Climate Change Environment Zoya Teirstein

December’s Tornadoes Show a Country Desperately in Need of Disaster Reform

You can't stop tornadoes, but you can stop them from being so deadly. Here's how.
In this aerial photo, cars drive past destroyed homes in the aftermath of tornadoes that tore through the region, in Mayfield, Ky., Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021. AP Photo / Gerald Herbert

By Zoya Teirstein / Grist

In less than a week in mid-December, two enormous storm systems plowed through the South, Midwest, and Great Plains, spawning 17 tornadoes and killing almost 100 people between them. The worst of the wreckage occurred in western Kentucky, where a tornado packing 190-mile-per-hour winds and bearing a footprint nearly a mile wide etched a 163-mile path of destruction that included the town of Mayfield. When President Joe Biden visited Mayfield the week after the tornado, he observed a town half-standing, many of its homes, businesses, and public infrastructure rubbed off the map by one of nature’s most powerful and bewildering disasters. Biden was quick to pledge limitless aid to Kentuckians affected by the event.

“The president’s message today is that he and the federal government intend to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes by providing any support that is needed to aid recovery efforts and to support the people of Kentucky,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. It’s an assurance the Biden administration has had to give out many, many times over the course of the president’s short time in office, after hurricaneswildfires, and floods. But emergency management experts say that until the United States reforms its emergency management system from the ground up, sending the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA, out to clean up communities in the aftermath of disasters is akin to stanching a catastrophic injury with a Band-Aid. Ultimately, it’s unsustainable. 

Right now, the federal government responds to disasters with FEMA’s muscle. A disaster occurs, and FEMA comes in to repair the damage and dole out disaster aid. Meanwhile, states and municipalities haven’t done the work required to prepare for these events, mitigate damage and loss of life, and chart out a course for recovery ahead of the event. In many cases, towns don’t have the resources they need to make those plans or the know-how to access the federal grant money that exists to help them recover from extreme weather. In the view of experts Grist spoke to, this month’s tornadoes are more proof that the status quo isn’t working. 

“Until local agencies have their capacity substantially expanded in essentially every community across the country, we’re going to keep running into problems,” Sam Montano, an assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, told Grist. “Either local governments can start funding them, state governments can start funding them, or the federal government can fund them. I don’t really care where the funding comes from, but that’s what needs to happen.”  

Residents of Greensburg, Kansas, know exactly what people in Mayfield are going through right now. On a Friday night in May 2007, an EF5 tornado — the strongest designation a tornado can receive, meaning that it has winds over 200 miles per hour — struck Greensburg head on, killing nine people. When the sun rose on Greensburg Saturday morning, more than 90 percent of the town was gone. “From Main Street west, there was nothing but piles of rubble three feet high,” John Janssen, who was head of the Greensburg city council at the time and later became the mayor of Greensburg for 11 months during the peak of its recovery efforts, told Grist. “There wasn’t much you could identify.” 

Instead of rushing to build Greensburg back to the way it was before the tornado hit, the Greensburg city council decided to build back better — and, surprisingly, greener. Three months after the disaster occured, Greensburg had published a long-term community recovery plan in collaboration with its county and FEMA. The plan established an office of Sustainable Development, which would be dedicated to building out renewable energy capacity and transforming Greensburg into a hub of sustainability in the middle of red-state Kansas. It established a Housing Resource Office that identified and applied for grants and loan programs and helped residents use those programs to rebuild and repair their homes. It revamped its building and zoning codes to encourage energy efficiency and tornado safety. 

Money and resources flowed into Greensburg from nonprofit aid groups, private funders, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Energy. The president at the time, George W. Bush, had just emerged from a scandal in New Orleans two years prior, when FEMA severely botched the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort. Greensburg indirectly benefited from that disaster — FEMA money came raining down. 

