On Dec. 10, 2021, three tornadoes ripped through nearly 300 miles of Kentucky, causing severe damage to homes, buildings and structures. Even worse, this disaster resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.
At 8:49 p.m., an EF-4 tornado entered Kentucky from Tennessee. At its peak, the tornado was over 1 mile wide and created winds of 190 mph. For nearly three hours, the tornado blew through 165.7 miles of the state.
As the first tornado was occurring, a second one formed at 10:32 p.m. This tornado, categorized as an EF-3, had a max width of 1038 yards and peak winds of 160 mph. In about two hours, it traveled 122.7 miles from northwest Tennessee into western Kentucky.
A third tornado was also discovered at 8:32 p.m., which was an EF-1 that traveled 2.75 miles through central Kentucky.
These three tornadoes were a part of the tornado outbreak of December 2021, dubbed “one of the worst tornado outbreaks ever recorded in the United States.” A total of 21 tornadoes caused about $3 billion to $4 billion in damages.1, 2
One reason the December 2021 tornados were so unique was because they happened late in the year. Meteorologists and experts described the storms and tornadoes as events more typical in the spring.3
While it’s impossible to predict the future, more frequent and severe storms that can bring hail and tornado damage may become the new normal, according to The Hartford’s Chief Insurance Risk Officer Prateek Chhabra.
“We’ve seen a drastic shift across the industry over the past 20 years,” Chhabra said. “Urban sprawl has caused exposure growth in high hazard areas and we’re also seeing a trend towards higher replacement values since buildings today contain more expensive fixtures, technology and other contents than in the past.”
Andy Simmons, head of Large Property at The Hartford, added that it’s becoming increasingly necessary to manage severe thunderstorm risks because of the possibility for significant damage.
“The first priority should always be protecting lives,” Simmons said. “Having a plan and knowing what to do if there’s a tornado in the area or how to reduce damages and losses from hail are essential elements to protecting against these weather events.”
Thunderstorms, Hail and Tornadoes
Every tornado starts from a thunderstorm.4 As a thunderstorm changes shape and direction because of wind, it can create a wall cloud and eventual funnel. Once the funnel meets the ground, it becomes a tornado – turning air at the ground level up.
Thunderstorms can also lead to hail. As cooler air lifts rain up, it can freeze and create hailstones. Smaller hailstones may melt before they reach the ground, but larger stones stay frozen and can cause extensive damage.5
Where Do Tornadoes Frequently Occur?
Historically, tornadoes touched down frequently in Tornado Alley. The states that make up this area include:
- Dakota del Sur
More recently, states in Dixie Alley have seen an uptick in tornado frequency. This area includes:
- Carolina del Norte
- Carolina del Sur
“While the Great Plains still have a very high risk, scientists believe the new epicenter of tornado activity is in Dixie Alley,” Chhabra said.
What Areas Are at High Risk of Hail Damage?
The central U.S. is one of the highest risk areas for hail damage. Certain businesses may also have a higher exposure to hail damage. For example, a car dealership can be vulnerable to glass damage from hail. Chhabra added that construction sites with unsecured items outside are also at risk of damages.
Wind, Storm and Tornado Damage Trends Through the Years
Average personal and commercial industry losses have increased since 1990:
- From 1990 to the early-2000s, average losses were over $6.5 billion
- From the early- to mid-2000s, average losses were about $15 billion
- From 2014 to 2020, average losses were about to over $23 billion 6
It’s important to note that the total industry losses include all causes of loss, such as hail and tornado damages.
Chhabra said the industry is also seeing an increasing trend of more frequent hail events.
“We’re observing more days with larger and more damaging hailstones,” he explained, adding that it’s not clear if the trend is due to improved reporting or climatological change.
Are Tornado Tracks Getting Longer?
Some believe that tornado tracks have recently been getting longer, but Chhabra pushed back against this thought.
“There’s no concrete evidence that tornado tracks are getting longer. Any changes observed are likely due to monitoring improvements over the past several decades,” he explained. “In fact, the tornado outbreak in December 2021 was initially believed to contain a tornado path of over 200 miles, but it was later confirmed to be two long tornadoes of 80 miles and 165 miles, respectively.”
Tornado Damage and Property
It’s clear that tornado damages have trended upward overtime. This isn’t because tornadoes are occurring in more populated areas, Chhabra said. Instead, it has more to do with the increase in construction development.
“Tornadoes aren’t more likely to hit urban areas compared to rural areas, but as developments and urban sprawl increases, the likelihood that tornadoes will occur in populated locations grows because there is a higher proportion of developed land,” Chhabra explained.
How Can Businesses Protect Against Hail and Tornado Damage?
Whether a person lives or works in an area that is prone to tornadoes, it’s essential to have a business continuity plan in place.
“Plans should direct employees and customers to a sheltered location, like an interior room or bathroom with no windows,” Chhabra emphasized.
Simmons added that businesses will typically have little to no warning before a tornado or hailstorm occurs.
“When you’re more prepared from the start, you’re giving yourself a better chance at reducing damages and losses at your property or business,” Simmons explained. “One of the best ways to protect against hail and tornado damage is to prepare for the worst.”
It’s not too late to create a business continuity plan or emergency response plan if you don’t have one. Plans should:
- Establish a business continuity management coordinator and team
- Include regular timeframes to practice tornado drills
- Have details on a contingency plan for continued business operations and recovery needs
Business and property owners can also:
- Remove or secure loose items
- Retrofit buildings for wind resistance
- Close all interior and exterior doors and windows to reduce the risk of debris damage
To help protect against hail damage:
- Regularly inspect, maintain and replace roof
- Inspect and maintain exterior components, such as window frames and cladding
- Install a hail guard over rooftop equipment, such as HVAC systems
1 National Weather Service, “December 10-11, 2021 Tornado Outbreak”
2 National Centers for Environmental Information: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters”
3 U.S. News & World Report, “Explainer: Was Tornado Outbreak Related to Climate Change?”
4 American Museum of Natural History, “Tornadoes: Spinning Thunderstorms”
5 Midwestern Regional Climate Center, “Living With Weather: Hail”
6 Verisk, “Property Claim Services”
La información proporcionada en estos materiales brinda información general y de asesoría. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford does not warrant that the implementation of any view or recommendation contained herein will: (i) result in the elimination of any unsafe conditions at your business locations or with respect to your business operations; or (ii) be an appropriate legal or business practice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for the control or correction of hazards or legal compliance with respect to your business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute our undertaking, on your behalf or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that your business premises, locations or operations are safe or healthful, or are in compliance with any law, rule or regulation. Readers seeking to resolve specific safety, legal or business issues or concerns related to the information provided in these materials should consult their safety consultant, attorney or business advisors. All information and representations contained herein are as of March, 2023.