Tornados are survivable yet Americans are still dying

Alabama tornado victims memorial. Photo: AP

Tornado warning technology has improved significantly in the past decades yet in states like Alabama, tornadoes still routinely claim human lives when they don’t have to. Just last week more than three dozen tornadoes wrought havoc in the Deep South, killing 23 and razing the ground bare in many areas and just yesterday two tornadoes caused damage in New Mexico. Grist’s Eric Holthaus explained that in Lee County, AL where most of last week’s tornado damage occurred, lives were lost as a result of poverty despite the fact that residents had 23 minutes of advance warning. “This isn’t just a weather disaster; it’s a failure of society. Lee County’s per capita income is $22,794, 19 percent live below the poverty line, and 17 percent of houses are mobile homes, nearly three times the national average. Unsafe shelter makes residents much more vulnerable to tornadoes.”

Even if new weather models increase tornado warning times to 30 minutes it still doesn’t change the fact that the safest place to hide from a tornado is underground and many of America’s poorest residents living in hurricane country do not have access to these types of shelters. Holthaus further explained that “the South, the poorest region in the country, is increasingly at risk of tornadoes. Climate change is shifting where tornadoes happen, away from the Plains states toward places like Alabama that are much more densely populated” and it’s crippling poverty in places like Lowndes County, AL that make people more vulnerable to tornadoes than the changing nature of the storms. What’s even more shocking:

  • A recent study showed that Alabama has a 350 percent higher chance of having a mobile home hit by a tornado than Kansas. Yes, there are more houses in Alabama, but the state is also one of the poorest places in the entire developed world.
  • It’s a fundamental failure of government that Americans aren’t able to afford proper shelter and then federal agencies discriminate against them in the recovery process.

It’s easy for meteorologists like at Alabama’s WSFA to say that people living in mobile parks need to take more personal responsibility to ensure that they don’t die when a tornado strikes. Their advice for those Alabamans living in mobile homes to survive tornadoes was “You’re going to have to invest extra time and energy to keep you and your family safe when tornadoes are possible. You must pay more attention to the weather, period.” Paying attention to the weather matters little when you don’t have anywhere to seek shelter.

Why This Matters: We’ve discussed this a lot but natural disasters affect poor people far more disproportionately and they often lack the resources they need to move or retrofit their homes. As we (finally) begin to discuss as a nation how we will tackle climate change and our response to natural disasters we must ask ourselves what sort of basic human needs our government should help provide for our citizens? The poverty in Alabama was so staggering that it shocked UN officials thus it’s also time we ask our political leaders if they have the political courage to do something about it. Because we can’t meaningfully act on climate change if we don’t also address poverty. 

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