With help from Greensburg’s new Housing Resource Office, most homeowners rebuilt their homes stronger and more efficiently than before, with six-inch thick styrofoam walls reinforced with concrete. The thicker walls made houses cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and more resistant to tornado damage than the four-inch walls that were the norm in the 20th century. Homeowners also put in stronger roofs made of metal instead of shingles. Today, tornado shelters in Greensburg are plentiful; the Sustainable Comprehensive Plan recommended residents take advantage of FEMA funding for safe rooms and enhanced garage doors that help fortify basements, and many people did. Janssen built a safe room directly into his house. 

Greensburg is not tornado proof. The town knows that even the best building materials can’t withstand an EF5. But it’s considerably safer than it once was. Other towns in tornado-prone areas need to do what Greensburg did, preferably before a tornado comes through and levels every structure in its path. But not every town has the resources and expertise to follow in Greensburg’s footsteps, even if they might want to. “It’s just crazy that there’s no blueprint, no expertise, no guidance to help towns,” Daniel Wallach, a Greensburg resident and former executive director of Greensburg Greentown, a nonprofit he co-founded after the tornado to help the town rebuild.

If the federal government did work with states to put together a blueprint to help towns prepare for tornadoes, emergency preparedness experts say it would include a few common-sense solutions that work best with ample communication between residents, local politicians, and local emergency managers. First, every town needs an emergency manager — someone whose job it is to prepare residents for disasters and coordinate recovery efforts after an event occurs. Right now, many towns don’t have room in their budget to hire a full-time emergency manager. Experts say local governments and states need to start prioritizing those positions, and the federal government needs to earmark funding for them if state or local funding doesn’t exist. 

Next, municipalities need an effective emergency alert system in place to alert residents to extreme weather events — which is not always as simple as it sounds. Stephen Strader, a professor of geography at Villanova University, remembers attending an emergency management conference in Alabama a few years ago, where he suggested sending out tornado warning alerts to people’s cell phones to a local emergency manager. The manager “looked at me and he goes, ‘That would be great, except half of my county doesn’t have cellphone coverage,’” Strader said. “It made me realize that what’s going to work for one big city won’t work for a lot of places.” This is why it’s important for local officials to play an active role in emergency preparedness, instead of leaving it to the federal government. Following its tornado in 2007, Greensburg took advantage of the National Weather Service’s Storm Spotter training sessions, which trained volunteers how to spot severe weather events. Greensburg taught residents what to pack in their go-bags and where to evacuate to.  

The next step is the most straightforward: everyone who lives in tornado country needs to have access to a safe place to shelter. But some places don’t have tornado shelters due to lack of funds. “We have to provide programs and tax dollars for people to have shelters, particularly in places where they don’t have basements or can flee their homes,” Strader said. Cities and towns should build public tornado shelters, and homeowners should have access to grants to reinforce their basements or build tornado shelters into their homes.  

In this May 5, 2007 file photo, Widespread destruction in shown in Greensburg, Kan. after the city of 1,400 was ravaged by a F-5 tornado. AP Photo / Orlin Wagner

Another way local governments could keep people safe during tornadoes would be to implement smarter building codes that require people to build stronger and more resilient houses, like Greensburg did, and incentives for homeowners of mobile homes to anchor their units into the ground. Eric Holdeman, former emergency management director for King County, Washington, told Grist that building codes are key to preventing damage during all kinds of extreme weather events. People who live in substandard housing in the U.S., frequently low income and minority communities, have to bear the brunt of these increasingly frequent and intense disasters. Policies that require a certain standard for new buildings and policies that mandate retrofits of existing residential structures would help alleviate some of that burden. “We’re letting people put themselves in danger,” Holdeman said, “and they’re in danger sometimes only based on where they can afford to live and the quality of housing they have.”

It would be great if every town could make the investments Greensburg made. But right now, a federal program to help communities prepare for disasters doesn’t really exist.

