Dec 13, 2021 - Podcasts

The deadliest December tornado outbreak on record

The death toll continues to rise in Kentucky after devastating tornadoes touched down in the state Friday night. More than 80 people are confirmed dead and scores more injured. Some of the worst damage and the highest toll may be in southwestern Kentucky, but at least two dozen tornadoes were on the ground across six different states. Towns have been flattened and infrastructure devastated. Ten of thousands are without electricity and temperatures have been hovering around freezing.

  • And, what we learned about living with COVID this year.

Guests: Axios' Andrew Freedman and Sam Baker.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Jayk Cherry, and David Toledo. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, December 13th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re covering today: what we learned about living with COVID this year.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: the deadliest December tornado outbreak on record.

GOVERNOR ANDY BESHEAR: We're just trying to identify the dead, locate the living reunite families. Try to give people a place to stay and something to eat, get them their medicine, meet their, their needs.

NIALA: The death toll continues to rise in Kentucky after devastating tornadoes touched down in the state Friday night. Late yesterday, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear described the destruction in a news conference.

BESHEAR: For folks that can only see the images. You stand in the midst of this and everything you see, everything right left forward, backwards is gone and you can see for maybe even miles, um, that you previously couldn't.

NIALA: More than 80 people are confirmed dead, scores more injured. Some of the worst damage and the highest toll may be in Southwestern Kentucky, but at least two dozen tornadoes were on the ground across six different states. Towns have been flattened and infrastructure devastated and tens of thousands are without electricity as temperatures have been hovering around freezing. We're joined now by Axios’ climate and energy reporter Andrew Friedman. Hi Andrew.


NIALA: Andrew, we've never seen anything on record like what we saw this weekend. What does that mean about how powerful this storm, how historic these tornadoes were?

ANDREW: We've never seen anything like this in the month of December. To some extent that one particular storm that did hit those communities in Kentucky that is right up there with anything that we've ever seen, any month. The storm itself was rotating for 11 hours, across about 600 miles, it was truly an exceptional event.

NIALA: What are we hearing and what are you hearing from different folks about the devastation that this caused?

ANDREW: I think it can be difficult for people who have never seen this to really comprehend the scope and the scale. We're talking homes that have been reduced to a slab of foundation. We're talking, you know, two by fours driven into the side of trees. The images that come out of some of the warehouses that were collapsed, are just a tangled coils of metal. And one of the eerie things from tornadoes that I've seen in the past is what the Governor talked about. Where suddenly, where it used to be maybe a forest or a town, suddenly it's clear. And you can just see all the way out to the horizon. And it's just staggering.

NIALA: What kind of wind speeds were we talking about?

ANDREW: They're still trying to figure out if some things were errors, but when I was just using my iPhone application, looking at this, you know, it was measuring winds of around 180 to 200 miles an hour. You know, I wouldn't be surprised if they find that some areas were above 200 miles an hour. There was just a tremendous amount of energy in the form of wind shear aloft, that was able to be translated into these tornadoes.

NIALA: Andrew, President Biden did speak about this over the weekend, especially expressing his condolences for the loss of life. What is the FEMA and federal government response to all of this?

ANDREW: The FEMA and federal government response does seem to be very quick and forward leaning. The problem that we've seen though in the past is that people may go a significant amount of time between when they put in the application for FEMA aid and when they get their checks. But they do seem to be mobilizing at the exact same scale, scope and speed at which you would expect for a category five hurricane hitting the state.

NIALA: Axios’ climate and energy reporter Andrew Friedman. Thank you, Andrew.

ANDREW: Thank you for having me.

NIALA: Vaccines, testing and social distancing, in 15 seconds, lessons from year two of the pandemic.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios toda, I'm Niala Boodhoo. This is our last week of podcasts for the year - the entire team is taking the last two weeks of December off to enjoy the holidays and the New Year. So this week, we’re delving into some of 2021’s biggest stories. Today - we’re starting with the biggest: the pandemic.

The U.S. has just passed 800,000 coronavirus-related deaths. We’ve seen a 26 percent increase in cases since the week before Thanksgiving -- which is, of course, before winter - and the new Omicron variant - have really set in.

Axios’ senior editor Sam Baker joins us to reflect on how we learned to fight and live with Covid in 2021 and what that means for 2022 . Hey, Sam.

SAM BAKER: Good morning, Niala.

NIALA: Sam, this second year of the pandemic really was defined by the vaccine, which first became available at the very end of 2020. What did we learn about vaccine efficacy this year?

SAM: Well, we learned a lot, we learned that they work very well, even against the Delta variant. They do not prevent people who get them from becoming infected, but that they are nevertheless extremely effective at preventing you from dying or becoming seriously ill.

NIALA: But then of course, that begs the very big question is what actually worked to get people vaccinated? Did mandates do the trick?

SAM: Right. They only work if you take them. You probably remember when the rollout was first getting going, a lot of states were, uh, you know, we'll enter your name into a lottery to win a million dollars or restaurants are giving away gift cards, if you get vaccinated. That didn't work, mandates seem to have worked somewhat better. The vaccination rate in the US is still lower than where experts would want to see it, even though the Biden administration has put some, pretty sweeping mandates in place. Mandates don't necessarily, it's not a snap of the fingers, but we've seen the numbers go up more with mandates than we did kinder incentives.

NIALA: What is the vaccination rate look like in the US?

SAM: So about 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated and 70% of adults. So that leaves about 40% of the country, 30% of adults who are not at least fully vaccinated. Some of those people may have had one dose. But, then of course there's a whole debate coming after that about whether we need to change the definition of fully vaccinated to account for boosters.

NIALA: Of course, since the very beginning of the pandemic for two years now, people have been wearing masks and social distancing. How have we seen the US adapt to that over the past year?

SAM: I think still not very well. There's been a lot of resistance to that really throughout the pandemic because we have learned that the vaccines maybe don't prevent simple infection as well as we might want. We have kind of learned, we need some of these other things on top of vaccines, especially testing. And I don't think that that has ever been a very successful sales pitch, if you will, in the United States.

NIALA: Would you say testing was one of our big failures of the year as a country?

SAM: Yeah, I think it's safe to say testing is a failure. I think not getting more people vaccinated is the primary failure.

NIALA: Sam, we started this conversation with the latest fatalities as well as case numbers, and we know that that is on the rise. But, can we think about 2022 being the year that may be Covid becomes a seasonal reality where we start thinking about Covid every fall and winter as we do with the seasonal flu? Are we to, is it too early to say that, to make that pronouncement?

SAM: I think, unfortunately, it's probably too early to make that pronouncement. I mean, I think an important thing for us to remember as we think about year one and year two of the pandemic. Yes, year two, 2021, was the year that we had vaccines. It was also deadlier than the first year, mostly because of the spread of the Delta variant. The Omicron variant might cause less severe disease, but we don't know what other variants might be coming behind it. So that is certainly the hope that we will start to, you know, we'll never be through with Covid-19 that maybe we can get it down to where it sort of comes in waves more similar to the flu. I don't think it's necessarily safe to say that we're there yet.

NIALA: Sam Baker is a senior editor for Axios. Sam, thank you for being with us on this, for not just this past year, but the last year and a half.

SAM: Thanks, Niala and happy holidays.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text us at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and Niala will be back here tomorrow morning.

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