Severe weather, including tornadoes, could be new normal in Ohio

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What is left of the barn at Jim Baier's farm after a tornado tore through Logan County, Ohio in March. (Submitted photo)

SALEM, Ohio — After a massive twister tore through several central Ohio counties on Feb. 27, leaving razed pole barns and toppled houses in a 21-mile path of destruction, the message from the agricultural experts was unambiguous.

This is going to happen again. Even if the disaster in question isn’t a tornado, destructive weather is growing more common as the world grows hotter, and farmers need to be prepared.

The late February twister’s base was measured in hundreds of feet, little in its path was spared and it was just one of several twisters that ravaged central and western Ohio in the past two months. Affected farmers said livestock and equipment was mostly spared because they relocated everything moveable.

But growers talked about felled pole barns, debris piles where houses once stood and insurance payouts that will likely fall short of the value of what was lost.

What happened

In the early morning hours of Feb. 27, Charlie Troxell’s friends and family frantically called his cell phone to urge him to move his family into the basement.

His corn and soybean farm near South Vienna was in the path of a twister — one of six in Ohio confirmed by the National Weather Service that day — with a base nearly 500 feet wide. While the twister abruptly switched directions, sparing a barn filled with grain, two other barns on his farm were razed and a month later he’s still dealing with the aftermath.

Pieces of Troxell’s barns “are scattered across hundreds of acres of ours,” he said. “We haven’t even found a couple of the barn doors that blew off.”

The farmer also said he’s spent untold hours in his office adding up what was lost.

Troxell said his structures were well-insured, but economics may thwart his rebuilding plans. His insurance is based on the price of the now-demolished structures from years ago, before inflation pushed up the price of building materials, which will force him to choose what to rebuild and what to leave in the loss column.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make that work,” he said.

Why this is going to keep happening

The massive Feb. 27 twister also damaged or destroyed more than two thirds of the buildings in Ohio State’s Molly Caren Agricultural Center in Madison County. On March 14, a separate twister tore through several central Ohio counties, including Union and Logan in central Ohio, killing six people.

Climate change means that some of the conditions that lead to tornadoes, such as warm weather, will be more frequent. However, tornadoes are highly localized, and are not well understood, making it difficult to link their prevalence to climate change, experts stress.

“There is still too much we don’t physically know about tornadoes to draw a clear connection to climate change,” said Geddy Davis, an atmospheric scientist at Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center.

But scientists have no doubt that other extreme weather events — like intense storms and severe floods that damage buildings, kill livestock and inundate fields with flood waters — will grow more common as the planet warms, Davis said.

Intense winds and torrential downpours won’t make headlines like a 500-foot-wide twister, but are still destructive, agricultural experts said.

“Probably the biggest thing for everyone would be to understand that somebody will have storm damage in the near future,” said Nick Zachrich, manager for the Farm Science Review, an annual trade show held at the Molly Caren Agricultural Center. “We’ve seen that even since the tornado that damaged our facilities.”

What can be done

Farmers can’t make barns or houses weatherproof, but they can brace for natural disasters in other ways.

“You can’t prepare for a direct hit on the farm,” said Wayne Dellinger, an agriculture and natural resource educator for Ohio State Extension in Union County. “You can do a few things ahead of time to ease the impact that it would have.”

Farmers, for example, can make sure their buildings are insured, he said. Although some might not be able to afford the most generous insurance plans, Zachrich noted.

Any crops kept in storage bins should be inventoried and livestock must be cataloged and tagged, Dellinger said.

“It is important to make sure livestock is identified through tattoos or ear tags,” he said. “You may be rounding them up across the county, and you have to be able to identify what is yours.”

Growers should know where to move their equipment, and most of all, they should know where their family should go in the event of a disaster.

Jim Baier, a grain farmer who also raises cattle on a farm north of Huntsville in Logan County, saw a 60 by 120 foot barn destroyed in the March 13 tornado.

“It was nothing but metals and sticks on the ground,” he said.

Still, the grower considers himself fortunate.

“We survived and the cattle survived,” he said.

Most of his equipment was also spared, although his two-story home, which suffered severe damage, will have to be rebuilt.

Baier is waiting to see what the insurance will cover.

“We’re looking at probably putting in a one-story house,” he said. “Hopefully the insurance will allow us to do that without going into debt.”

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