The tornado that devastated Lee County, Alabama, on March 3 came as a shock, but not a surprise. Meteorologists had warned of severe weather days in advance. Forecasters monitored the area closely, blasting out warnings as soon as individual tornadoes were detected. Despite those efforts, 23 people died.
How can we be so good at predicting dangerous weather and still lose so many lives in a single day? The answer lies in understanding not only the storms but also the people–and the impact of income, class, ethnicity, culture and, most of all, inequality on how we react to hazards.
While solving the factors that put specific groups at greater risk would be a monumental task, there’s a more realistic fix: smarter warnings. Alerts that not only describe the weather but also take into account human demographics and psychology could save lives. Yet work on this front surprisingly remains in very early stages.
The tragedy of Lee County illustrates one issue: mobile homes, which accounted for multiple fatalities as the 170-m.p.h. winds annihilated the structures. In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) launched a pioneering project called VORTEX-Southeast to examine why tornadoes are disproportionately deadly in the southeastern U.S. Researchers there have discovered that lower-income individuals living in mobile homes are not only at greater risk for storm dangers but also can be less prepared to respond to warnings.
The risk part of the equation is simple. Mobile homes, while affordable, are less able to withstand high winds. The response side is more complicated. VORTEX surveys found that mobile-home residents were essentially as likely as anyone to follow the general guidance for taking shelter in a tornado, which is to get to an interior room on the lowest floor, ideally the basement. Problem is, the recommendation for what to do in a mobile home is very different: get out, and go to an underground shelter or a permanent building.
“It seems they heard this messaging from the weather service that goes out to everyone, that says get inside,” says Kim Klockow-McClain, who leads the Societal Impacts Group at NSSL. “But it fails these people, because that’s not what they need to do.”
Communication, whether it comes from government officials, radio or TV broadcasters, or a smartphone app, must provide the right message to the right people. For mobile-home dwellers, the lead times from actual warnings–which average 15 to 16 minutes but can be shorter–are usually too narrow to make it to safety. Instead they must pay particular attention to public alerts that tornadoes are possible–called watches–and make sure they are able to quickly get to shelter if a warning comes. That guidance should be emphasized in advance forecasts.
As the science of predicting tornadoes improves, weather experts envision something between a watch and a warning. This could alert people to increasing odds of a tornado in their area before it actually forms–especially helpful to those who can’t quickly duck into a basement.
Of course, tornadoes are a danger to everyone, and the Lee County storm was strong enough to destroy permanent homes too. It will take weeks or months to fully understand why the death toll in Alabama was so high. (Indeed, the tragedy appears likely to become an important case study.) And as a practical matter, smarter warnings aren’t enough if people can’t find safety; many mobile-home communities throughout the country still lack shelters.
Inequality like this can take many other forms–all of which need to be examined more closely. In hurricane- and flood-prone areas, for instance, researchers are considering such variables as making sure immigrant populations get critical warnings delivered in the proper language, and how the cost of temporary relocation affects low-income families’ decisions on whether to evacuate.
Even as scientists work to improve predictions of dangerous weather, more accurate forecasts aren’t enough. Researchers need to understand the human equation to get the right information to the right people. With climate change driving extreme weather, both avenues of progress will be crucial in saving lives.
This appears in the March 25, 2019 issue of TIME.