Have you ever experienced a tornado? It’s unlikely. They’re extremely rare weather events, but they hit the U.S., on average, at about four to six times the rate as the rest of the world. Now, scientists are worried that rising global temperatures are affecting how, when, and where these destructive twisters form. Because tornadoes don’t happen with the same frequency of other meteorological events, they’re pretty hard to study, but the scientific community is realizing how critical it is that we take a closer look.
I live in New York, where tornado warnings aren’t a regular occurrence. We know what to do when there’s a blizzard or even a tropical storm—but a tornado? No one’s prepared for that. Last month, I experienced my first-ever tornado warning while with my sister, cousin, and niece. Our phones began ringing the emergency sirens, and my 7-year-old niece immediately burst into tears. She was scared, and so were we. We were safe, but little did we know that four tornadoes touched down on Long Island that day.
I thought of the terror I felt in that moment—and the cries from my niece—when I heard that several tornadoes hit eight states across the Midwest and South this past weekend. The death toll in Kentucky alone sits at 74. My 10 minutes of fear pales in comparison to the lifetime of trauma families awoke to Saturday morning.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we know the warming of the world is unjust. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. These tornado outbreaks are a signal of just how dramatically the world is changing in the face of the climate crisis. The science has yet to catch up to the shifts we’re seeing, but nothing about this level of catastrophe is normal. The most-impacted communities deserve a proper response; they require climate action. In the absence of that, all they have is each other.
Francisco Joel Serrano’s parents survived El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s. They came to the U.S. in search of the American dream—and they were finally making it happen. Five years ago after securing their green cards, they bought a house in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Serrano remembers the joy of finally getting his own room at the age 19. Before then, he and his little brother were always sharing a room in the apartments where they lived.
“They got a brand new car, and it just seemed like they were doing it. They were living that American dream that everyone chases after,” Serrano said. “In an instant, everything was taken away.”
While his parents survived the tornado outbreak that hit Kentucky this weekend, their home did not. “It has kind of left us feeling a little empty,” Serrano said. On his Instagram, he shared an image of the rubble left behind: “I remember the chismes, risas, y pupusas ricas. You were mi casita,” he wrote. “I remember the gossip, laughs, and delicious pupusas. You were my little home.”
Hearing and seeing people on the streets in distress brought Serrano’s parents back to their dark days living through the Salvadoran civil war. And yet, they went into response mode—Serrano, too. Community is what creates healing during times of disaster. Mutual aid puts money in people’s hands. Though the role of government is critical when extreme weather strikes, so are people like the Serranos who look to see what others need. Serrano has been on the ground in his work with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide organization focused on community power that has put together a list of resources and organizations to donate. Across the region, there are many, many, people in need—of housing, food, supplies, healthcare, transportation, and more.
“That’s what my parents taught me,” he said. “That’s how they raised me. That’s what they did in those moments of disaster. They weren’t worried about themselves. They were more worried about the people screaming for help, and they were worried about getting those people to safety and to paramedics.”
In Bowling Green, officials have confirmed two tornadoes landed. Fifteen people died, 11 of whom lived on the same street as Serrano’s parents. Many were children. “They were people that I knew and kids that I had seen playing out there all the time,” Serrano said, fighting back tears. While Bowling Green was hit hard, the entire town of Mayfield, Kentucky, was essentially leveled. There, workers in a candle factory were on the overnight shift due to the holiday rush when the twisters made landfall. NBC reported that supervisors didn’t allow workers to leave when the tornado sirens were sounded. Meanwhile, Amazon has come under fire for a warehouse in Illinois that was destroyed where six workers died. One worker who was killed reportedly texted his girlfriend beforehand, “Amazon won’t let us leave.”
This is the result of a capitalist system that places profit over people. The same system that has ignored the climate crisis for decades by allowing fossil fuel companies to run rampant is the one that forced these workers to labor through a weather emergency. It’s the same system that has created a false image of the American dream—and then shrugs its shoulders when that dream crumbles. While Serrano’s family waits for government aid to kick in, they’re relying on donations from anyone who can help via Venmo, CashApp, or PayPal.
