LightBox identifies impacted properties and possible environmental concerns from Kentucky tornados
On December 10, 2021, a severe convective storm system spawned major tornados in four states, the largest of which passed through western Kentucky, killing 76 people and inflicting major damage. As the cleanup process began, questions arose about chemicals and hazardous material inside buildings that were destroyed.
LightBox provided data to USA Today about property characteristics and environmental concerns around buildings in the path of the tornados, which passed through Mayfield and Dawson Springs in Kentucky. The paper wanted to know whether the destruction of certain commercial or residential structures could release contamination.
Chemicals routinely regulated by government agencies include petroleum, solvents, hazardous waste, asbestos, and lead. Each has well-understood risks about potential harm to human health and the environment. Because they are stored in or are part of physical locations, LightBox can deploy its real estate data to help officials responding to disasters track these materials, a process that would be time-consuming and inefficient if authorities had to acquire data from dozens or hundreds of sources.
The Kentucky tornado is a case-study in how LightBox data and analytics can answer critical questions about properties, buildings and risk.
Cross-Referencing Multiple Datasets Helps Generate Powerful Insights
Using the tornado track provided by the National Weather Service, LightBox mapped a half-mile-wide path covering 160 miles from the Kentucky–Tennessee border northeast through Mayfield and Dawson Springs to Rough River Lake. A search of more than 2,000 federal, state, local, and tribal databases showed locations where petroleum or hazardous chemicals might be manufactured, used, stored, or transported, including state hazardous waste sites, manufacturing operations, landfills, businesses required to maintain a risk management plan, known waste generators, and aboveground storage tanks.
Focusing on databases of higher-risk chemicals, we came up with a list of approximately 350 properties along the 160-mile path with chemicals or operations that could create a threat were the building to be damaged or destroyed. Among them were 30 facilities handling or storing waste and 75 locations with large petroleum or chemical storage tanks. In addition to sources of contamination from commercial operations, older houses may contain asbestos (before 1989) or lead (before 1978).
Damage from the storm included leaking chemical tanks and drums at a candle factory, petroleum spills from trucks at a chicken processing plant, overturned train cars, and chemical releases at retail locations.
The information from LightBox’s comprehensive property database that we shared with USA Today helped its investigative reporters and editors determine how many properties were affected by the tornado. The data uncovered 1,400 properties in the path of just one of these tornados, which devastated Mayfield. While the EPA reported no issues at facilities that use extremely hazardous substances, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet dispatched teams to towns, including Mayfield, to assess and initiate cleanup. According to USA Today, “Analysis by LightBox of the tornado’s path through Kentucky demonstrates the environmental risks such a force of nature presents.”
LightBox’s Unique Property Data Capabilities
For 30 years, LightBox has been collecting property data, including data for regulated facilities and other sources of potential environmental contamination. We have combined this information with nationwide tax parcel and property attribute information and building footprint outlines. This singular, connected property dataset makes LightBox uniquely positioned to answer questions about the impact of storms and other catastrophic events at the property level.
At the same time, LightBox is helping clients and partners address a range of important challenges, such as climate change, flood risk, environmental justice, and broadband access inequality, a sign of the far-reaching potential of our data and analytics.