FEMA used to administer a program called Project Impact, a $25 million initiative started in 1997 that ran until George Bush’s administration cut it in 2001. It gave out grants to communities seeking to prepare themselves for extreme weather events. Manhattan, Kansas, is one of the communities that used Project Impact funds to prepare for tornadoes. When a massive tornado struck the town in 2008, people ran into tornado shelters the program helped fund. “I’m sure it saved lives,” Dori Milldyke, the former director of Project Impact, said in a 2009 interview with the site Govtech. “One couple lived by hiding in their shelter under their concrete steps. Others found safe refuge in group safe rooms built in mobile home parks. And others knew where to grab the safest improvised shelter, following our Project Impact preparedness tips.”

FEMA administers a program now called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC. The bipartisan infrastructure bill that Biden signed into law in November directs billions more dollars to FEMA for resilience work. But BRIC is directed toward communities that have already experienced a major disaster, and it still isn’t funded at the scale necessary to ensure every community that needs it can access funds. More importantly, some places don’t have the know-how to apply for those funds in the first place. 

“We know that there are disparities in which communities are getting those dollars,” Montano said. A community that has a dedicated emergency manager is more likely to be able to tap into the federal government’s disaster aid programs. Communities without an emergency manager are far less likely to be able to get the help they need. “They don’t have the knowledge, the staff, and the expertise to even be able to apply for those mitigation grant programs,” Montano said. 

Until towns are equipped with the tools they need to prepare for disasters and recover from them in smarter ways,  tornadoes and other disasters will continue to destroy communities. Add climate change into the mix, and it’s clear that without serious emergency management reform, people will continue to die in events that could have been less catastrophic with the right planning. “If we don’t do that, we’re going to be stuck in this cycle,” Strader said. “We’re doomed.”

Zoya Teirstein

Zoya Teirstein is a staff writer at Grist Magazine.

4 comments

  1. Oh, fake green, greenie weenies.

    Retrenchment, man, and no, unfortunately, we can’t build back better NOL, and well, Seattle will do what with four inches of sea rise. A foot? Insanity.

    This is a corrupt system of profiteers, making money as planners, architects, engineers, all of that, in this game gamed system.

    Think hard? What is life? Decent food (ag) and clean water. Decent shelter (safe). Decent communities of interest (families, tribes, groups). Health care and mind care.

    So, look at the broken systems, and then look at this crap of mitigating (not really) all the “natural” disasters that befall humanity. Rapacious consumer society set forth by the billionaires. Unlimited growth. Messed up New Green Deal, which is a takings from the commons, from the tax base, from us, communities.

    Say No to the New Green Deal. Say hello to socially just ecosocialism. Until that happens, then casino capitalism, BlackRock, Vanguard, State Street, Hi Tech, Pharma-DARPA, will continue to control all narrative, all doling out of money for what, tornado protection? Flood protection? Fire protection? Sea inundation protection? Erosion protection? AMR protection? Chronic illnesses protection? Right!!!!

    https://monthlyreview.org/product/karl_marxs_ecosocialism/

    (7 years ago!!!) https://truthout.org/articles/ecosocialism-putting-on-the-brakes-before-going-over-the-cliff/

    No DEAL for NATURE — https://nodealfornature.org/

  2. Zoya Teirstein has the totally wrong perspective on all this. While that’s not surprising because it’s the same perspective that most modern humans have, it’s not the kind of garbage I expect to read here. That’s not surprising, because Grist is a phony environmental site filled with people who prioritize all sorts of things over the environment. I used to read & blog on Grist 15 or 20 years ago, but I eventually got really turned off by all the anti-environmental attitudes and comments there. I don’t consider Grist to be a credible source of environmental information.

    1. As some famous Native said a very long time, ago, all natural disasters are due to the ignorance of white people. Translated, that means that if you don’t build all this unnatural crap, it doesn’t get knocked down during natural processes like tornadoes. So building all this stuff is the problem, not the fact that tornadoes knock it down. Trying to build these things so that they’d be less susceptible to being knocked down during a tornado is the wrong attitude. Instead, we should try to figure out how to live a lot more naturally. While the required changes will take a very long time, probably hundreds of years, ignoring the real problem while trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic is not only just more environmental destruction, it eventually won’t work.

