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June 14, 2014

Florida more vulnerable to twisters than Midwest

WASHINGTON — Oklahoma and Kansas may have the reputation as tornado hot spots, but Florida and the rest of the Southeast are far more vulnerable to killer twisters, a new analysis shows.

Florida leads the country in deaths calculated per mile a tornado races along the ground, followed by Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio and Alabama, according to an analysis of the past three decades by the federal Southeast Regional Climate Center at the University of North Carolina.

That’s because Florida is No. 1 in so many factors that make tornadoes more risky: mobile homes, the elderly and the poor, said center director Charles Konrad II, who headed the new work.

“People are just much more vulnerable in a mobile home than they are in a regular home,” Konrad said.

Florida’s death rate of 2.4 deaths per 100 miles of tornado ground track is more than two-and-a-half times that of Oklahoma and nearly five times that of Kansas.

Along with Florida, Dixie Alley — including Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, western parts of the Carolinas — is where “more people die from tornadoes” than anywhere else in the world, said Conrad.

Three years ago, a four-day outbreak of more than 200 tornadoes killed 316 people in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia.

Florida doesn’t get as many tornadoes as Oklahoma and they aren’t as strong, but when Florida does get them, “people are especially vulnerable,” Konrad said. He presented the research at an American Meteorological Society meeting in Colorado this week.

Konrad’s work makes sense and fits with earlier research on tornado fatalities, said Florida State University meteorology professor James Elsner and Barb Mayes Boustead, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meteorologist and tornado chaser.

Visibility is another problem for tornadoes in the Southeast. Because of atmospheric conditions, the region tends to get more tornadoes at night, making them harder to see, Konrad said. It also means some people may be asleep and miss warnings.

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