Don't Succumb to Tornado Fatigue: This Historic Disaster Is Still Unfolding Don't Succumb to Tornado Fatigue: This Historic Disaster Is Still Unfolding
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Don't Succumb to Tornado Fatigue: This Historic Disaster Is Still Unfolding

by Ben Jervey

May 28, 2011

This tornado season is one for the ages. Just two days ago, I wrote the following:

It's far from over, and the 2011 tornado season is already the most destructive and deadliest in decades. From April 14 to 16, the largest tornado outbreak in world history tore across the Southeast. Two weeks later, that record was shattered by the April 25-28 Super Outbreak. Then Sunday night, the deadliest single tornado since the 1950s utterly obliterated the small Missouri city of Joplin.

Map of tornado tracks from the massive Super Outbreak of April 25-28th. With at least 326 confirmed tornadoes, this outbreak more than doubled the record for a four-day span.

For any concern and conscientious soul, it's hard to mentally and emotionally put the pieces together of these connected, but distinct, disasters.

There's the climate change question, of course, which has been answered unsatisfyingly dozens of times already. Short answer: we don't really know. It's complicated.

Two essential reads on this subject are Andrew Freedman's take on the Capitol Weather Gang blog, and Joe Romm's on ClimateProgress, in which he concludes:

  1. When discussing extreme weather and climate, tornadoes should not be conflated with the other extreme weather events for which the connection is considerably more straightforward and better documented, including deluges, droughts, and heat waves.
  2. Just because the tornado-warming link is more tenuous doesn’t mean that the subject of global warming should be avoided entirely when talking about tornadoes.

In other words, it'd be irresponsible to make a straightforward connection between tornadoes and climate change. But it'd also be irresponsible not to discuss the potential for a connection and to work to better understand that potential.

More pressing, in my opinion, than the climate connection is the concept of "tornado fatigue" that I worry is spreading across the nation. Maybe it's a more general "disaster fatigue," one that is quelling in Americans our natural "what can I do to help? impulse.

After the first outbreak, and then after the massive and widely-broadcast Tuscaloosa vortex, there was an outpouring of support. We, for instance, gathered dozens of ways to help the victims into a post to help guide the generous public, and donations poured in to the likes of the Red Cross and and others.

But the unfortunate, if understandable, reality is that the public gives generously to unique disasters, or to ones that come after longer disaster-free stretches. The fourth tornado outbreak doesn't tend to grab the public's attention as much as the first and second.

Donor fatigue is a long-recognized phenomenon, but I'm not talking only about financial giving. There's also volunteer time and energy that is being sapped. And, no less important, there's the attention that a disaster gets.

Of course, the residents of Piedmont, Oklahoma who were left homeless from Tuesday night's vortex are no less victims than those in Tuscaloosa or Joplin, even though "only" nine people died and one child went missing. But tell me: did you know that a tornado struck Piedmont, Oklahoma? 

I don't have any answers here. I'll point again to our "How to Help" post, as most of those organizations are working now on multiple disasters and need the support more than ever.

But more than anything, I just want to make sure that we're all still paying attention.

Ben Jervey More Info

Ben is a writer and editor covering climate change, energy, and environment, and is currently the Climate and Energy Media Fellow at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor at GOOD Magazine and his work has appeared regularly in National Geographic News, Grist, DeSmogBlog, and OnEarth. He recently worked with the non-profit Focus the Nation to publish an Energy 101 primer. When living in New York City, he wrote a book, The Big Green Apple, on how to live a lower impact life in the city. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.
Some recent articles by Ben Jervey:
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Don't Succumb to Tornado Fatigue: This Historic Disaster Is Still Unfolding