Extreme vulnerability in Mississippi existed long before tornadoes – a commentary
Like many of you, I am seeing the aftermath of the tornadoes in Mississippi that destroyed lives and property. there have been at least 24 deaths informed of And the damage is widespread. Initial reports Rate the tornado as an EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. However, storm intensity is only part of the problem. Many experts, including some of my own research, have warned that the vulnerability risk was around well before the tornadoes.
Tornadoes are dangerous anywhere, especially in the South. From a meteorological or climatological perspective, there is nothing unusual about tornadoes in Mississippi at this time of year. The graphic below reveals the likelihood of tornadoes in the US around March 25, based on several decades of data. At the beginning of the spring season, the South is particularly prone to these violent storms. With this event, all meteorological signals were in place, and the National Weather Service was issuing appropriate warnings. Unfortunately, a good forecast does not guarantee that life and property will not be spared.
Nocturnal tornadoes are especially dangerous and other potentially dangerous ones occur in the South. Compared to the Great Plains, the region is more densely populated, has more sight lines obscured by trees and hills, and is full of weak infrastructure. The Vortex-Southeast Project is a long-term effort to better understand and predict tornadoes in the region. Its website states, “For a given magnitude tornado event, human casualties are higher in the Southeast than in any other region of the US…Vulnerability is exacerbated by unique socioeconomic factors, which VORTEX —Southeast research has shown includes inadequate shelter, housing type, and larger population density relative to other tornado-prone areas in the US” Villanova professor Stephen Strader hit the nail on the head with the tweet below. Over the years His research has led to warnings about manufactured, mobile and other types of homes prevalent in the South.
Because of this vulnerability, extreme-season climate differences are widespread in the region. I have written extensively about exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. These three terms help define vulnerability to extreme weather events. Everyone is exposed to tornadoes, but some people in the area will be more vulnerable to it and have less ability to bounce back (adaptive ability). This leads to what I often refer to as the extreme weather-climate differential. According to research, this difference in communities is often determined by poverty level, race, age and access to services. The CDC Social Vulnerability Index below indicates that many counties in the South fall into the high category. Guess what happens when you leave a tornado or hurricane in the mix?
To make things worse, research has shown that tornado activity is on the rise in the South. A 2018 study by Victor Gencini (Northern Illinois University) and Harold Brooks (NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory) found that the frequency of tornadoes is increasing southward. “Researchers identified significant increasing trends in tornado reports and tornado environments across parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky,” states a Northern Illinois University press release. Unfortunately, I have seen misinterpretation of their findings. Jencini clarifies, “It’s not that Texas and Oklahoma don’t get tornadoes…they’re still number one in terms of tornado frequency, but the trend has decreased in many places over the past 40 years.”