One of the most active tornado seasons in decades has disaster-response organizations busy responding across several states in the eastern half of the United States.
Strong tornadoes produced considerable damage and claimed more than 60 lives from Iowa to Delaware in early April, triple the number of tornado fatalities in the U.S. last year. At least three more people were killed by a tornado April 20 near Oklahoma City.
Mennonite Disaster Service and weather experts have identified a trend of tornadoes not just moving east from the traditional “tornado alley” of the Great Plains but also growing in severity.
“Some of us think there are tornado seasons or fire seasons, but now it’s 365 days a year, 24/7,” said MDS executive director Kevin King on April 5, less than two weeks after a tornado nearly wiped Rolling Fork, Miss., off the map, part of a series of storms that killed more than 20 people. “You have tornadoes in December, which happened in 2021. You have fire season and droughts and floods that go year-round. I think that’s part of the climate change we’re seeing.”
A warmer than usual winter across many parts of the country contributed to an outbreak of at least 478 tornadoes across 25 states by April 5, according to the National Weather Service. Only two of the past 20 years recorded more.
The American Meteorological Society published a study in January that found supercell storms that produce violent tornadoes will increase as the world warms, and these will increasingly impact states in the South, where higher population density places more people in the path of tornadoes.
“In my 19 years we used to have three to seven MDS disasters a year,” King said. “Now it’s 24 or 25 or 26. It’s two a month.”
Response teams with Christian Aid Ministries, a conservative Anabaptist group, were cleaning up tornado damage in early April in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee. Rapid response director Kim Eichorn said tornado strength seems to vary from year to year, but it does seem like tornadoes are occurring more often in the South and East.
“This year it’s stronger; it seems like they are small cells but really vicious,” he said. “Kansas has not had near as many in recent years as they used to. It’s Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi.
“The one in Delaware is really unusual. So it is changing a little bit. What it’s going to look like in the future, I don’t know.”
An April 1 storm caused Delaware’s first tornado fatality in 40 years. Daniel Bawel, 79, died in his Greenwood home. His wife survived.
“They were both just in the house when the tornado hit, and the house collapsed around them,” said the couple’s pastor, John Davis Swartzentruber of Greenwood Mennonite Church. “It’s heartbreaking. This was a homestead. The man who died here grew up here, and so it’s a loss in a lot of ways for the family.”
The tornado — the widest in state history at 700 yards, with wind speeds of 140 mph — was part of a two-day system of storms with tornadoes in Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee. Others followed a few days later in Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky.
“The United States is a punching bag in terms of extreme weather, more than other countries,” King said. “We have two oceans and the Gulf of Mexico, which is heating up, and it’s such a pressure cooker. When hurricanes start, they are more powerful. . . .
“But we have to talk more about the human population. It’s more vulnerable, with more people on the coasts. We have more who are aging or poor, along with aging infrastructure as well.”
Recognizing that there are dozens of disaster response organizations, MDS has pivoted from its early response storm cleanup roots to focus on long-term recovery. These days, early response represents only about 5% to 10% of MDS work.
“MDS is fortunate enough to have the staying power of our volunteer network,” King said. “Hurricane Katrina response lasted seven years. Hurricane Harvey, we were there for five years and just wrapped up last year. Just last month we had 17 locations where we were hammering nails.”
MDS Region 2 operations coordinator Darin Bontrager noted the organization concluded a three-year response last fall to tornadoes that struck Dayton, Ohio, in 2019.
“There is an active tornado response to the 2021 Mayfield, Ky., tornado,” he said. “Another is straight-line winds in Red Lake, Minn., that also had tornadoes. We’re up there replacing windows and siding on many houses for a native tribal group.”
In the last decade, MDS has increased its focus on mitigation, offering storm shelters, making sure new homes are engineered to withstand winds of 145 mph, raising flood rebuilds 2 feet higher than minimum recommendations and constructing exterior walls with 2x6s to have more insulation for efficiency.
Assistance with rebuilding is life-changing for underinsured or completely uninsured homeowners. King noted material and labor construction costs have skyrocketed since the pandemic. MDS used to be able to build a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home for $55,000. Today it’s closer to $120,000.
The increasing frequency of disasters means it’s more common for governors not to declare emergencies.
When there is a declaration, “the Federal Emergency Management Administration provides individual assistance up to $30,000 or $40,000,” King said. “That won’t cover it, but it’s a boost.”
When a disaster isn’t declared, “the state or community is on their own, and that’s a challenge,” he said. “Virginia, where I’m living, is too proud to call on the government. We can do this, but it’s the poor people who suffer.”
Christian Aid Ministries also does rebuild work. But even cleanup projects address the insurance gap that storm victims encounter.
“We used to just do rebuild work long after the storms, and we saw that people will spend their insurance money to clean up and they won’t have enough to rebuild,” Eichorn said. “We’ve seen tree cleanup prices that are astronomical. As much as $10,000 for one tree. That’s ridiculous.”
CAM crews cut up trees, bring in skid steers to move debris to the curb for municipal pickup and tarp roofs to protect from further water damage.
“One woman had a quote of $35,000 to clean up her place, and our team could do it in three or four days,” he said. “If volunteers don’t clean up, others will show up and charge whatever they want, and there’s no money left for rebuilding.”