This has been one hell of a year for tornadoes. And if weather.com’s angry red map that resembles nothing so much as a big old blister right across the Midwest and Southeast is any indication, it’s not over yet. Thanks to recent improvements in technology, as bad as it’s been, it could have been a lot worse. But there’s still a long way to go.
I grew up in an area that was used to seeing tornadoes. We practiced drills in school, ducking our heads beneath our hands as we knelt against windowless, concrete walls whose cheerful colors contrasted strongly with the grim faces of our teachers. The exhilaration of seeing thunderstorms, the sharp lightning cracking the sky like an egg, always threatened to turn into a cold fear at the mere mention of the word “tornado.” While my home never got hit, my town did, and the eerie, selective nature of the tornado, leaving whole blocks undamaged while decimating others nearby, scratched itself into my consciousness.
I gravitate to coverage of tornadoes, even though I live halfway across the country now. This has been the worst year for them since 1953, but what makes this year even more horrifying is how tornadoes could wreak so much havoc, even taking into account all of the technological improvements we’ve seen over the years. This fact didn’t even hit home to me until a New York Times question-answer article about tornadoes really made me consider how truly anomalous this year is.
Since the 1950s, there’s been a dramatic improvement in the quality of tornado predictions and tracking. Heck, even since the 1990s, we’ve seen our ability to warn people about storms improve from providing warnings about 50% of tornadoes 5 minutes before they hit to providing warnings about 90% of tornadoes 24 minutes before they hit. That’s a massive improvement, giving people more time to seek shelter and ride out the storm. While obvious problems remain with the warning systems, such as the inability to hear tornado sirens or failing to address the needs of people who do not speak English, tornado preparedness has improved and will likely continue to do so.
However, in one way, this year isn’t an anomaly: unless tornado preparedness can address the needs and risks of people from various socio-economic groups, we’re likely to continue seeing significant loss of life. See, while one’s chances of getting through a tornado are overall pretty good, that’s provided that one receives warning of the impending storm and has some ability to act on that warning. The first part is a relatively simple fix: by addressing the linguistic needs of an area, one can ensure that more people will be able to access the warning. The second part of the equation, acting on the warning, is a lot trickier to pin down. People in cars, outside, or in mobile homes have a much higher risk in a tornado than those who can get underground or in a central, windowless space in a permanent building.
This is inequity of risk is especially troubling because without some sort of change in the system, people with low socio-economic status will continue to face a significantly higher risk of death from tornadoes: people who live in mobile homes have a death rate from tornadoes of 22.6 times that of people who live in permanent structures. While that is due to a myriad of various socio-economic factors, the fact remains that people in mobile homes do not have many options when it comes to finding a safe place to get through a tornado ““ short of leaving their home and finding shelter elsewhere, they have no options.
The future of tornado preparedness looks bright due to improvements in technology and predictive models, but without changes in how this information is presented to the public and without improvements to the safety options of those with most risk, there will still be dramatic inequities in risk. Among other solutions, we must consider the possibility of building local, easily accessible tornado shelters for people living in mobile homes. Providing a shelter from the storm could save countless lives.