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Extreme weather meets reality of poverty to create a tragedy in Mississippi

A violent tornado with a 59-mile path struck Alabama and Mississippi, where the predominantly Black community of Rolling Fork was hard hit.

The tornado that ripped through a Mississippi town Friday night was the kind that fills meteorologists with dread — a storm with a dangerous mix of ingredients hitting the wrong place at the wrong time.

At least 26 deaths have been reported in Mississippi and Alabama after a dozen tornadoes tore through the two states. Half of the deaths were in the Delta town of Rolling Fork, where a violent tornado with a nearly 60-mile path struck a predominantly Black community; roughly 21% of residents there live in poverty.

“The stage was set for disaster long before the tornado ever formed,” said Stephen Strader, an associate professor of geography and the environment at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Strader said societal factors collided with climatological ones to create a worst-case scenario in Rolling Fork.

The prevalence of mobile homes and manufactured housing made the town of about 2,000 people particularly vulnerable to extreme weather. On average, 54% of tornado-related fatalities are in mobile homes, according to the National Weather Service. People who seek shelter in mobile homes are also 15 to 20 times more likely to be killed compared to those who take refuge in permanent homes.

Angelia Eason, coroner for Sharkey County, where Rolling Fork is located, said eight of the town’s 13 deaths involved people in mobile homes.

Satellite images show homes along Walnut and Mulberry streets in Rolling Fork, Miss., on Dec. 27, left, and on Sunday. [Maxar Technologies / AFP - Getty Images]

The tornado that hit Rolling Fork was also an intense, fast-moving storm that struck under the cover of night, when visibility is low and people are more likely to be asleep and caught off guard.

“You had all these different factors coming together to create the perfect storm, and unfortunately we saw the results of that,” Strader said.

Matt Laubhan, a Mississippi meteorologist at NBC affiliate WTVA, said Mississippi sees a lot of tornadoes, including a devastating EF-5 almost 12 years ago. He noted that some areas hit by those storms received funding for emergency shelters, but that none such structures exist in Rolling Fork.

“When you talk about Rolling Fork, that’s a much more economically depressed area,” Laubhan told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell. “And that’s a place that did not have those kind of community shelters.”

Robert Bradford, emergency management agency director for Adams County, Mississippi, who is helping coordinate response efforts, said Rolling Fork does not have a community safe room.

As the storm evolved on Friday, William Gallus, a professor of meteorology at Iowa State University, said his worst fears were realized. In addition to forming at night, the tornado had a rare, long track, slicing 59 miles through Mississippi. Less than 1% of tornadoes stay on the ground for longer than 50 miles.

“If there’s a tornado outbreak at night and it’s in the Southeast, you know there’s going to be people severely injured or killed and the best thing you can do is hope that the tornadoes thread the needle and miss actual small towns,” he said.

Across the Southeast, mobile homes are especially vulnerable to tornadoes, which are classified according to what’s known as the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale. The weakest tornadoes, or EF-0 and EF-1, have winds of up to 110 mph and typically cause relatively light damage. The most powerful tornadoes, or EF-5, have winds above 200 mph and usually cause catastrophic damage.

Preliminary surveys suggest the tornado that hit Rolling Fork had 170 mph winds, and the storm has been rated an EF-4 by the National Weather Service in Jackson, Mississippi.

Residents continue to recover possessions from homes that were destroyed by a tornado in Rolling Fork, Miss., on Sunday. [Scott Olson / Getty Images]

Yet, it often doesn’t take the most furious winds to topple weak housing structures, Strader said.

“Manufactured homes can get thrown and tossed at tornado wind speeds even at the lower end,” he said. “We have to be aware that these structures sometimes are so weak that it doesn’t matter if we get to EF-4 or EF-5. If these structures are failing at low wind thresholds, the people inside are exposed and that’s where the deaths occur.”

Many people who live in mobile homes are not able to evacuate or do not have practical options for seeking shelter, Gallus said.

“In studies, they say they simply have nowhere they can go for safety,” Gallus said. “They would like to be able to respond, but they just don’t have that option.”

Strader said there are numerous reasons why people may not be able to leave, even if they have adequate warnings from tornado forecasts. It’s possible, he said, that there are no nearby storm shelters in rural parts of the state; some shelters may not let people bring their pets along; or there could be medical reasons why people are forced to stay.

Damage from a series of powerful storms and at least one tornado in Rolling Fork, Miss., on Saturday. [Will Newton / Getty Images]

Scientists like Gallus and Strader are also trying to better understand what role, if any, climate change has on tornadoes. Global warming increases atmospheric instability, which could create conditions more favorable for storms to develop. Yet, some studies have found that climate change could actually suppress the formation of tornadoes by impacting the way winds increase and rapidly change direction at different atmospheric heights.

Taken together, it’s not yet clear what these seemingly conflicting outcomes could yield, and more research is needed. Unlike with other forms of extreme weather, such as hurricanes or drought, it has been more challenging to tease out the specific effects of climate change on tornadoes.

Still, as tornado season picks up steam, Strader said it’s critical for people to be aware of their risks and to plan as best they can.

“If a violent tornado doesn’t hit anything, we don’t call it a disaster,” he said, “but when it hits these vulnerable and exposed towns that are already struggling from a day-to-day standpoint, you unfortunately end up with a lot of death and damage.”


(c) 2023, NBC News

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