This story was originally published by Capital B.

The severity of the recent network of tornadoes that practically erased a majority Black rural town in Mississippi off the map would’ve leveled any community in its path — but the region’s high amount of mobile homes, low access to information networks, and poor insurance rates created a perfect storm. 

“Tornadic storms will continue to become more frequent in the South and the Southeast,” J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s Atmospheric Sciences Program, told Capital B. “We’ve created a big problem for ourselves because of our poverty and income gaps, which have decided how sensitive a community is to destruction and how able they are to bounce back.” 

Disasters reveal society’s fault lines as communities wallow for years, sometimes generations, after weather events hit. 

The tornadoes that ripped up rural communities — many of them majority Black — throughout Mississippi and Alabama last weekend were stronger than 99 percent of all twisters. At least 26 people perished as a result of the storm, with thousands more experiencing displacement because of damage. Rolling Fork, Mississippi, a small town of 2,500 that is 80 percent Black, was among the hardest hit.  

Kimberly Patton surveys the belongings at a family member’s home after a tornado destroyed the property March 26, 2023, in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Early Sunday, President Joe Biden issued an emergency declaration for Mississippi, swiftly making funding available to the four impacted counties, which are 41 percent Black. The recovery process, which may take years for some residents, has highlighted stark gaps in climate resilience for poorer, rural communities of color facing a growing threat from severe weather. 

Historically, in terms of climate threats, the southern United States has been defined by its vulnerability to hurricanes and extreme heat, but research has shown that tornado activity in the region is quickly growing to be a major threat. A 2018 NOAA study found that the largest concentration of tornado frequency has begun to accumulate across the South. One Louisiana city, for example, was recently hit by two hurricanes and a major tornado within one year. 

Mississippi has the country’s fourth-highest rate of mobile home structures. Mobile home residents are 15 to 20 times more likely to be killed in a tornado than those in a permanent structure, the National Weather Service estimates. 

Not only are the homes in the paths of these storms less resilient, but the residents who occupy them are also less likely to have the financial means and community resources to quickly evacuate, whether by car or having storm shelters close by in their neighborhoods. 

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in Sharkey County, where Rolling Fork is located, the poverty rate is more than double the U.S. average and residents are 40 percent more likely not to own a car than the rest of the country.

The timing of the tornadoes in the middle of the night did not help. Even though the country has a “robust warning system,” Shepherd says, the government has to “do a better job of understanding how people are consuming information.” 

Most people in the 60-mile stretch of land impacted by the storm went to sleep without understanding their potential risks, according to resident accounts.

Just like we brush our teeth at night, Shepherd recommends “that people look at the weather situation, whether that means looking at The Weather Channel or an app” every night. In other words, he says, “you should have a sense of what the weather scenarios are for yourself every night.”

‘The Long-Term Solution is to Erode the Income Gap’

While infrastructure investment — including fortifying homes, roads, and public works infrastructure such as electrical, sewage, and water systems — lessens the long-term impact on marginalized communities, Shepherd argues that the most potent solution to the disaster recovery problem is even simpler. 

“The long-term solution is to erode the income gap,” the former president of the American Meteorological Society said, “because when you erode the income gap, you will erode vulnerability.” 

The framing aligns with a sizable call to action from communities on the front line of the climate crisis organizing for “climate reparations,” which outline ways the U.S. government could repay those communities for the environmental harm they’ve experienced over the past four centuries driven by colonialism and anti-Black racism.

In the meantime, there are immediate steps rural Southern communities can take to better withstand storms, such as instituting concrete foundations for mobile home structures and building tornado shelters. Both practices have a significant price tag, however. 

“We can’t stop tornadoes from happening,” explained Shepherd, “but we can certainly bolster infrastructure and resiliency, and reduce vulnerability for marginalized communities by ensuring they have the resources before a disaster ever hits.” 

Capital B is a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country.