Three Things to Know About the Tornadoes That Devastated Rural Alabama

It may be the harbinger of even more damaging storms to come.

An aerial view of a cellphone tower that was knocked down by a tornado in Smiths Station, AlabamaAlex Wong/Getty Images

A spate of tornadoes ravaged Alabama on Sunday and left at least 23 people dead, ranging in age from 6 to 89 years old. First responders are still sorting through the wreckage, and close to 100 people are recovering from injuries sustained in the deadly storms, which a local sheriff described as if someone “took a giant knife and just scraped the ground.”

As emergency managers and local officials scramble to contain the damage, here’s what you need to know:

This was not just one storm, but eight 

The storm commanding the most attention—a 170 mph twister that destroyed dozens of homes and businesses across roughly 30 miles of Lee County—was not the only tornado that hit Alabama. The National Weather Service tracked seven other storms across the state on Sunday, including one that crossed the border into Georgia, where it also produced damage, according to the NWS. Severe weather associated with the tornadoes also affected Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina.

The most dangerous storm by far struck rural pockets of Lee County, which is one of the more urban counties in the state and that includes the campus of Auburn University. Sunday’s 27-mile-long tornado has already killed nearly two dozen people, exceeding the combined total of all tornado-related deaths from last year, according to a database maintained by the NWS’s Storm Prediction Center

Among the dead were seven members of one family, the Alabama Media Group reported

Trump asked FEMA to give Alabama “A Plus treatment”

In contrast to states like California, where Donald Trump has threatened to withhold aid after a horrific wildfire season, the president tweeted Monday that Alabama should receive the “A Plus treatment” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, does not currently have a permanent director. Its last director, Brock Long, resigned in February after being accused of misusing department vehicles. In response to the recent storms, FEMA has already sent staffers to assist state emergency management officers in Alabama, a department spokesperson told USA Today

The impact from tornadoes has generally been getting worse 

The Lee County twister is the deadliest on record since an Oklahoma storm killed 24 people in 2013. It may also be a harbinger of even more damaging storms to come. The problem, researchers from Villanova University and Northern Illinois University detailed in 2016, is increasing development and population growth in “at-risk” areas. The result could be “average annual tornado impacts” that are projected to be “6 to 36 times greater in 2100 than 1940.” 

Stephen Strader, one of the researchers behind the 2016 study, noted on Twitter this week that the storm primarily affected areas in rural Alabama with a preponderance of mobile homes. “Bad situation with already many fatalities,” he said. “I suspect many of these occurred in mobile homes.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who officially launched his second presidential campaign this week, went even further in a Facebook post Monday. “The science is clear, climate change is making extreme weather events, including tornadoes, worse,” he wrote. 

In fact, there is no scientific consensus on how climate change affects tornadoes, though generally, global warming is believed to make extreme weather events—from hurricanes to cold snaps—more deadly for reasons that do not necessarily apply to tornadoes. “No known scientific studies have established a cause-and-effect relationship between tornadoes and climate warming,” E&E News reported Tuesday. “But scientists do say they are witnessing macro-scale changes in tornado frequency and variability across the United States.” The site noted that “in the 1980s, tornadoes damaged an average of nine counties per year,” but between 2007 and 2016, “tornadoes damaged an average of 21 counties annually.”

More Mother Jones reporting on Climate Desk

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate