Okla. storm cost may top $1 billion

OKLAHOMA CITY — One of the most destructive weather months in Oklahoma history could end up having the state's highest damage insurance payout in recent memory, industry experts said Wednesday.

It will be months before all the claims are in from three major tornado outbreaks and a massive hailstorm that hit the Oklahoma City metropolitan area in May, but if estimates hold, the total amount figures to be more than $1 billion, said Jerry Johns, president of the Austin-based Southwestern Insurance Information Service.

The most damaging storm system in Oklahoma's recent history was one that spawned 63 tornadoes on May 3-4, 1999, including a powerful twister packing winds of more than 300 mph that ripped through the Oklahoma City metro area. The storms caused about $1.41 billion in damage, Johns said.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, the 1999 Oklahoma City-area tornado was the third-costliest on record anywhere in the U.S. —based on 2009 dollars — after twisters in June 1966 in Topeka and May 1970 in Lubbock, Texas.

May "was a devastating month for Oklahoma," said Marc Young, the state's assistant insurance commissioner.

The National Weather Service's current estimate of the number of tornadoes that touched down in Oklahoma in May is 57, said Rick Smith, a weather service meteorologist in Norman. If that number holds, that would be the fourth-highest monthly total in Oklahoma since the agency began keeping records in 1950.

Oklahoma's annual average for tornadoes is about 53 a year.

On May 10, 31 tornadoes touched down in Oklahoma, and losses from those storms has been estimated at $595 million, Johns said.

Three days later, seven twisters touched down in Tulsa or northeastern Oklahoma. On May 16, a hailstorm swept through the Oklahoma City metro area, leaving a wide swath of damage. And on May 19, at least 12 tornadoes touched down in the state.

Young said he thinks the insurance claims from the hailstorm will exceed those from the May 10 tornado, which would put the total damage figure for the month well over $1 billion.