Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Tornadoes, poison, & Egmont Key

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of my parents scooping my sister and I from our beds in the middle of the night to carry us downstairs during a tornado warning. We went in the basement, under the stairs, to the tightest, safest space in the house away from doors and windows. It happened multiple times a year, almost always in the spring or fall.

Living in Kentucky, tornadoes were always something we prepared for. We learned to appreciate their danger and power. When there was a storm, I looked out our bay windows to watch the sky turn a yellowish-gray and the clouds start to swirl, hoping they’d stop spinning but also anxious to see what would happen if they didn’t. On the first Tuesday of each month, tornado sirens sounded off at noon, and we’d practice filing out into the hallway in school to get down on the ground and take cover. At home, I’d beg my mom to tell me the story of my grandmother standing outside her office building in Louisville in the 1970s to watch a tornado tear down the street.

Nearly every time that infamous National Weather Service alarm sound went off, the storm quickly passed, just another close call. Tornadoes usually miss Louisville, which is settled in a valley. More often, they hit Southern Indiana or central Kentucky. Of course, those numbers are low compared to tornadoes in the Midwest, in Texas, or further South, where they’re far more common and violent.

So far this year, 37 people have died in tornadoes. Many of those deaths were in the South and in the Midwest. A total of 17 people were killed by tornadoes in 2016. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. averaged 70 tornado-related deaths annually from 1986 to 2015. About 40 percent of the deaths were people in mobile homes, which officials say to leave behind during storms to take shelter under something sturdier. It’s not that simple, though: the number of mobile homes in the U.S. has been steadily rising since the 1950s. For example, according to census data, Florida has the most mobile homes of any state, and the second most tornadoes. A new study also shows that urban sprawl and development will force more Americans into the paths of tornadoes, which could triple the number of deaths and destroyed homes.

As the climate changes, extreme and unpredictable weather events are becoming more frequent. Some climate models predict there will be more days when the atmosphere has conditions for tornadoes (i.e. high winds, fickle weather like cold snaps or warm fronts). The jury is still out on any direct connection between tornado activity and climate change, since there isn’t enough sufficient data.

However, President Donald Trump’s new budget proposal released this week proposes that NOAA, which oversees the National Weather Service, be cut by 16 percent. That means less money for weather forecasting technology and research on tornadoes, weather patterns, and hurricanes. He also “proposes to end a NOAA program to research and better predict tornadoes in the south,” according to The Atlantic, even though a law passed by Congress and signed by Trump earlier this year mandated development of a better system for tornado detection in the region. Trump’s budget outline from earlier this year proposed a big cut for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is largely responsible for disaster relief. Much of that funding is supposed to go toward border wall construction and immigration detention. In early May, FEMA denied 99 percent of funding for recovery efforts in North Carolina from Hurricane Matthew.

During the past few months, I’ve mentioned the increase in tornadoes, floods, and other storm events throughout the South and how major media outlets haven’t covered the issue much. Until this week, I had no idea the death toll or storm frequency was so high. Those facts aren’t being acknowledged by this administration, and they probably won’t be. But without continued monitoring, funding, and prediction strategies, it’s difficult to know how storms like this will evolve in the coming years — and they most likely will.

Even though many researchers and politicians say Trump’s budget won’t stick and these agencies aren’t in dire straits, the possibilities are still worth investigating and understanding. Think of it like this: we’re practicing the tornado drill now, and then we’ll go anxiously watch the funnel clouds form later.

Stories worth your time

Blue Ridge Outdoors takes a comprehensive look at what Appalachian food is, what it symbolizes, and why the region has problems with local food access. One quote that struck me: “What we have right now is a moment. People are interested in the food and the stories we’re telling about that food, but we’re scrambling as fast as we can to figure out how to make it economically feasible for us. If we could get just a little bit of help in the right places, we could do just fine, but I’m afraid we’re again going to become a colony for an extractive industry.”

A must-read: This Atlantic story about a decades-long lawsuit over lead poisoning in New Orleans. In addition to the high crime and violence in the city in the 1990s and the lead-contaminated homes, communities faced other ecological dangers including “pools of fetid, standing water—owing to New Orleans’s fabled and constant flooding—that were sometimes tainted with battery acid,” chemical waste, emissions, and even a Superfund site.

A friend sent me this photo essay by Kathleen Robbins, who teaches at the University of South Carolina. The images are accompanied by a Q&A about her work photographing her family’s farm in rural Mississippi. She said she’s “interested in this place where fiction, oral tradition and reality merge in landscape.”

News flying under the radar

Egmont Key, which is in the Tampa Bay area, is now one of the most threatened historic properties in the state because of climate change.

More Southern cities are committing to 100 percent renewables, and it isn’t just talk. I talked to officials in Atlanta and the mayor of a rural Louisiana town about how they’re moving forward with clean energy.

Rural Trump voters, including many in the Southeast, are fighting back against the growing number of eminent domain claims from pipeline companies.