This week severe weather plowed through much of the Deep South. As many of us hunkered down, I couldn’t help but notice that Selma, Alabama took a direct hit from what has been rated an EF-2 tornado by the National Weather Service. Why did this particular tornado catch my eye? Selma, Alabama is a core geographic player in the Civil Rights movement. I am writing this on the eve of the federal holiday honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. I wanted to reflect on the resiliency of this community. That community helped sustain a movement towards equality for all people, and I know they will get through the aftermath of this storm too.
Selma Mayor James Perkins reported that several homes are destroyed, and the power distribution is “shot.” Even with that news, Perkins delivered a message of hope and resiliency during an update this weekend. He said, “We have a lot to be thankful for even through all of this devastation. We have no fatalities. I want people to remember two words: restore and rebuild.” U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of the 7th Congressional District also vowed that Selma would be “built back better.” However Sewell’s culminating thoughts reflect the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday best. She said that until resources are in place, “We have to continue to help each other.”
It always frustrates me when someone speaks of the Martin Luther Kink Holiday as if it is an ode or nod to Black people. It is a National Day of Service for all people. Selma holds a special place in the Civil Rights Movement. On 25 March 1965, Dr. King led a 54-mile march to Montgomery, Alabama. King said in his remarks, “There never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.” According to the King Institute website at Stanford University, Selma had been chosen because, “They anticipated that the notorious brutality of local law enforcement under Sheriff Jim Clark would attract national attention and pressure President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress to enact new national voting rights legislation.” Images of former Congressman John Lewis and others being beaten and sprayed with tear gas in the infamous “Sunday Bloody Sunday” confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge shook the nation. It was an EF-10 event in the racial storms of that era.
In an outgoing 2021 address, former Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver said that the resiliency of Selma is rooted in its people and its institutions. The community will certainly stand strong again as the recovery process from the tornado begins. However, there are a few cautionary notes that I must reveal. From an atmospheric sciences perspective, studies continue show that tornadic activity is increasing in the southeastern U.S. Researchers at Northern Illinois University and the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory revealed this startling trend in a 2018 study.
The other cautionary note is related to vulnerability. Much of the Southeast is comprised of particularly weather-climate vulnerable populations. According to World Population Review, for example, Selma has a poverty rate of almost 45% and an overwhelmingly Black (83.4%) population. To be clear, every person is vulnerable to an EF2 tornado, but studies show that marginalized or impoverished groups are slower to recover or have less personal resiliency (insurance, capital to rebuild, and so forth) due to stark income gaps. A 2021 study led by Stephen Strader at Villanova University highlights the particular vulnerability of mobile and manufactured homes in the region. Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In 2022, there are weather, climate, and environmental justices to consider, and Dr. King’s eloquent words still apply.
Before ending, there is one other positive and related thing that happened this week. Dr. DaNA Carlis was announced as the Director of NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL). NSSL is arguably the premier research facility in the U.S. seeking to improve our understanding, monitoring and prediction of tornadoes. Dr. King would be smiling because Carlis is the first African American to be named a lab director in NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. He rightfully might have a twinge of curiosity or concern too as to why it took so long, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.