Last Sunday in Georgia and Alabama, the line between winter and spring was something you could feel. You could drive into the northern halves of the two states and plunge into the same Arctic chill as the rest of the country. Or you could head south, toward the Gulf, where the air was clingy, humid. The National Weather Service had been worrying about that line since at least the Thursday before; they saw it for what it was: a fuse. As predicted, it ignited in the early afternoon. An unbroken wave of storms fired along the warm front in central Alabama and swept across the southeast, down into the Florida panhandle, across Georgia, and into South Carolina, sparking tornadic thunderstorms ahead of the line like embers thrown before the forest fire.
They were hard to see, and they moved frighteningly fast. Most of the tornadoes that day were relatively short-lived affairs, but the big one in Lee County, Alabama, was something the United States hadn’t seen in years. Just shy of a mile wide, moving roughly east at highway speeds, the tornado cut a nearly 70-mile trail starting east of Tuskegee, tracking along the southern fringe of Beauregard and through Smith’s Station, before tearing into Georgia. Those who managed to film it caught nothing but a rain-sheathed mass above the screen of pine and low hills, or a darkness swallowing the highway ahead, strobing as power transformers arced like fireworks seen through fog. David McBride actually heard the thing, a low-frequency roar accompanying winds of at least 166 miles per hour, as he drove to his bar, the Wild Buck Saloon in Smith’s Station. “And I would have been in that building if it had been four more minutes, further that way,” he told a reporter with AL.com. Instead, he arrived just in time to see the roof swing open like a lid and tumble into US Highway 280 alongside a steel cell tower.
All along the path, broad swaths of the loblolly and shortleaf pine forests were shorn close to the ground and arrayed by the counterclockwise winds in converging patterns. From an aerial perspective, some of the houses looked like smeared paint, their contents scattered in tapering concentrations downwind. Twenty-three people died in Lee County, including four children ranging in age from six to ten years old, as well as seven family members who lived along the same road. It was the nation’s deadliest tornado in nearly six years. The Enhanced Fujita scale estimates tornado wind speed based on degrees of damage and assigns a corresponding number (zero being the loss of roof shingles, and five being the kind of “incredible,” apocalyptic devastation from which a community wouldn’t soon recover). The Lee County tornado was a lethal EF4.
The government meteorologists who arrived at that rating were just as concerned with the resilience of the things in the tornado’s path that day as they were with their resulting states of disrepair and collapse. They’d no more attribute EF5 winds to the razing of a rickety shed than they would an EF0 to a mauled-yet-still-upright skyscraper. But unless the surface-level tornado core had been measured with radar or an anemometer (it was not), its winds, as far as we could ever know, were only as fast as they had to be to bring down the hardiest structures in their way. The Lee County twister received its high rating based largely on the complete destruction of a few well-built homes. But these were the exceptions. As NWS surveyors walked the tornado’s sorrowful path in the hours following and in the days ahead, through poor and working-class communities a world away from the stately red-brick halls of nearby Auburn University, what they found was that where people had been killed, mobile homes were often the rule.
To the rest of the country, it’s infamous Tornado Alley of the Great Plains, not a southern state like Alabama, that is synonymous with killer twisters. In popular culture, the action always takes place in some board-flat cornfield in Kansas. Yet it’s the Southeast where the cost paid in human lives is dearest. Some of the deadliest tornado disasters in history have taken place not on the prairie, but in the densely wooded hills of what storm chasers refer to as “Dixie Alley.” Scientists have been puzzling over the “why” of it for decades, a problem that might be just as sociological as it is meteorological. Do more people die here because of the Southeast’s propensity for nocturnal tornadoes, or is it the hills and forests that obscure them from view?
Dr. Stephen Strader, an assistant professor of geography and meteorology at Villanova University, is as interested in housing as he is in topography or those enigmatic swirling winds. Strader was watching as the EF4’s radar signature plowed over a map he had populated with the location of nearly every mobile home not just in Lee County, but across Alabama. Based on their concentrations in the tornado path and what he knew about their structural weaknesses, he understood all too well that he was seeing people die in real time. “It’s a sickening feeling,” Strader says. “I’m watching a tornado go through a region and I’m seeing these little dots where mobile homes are, and it’s after church hours and people are home.”
Often resting upon nothing but cinderblocks and a steel chassis, too many mobile homes in the state are anchored by nothing but gravity. Even in tornadoes of weaker strength, they have a well-known and troubling tendency to get rolled. When that happens, the frame unzips, spilling both its contents and its occupants into a grinder of churning debris. Put bluntly, mobile homes become death traps in tornadic winds, and Strader believes that the high body count in Lee County and throughout the Southeast is likely as much a function of this vulnerability as it is the inherent ferocity of its storms.
Mobile homes represent only seven percent of the housing stock in the U.S., but they account for more than half of the country’s housing-related tornado fatalities. In fact, the odds of getting killed by a twister go up by a factor of more than 15 if the person is in a mobile home as opposed to a permanent one. And with more than 17 percent of Alabama’s population living below the poverty line, mobile homes are often the only affordable option. The same holds for the rest of the Southeast, where the percentage of prefab homes in the housing stock is more than double the national average.
To make matters worse, in this region they’re distributed across the countryside on rural plots, not just clustered in small-town mobile-home parks. That means the likelihood of any given tornado striking a mobile home rises sharply. “We think about how violent the tornado was, or how wide, or how fast it was moving,” Strader said. “What we forget is what it’s affecting or who it’s hitting, which is just as important, if not more so. My research shows it’s actually much more important than we thought.”
As much as any other factor, a person’s socioeconomic status could dictate whether or not they survive.
Using census numbers, county land parcel data, and satellite imagery, Strader has done painstaking work to identify the state’s most vulnerable residents. Eventually, he hopes the region’s outsize number of tornado deaths can be reduced using algorithms capable of automatically recognizing when tornadoes threaten areas where mobile homes are ubiquitous — data that could signal to emergency managers and broadcasters whether the residents are elderly, poor, or have small children. Furnished with this information, first responders would know whose homes are likely to have fared the worst.
In the decades ahead, Strader’s research will only become more urgent in the Southeast. A 2016 paper he coauthored found that whatever the effect of climate change on tornadic storms (which is still poorly understood), it’s the sprawl of development that will load the dice and drive the tornado disasters of tomorrow. Combine the projected growth of southern states like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia with the region’s already turbulent skies, and by 2100 Strader says the number of homes damaged or destroyed by tornadoes in the Southeast could increase between 2,000 to 3,000 percent since 1940 levels. Dark spring days are on the horizon.
In the meantime, life and death in places like Lee County will too often be decided by the kind of housing people can afford. Said Jonathan Clardy to a reporter not long after he had climbed out of his roofless mobile home in Beauregard: “All we could do is just hold on for life and pray. It’s a blessing from God that me and my young’ns are alive.”
He couldn’t possibly know how lucky he was.
Brantley Hargrove is a journalist based in Dallas, Texas, and author of “The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras.” @BrantHargrove