Tornadoes are a dreaded natural disaster across much of the south and Midwest. There are lots of thoughts about where they strike, including urban myths that tornadoes avoid big cities, but often hit mobile homes. But are these true?
It seems like tornadoes avoid big cities, and specifically the downtown areas. While large cities have been hit by tornadoes, most notably Nashville in March of this year, it is rare. Why? Because cities are small! The size of a typical downtown area is perhaps 2-3 square miles – take a city like Birmingham, Alabama – the size of Jefferson county alone is 1125 square miles, so the odds of a tornado hitting downtown Birmingham are roughly 1 in 500 for a tornado which touches down in the county.
Think of it like blindfolding someone, pointing them in the general direction of a dartboard, then being surprised when they don’t hit the bullseye.
Another urban myth is that tornadoes are especially attracted to mobile homes. Or are mobile homes just more likely to be found in tornado country? Information from “StormAware”, which comes out of the Missouri state government, states that “Tornadoes are not more likely to hit a mobile home park, but the chances of them doing more damage and destruction to mobile homes are greater than to other structures”.
So, where do tornadoes hit? Basically – they are prevalent in the southeast, and up the Mississippi valley of the central states – right in “hurricane alley”. The first map shows the percentage of housing units that are mobile homes. The second map shows tornado risk across the U.S. When we look at the third map, we see the cross section of these two maps, which shows the location of mobile homes with the tornado risk overlaid. As you can see, Shreveport, Louisiana, Jackson, Mississippi, and Huntsville, Alabama are some of the areas that have higher risk than most of the country.
For fun, we looked at hurricanes as well. A category 1 hurricane is much more likely to damage a mobile home than a standard single family dwelling – and they are heavily located in hurricane country.