A group of tornadoes that tore across the central U.S. on Dec. 10 and 11 resulted in widespread damage in several states and could serve as the nation’s costliest tornado outbreak on record.
“Based on preliminary assessments of the extensive property damage we are seeing across multiple states, this weekend’s tornado outbreak has the potential to be the costliest on record in the U.S.,” said Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications at The Insurance Information Institute (III).
Preliminary reports from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confirmed at least 52 tornadoes that moved through parts of six U.S. states—Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee—the largest of which touched down for more than 200 miles. Eighteen counties in Kentucky were impacted, according to FEMA.
The governors in Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas have declared states of emergency.
The National Weather Service’s preliminary surveys found this tornado began in northeast Arkansas, crossing the Missouri Bootheel, northwest Tennessee and western Kentucky, where it’s been reported the most destruction occurred. The storm event served as the longest tornado track on record and the largest in Kentucky history.
“This has been one of the toughest nights in Kentucky history,” said Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear in a Dec. 11 statement. “It’s hard to put into words.”
Beshear said in a press briefing this morning that the state was hit by at least four tornadoes, with at least 64 confirmed deaths, although he said it could be a week before the final death toll can be calculated.
FEMA reported an additional four confirmed fatalities in Tennessee, two in Arkansas, two in Missouri and six in Illinois. This brings the overall death toll from the tornadoes to nearly 80, already exceeding the 76 fatalities from tornadoes during the entirety of 2020, according to III data.
While damage estimates are ongoing, FEMA reported damage to two nursing homes and some emergency response facilities in Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as factory and distribution center workers trapped in Kentucky and Illinois.
It’s too early for insurance loss estimates, although modeling firm RMS, a division of Moody’s, noted that catastrophic damage has been reported in the worst-affected areas.
“Damage assessments are ongoing, and the full extent of the damage is expected to be known in the coming days,” the firm said on its website Monday.
Dave North, executive chairman of Memphis-based Sedgwick, the claims management firm, said Sedgwick offices had escaped damage in the tornadoes. But the company had sent out dozens of claims managers and adjusters to the hardest-hit areas in surrounding states to begin handling workers compensation claims.
Max Koonce, chief claims officer for Sedgwick, noted that Amazon is one of Sedgwick’s biggest clients, and he expects to see several claims arising from Amazon’s warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., where at least six workers died in one of the storms. Reuters reported that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will investigate the Amazon building collapse to learn if there were any violations of workplace safety regulations.
One person died at a Monette, Ark., nursing home and another inside a Dollar General store as tornadoes struck the town about 140 miles northeast of Little Rock. The heavily damaged nursing home housed 67 residents.
“Probably the most remarkable thing is that there’s not a greater loss of life,” said Arkansas Governor Ada Hutchison.
In Mayfield, Ky., a candle factory was destroyed with workers still inside. Dwight Lovan, a recently retired judge of compensation claims in Owensboro, Ky., said it’s still early, but indications are that the tornado strike at the factory may result in the largest number of work-related death claims from a single work site.
The good news, Lovan said, is that the death toll at the candle factory appears to be much lower than initially feared, with about 20 people killed. Kentucky’s comp statutes allow death benefits of 40 percent of the workers’ average weekly wage for the widow and 15 percent for dependent children. The state also allows as much as $85,000 in funeral and burial expenses.
Previously, the costliest U.S. catastrophe involving tornadoes, based on insured losses, occurred in April 2011. The tornado outbreak hit Tuscaloosa, Ala., as well as other areas and cost $8.5 billion in insured damages based on 2020 dollars, according to III data.
III said in a May 2020 white paper that convective storms are the most common and damaging natural catastrophes in the U.S. According to Aon, U.S. insured losses from these storms have totaled at least $10 billion each year since 2008. In an average year, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported nationwide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Top photo: In this photo taken by a drone, buildings are demolished in downtown Mayfield, Ky., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021, after a tornado traveled through the region Friday night. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)
*This article was originally published by Insurance Journal, our sister publication