Differential Vulnerability to Tornado Impacts in Communities of the Rural U.S. South

May 15, 2019

Tornadoes are devastating events capable of destroying entire communities in a matter of minutes. Annually in the United States tornadoes cause upward of 1000 casualties, on average, with many of these deaths and injuries occurring in the rural South. Factors that contribute to the number of casualties range from the strength of the winds to socioeconomic conditions. However, there remains a large gap in our understanding of community vulnerability and resiliency to tornadoes. For example, after controlling for the strength of the tornado, why do some communities suffer a far greater number of fatalities than others? We believe this question can be answered best through the systematic study of place.

Catalyzed by the Disaster Resiliency Collaborative Collision, the research will be conducted by a new interdisciplinary team at Florida State University using a mixed-method iterative approach. Communities across the rural South that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts from tornadoes will be identified by training a statistical model on data from tornadoes since 2001. Attention will focus on communities in the rural South that were recently affected and those that have repeatedly suffered disproportionate impacts. Communities in the path of a recent violent tornado that hit southeast Alabama on March 3, 2019 will be visited. Visits will be done in two phases. The initial field visits will take place during weekdays, with a focus on meeting with community leaders and public officials. The second field visit will be targeted participant observation and interviews. The statistical modeling and ethnographic components of this pilot project will inform one another in a cyclical, iterative process.

By investigating individual communities impacted by unusually devastating tornadoes and by making sense of the complex place-based vulnerabilities and resiliencies that exist in them, it may be possible to not only identify causes of tornado casualties—beyond what is already known—but to develop mitigating strategies and other intervention practices to reduce the number of future casualties. Findings can be applied to other natural hazards impacting the rural South, including hurricanes.