March 2023 marks the month of one of the most devastating storms to hit Mississippi in half a century. At least 25 souls were lost due to the powerful storms that spurned destructive tornadoes that moved through the region. The resiliency displayed by volunteers and neighbors helping each other is remarkable and inspiring. The tragedy is felt in the aftermath with so many people having lost their homes, businesses, and all possessions. As if that were not crippling enough, some families lost their loved ones, including small children.
Particularly hard hit was the Rolling Fork area of Mississippi, an already low income area with a significant number of residents living below the poverty line. Additionally, a portion of the population in Rolling Fork also resided in mobile homes, which are particularly vulnerable to severe weather conditions. We have all heard the dire warnings of climate change’s impact on the world’s weather patterns. Experts have warned that some of these impacts could include bringing the possibility of stronger storms. The question we must ask is, did society fail the people in the storm damaged areas, and is it really possible to prepare for such catastrophic devastation?
Lives will be forever changed by the tornados that spurned from what meteorologists called a supercell storm. The National Weather service categorized the line of tornadoes that impacted the south, including Mississippi, as an EF4 tornado that is second to the highest level on the overall scale. Tornado sirens for this particular storm did not provide enough time for many to escape destruction. However, meteorologists had been warned of the severe weather outbreak earlier in the month of March.
The real travesty in this however, is the pre-existing conditions of those living in this small area. Is it socially responsible to have residents living in mobile homes in low lying areas near large bodies of water and in an area vulnerable to destructive storms? This can especially be an issue with the ability of backwater levees holding up. We saw this with the levees in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. One can also argue that improving warning systems is a necessity. In the case with these storms, the weather pattern was predicted in early March by the National Weather Association, however, there were no quantifiable measures taken to prepare. Instead, a warning was issued shortly before these devastating tornadoes touched down.
The death and destruction left behind by the EF4 tornadoes was unfathomable. Homes and structures ripped to shreds, and lives lost where they stood. Left behind with one tragic story after another, and the question, how did we get here? The devastation lies in many vulnerable areas within our society that we have continued to ignore. We should acknowledge that there are many areas in our society that may be socioeconomically vulnerable to both manmade disasters such as toxic waste spills, natural disasters like earthquakes, or superstorms such as this recent one. Areas such as Rolling Fork that have a small population, including people of color and marginalized members of the community, may have difficulty in rebuilding not just infrastructure, but also rebuilding their lives. One can argue that it is not socially responsible to have people living in mobile homes in an area that is deemed unsafe due to the possibility of storms.
Those left behind must now pick up the pieces and try to decide to rebuild. Society must also decide what lessons have been learned and how we will improve the outcomes for those who are financially unstable. Additionally, we must decide how areas that are heavily populated by members of our society that live below poverty levels will receive the same access to suitable homes to live in, and sustainable resources that are not continually threatened by natural disasters.
We saw the detriment that resulted due to negligence of cities shown when floods impacted the NYC metro area. Drainage systems left ignored caused many to perish in basement apartments around the tri-state area. These same issues did not plague wealthier sections of the city where affordable housing concerns did not cause their residents to have to reside in basement apartments or in areas where proper drainage systems were ignored. Those severely impacted were instead in mostly middle class or lower income areas.
There are many lessons to take away from these scenarios as stronger weather events happen each year in various parts of our society. The impacts are felt strongest within marginalized communities who are not able to rebound as quickly. These communities are often plagued by environmental constructs that are beyond their control. Individuals who cannot afford homes are living in trailers or mobile homes. How safe can this be, and is this really an acceptable way to live? In a modernized rich nation, we can do better.
Areas across society owe it to its fellow members to provide affordable and safe housing that can hold up at the very least to less severe storms. Additionally, alternatives should be provided to those who need a safe location to shelter in place. Leaders should have evacuation orders in place when possible, particularly when long range weather forecasting can predict the likelihood of severe weather outbreaks. They should also make sure members of their communities are prepared for severe weather by advertising weather emergencies, having a family emergency plan for where to meet, and a clear designated safe place to shelter. This may, and should include a local storm safe space.
The argument can be made that the logistics needed to do pre-evacuations based on storm predictions of volatile tornadoes would have impacts on economics, education, etc. however, the cost of people dying and communities having to be rebuilt is costlier. Over 1,000 tornados can strike each year in our country. Just a few weeks ago, at least another 32 souls were lost as storms struck again in many of the same areas and in Little Rock, Arkansas. Based on this fact, allowing people to live in mobile homes, cars, or unstable structures is setting them up for disaster.
Everyone living in what has been tornado valley, or elsewhere in the country, are encouraged to be weather aware or weather-ready, and know your area’s evacuation routes as well as storm shelters. Have a plan if possible, and try to seek a safe space that you can go to in your home. The National Weather Service website is a resource that provides information on storm emergency events. The website can provide tips for those who may reside in less stable structures. Taking the time to prepare before the emergency can be a matter of life or death.