Nashville’s Deadly Tornados a Reminder that We’re Not Prepared

Gov. Bill Lee hugs Putnam County resident Kayla Cowen as he says a prayer with her after she told him she was trying to finds something to salvage after losing her apartment to a tornado and helping to identify a neighbor who was killed by the tornado Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Image: Larry McCormack/The Tennessean

Early Tuesday morning multiple tornados ripped through East Nashville shredding more than 140 buildings and burying people in piles of rubble. As AP reported, at least 24 people were killed, many of them before they could even get out of bed, authorities said. Sirens and cellphone alerts sounded, but the twisters that struck around 2 a.m. moved so quickly that many people in their path could not flee to safer areas.

As daylight broke parts of Nashville and Putnam country were littered with blown-down walls and roofs, snapped power lines and huge broken trees, making many city streets and rural roads impassable.

  • Schools, courts, transit lines, an airport and the state Capitol were closed.
  • More than a dozen polling stations were also damaged, forcing Super Tuesday voters to wait in long lines at alternative sites.

Is This a Climate Story?: That’s complicated. We can’t pinpoint this tornado to climate change but as Penn State University climate researcher Michael Mann explained to InsideClimate News, there is growing evidence that a warming atmosphere, with more moisture and turbulent energy, favors increasingly large outbreaks of tornadoes.

Tornados are powerful, large, and short-lived which means that they’re very difficult to model within the climate simulations that scientists use to project the effects of climate change. As NatGeo explained,

Instead, scientists must attempt to predict how climate change might affect the individual weather “ingredients” that support the development of supercell thunderstorms (the type that produce tornadoes). These weather ingredients are:

  • warm, moist air;
  • an unstable atmosphere; and
  • wind at different levels moving in different directions at different speeds, a phenomenon known as wind shear.

As global temperatures rise, the hotter atmosphere is able to hold more moisture. This increases atmospheric instability, a vital supercell ingredient. On the other hand, as the planet warms, wind shear (another vital ingredient) is likely to decrease. These two forces work against each other, and it is difficult to anticipate which might have a greater impact on tornado formation. 

Why This Matters: Tennesee’s tornados are yet another example that we need better and more advanced preparedness measures for natural disasters. The National Weather Service’s tornado warning came just about 2 hours before they touched down and while tornados are notoriously difficult to predict, residents described the scene on the ground as sheer chaos. Of course, natural disasters are, by nature, chaotic but data still shows that Americans are largely unprepared for natural disasters. Additionally, big box stores like Costco and Target in Nashville were sold out of items like bottled water due to people preparing for the coronavirus (even though those items aren’t necessarily recommended to stock up on). The public needs reliable, consistent, and readily available information for both natural disasters and pandemics so that resources are available for people who need them.

How to Help: If you’re able to donate or volunteer your time (if you’re a Nashville local) please check out Billboard’s roundup of great local organizations accepting donations and volunteers.

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