In the first two weeks of 2024, three winter storms – Ember, Finn and Gerri – brought severe weather to much of the U.S. mainland, including wind, rain, hail, snow and freezing temperatures. As of Jan. 18, Winter Storm Indigo is moving across the country, but is unlikely to cause as much damage as previous storms. Storm Finn led to six deaths and kicked the winter tornado season into high gear.
As of Jan. 31, 2024, there have been 38 confirmed twisters, although many of the ratings are considered preliminary until published in the National Centers for Environmental (NCEI) database. These tornadoes included 16 EF-0, 15 EF-1, six EF-2 and one EF-3.
This profile focuses on the most impactful tornadoes, especially for marginalized and at-risk populations. Tornadoes will be listed in the Impact section in reverse date, chronological order.
(Storm damage in Panama City Beach on Jan. 9, 2024. Photo credit: Bay County Sheriff’s Office via Facebook)
Between 1991 and 2020, an average of 39.4 tornadoes were recorded across the U.S. in January (with an average of 2.2 fatalities). According to the NCEI database’s statistics, there have only been two Januarys in the U.S. without a tornado (January 2003 and January 1986) since 1950. Last year had the third-highest number of tornadoes in January, with 128 twisters (and eight deaths). The highest was in 1999, with 214 twisters, followed by 2017 with 137 tornadoes.
The NWS defines tornadoes as “a violently rotating column of air touching the ground, usually attached to the base of a thunderstorm.” Any thunderstorm can develop a tornado, but the most severe twisters are created inside supercell thunderstorms, defined by a rotating updraft. Tornadoes are measured using the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which assigns ratings from EF-0 to EF-5. The NWS determines what rating the tornado receives based on the amount of damage viewed on the ground. This helps investigators estimate the highest approximate wind speed that was sustained for at least a three-second gust.
Since 1880, the percentage of fatalities during daytime tornadoes has decreased by 20%, while the percentage of deaths during nighttime tornadoes has increased by the same amount. Between 1880-1890, approximately 30% of tornado fatalities occurred at night. By 2010-2020 (the last period included in the study), the split was much closer to 50/50. Nighttime tornadoes kill twice as many people as daytime tornadoes annually.
During a typical El Niño season, the risk to the traditional tornado alley – through the central Plains and lower Midwestern states – switches to Florida, Texas and the West Coast.
Jan. 8-10, 2024: Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina
As of Jan. 31, 32 tornadoes have been confirmed and received preliminary ratings.
There were three EF-0 tornadoes on Jan. 8, two in Georgia, followed by one near Labadieville, Louisiana. The Labadieville twister traveled almost a mile despite only being on the ground for a minute. It damaged several mobile homes, including one that was thrown into a fire station.
The other 29 tornadoes occurred on Jan. 9, beginning in Santa Rosa County, Florida, with an EF-1, just after 2:30 a.m. Central. This was followed shortly thereafter by eight more EF-1 or EF-0 tornadoes in Alabama, Florida and Mississippi.
The biggest tornado of the day was a EF-3 in Bay County, Florida, beginning at 5:31 a.m. Central. It began in the Lower Grand Lagoon area and traveled into Panama City Beach and onto Panama City, which were all significantly damaged by Hurricane Michael.
Although only on the ground for six minutes, the twister saw gusts of 140 mph and covered more than five miles. Photos of a house that moved off its foundation and was leaning on the home next door quickly spread through social media. Several homes were damaged significantly, and a beachfront property was destroyed. Two apartment buildings suffered significant damage and a boat storage facility experienced structural failure.
This is the first EF-3 tornado to hit Florida in the month of January. There have only been 49 EF-3 or stronger tornadoes in Florida. The tornado’s wind speeds of 136-165 mph are equivalent to a major hurricane.
There were six EF-2 tornadoes: three in Florida, one that began in Florida and ended in Alabama, one in Georgia, and one in South Carolina.
The first EF-2 tornado was also in Bay County, spinning off the same supercell as the Grand Lagoon EF-3 twister. Several mobile homes were damaged or destroyed, and many single-family homes were also severely damaged. This tornado, known as the Deer Point Lake tornado, had peak winds of 130 mph and was on the ground for 12 minutes beginning at 5:43 a.m. Central. It traveled 13.05 miles with a maximum width of 600 yards. Two people were injured.
The second EF-2 began at 6:25 a.m. Central, four miles outside of Simsville in Jackson County, Florida. It was on the ground for almost 30 minutes, had a maximum width of 600 yards and traveled 16.5 miles, with winds reaching 125 mph. This storm injured seven people, all in an RV park. It damaged several free-standing homes and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen manufactured homes, two churches, and dozens of trees. The town of Marianna, severely damaged during Hurricane Michael in 2018, was badly hit.
A marina and a condo apartment building were both badly damaged.
