Expert Commentary

How tornadoes can exacerbate racial segregation in the US

In analyzing data from the 1970s through the 2010s, the authors of a recent paper explore how abandonment and displacement following a tornado can heighten racial segregation.

Damage following Dec. 2021 tornadoes in Cambridge Shores, Kentucky. (Chandler Cruttenden / Unsplash)

With tornado season in the U.S. ramping up over the coming months, a recent study provides critical insight on the costs, both economic and social, of those storms — and how they can exacerbate racial segregation.

Tornadoes are more likely to damage and destroy homes, buildings and other property in counties with relatively larger Black populations, according to “Tornadoes, Poverty and Race in the USA: A Five-Decade Analysis,” published last December in the Journal of Economic Studies. That finding holds true for urban and rural counties.

In counties where tornadoes hit, the authors find the overall proportion of Black people and the proportion of people living in poverty are both slightly higher, while median income and the proportion of people with at least a bachelor’s degree are lower.

Crucially, the authors find that tornadoes can exacerbate racial segregation through two avenues: abandonment or displacement.

Abandonment — when people leave their damaged homes and resettle elsewhere — is more likely in wealthier counties. Those with the financial resources to move are likelier to be white, increasing “the prevalence of poor African Americans in those communities,” the authors write.

Displacement, meanwhile, happens when access to resources, such as homeowners’ insurance, gives some people the ability to rebuild. Lower-income Black populations are more likely to be renters and lack the financial resources to rebuild in places where tornadoes hit, making them more likely than white people to be displaced from their homes. When Black people are displaced, the population of the area hit by a tornado becomes whiter and poverty rates drop, the authors find.

“There are areas where upper middle-class whites abandoned and there are areas where upper middle-class whites rebuild — or, more likely, see buying opportunities and increase their population,” says co-author Russ Kashian, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

At the end of 2021, the home ownership rate for white people nationwide was 74%, compared with 43% for Black people, according to the Census Bureau. And there is evidence of race discrimination in insurance company payout decisions for homeowners following disasters, according to reporting from the New York Times and a May 2020 working paper from researchers at St. John’s University.

Abandonment is more likely in heavily populated areas, with displacement more common in rural areas, the authors of the current study find. Counties where people were largely displaced had an average population of 38,523. Counties where people largely abandoned their homes had an average population of 286,448.

“People with the means either do well because they’ve been able to mitigate and recover, or they leave,” says co-author Tracy Buchman, an assistant professor of occupational and environmental safety at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who co-wrote the paper with Kashian and Robert Drago, a researcher at Precision Numerics in Springfield, Mass. “People without means end up backfilling because stuff is inexpensive now [in a devastated area], or they didn’t do well and they’re still living in an area that’s vulnerable to multiple strikes of tornado and the damage that goes with it.”

When tornadoes strike relatively wealthy counties, damages tend to be more expensive. The authors explain in the paper that although a tornado is more likely to devastate a mobile home than a brick home with a foundation, it is likewise “more expensive to replace a late-model sports car than a decade-old Ford sedan.”

“In a nutshell, the vulnerable are more likely to experience losses, the wealthy have more to lose,” says Kashian.

Consequences of extreme weather

Roughly 1,000 to 1,500 tornadoes touch down in the U.S. each year. In 2021, there were nearly 1,400 tornadoes, according to preliminary data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.

The authors of “Tornadoes, Poverty and Race in the USA: A Five-Decade Analysis,” focus their analysis on race, which is why they use demographic data from the Census Bureau for white and Black populations. Federal data collection must follow Office of Management and Budget guidelines. The Census explains those guidelines specify “that race and Hispanic origin (also known as ethnicity) are two separate and distinct concepts.”

Tornadoes can happen anywhere but are most common in “the central plains of North America, east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Appalachian Mountains,” according to NOAA, with spring and summer the most likely seasons for tornado touchdowns.

The Journal of Economic Studies paper adds insight into the economic and social consequences of severe weather. While climate change is one factor that can contribute to extreme weather, it isn’t settled science as to whether global warming correlates to more severe or more frequent tornadoes.

By contrast, hurricanes have been linked to climate change, with global warming likely to cause more severe hurricanes over the next century, according to ongoing analyses from Tom Knutson, senior scientist at NOAA.

It is difficult for meteorologists to track trends and make projections for tornadoes and thunderstorms, since they can pass quickly and often affect relatively small land areas.

Still, the Fourth National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program offers that compared with “damages from other types of extreme weather, those occurring due to thunderstorm-related weather hazards have increased the most since 1980, and there is some indication that, in a warmer world, the number of days with conditions conducive to severe thunderstorm activity is likely to increase.”

Tornado intensity, damages and relief

Tornado intensity is classified along the Enhanced Fujita Scale, named for Theodore Fujita, the 20th century meteorologist who developed it. After a tornado hits, the National Weather Service deploys a survey team to assess damage, estimate wind speeds and give the tornado an EF rating.

The least severe tornado rating — EF0 — indicates gusts between 65 mph and 85 mph.

The most severe — EF5 — indicates gusts over 200 mph.

While the recent study finds fewer tornadoes, on average, per decade since the 1970s, the cost of damages has risen substantially. During the 2010s, each tornado measuring at least an EF2 caused an average of $666,668 in inflation-adjusted damages, according to the paper. That’s up from a low of $49,492 in the 1990s and $131,976 in the 1970s.

The authors’ figures on economic damages include nearly 11,000 tornadoes covering five decades beginning in 1970. They exclude 93 outlier tornadoes with damages above $15.5 million “because we suspect that these events are both more well-publicized and receive greater attention in terms of public and private recovery efforts,” they write. Tornado location and economic damage estimates come from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters out of Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency distributes federal aid dollars following natural disasters. Other major sources of funding for immediate relief and rebuilding include private insurance and local and national nonprofits. Kashian says one takeaway is that the funds FEMA does provide could be more equitably distributed.

“What we need to say is, ‘Who needs the money?’” he says. “And, ‘What areas need investment?’ And invest in such a way that it retains the character of the neighborhood prior to the event.” 

In addition to equitable distribution, it’s an open question as to whether in the years ahead there will be a sufficient volume of federal disaster aid. A 2021 investigation from Washington Post reporters Hannah Dreier and Andrew Ba Tran exposed a system that denied disaster aid to longstanding Black families in the South, and found that overall approval rates for FEMA aid requests fell from 63% in 2010 to 13% in 2021.

Dreier and Tran report that more than one-third of the land that Black people in the South own “is passed down informally, rather than through deeds and wills.” In September 2021, FEMA announced “that it will no longer require disaster survivors living on inherited land to prove they own their homes before they can get help rebuilding,” the journalists write.

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