Tornadoes Raise Questions About Preparedness and Climate Change : Consider This from NPR Five days after tornadoes first touched down in the Midwest and South of the U.S., survivors are coming to grips with what they have lost.

Of the several states that the storms tore through last weekend, Kentucky was the hardest hit. At least 74 people have been confirmed dead there. Many more are unaccounted for.

As survivors, volunteers, and officials sort through and pick up what's left, how might they think about shoring up homes, businesses and buildings for the future? NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with University of Florida civil engineering professor David Prevatt about how to prepare buildings for tornadoes and hurricanes.

The severity and timing of these storms have also raised the question of whether climate change has anything to do with tornadoes. NPR correspondent Dan Charles reports.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

Deadly Tornadoes Bring Heartbreak And Questions on Resiliency and Climate Change

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(SOUNDBITE OF TORNADO)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That is the sound of just one of the tornadoes that touched down late Friday in the middle of the country. Twitter videos shared by The Washington Post show a massive funnel cloud churning across a field against a dark gray sky. Dozens of storms tore through several states, and the worst of them hit Kentucky. Entire towns were leveled in minutes, homes reduced to scrap, an occasional Christmas tree poking out of the piles, power lines tangled in the branches of uprooted trees. At least 74 people have been confirmed dead in Kentucky, and many others are still unaccounted for. This week, survivors are coming to grips with what they've lived through and what they've lost.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's like the pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki out here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The town's unrecognizable in some parts.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah. The Christmas tree, I think, got swept up with the presents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So you don't have - we don't have no more presents, yeah?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I lost a brother and his wife in this. They didn't make it.

SHAPIRO: One of the hardest-hit small towns in Kentucky is Dawson Springs. At least a dozen people have been confirmed dead there, and officials say at least two-thirds of the homes in Dawson Springs have been destroyed. NPR's Brian Mann came across the county coroner there, Dennis Mayfield, catching a break in his pickup truck.

DENNIS MAYFIELD: I'm afraid the numbers will grow, but I don't know exactly how many.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: This is a very small rural community. Are any of the people who lost their lives folks that you knew?

MAYFIELD: About three or four that I knew personally, yes.

MANN: I'm very, very sorry.

MAYFIELD: I'm on my way to notify a family now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDY BESHEAR: We're currently at 74 Kentuckians that we've lost - again, each one a child of God irreplaceable in their community.

SHAPIRO: That's Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, who told NPR his family is actually from Dawson Springs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BESHEAR: A block from my grandparents' house, everything is just gone - gone. I'd like to say we're going door to door in places, but there are no doors.

SHAPIRO: Today, President Biden flew to Kentucky. He's been speaking with officials and families, including in Dawson Springs. Biden declared the tornado event a major disaster on Monday. That speeds up federal aid to the state's residents. But right now, there are thousands of people without electricity or natural gas to heat their homes, and the recovery is likely to take a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BESHEAR: We're going to have over 1,000 homes that are just gone - gone - and that assessment is going to take some time. But we - I don't think we'll have seen damage at this scale ever.

SHAPIRO: CONSIDER THIS - what does a building need to withstand a record-breaking storm? As intense weather events become more common, lives could depend on the answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: From NPR, I'm Ari Shapiro. It's Wednesday, December 15.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Emergency response crews are sprawled across Kentucky after multiple tornadoes hit last weekend.

GEOFFREY DEIBLER: There's stuff that's, you know, pieces of roofing or swimming pools, tin, anything - we're picking that up, moving it.

SHAPIRO: That's Geoffrey Deibler, a volunteer who came from his town an hour away to help in Dawson Springs. Deibler is used to responding to crises. He's a police chief in his hometown, but he says other volunteers can find it harder to cope.

DEIBLER: Yeah. I mean, it's difficult. I worry more about them than myself. I mean, it's - you know, I'm, I guess, decently used to dealing with stuff like that.

SHAPIRO: They're digging through the rubble, hoping to find survivors but also finding people who didn't make it. In a natural disaster like this, the next step after rescue and recovery is usually assessing the damage.

DAVID PREVATT: It is shocking. It is a terrific thing to see. And the second thing that goes through my mind is how much of this was preventable had we thought about doing something many, many decades ago.

SHAPIRO: That's David Prevatt, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida. He studies how to prepare buildings for tornadoes and hurricanes. Prevatt spoke to my colleague Audie Cornish.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AUDIE CORNISH: What does a building - any building - need in order to have a chance at withstanding a tornado?

PREVATT: So I am here in University of Florida, and we have been dealing with hurricanes and hurricane damage to buildings since 1992, Hurricane Andrew. Essentially, the same things that are required for hurricane damage is required for tornado damage, and that is continuous and strong vertical load path that ties every component from the roof to the walls to the foundation and integrates that entire building together.