The third EF-2 has the longest length of 2024 so far, with a measured track of 35.66 miles and a width of 1,000 yards. It began in Florida near Chipley and ended in Cottonwood, Alabama. Several mobile homes and a few single-family homes were damaged or destroyed, as well as outbuildings, silos and many small businesses, especially in Cottonwood. Several government buildings were damaged, and Jim Smith, the town’s public safety director, told WDHN, “The town of Cottonwood is basically destroyed.” The town estimates that clean-up will take 10-12 weeks for a total cost of $1.1 million to $1.3 million.
The fourth EF-2 was the Callaway Tornado in Bay County. Florida. It was a short-lived twister, on the ground for only two minutes, and traveled less than a mile. There was heavy damage to two homes and a manufactured home.
The fifth EF-2 of the day was in Georgia at 9:46 a.m. Central and was part of the Chipley-Cottonwood supercell. The Arlington tornado in Early and Calhoun counties is the second-longest twister of the year at 22.02 miles and a width of 800 yards. Many of the homes damaged in this tornado were brick or concrete, but there was damage to at least one manufactured home. The maximum wind speed was 120 mph, which is equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.
The sixth EF-2 tornado was recorded in and around Bamberg, South Carolina. It had winds of 125 mph and was on the ground for 2.15 miles with a maximum width of 500 yards. It hit at 1:46 p.m. Central and was only on the ground for two minutes. Despite the short time, it did considerable damage, including flipping a mobile home and damaging a barrel plant. In downtown Bamberg, the tornado damaged several two- and three-story historic buildings. The former city hall, already missing pieces of roof and walls, collapsed.
An EF-1 tornado, with peak winds of 110 mph, led to one death, four injuries and 30 people displaced in a mobile home park in Claremont, North Carolina. The 39-year-old man who was killed died protecting his pregnant wife and young child, saving their lives.
Jan. 6, 2024: Florida
A tornado touched down in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and was initially (erroneously) reported by the media to be the first tornado of the year. This was later corrected. The tornado mostly damaged boats, trees and powerlines, although some houses had minor damage. The tornado was quite small, running about 1.5 miles, with a width of a 100 yards and winds of only 80 mph.
Jan. 5, 2024: Texas
While there are many immediate needs in the wake of the tornadoes, such as temporary housing, childcare, automobile replacement, etc., funders must also consider holding back funds in anticipation of the intermediate and long-term needs of the affected communities.
Immediate needs include tarping, cleaning and temporary repair of damaged homes and businesses. This includes debris clean-up, which is significant because of the amount of damage and felling of trees. There will be a need to replace vehicles, personal belongings, appliances and furniture lost in the tornadoes.
Power outages cause concerns for feeding and heating. Many deaths after events such as these are attributable to improper use of propane for heating or cooking.
Long-term repair and rebuilding of housing and businesses requires additional funding beyond the initial infusion of funds to address life safety issues. Community members with the resources to recover independently will do so. In contrast, without an additional injection of assistance, at-risk community members may not be able to recover.
As tornado alley shifts and storms move closer toward the southeast, more urban areas will be affected. At the same time, many tornadoes also impact rural communities that will not garner the same attention as more urban areas.
For example, the City of Selma was hard hit by the tornadoes in mid-January 2023 and received the most media attention, but smaller communities in the Black Belt were also affected. The March 2023, Mississippi tornadoes hit extremely small towns without the resources to support those affected.
Recovery in rural communities is slower and requires “patient dollars.” Funders must understand that progress will not occur as quickly as it does in larger, more well-resourced communities. Investments should be made over time: pledges of multi-year funding are very helpful, as is support for operating costs and capacity building.
Funders would, however, be wise to remember that while many rural communities do not have access to the same level of financial assistance as some urban areas, the social fabric and human capital available in more rural communities can be a powerful force multiplier.
People whose homes were damaged will need support securing new housing that is safe and affordable and/or repairing their damaged homes. After a tornado, displaced residents may face challenges finding housing that meets their needs. Tornadoes affect people from all walks of life, some with insurance and others without. The destruction of manufactured homes (often called mobile homes) will also affect affordable housing availability in communities.
Depending upon the location of housing, the homeowner may not own the land, only the building. Additionally, insurance is limited on manufactured housing, especially based on the age of the building.
Although manufactured housing can be physically vulnerable to tornadoes, it also represents an affordable and accessible housing option. Balancing safety with the benefits of manufactured homes can be a challenge. On Oct. 12, 2022, CDP hosted a webinar about the increased risks manufactured homes face and their role in disaster recovery.
In many parts of the country, demand for housing outpaces supply, complicating recovery efforts. Affected people living in rural areas or public housing and people from marginalized groups will require assistance identifying and securing housing. The ability to rebuild in rural communities is also challenging due to reduced economies of scale and the cost of transporting goods.
