” my coworker concluded. I’m very glad she and her family are okay.

This tornado caused power outages and ruptured gas lines, resulting in evacuations and school closures. Removing debris in frigid temperatures extended road closures and impacted public transit. The cascading impact on local businesses and the community was certainly felt this week. This weather event serves as a powerful reminder that severe weather patterns across the United States are becoming increasingly unpredictable and extreme. I want to highlight four notable tornado incidents in 2023, as reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    • On January 16, 2023, two tornadoes struck Iowa — the first January tornado in Iowa since 1967.
    • On March 22, 2023, an EF-1 tornado struck near Los Angeles, the strongest tornado since 1983.
    • On March 31, 2023, more than 110 tornadoes were confirmed by the National Weather Service — the highest number of recorded tornadoes over a 24-hour period in March.
    • On April 1, 2023, a 700-yard-wide EF-3 tornado struck in Delaware — the widest tornado in the state's history.

These events last year illustrate that tornadoes can strike anywhere and with severity and frequency not seen before. Furthermore, the historic region for tornadoes in the U.S., “Tornado Alley,” appears to be shifting. A study of tornado activity from 1979 to 2017 suggests an increase in tornadoes in east Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. This “Dixie Alley” also experiences a Fall tornado season.

Tornado Alley is Shifting

Tornadoes are becoming more prevalent in the Southeastern U.S. Learn more about the dynamic risks of shifting tornado weather patterns.

Implications for Risk Managers

How do I prepare my organization for an unexpected tornado? How should we think about mass notifications during a tornado? My business primarily operates in “tornado alley,” so what does this trend mean for me?

Preparing for an unexpected tornado:

    • As a kid growing up in California, I wouldn’t know what to do if I heard a tornado siren or if a teacher told the class to take cover for a tornado. Employees may have never expected to experience a tornado or recently relocated to an area that more regularly experiences them. It’s helpful to equip them with information and training about tornado emergencies and responses.
    • Take an all-hazards approach to emergency planning, and rehearse plans for sudden and unexpected events, including tornadoes. How quickly can a response team within the company mobilize? These disasters strike quickly. Mobilizing a crisis management team within minutes is critical to providing timely, accurate and instructive information to employees, customers and partners.

Communicating during a tornado event:

    • Public safety alerts, including tornado sirens, may not be in place or sent out in a timely manner. This makes it important for employees to receive emergency alerts on their devices, at home and at work. Encourage employees to heed public safety alerts and to pay close attention to emergency alerts from their employer or third-party provider.
    • When thinking about mass notifications during a tornado, consider that power may go out and employees are taking shelter in areas that may have little or no cell service. To ensure maximum reach, a mass notification system should be multi-modal, geo-targeted and integrated with weather alerting systems for timely delivery. Consider the importance of two-way communication so that an employee can verify they received the alert and seamlessly communicate that they are safe or in need of assistance.

Preparing for cascading risk from tornado events:

    • As was the case in Michigan this week, even smaller tornadoes can have a cascading impact on an affected area. This is even further amplified when tornadoes strike communities that aren’t expecting them. Employees may be trapped or unable to access roadways; schools are evacuated; hospitals are running on backup power; and the impact on manufacturing, shipping and data centers can delay timelines and damage customer experiences.
    • Identifying and tracking dynamic risk from a tornado requires risk intelligence technology that provides timely, accurate and relevant information. Go beyond the tornado itself and digest multi-source reporting to identify and track the full impact of the disaster. Consider factors like geography, population density and infrastructure when assessing the impact – and help organizations prioritize their response efforts.
    • For those that are well-versed in tornado emergencies, consider the challenge of this new normal. Tornadoes are not only becoming more frequent and severe near core operations, but are also impacting partners, supply nodes, data centers, customers and remote employees across the country. Tracking this risk requires a large aperture of information collection. AI-powered risk intelligence actively monitors weather data from thousands of sources, filters out the noise and provides actionable, real-time information curated to a risk manager’s priorities and locations of interest. I wish I had this capability 10 years ago. As weather events become increasingly complex with climate change, AI-powered risk intelligence couldn’t have come at a better time.

The mission can feel daunting and the path forward unclear. If you’d like to continue this discussion, provide feedback or are looking for assistance, OnSolve is here to help.

(Information cut-off date 1000 PT, February 28, 2024)

Nick Hill

Nick Hill is Senior Analyst, Global Risk and Intelligence Services, where he drives intelligence analysis and services implementation to help customers mitigate dynamic risks and strengthen organizational resilience. Prior to his current role, Nick led product development and services implementation for a physical security provider leveraging AI to improve critical incident management. Nick is a former security manager overseeing travel risk management, risk intelligence, and global security operations, and previously served in the Marine Corps overseeing strategic intelligence analysis and production. For more real-time risk and resilience insights follow Nick on LinkedIn.