    2. The problem with tornadoes in December is global warming/climate change, period. This and No. 1 above are the ONLY real issues here. Tornadoes come from thunderstorms, which are caused by cooler and warmer air mixing together. There should be no warm air in December, but mainly because of humans burning fossil fuels (killing trees also contributes to this problem), but the atmosphere is now so unnaturally warm because of humans that we get tornadoes during cold months and in areas where they previously almost never occurred.

    3. There is NO SUCH THING AS “GREEN” ENERGY. None. Period. All sources of electricity require massive environmental destruction. See the film Planet of the Humans and/or read the book Deep Green Lies for details. The only proper solution is to learn to live a lot more simply and naturally, and that means eventually living without things like electricity. Otherwise, you’re just trying to figure out HOW to destroy the planet instead of trying to figure out how to STOP destroying it.

  3. First of all, it’s the mass media in need of disaster reform. The ‘news’ is overrun with disaster coverage, designed to cast more heat than light in promoting uncritical pseudo-knowledge among the trivial pursuits of in-formation industries (Hey honey, did you hear about that train wreck in Timbuktu today?), and distract audiences with shock-doctrine predictive programming to reinforce the apprehensiveness and powerlessness so suitable to steering subject populations in the right (authoritarian) direction.

    ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the motto of most any mainstream propaganda, from Hollowood film franchises cranking out more catastrophe crap needing ultra-militarized superheroes to save helpless masses, to the Weather Channel infotaining people with another storms-of-the-century series and whatever keeps the programmed on program with climate change melodrama. No doubt the steady campaign of hype and hysteria delights the deep state, when it’s not directly involved in the productions (for those who still recognize what’s on the screen is a production – and one controlled by very few ruing interests).

    As for the disasters ruining people’s lives under consideration in this article, or PR piece for the Great Reset, it’s no wonder that institutionalized means of both preparedness and recovery have gone the way of near extinction suffered by virtually all public resources under neoliberal class war and its fascist advance of privatization, not least of all via philanthropic fronts of the ruling class in the NGO/nonprofit industrial complex, conveniently poised to take over where governments have been made to fail from debt bondage and form the private-public partnerships for implementing the ‘sustainable’ (austerity) alternatives of the 4th Industrial Revolution (e.g., green energy (final) solutions to replace fossil fuels – for the masses – and establish the control grids of 5/6G internet of things/bodies and carbon credit scores for whoever remains after powering down depopulates the masses).

    Now that disaster capitalism has come to cover the world under pandemic pandemonium, it’s the perfect opportunity, as Klaus Schwab and other architects of Build Back Better have declared, for subject populations to be programmed for the Green New Deal (as designed by the dealmakers presiding over the masses) and next Green Revolution (successor to the post-WWII imposition of industrial agriculture for control of the world’s food supply by the Frankenscience of petrochemical and biotech firms such as Bayer-Monsanto).

    Convenient if not manufactured, geoengineered emergencies on planet earth insure technocratic (authoritarian) interventions, like digitized total information awareness by the surveillance-security state, according to the Problem-Reaction-Solution model by which the ruling class rules. As with most natural disasters, the real threats facing us are the artificial disasters designed for our continuing dispossession and oppression.* And as with media, staged disaster has overrun our lives, which are now part of the Spectacle spun by the “masters of mankind” (Adam Smith).

    *By way of a footnote, I’m a member of the displaced diaspora of New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent reconstructive, build-back-better disaster capitalism, the principal cause which effectively exiled so many like myself unable to resettle in our home captured and colonized by predators of the financial-insurance-real estate-engineering (FIRE) economy. The principal cause of the so-called natural disaster itself was manmade disaster capitalism as well, from oil industry’s decimation of wetlands protecting against storm surge to Army Corps of Engineers’ criminal neglect of levees, along with their plausible demolition, given such precedent. The mass media’s cover story of the bungled response of the Bush administration, still echoed in this article, also set up the likely planned ‘solution’ of deployment of troops, including private mercenary forces of Blackwater (now Academi), for dress rehearsal exercises of martial law.

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