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December tornadoes are part of ‘new normal’ caused by climate change, FEMA chief says

Gentian Emini and his wife spent six years saving up to build a home for their family. It was nearly complete when the tornado hit. They lost everything. (Video: Mike Schuh, Alice Li/The Washington Post)
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The rising sun illuminated entire cities in ruin as morning broke Saturday in western Kentucky. Piles of bricks appeared where buildings had stood. Roofs torn open revealed mangled furnishings inside. Bicycles and refrigerators dangled from trees like ornaments.

The deadly tornadoes that caused devastation in Kentucky and five other states came just a few months after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti and Category 4 Hurricane Ida tore through the Eastern United States and Atlantic Canada. In an interview Sunday morning on CNN’s “State of the Union,” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said the agency is preparing for severe weather events of similar magnitude.

“This is going to be our new normal, and the effects that we’re seeing from climate change are the crisis of our generation,” she said. “We’ll continue to work on helping to reduce the impacts, but we’re also prepared to respond to any community that gets impacted by one of these severe events.”

Severe tornadoes are uncommon this late in the year, with December usually considered a quiet month.

“We do see tornadoes in December, that part is not unusual, but at this magnitude, I don’t think we’ve ever seen one this late in the year,” Criswell told host Jake Tapper. “The severity and the amount of time this tornado, or these tornadoes, spent on the ground is unprecedented.”

As of early Monday, the death toll remained uncertain. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) last estimated that some 50 to 100 people in his state were dead.

On Dec. 12, officials said that the states affected by a deadly series of tornadoes are still focused on life-saving efforts. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

A warming world could add more fuel to tornadoes, scientists say

Climate experts who spoke with The Washington Post this weekend said that while global warming creates conditions amenable to tornado formation, it is difficult to conclusively connect tornado events to a changing climate. That’s because the process by which a thunderstorm turns into a tornado involves a complex mix of variables.

President Biden told reporters Saturday that he would ask the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal authorities to explore ties between the tornadoes and climate change.

“The specific impact on these specific storms, I can’t say at this point. … But the fact is that we all know everything is more intense when the climate is warming — everything,” the president said.

Complete coverage: Tornadoes hit several states, killing dozens

President Biden arrived in Kentucky on Wednesday to survey the swaths of damage in areas hardest hit by a string of tornadoes that killed at least 74 people there and 14 in other states.

Live updates: Biden arrives in Kentucky, hardest-hit state after devastating tornado outbreak

Victims: What we know about some of the lives lost in Kentucky

Photos and video: See the damage left by the tornadoes

The storm’s path: Satellite images show leveled buildings

The candle factory: ‘Everyone was trapped’: A candle factory survivor tells her story

Climate: Researchers ponder why Friday’s tornadoes led to so many deaths, despite ample warning