CORNISH: How common is that kind of design in development?

PREVATT: It is common in my state, in the state of Florida. It is less common in the structures that I have seen in tornado-devastated places since I've been looking at this.

CORNISH: Do people look at tornadoes differently than they do hurricanes in a way?

PREVATT: To some extent, yes. One of the problems with tornadoes is, firstly, many people think that it is such a rare occurrence that there is nothing that they can do. And this is not true at all. The other thing that people think about tornadoes is because it's so rare, it's so extreme, that the losses from tornadoes compared to other hazards - like hurricanes and earthquakes - it's rather small. The tornado losses that we have seen in aggregate over perhaps the last 20 or 30 years - it rivals the amount of damage that we will see in hurricanes in that same period.

CORNISH: I don't know if you are thinking or talking more aggressively about climate change, but is that in this conversation as well?

PREVATT: You know, it is in the conversation. I'd say it's above my pay grade.

CORNISH: (Laughter) OK.

PREVATT: Our communities, our societies take a long time to develop and to build. So all of these communities that have been hit this Friday, you know, the building construction plans have been going on for perhaps 50 years. And we continue to build in the disaster of the future one building at a time by choosing not to build to tornado resilience standards. Regardless of what happens with climate change, the fact is, I would not expect in our lifetimes to see any reduction in the number of tornadoes that we have every year - 1,200 tornadoes every year that's expected in the United States.

SHAPIRO: David Prevatt, professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida.

So back to that question on climate change. One of the tornadoes last weekend cut a path over 200 miles across several states, one of the longest ever documented in the U.S. And this kind of tornado event is rare this time of year. So what do we know about whether tornadoes can be blamed on global warming? Reporters asked the president about it earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We can't say with absolute certainty that it was because of climate change. So I'm going to be talking with the Environmental Protection Agency. And I'm going to be talking with other agencies to determine, in fact - matter of fact, some of it has to do with El Nina (ph). There's a lot of things that we don't know for certain, and I don't want to say anything that is not precisely true.

SHAPIRO: Scientists know there is often a link between climate change and the severity and frequency of other extreme weather events, like heatwaves, wildfires and hurricanes. But the relationship between tornadoes and climate change is a little less clear. NPR's Dan Charles looked into it.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: It was almost two decades ago when climate scientists started suggesting that as the planet warms up, we might see more tornadoes. They said we'll see more warm masses of air that rise quickly. They are the fuel for thunderstorms, sometimes producing tornadoes. But Jeff Trapp, a tornado expert and head of the atmospheric sciences department at the University of Illinois, was skeptical.

JEFF TRAPP: I just didn't like the arguments that they were making.

CHARLES: Trapp was thinking, tornadoes are rare, partly because they need other things, too, like vertical wind shear, winds that are faster and slower at different heights.

TRAPP: This supplies the spin to the thunderstorms, which then fosters the tornado formation.

CHARLES: So Trapp started working on this, trying to figure out the likelihood of tornadoes in a warmer world once you include all these factors in computer models. And what he and others have since found is the models show more of that warmer air to fuel thunderstorms but less of the wind shear that makes them spin. Balance out those forces, and it does look like a warmer world has somewhat more tornado-friendly conditions. Trapp says he's getting some new results from his models that indicate tornadoes in the warmer world at the end of this century could also grow more intense.

TRAPP: We tend to find when we do this that the tornadoes that form in these storms are more powerful.

CHARLES: Computer models are not the end of the story, though. Chiara Lepore at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory says so far, we're not seeing these shifts in the real world.

CHIARA LEPORE: The data that we have don't point to that yet.

CHARLES: The number of tornadoes year by year varies a lot. Michael Tippett at Columbia University says there's evidence that it's more common now for tornadoes to happen in bunches. There's also some evidence that they're shifting geographically away from the traditional Tornado Alley of Oklahoma and toward the Mid-South, although no one knows exactly why. It may have nothing to do with climate change. And Tippett says they are not seeing the overall increase in tornadoes that the models say you might expect.

MICHAEL TIPPETT: Now, why haven't we seen that? (Laughter) It is not laziness. The simple reason why everything with tornadoes is kind of more difficult than other types of weather is they're small.

CHARLES: That creates a couple of difficulties. Tornadoes are easy to miss. Records from many years ago are wildly incomplete, so it's hard to spot a trend. But the other problem is weather and climate models just are not good at predicting things as sudden and relatively small as a tornado. And they may be wrong. Maybe there's something else, some small-scale factor that these models can't catch that's affecting whether tornadoes form or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: NPR correspondent Dan Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ari Shapiro.

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