Extreme Weather: Tornado Edition

Last weekend, tornadoes tore through the South, devastating rural towns. A confirmed 25 people were killed in Mississippi and one in neighboring Alabama. Mississippi was hit hardest, especially Rolling Fork and Silver City, where a tornado touched down early Friday night, reaching wind speeds of 170 miles per hour. Another tornado moved through Tchula, Black Hawk, and Winona, reaching speeds of 155 miles per hour. 

The areas most devastated also suffer from high poverty rates: 35 percent fall below the federal poverty level in Rolling Fork’s Sharkey County and 33 percent in Silver City’s Humphreys County, according to Census Bureau data. This is compared to the country’s average at just under 12 percent. 

Residents received short warning before the tornadoes descended. Tornadoes are difficult to prepare for – the average “lead-time” on a tornado warning is nine minutes, according to reporting from the Courier-Journal in 2021. Forecasters are hesitant to issue a warning if it’s uncertain whether the tornado will actually come to bear. 

Tornadoes are more dangerous at night, too, when they’re harder to see (as was the case with last week’s storms in the South). Some people weren’t even aware of the tornado until it was on top of them. 

Mississippi and Alabama hospitals quickly reached capacity as tornado victims filled hospital beds. Mississippi has the fourth-highest number of rural hospitals at risk of closure in the United 

States, according to reporting from the Mississippi Free Press. There is only one hospital in tornado-affected Sharkey County, where 13 people were reported dead as of March 25, and it has struggled to remain open in recent years. 

This is common in rural communities. Many hospitals across the country have suffered as economic conditions worsen in rural America. This is especially true of for-profit hospitals, which represented 11 percent of rural hospitals in 2013, but made up 36 percent of the rural hospital closures between 2013 and 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. States that did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act have also shown higher rural hospital closure rates – Mississippi is one of those states. 

These factors make for a deadly combination in rural regions where it can take hours to get to a hospital. After the Friday night tornadoes, one Rolling Fork resident rushed her injured son to the next-nearest hospital, over 40 miles away, when their local hospital had no room to admit him. His injuries included a punctured lung; a life-threatening ailment. The minutes – or hours – it takes to get care can be the difference between life or death, especially in a disaster.
A state of emergency was declared for Mississippi on March 26, but as of this morning, no federal financial assistance has been released. Immediate support and donation opportunities are available through the Red Cross, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, the Mississippi Center for Legal Services, and the United Way of Southeast Louisiana.

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One More Thing: Relief for Distressed Farmers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced yesterday that it will provide an additional $123 million in financial assistance to qualifying farm-loan borrowers, on top of the $3.1 billion that was allocated to borrowers through the Inflation Reduction Act. Borrowers of direct or guaranteed loans from the USDA’s Farm Service Agency are eligible for assistance. 

In October, funding was made available to farmers who were late on loan payments due to natural disasters, the pandemic, and other unexpected challenges. The Farm Service Agency intends to direct this money to farmers experiencing similar challenges. 

Funds will be distributed starting in April.  

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