Mayfield candle factory seen in drone footage after tornado
Aerial views of the Mayfield Consumer Products facility, often referred to as the “candle factory,” show the damage to the area that trapped workers.
Alton Strupp, Wochit
Eastern Kentucky’s recent flooding was a historic, devastating disaster.
Data suggests the state is looking down the barrel of more.
Extreme weather events across the nation are growing in frequency and intensity, often driven by climate change.
In the case of Eastern Kentucky’s late-July flood, the atmosphere, warmed by greenhouse gas emissions, was able to hold more moisture, creating circumstances for high quantities of rainfall in a relatively short period of time and allowing for intense flash flooding.
More:‘Warmer and wetter’: US’ changing climate helps fuel record Kentucky flooding, experts say
From 1980 through 2000, Kentucky was affected by 20 different “billion-dollar disasters” — events which incurred damages worth $1 billion or more nationally. Since then, when adjusted for inflation, the state has been affected by 56.
And that data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also shows an increase nationally in the number of billion-dollar disasters in recent years.
Since 1980, 2020 and 2021 were the two years with the most billion-dollar disasters nationally, when adjusted for inflation.
NOAA’s data was updated most recently July 11, and therefore does not include the late July Eastern Kentucky flooding in its billion-dollar disaster database.
The U.S. tends to see most of its billion-dollar disasters in the warmer months. But Kentucky has historically seen more of those disasters in the first half of the year than the second, largely in the form of severe storms as spring turns to summer.
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Nationally, severe storms in particular have driven the increase in billion-dollar disasters over the past two decades. Kentucky is at the mercy of those national weather systems and their often unpredictable behavior.
“Kentucky’s weather is very sensitive to the La Niña phenomena in the Pacific,” said state climatologist Megan Schargorodski in an email. “We are looking at La Niña persisting into the fall/winter, which makes it the third year in a row of these conditions.”
NOAA considers a billion-dollar disaster as affecting Kentucky as long as it had some presence in the state. It does not mean that the disaster did $1 billion in damage in Kentucky alone.
Notably, the state has seen two of the worst natural disasters in its history in just the last nine months, with the deadly Western Kentucky tornadoes in December preceding the recent flooding.
More:Rebuilding after Kentucky tornado hasn’t been easy. Regulations, economy make it tougher.
Historical data of Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declarations also captures the devastation that Eastern Kentucky has endured over the years compared to other parts of the state.
FEMA’s disaster declaration data by county goes back to 1967. Kentucky counties have seen about twice as many disaster declarations in the second half of that timespan as the first.
Severe storms, tornadoes and other natural disasters make up the vast majority of FEMA disaster declarations.
In Eastern Kentucky, disaster declarations were often triggered by flooding caused by intense rainfall.
And the region’s resilience factor, as determined by FEMA, was on full display during the recent flooding, when a lack of infrastructure investment combined with unfavorable environmental factors to make matters worse.
More:Kentucky’s flood relief plan: Here are the details you need to know
A community’s resilience factor is determined by its ability to “prepare for anticipated natural hazards, adapt to changing conditions, and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions,” according to FEMA.
Many of the counties hit hardest in the late-July flooding have some of the lowest community resiliency scores in the nation. Knott County, for example, which suffered the most deaths in the disaster, has a lower community resilience rating than 97.9% of other U.S. counties, according to FEMA’s National Risk Index.
The steep slopes of Appalachia and the clustering of homes on flatter land near streams leaves many low-income Kentuckians vulnerable to the kind of severe storms that are hitting the region more and more often as the atmosphere becomes warmer and wetter.
More:‘We’re stronger than this’: How tornadoes & floods test Kentuckians’ resolve, resiliency
Connor Giffin is an environmental reporter for The Courier Journal and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @giffin_connor.
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