A critical ongoing need will be unrestricted cash donations to support affected individuals and families. Direct cash assistance can allow families to secure housing, purchase items and contract services locally that address their multiple needs. It gives each family flexibility and choice, ensuring that support is relevant, cost-effective and timely. Cash assistance can also help move families faster toward rebuilding their lives. Cash also provides a much-needed jolt to local economies, which can also be a major boon to recovery.
After a tornado with significant damage, schools may be closed for a few weeks to help with recovery. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when students need the social support of their friends and teachers, especially as their families may be busy with their recovery activities.
Child care and child support programs are particularly helpful during this time and can reduce the need for child trauma counseling in later months.
There are often immediate health needs after tornadoes related to injuries that arise as people are hit by falling debris. Additionally, tornadoes often damage health centers and hospitals, or medical staff are impacted, reducing overall access to services.
Roads may be blocked by debris or flooding, making access to health care challenging, especially in rural communities.
Emotional and spiritual care
Emotional and spiritual care will be critical, especially for families of people killed in the storms, first responders and those in the tornadoes’ direct paths. Long-term mental health and trauma support will also be required. Some of the affected communities were impacted by previous events, which has left them with increased trauma from natural hazards.
The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network is designed to build “a network that connects individuals who are engaged in farming, ranching, and other agriculture-related occupations to stress assistance programs. The establishment of a network that assists farmers and ranchers in times of stress can offer a conduit to improving behavioral health awareness, literacy, and outcomes for agricultural producers, workers and their families.” They provide grants to help with this.
Business recovery is always critical to helping communities rebuild. When tornadoes damage or destroy businesses, it negatively impacts people’s livelihoods. Given the higher costs of living and ongoing recovery from COVID, this is particularly challenging for small businesses.
Navigating the disaster assistance process
Disaster assistance may be available in various forms and from different sources. People will need help navigating the assistance process, particularly undocumented people and people whose first language is not English.
In most situations, disaster recovery navigation services – also called disaster case management – can be a valuable and hugely impactful resource in expediting the recovery process, especially if governmental disaster assistance is available. Government assistance is vital but can also be cumbersome and confusing for households and communities.
For example, Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans are part of the federal sequence of assistance for FEMA’s Individual and Households Program (IHP). Many people may not understand that the loans, though they originate from the SBA, can be made to individuals/families. In some circumstances, the SBA loan application is required in order to access additional FEMA assistance. Due to the confusion of SBA working with individuals and households, many people do not complete the application and become ineligible for additional federal assistance. In cases like this, disaster case managers can provide essential support and guidance in accessing resources and navigating the road to recovery.
Furthermore, a recently released study from the U.S. Commission on Human Rights found that FEMA did not equitably serve at-risk populations, including people with disabilities, people living in poverty and English as a second language speakers, during Hurricanes Harvey or Maria in 2017.
Furthermore, in federally-declared disasters from 2016 to 2018, 5.6 million people applied for FEMA assistance and 4.4 million (79%) were referred to IHP. Of the 4.4 million, FEMA found almost 2 million eligible (45%). On average, FEMA awarded about $4,200 to homeowners and $1,700 to renters during 2016 through 2018. The average household FEMA award ranges from $3,000-5,000, far from the amount needed to rebuild life after a disaster.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) will continue to monitor the impact of tornadoes and the needs that may arise.
To support tornado recovery efforts, please donate to CDP’s Tornado Recovery Fund. Contribution to address winter storms such as Finn or Gerri can be made to the CDP Disaster Recovery Fund.
If you have questions about donating to the CDP Tornado Recovery Fund, need help with your disaster-giving strategy or want to share how you’re responding to this disaster, please contact development.
(Tornado damage in Bamberg, South Carolina on Jan. 9, 2024. Credit: Justin Bamberg via X)
Philanthropic and government support
With a $180,000 grant from CDP’s Midwest Early Recovery Fund and the Tornado Recovery Fund, the Arkansas Community Foundation is supporting disaster case management and childcare provider needs in response to the 2023 Arkansas tornadoes.
Disaster Services Corporation – Society of St. Vincent de Paul received $134,766.03 from CDP to continue long-term disaster case management efforts in Rolling Fork, Mississippi and surrounding communities affected by tornadoes in 2023.
Recovering Oklahomans After Disaster (ROAD) is utilizing $150,000 from CDP’s Tornado Recovery Fund and the Midwest Early Recovery Fund to support staffing capacity for home repair work after multiple severe storms and tornadoes throughout Oklahoma in 2023.
The National Weather Service defines tornadoes as “a violently rotating column of air touching the ground, usually attached to the base of a thunderstorm.” The U.S. is home to more tornadoes than any other country in the world, with approximately 900 to 1,700 tornadoes occurring a year throughout the country.
Rural populations often struggle with disaster response and recovery. Explore why.
Long-Term Recovery Groups
A long-term recovery group is a cooperative body that is made up of representatives from faith-based, nonprofit, government, business and other organizations working within a community to assist individuals and families as they recover from disaster.