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Are hailstorms getting worse in U.S.? Why 2019 could produce record damage

Deadly storm system decimates South
  • While 2017 was the worst year for hail damage, 2019 is already "off and running," insurance experts say.
  • Hail now costs the U.S. as much as $22 billion a year in damage to homes, cars, crops, people and more.
  • Baseball-sized hail stones are common, but the biggest this year was the size of a grapefruit and weighed more than half a pound.
  • The bigger they are, the harder they fall: A dime-sized hailstone falls at 20 miles per hour, while a baseball-sized one of 3 to 3 ½ inches can reach between 80 and 110 mph.  

Multiple severe weather storms across the South have spawned tornadoes that already killed 23 people this year. But meteorologists also worry about tornado's "little brother" -- baseball-sized hailstones that drop from storm clouds at as much as 100 miles per hour. That's like being hit by a fastball hurled by a strong-armed Major League baseball pitcher.

And it's becoming more common, as many cracked windshields and dented roofs across the Midwest and South show. With Wednesday night's 116 reported hail storms bringing the total this year to 664, 2019 has now surpassed last year's total. The second three months of the year – April, May and June – typically eclipse the first three months in terms of numbers and damage, according to meteorologists and the insurance companies that have to pay for the damage.

"Can you imagine three-and-a-half-inch hail?" says Chief Executive Holly Tachovsky of BuildFax, which provides property data for the insurance industry. "You don't want your pet out in that."

Other types of storms garner bigger headlines, such as hurricanes, whose season doesn't officially start until June, or this year's lethal tornadoes. The fatality number is the highest since 2013, when a monster 200-mile-per-hour twister left 24 dead in Moore, Oklahoma.

Historic snow storm hits regions devastated by historic flooding along the Missouri River last month

Although almost no one dies during a hailstorm, there are injuries, insurance statistics show. Texans, who suffer more hail storms than anyone else, including a three-day April battering in the San Antonio area that damaged 38,000 structures, are known to wear football and motorcycle helmets when they face them.

And the property damage can be devastating. During 2017, the worst year so far, the US suffered $22 billion in damages, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). That's more than the cost of the average hurricane, but it gets less notice because it occurs in many different parts of the country, and not all at once.

But it's certainly noticeable to those who've had their car windshield cracked, or their house roof dented by one of these storms. One of the largest hailstones recorded this year fell on March 19 in Cullman, Alabama. It was the size of a grapefruit and tipped the scales at three-fifths of a pound. During hailstorms, size is important. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. A dime-sized hailstone falls at 20 miles per hour, while a baseball-sized one of 3 to 3 ½ inches can reach between 80 and 110 mph.

"2018 hail damage was $15 billion and 2019 is off and running," said Susan Millerick, senior director at IBHS.  

In areas of the Midwest and South, motorists have been forced to drop "comprehensive coverage," which protects their cars from this type of damage, because hail losses made it too expensive, said spokesperson Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute, which tracks storm losses. 

Baseball-sized hail batters Southern states

Repairs to homes aren't cheap either and take an average five months to complete, says Tachovsky. And the worst to fix: solar panels.

So what causes hail? Rising air currents in a thunderstorm force droplets of water into the upper atmosphere. There they harden, freeze into ice and fall hard and fast to earth. As we near Earth Day this Monday, climate changers will pose the question of whether hail storms, like tornadoes and hurricanes, are increasing due to global warming.

Meteorologists say that more water in the atmosphere means there will likely be more hailstorms, but that the amount – and severity of the damage – isn't easily predicted. Many descend on underpopulated areas of the South, or in places where crops are the only casualty, according to CoreLogic, a data analytics provider specializing in weather events.

But, taken as a whole, "convective storm losses," which include both tornadoes and hailstorms, have been on the rise since the start of the 21st century, according to Munich Re, one of the world's largest reinsurers. A study by Verisk Risk Solutions, entitled "Hail, the Hidden Risk," showed that the cost of hail damage had steadily risen through 2014 – even before the massive storm losses of 2017 and 2018.