VILLANOVA, Pa. — In March 2019, one of the deadliest tornadoes recorded in recent years hit the rural part of eastern Alabama. The twister spanned nearly a mile wide – four times the size of a normal tornado – and reached speeds of 170 miles per hour, killing 23 people.
While we generally think of tornadoes in the Midwest, most storm-related deaths are occurring in the Southeast. Why? More frequent and significant tornadoes, higher poverty rates and a large number of mobile homes. Of all the housing units in Alabama, as many as 13 percent are mobile homes. The national average is five percent. In the March Alabama tornado, 19 of the 23 deaths were people that lived in mobile homes.
New research from Stephen Strader, PhD, assistant professor of Geography & the Environment, examines the evacuation vulnerability of mobile home residents and their access to emergency medical services in the Southeast.
Strader’s research found Alabama’s mobile home residents have fewer tornado sheltering options and are disproportionately farther from first responder services. This builds on previous research, which has shown less than 30 percent of residents evacuate mobile homes during tornado events, despite their willingness to flee. Strader’s research found 80 percent of Alabama’s mobile homes are in rural and exurban areas, located outside of mobile home parks and communities, and primarily in the southern part of the state.
“We found that the people that need tornado shelters the most in Alabama (mobile home residents), face many more physical, social, and economic barriers compared to permanent home residents when attempting to seek safe shelter from tornadoes,” Strader said.
He noted there are several factors at play in an individual’s evacuation. First, not only do these residents live farther away from shelters and EMS, but they may not have reliable transportation. Additionally, residents need to be able to better identify their location on a map relative to an approaching storm and sheltering locations in order to evacuate effectively.