“I know it’s going to get worse, and there’s just going to be more and more climate disasters.”
There’s power in putting money directly into people’s hands, said Spencer Jenkins, the founder and executive director of Queer Kentucky, a nonprofit focused on uplifting and telling the stories of the LGBTQIA+ community in the state. As of Tuesday, the organization had raised almost $7,000—all of which it’s giving back. The team had been able to give $300 each to about 20 LGBTQIA+ people so far, Jenkins confirmed Tuesday morning. Government aid isn’t always an option for the most-marginalized. Undocumented folks, for instance, don’t qualify for most aid. Trans or gender non-conforming people, on the other hand, may have to confront body dysmorphia or discrimination when filling out applications for government aid, Jenkins said, especially when disclosing the name they were given at birth.
“We’ve always come together just because we knew other people weren’t going to help us historically,” Jenkins said. “I wanted this opportunity to be able to give out at least a small amount of money to people without having to go through a very annoying bureaucratic process .”
Meanwhile, Rise and Shine, a mutual aid organization based in Bowling Green, has been able to disseminate information, as well as get the community access to all sorts of resources—like blankets and batteries. Daisy Carter, its founder and lead facilitator, was seven when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, her hometown. “I was experiencing a lot of PTSD,” she said of the day after the tornadoes landed. She recognizes just how fragile and temporary life is amid the rubble. “It’s like a war zone,” she went on to describe the scene around her.
The organization is trying to give what it can—families have been reaching out with $200 to $500 requests—but it’s hard. Carter herself has no power in her home, so she’s working out of a friend’s house where there’s wifi. She stressed the importance of checking up on your neighbors and tuning into the community around you. It could be the difference between life and death when disaster strikes.
Carter has been working closely with Serrano, who’s a friend. Their other friend, Rachael Fantasia, has also been leading local mutual aid coordination. She’s the coordinator of the Bowling Green Sunrise Movement Hub, which is dedicated to advocating for climate justice. She’s been busy connecting people who lost their homes with temporary shelter.
Fantasia’s been a part of Sunrise since 2019, when she began to finally understand the gravity of the climate emergency. There’s no doubt in her mind that these tornadoes were connected. What terrifies her most is knowing that this latest event marks “only the beginning” of what’s to come, she said. “I know it’s going to get worse, and there’s just going to be more and more climate disasters.”
The scientific community is less certain about the link between tornadoes and climate change, however. The sample size for tornadoes makes studying them especially tricky, said Jana Houser, an associate meteorology professor at Ohio University. There are only records dating back through the 1950s—versus the centuries of data available for precipitation or temperature records made possible through sediment, ice, or tree cores. Climate models struggle to make sense of individual storms. Models don’t have the spatial accuracy to recognize these storms that often only stretch across a few miles. The tornadoes themselves are even tinier, making them harder for models to detect.
Still, we do know that climate change is improving some conditions for tornadoes to form, Houser explained. That’s because they need warm, moist air—which is also how climate change fuels hurricanes. Tornadoes also need an unstable atmosphere with hyper-specific wind patterns. That’s what creates the iconic tunnel that makes tornadoes the monsters they are. Climate change may weaken those conditions on most days, but on days where the atmosphere is particularly volatile, it could create a more widespread threat than what we currently see. To make things worse, it appears more tornadoes are forming further east than where they’ve typically hit in the U.S. Though future projections show the annual average number of tornadoes may remain the same, studies suggest that we may see more tornadoes forming in a single day than what we currently experience, as well as larger swaths of land affected.
Scientists still have a lot to uncover here—but one thing is clear. The climate crisis will wait on no one. In the face of it, we can all rely on one thing: each other.
“With the climate crisis, we, the people, are all that we truly have in this,” Fantasia said. “It’s really time that we, the people, build systems outside of the one that currently exists and keep demanding that our government does something—but we have to be realistic because they’re not here helping us right now. The people who are here are the people in this city that live here, people that have grown up here. It’s important to remember that the people is the power.”