Looking Beyond Damage
Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 15, 2021
The images and stories emerging from the 200-mile swath of tornado destruction across Kentucky and surrounding states are riveting and awful, and the effects on people horrible. The rebuilding efforts will take years.
Still, the immediacy of evident needs and rescue efforts can obscure the broader, longer-range questions about climate change, about warnings, and about response.
The size, strength, timing and changing location of the tornado swarm away from a traditional “tornado alley” “bear the hallmarks of climate change-related trends that scientists have been studying more closely in recent years,” notes Axios. In particular, the warming trend may be making the clash of weather fronts, the likely cause here, more severe in general — though no one can say that is exactly the result of climate rather than an instance extreme weather.
Tornado risk is increasing in the Mid-South and Southeast compared to the Plains states, and tornado occurrence is becoming more variable from year-to-year. A new study shows that as temperatures increase, so do key ingredients for severe weather outbreaks.
Secondly, the possibility of this damage was highlighted by weather forecasts, though actual tornado warnings sounded only several minutes before the biggest tornadoes hit. Nevertheless, we wonder about the decisions by businesses not to heed the worst possibilities.
And even as images of dazed, generally mask-less survivors were rallying amid brave commitments to rebuild and herald neighbor-to-neighbor result, the reality is very much that these areas, so insistent on individual liberties and responsibilities when it comes to covid, will be totally reliant on government aid and funds in the very same Kentucky whose senators so proudly stand against funds for climate-related investment.
Calling In the Cavalry
Joe Biden acted before he was asked to activate the now-familiar Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) machinery to bring in crews for rescue and for survivor housing, though the scale of this particular set of needs across multiple states would tax any governmental agency.
We don’t even really understand what happened here. Maybe it was a single, long-winded tornado, maybe it was a series of tornadoes over a 250-mile stretch that are unusual for December. There was a record warm, humid air mass that ran into clashes with colder air fronts in higher atmosphere with strong winds, creating serious wind shear. Debris rose 30,000 feet into the air, and some came down more than 100 miles away.
The warmth and humidity apparently were boosted by strong winds blowing north from the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
The point is that climate studies show that shear may increase some as the world warms and that moist and unstable environments will become more common. That was true for the California wildfires, now a year-round event, or stronger hurricanes striking not only coastal areas, but flooding many miles inland from the shore.
Extreme weather is here.
Unless you and your political leaders are in denial. Unless your representatives believe that the answer to all questions is more oil drilling and resistance to governmental efforts here or around the world to deal with the worst effects of climate.
The Bigger Ironies
Beyond the obvious and hard-to-assess immediate needs, we are also reaping the results of a growing populism that rejects the entire idea of government as intrusive and unwanted — until it is suddenly needed and expected.
This is the same government, the same administration that wants to treat covid seriously, even risking public condemnation over requirements for masks and vaccines, that wants to spend Build Back Better money to move us away from the climate effects brink, that says at least that it wants to encourage community-building over division.
Yet the politicians from these hardest hit areas are the first to reject a federal government that wants to help, preferring a government that does as little as possible and leaves matters in the hands of local officials and individuals who know best. That’s the root of the culture wars — until there is a problem.
It kept striking me during televised images of devastation that hospitals might be better prepared for disaster if they were not underwater with rising covid cases once again.
Someone needs to remind Kentucky senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul that it is federal taxpayers — and in this case taxpayers disproportionately from New York, Massachusetts, California, and blue states — that will bail out these devastated communities.
Why we, as a society, would rather spend trillions of dollars on rebuilding efforts than on prevention raises a host of other questions.
There were local officials aplenty who heard the weather reports, and yet that Amazon warehouse and the candle factory and the other sites just kept working because it’s the holiday season and we don’t want to stop commerce, and, after all, tornadoes are weird creatures and very selective in their destruction — unless they are not.
In an emergency, surely this disaster should remind us that we are dependent on ourselves and our neighbors. But trying to keep us from emergencies is a call for government that draws on science and invests in its public health and safety.