Tornado Season and its impact on low-income communities


Kellyn Taylor

Illustration by Kellyn Taylor

By Rachel Choi, Illustrations/Graphics Editor & Chief Copyeditor & Social Media Manager

The clouds above converge, and the sky meets with the earth. Alongside frightening thunder, lightning, hail, and winds that rip roofs from ceilings, a righteously furious funnel forms—one that will tear through anything in its path. 

As regions of the United States like the Midwest, the Great Plains, the Mississippi Valley, and the South enter tornado season, these terrifying natural phenomenons threaten the livelihood of many Americans. However, people within low-income communities are the most affected—a repeated pattern in history that has yet to be addressed. Tornado season is a grim reminder that many Americans have yet to receive the necessary resources to make it out of the other side. 

Tornadoes are formed when the atmosphere is unstable: warm, moist air rises to meet a cold wind shear—wind changing in speed, direction, and height—and the movement creates a funnel cloud spawning from the large storm that can typically be seen above. These large storm clouds are called supercells, and they look as if the sky is spiraling downward in looming layers. The U.S. has the highest number of tornadoes in the world with reports of around 1,200 tornadoes a year, due to its unique geography of hills and plains that allow for circulating warm and cold air to spiral into each other. 

Modern science has made it possible to detect early signs of a tornado by monitoring the atmosphere. If a tornado touches down without dissipating, a warning will be issued; people will be advised to take cover in a sturdy building, basement or the most interior room, and stay inside until the threat has passed. Those who can afford it might travel to avoid tornadoes even before a warning is issued, staying at hotels or just simply leaving the area. 

However, many low-income communities don’t have these precautionary systems in place. For them, tornadoes are unforgiving: even if they do get some kind of a warning, most don’t have homes or shelters that can withstand the strength of a tornado. Many low-income households—a high percentage of them composed of people of color, as historical segregation and ongoing discrimination pushes a higher percentage of minorities into low-income areas—can often only afford housing that has been built in places predisposed to extreme weather due to geographical disadvantages or extremely old housing with obsolete structural integrity. Additionally, for places within tornado hotspots, the risk allows for lower costs of living and ends up being the only option for many.

As such, low-income communities are disproportionately affected by tornadoes. Many of them are based in tornado-prone areas, like Tornado Alley—including Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska—or Dixie Alley consisting of areas of the lower Mississippi valley like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, etc., and other likewise regions.

Many low-income individuals also live in mobile homes that are structurally disadvantaged—research has shown that counties with larger income disparities, such as those in the aforementioned states, have more people living in mobile homes than site-built homes.

Evidence has also proven that the death rate from tornadoes within mobile homes are around 20 times higher than those from site-built homes. Despite this fact, the number of mobile homes rose from 315, 218 in 1950 to 8.7 million in 2010, and continues to do so. These problems persist as we continue to see a lack of solutions and a consistent rise in income disparity—as such, many families don’t have a choice when it comes to preventive measures like strong shelters or evacuation plans when the inevitable tornado does hit. 

The lack of infrastructure, cost of transportation, and temporary housing are too high for many to evacuate when a warning is issued. The most people can do is stay informed and prepared—but even with that preparation, a report noted that “for each one percent increase in the poverty rate, the number of tornado fatalities increases by two percent.” 

Furthermore, many low-income communities have schools with no storm shelters—for example, 60 percent of Oklahoma’s public schools lack them. Local governments often de-prioritize public shelters and other infrastructure due to the cost of building and maintaining them. Not enough time and money go into keeping low-income communities safe. 

Consequently, low-income communities are left stranded, and once the tornado passes, their ravaged homes and lives have little hope for efficient recovery due to lack of money or insurance—especially if the government does nothing to help. 

When a tornado hit Marshalltown, Iowa on July 19, 2018, the disproportionate effects  were clear as day. Marshalltown had a longstanding community of low-income, migrant families, with many living together in single-family homes that were in need of repair—they were described to be “dilapidated houses [that were] nearly inhabitable” by researcher Sara Hamideh. Others lived in rented homes on a contractual basis, and so on.

This tornado in particular was ranked as an EF-3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, a tornado ranking system that uses assessed damage to estimate wind speeds. Once the tornado hit, it wreaked havoc upon the vulnerable community. As residents had no insurance, savings to afford a new home, or means to rebuild, many were left to their own devices to rebuild their shelter bit-by-bit in unsafe conditions. 

In addition to this, Marshalltown’s tornado was not given federal funding after the then-president Donald Trump refused to officially declare this event a disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was prevented from providing aid for rebuilding efforts on an individual and collective scale, elevating the sheer impossibility of rebuilding the devastated community. Even four years after the disaster, the community is still undergoing recovery by demolishing unrecoverable buildings and rebuilding affected houses, especially after they got hit again with devastating storms. 

Like Marshalltown, many communities have little to no resources that can help them in moments of crisis. While the few wealthy households in areas commonly affected by tornadoes have basements, storm shelters, and other means of safety, the rest are left to fend for themselves in the midst of a natural disaster. Low-income households, including those occupied by residents who rent, have little chance of getting their wrecked homes back. Research has shown that affordable housing will almost always be replaced by expensive housing to target wealthier demographics. Their only hope of survival relies on government action.

Despite the fact that aid exists and has been given to those affected by severe weather conditions, most of it falls short in actually creating long-lasting change. FEMA’s Individual Assistance Program provides temporary shelter to those displaced, but does little to help with permanent homes. Community Development Block Grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development can fund affected communities, but most funds can take anywhere from months to years to actually arrive or are misdirected by the state to other priorities, leaving victims with nothing to work with. 

Both federal and state governments alike need to build public shelters that can house at full capacity. Infrastructure needs to be put in place to ensure sturdy foundations for housing with affordable costs. Better warning systems need to be put in place, and education needs to be given to inform low-income families on what to do in these emergencies.

I am a person who watches tornado videos in wonder. The magnificent glory of a larger-than-life natural event is something that puts into perspective just how small humans are and how apathetically wondrous the world is. Yet, every time I see a storm chaser hooting and yelling in excitement, I can’t help but worry about the aftermath of the tornado and the lives that will be affected by it. I grew up in a low-income household as well—knowing firsthand what could happen if our rented apartment was destroyed makes it all the more real and terrifying. Even as I am writing this piece, a tornado destroyed a community in Mississippi, leaving 26 people—loved and cared for—dead, and even more injured. 

Tornadoes, as with other natural phenomenons, are undeniably fascinating. But we need to remember that they aren’t just spectacles to marvel at: real people, especially the most vulnerable within our society, are being impacted, and the nation needs to do something to protect them.