By Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist, Alabama Emergency Management Agency
CLANTON – Thursday 10:00 am, May 5, 2022
Can we have an open and honest discussion about why Alabama leads the nation in tornado fatalities with many more injured each year? If so, please read on. I’ll start off with my thoughts, describe what I believe are some of the issues, and in my next blog, offer solutions. As the saying goes from the many people I have worked for, “don’t bring me problems without solutions.” I intend to do that.
Let me start out by saying with almost 35 years with the National Weather Service, including my last 12 in charge of the Birmingham office, and now the past six with the Alabama Emergency Management Agency (AEMA), I’m tired.
I’m tired of seeing the heartache from the death, injury and loss of personal belongings through pictures, interviews and hundreds of storm damage surveys. Why does this happen year after year in Alabama?
There are many reasons, some complicated, others not as much. Let me try and break this down into a few key ones.
The People Factor
Although many people who have experienced severe weather in Alabama or other parts of the country know the proper things to do during a warning situation, others have misconceptions that lead to inaction.
I’ve heard countless times, “I’m protected because of…(hill, valley, buildings nearby, etc.)” or “The storm always splits before reaching me.”
First, there is not a single county in Alabama that hasn’t documented severe weather, including tornadoes, and these storms don’t care where you live or what you live next to.
The map below shows the locations for reported tornadoes from 1950-2020. Don’t forget, if there wasn’t an actual verification report, then the damage wasn’t documented, Thus, the lower tornado counts in the more rural counties are either because no one saw or reported them.
Secondly, even tornado outbreaks affect small portions of the state. The generational event of April 27, 2011, with 62 tornadoes and over 250 fatalities “only” affected less than 2% of the total landmass in Alabama.
Not getting information or not paying attention
Being older, I grew up getting my information from television and NOAA Weather Radio. However, there are a lot of people who no longer do this. As of today, if you are streaming video, movies, etc., you won’t get “break-ins” from television meteorologists in your local area with warning information.
Or, “The sirens didn’t go off so I didn’t get the warning”. Outdoor warning sirens are World War I technology and meant for people that are outdoors.
There is NO single method that can’t fail. This includes NOAA Weather Radio, sirens, phone/computer apps or social media (Facebook and Twitter).
People either turn off or don’t enable Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA)
WEA sends out Tornado, Flash Flood and extreme Severe Weather Warnings to your specific area via your cell phone. There are some that have turned off WEA, which includes Amber Alerts, because they don’t want to be bothered by these.
Not paying attention
The weather forecasts have gotten so good that most severe weather events have at least one day’s advance notice, and for bigger events, three days or more. Even with that, I STILL have friends and have heard others say after an event, “I didn’t know that was coming.”
Some can’t identify the name of the county they live in nor the name of their surrounding counties. This causes confusion and potential inaction as warnings are typically listed in county form.
“When it’s my time to go, it’s my time.” I just don’t know how to respond to that one. We take protective action all the time in our vehicles, homes and other activities, yet some just don’t know how or want to pay attention to severe weather warnings.
The Structures We Live and Work In
A study just published this year by FEMA gave Alabama a score of 9.3 out of 100 concerning how structures are built. According to the study, Alabama has “no statewide building code. The Alabama Division of Construction Management adopts the (outdated) 2015 International Building Code, but the Division does not have jurisdiction over commercial construction except for certain categories including hotels, motels and movie theaters. The state allows jurisdictions which already had a building code in effect on March 9, 2010, to continue enforcing that code, rather than adopting the (outdated) 2015 International Residential Code adopted in the Alabama Energy and Residential Codes.”
This does NOT apply to new school construction. In 2012, the Alabama legislature passed a bill that requires all new schools to have storm shelters in the building and any additions to existing buildings will have to be able to withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour.
A bigger question is if government should dictate how a home or business should be constructed (thus adding additional costs) or if that responsibility should fall on the homeowner/business owner.
It is even more complicated for those living in manufactured homes. Manufactured homes (MH) are often mislabeled as “mobile homes” or “trailers”. Unfortunately, 54% of wind related fatalities nationwide occur in MHs despite MHs only making up 6% of the US housing stock.
In a study done in 2017, 13.4% of all homes in Alabama are MH. Another study was done by Dr. David Roueche, Auburn University, with detailed engineering assessments in the southeast US in 2019. He found that approximately 1/3 of MHs tie-down systems rely only upon the self-weight of the structure to resist uplift and overturning forces.
The Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) stipulates that tie-downs or anchoring is required, but to do not indicate the type, number, or location of the tie-downs. In addition, with age, the tie-downs that do exist begin to weaken. The anchoring of new MHs and the retrofitting of existing structures could be done in a way to make them more resistant to high winds.
Certainly, there are a number of FEMA rated shelters to withstand violent tornadoes across the state. However, many residents, especially in MHs, are located in rural areas, many counties can’t afford a community shelter even with FEMA’s cost-sharing program, and its not an easy task for a large number of people to get to one due to a number of factors.
If you are not feeling good at the moment after reading all of these issues, hang on until tomorrow’s blog when solutions will be discussed! Together, we CAN make Alabama a safer place during our severe weather events.