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Understanding the economics of tornadoes

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Cleaning up
Marvin Miller helps sort through the remains of his friend's home in Hugo. Over 50 homes were completely destroyed in the tornado that struck the community north of St. Paul. Officials said most of the homes were privately insured, which would help cover the cost of repairing the damage.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Consider the nail gun.

It's an easy-to-use marvel of modern industry that has helped to slash the time it takes to build a modern house. 

Hugo Mayor Fran Miron
Hugo Mayor Fran Miron
MPR photo/Tom Weber

And since time is money, the nail gun and other modern building techniques make homes cheaper, too. The mortgage money home buyers used to spend on hammer-handling carpenters now goes to things like granite countertops and other amenities.

But there's a down side to that trade off, as well.

"What's the difference between a nail gun and just a hammer," asked Kevin Simmons, chair of the economics department at Austin College, north of Dallas.

Living in what is known as tornado alley, Simmons does research on the economics of weather disasters.

Simmons said, for instance, that if you're using a hammer to nail down a four by eight foot sheet of roof sheathing and your nail misses the truss below, you know it. 

Surveying the damage
Hugo residents survey the damage caused by Sunday's tornado that ripped through the community north of St. Paul on Sunday afternoon. Local officials said approximately 300 structures were damaged in the storm that totally destroyed 50 homes, and killed one 2-year-old boy and hospitalized 17 people.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

"If you're using a nail gun, you have no idea. And some of these engineers have gone in and looked at those four by eight pieces of plywood and found that about 80 percent of the nails didn't go anywhere but into air," Smith said. "That's one of the things that technology has contributed to making it more efficient to build a house. But it also increases the probability that the home was not built as intended."

No one knows if that happened in Hugo. 

And they may never find out. 

For families who lost their homes, getting the mess cleaned up is a higher priority than second-guessing the way their homes were built. 

But it may not really matter, either.

Cleaning up
A Creekview Preserve, a Hugo subdivision, resident contemplates the difficult task ahead of him as he helps clean up the home of tornado victim Sara Bailey of Hugo, Minn.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

Because the same construction technology that made those homes affordable, spacious and vulnerable means that the $300,000 insurance check that Dan and Tina Roser got on Tuesday will stretch further when they rebuild. 

High winds all but leveled their home on 159th Street.

But Dan Roser said they've already called the guy that built it the first time, hoping he'll just knock down what's left and then start all over again.

"We loved the house. It was kind of our dream house. I think we'll go with the same model and everything and just kind of do some different things inside," Roser said.

It's a simple truth of tornado economics.

Neighbors and family beginning sifting through the rubble of the Prindle's family home. Two highchairs stand on top of the rubble of the Prindle family home where 2-year-old Nathaniel Prindle died, the only the person killed in Sunday's tornado.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

They're rare events.  People would rather make payments on something nice to live in, and insure it well, than to brace themselves for the odd vagaries of nature.

No one wants to raise their kids in a storm shelter or pay 20 or even 50 percent more for a house they're likely never to need.

Paul Zilio, a structural engineer in the Miami area whose firm helped rebuild after Hurricane Andrew, said the American Society of Civil Engineers sets a standard for wind resistance in building codes across the country. Zilio said there's very little incentive to build more than the code requires.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a developer, would you tell the engineer to design for a higher wind speed than code, bearing in mind that that's just costing you money, and you have no way of recouping the money," Zilio asked. 

All the better reason to heed those tornado warnings say engineers.