Despite weaker and less frequent tornadoes than many Plains states experience annually, Florida and the southeastern United States are more vulnerable when a tornado touches down, according to a new research study.
The initial analysis was conducted by the members of the Southeast Regional Climate Center housed by the University of North Carolina.
Florida ranks first in the country for number of deaths per miles a tornado travels, according to Center Director Charles 'Chip' Konrad.
"One way of looking at it is, what are the chances people are going to die once a tornado gets on the ground?" Konrad said. "It's a very important distinction."
Konrad and his team focused on fatal tornado tracks across the United States from 1980 to 2010 with data gathered through the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration's Storm Prediction Center.
In addition, the research also focused on U.S. Census Bureau data, including home structures, population density near tornado tracks and varying demographics including age and economic status.
According to Konrad's research, Florida has more mobile homeowners in the vicinity of where recorded tornadoes touched down than any other state.
"It's [a mobile home] not a good place to be during a tornado; mobile homes are weaker building structures," he said. "I think that is probably the biggest factor."
Florida's vulnerability to tornadoes stands out due to the large number of mobile homeowners, elderly individuals and a higher population density in the immediate vicinity of deadly tornadoes.
In addition, Florida has more trees, unlike the Plains where it is more open, he said, contributing another increase in Florida's fatalities to obscured views of tornadoes. Other states that ranked high on Konrad's vulnerability list included Tennessee, North Carolina and Ohio.
AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Frank Strait said he thinks states such as Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee are potentially the most vulnerable.
"Residents of the Plains know they will have to deal with tornadoes, so they stay prepared for them," Strait said. "In Florida, the threat of hurricanes means the building codes lead to sturdier homes that stand a better chance in a tornado strike, especially since Florida typically sees less violent tornadoes. But in the Tennessee Valley, the residents don't really expect to see violent tornadoes, but they happen with alarming frequency there."
Strait said there are also a lot of people in that area live in mobile homes in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
"I would also in part attribute the large numbers of tornado deaths in the Southeast due to the fact that we see a high concentration of strong tornadoes [EF3 or higher] in Mississippi and Alabama," Strait said. "That high concentration of EF3 plus tornadoes extends into Tennessee."
Other factors attributed may include tornadoes touching down in the evening hours, and a lack of preparation in states that are less prone to tornado activity, Konrad said, adding that more trees in a region will also obscure the view of a tornado, and can also be downed by high winds leading to fatalities.
The research only utilized information from EF1 to EF5 tornadoes recorded in the 30-year span from 1980-2010, Konrad said, adding that more information needs to be obtained for future research.
"The research is still ongoing," he said.
"Overall, the Plains see more tornadoes and many more strong tornadoes than Florida," Strait said. "Per square mile though, Florida ranks among the highest overall."
"Most tornadoes occur between 4 and 9 p.m.," he said, adding that tornadoes can occur in the middle of the night when people are sleeping, which can pose a threat for those who are unprepared.
Konrad's inspiration for researching tornado vulnerability was sparked after an outbreak of tornadoes in North Carolina in 2011.
After witnessing the destruction to mobile homes, tree damage and reports of debris-riddled tornadoes, Konrad was motivated to research how tornadoes impact different regions in the U.S.
"I've been interested in tornadoes for a long time," he said, citing his continued research and the ongoing challenges of obtaining census data for the study. "We need to do future work, but I think mobile homes is the biggest factor, there's a relationship here between mobile homes and [fatalities]."