Original image
Patty Ingalls, NSSL NOAA via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Why Does It Seem Like Tornadoes Target Mobile Homes?

Original image
Patty Ingalls, NSSL NOAA via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The idea that tornadoes are magnetically attracted to mobile home parks is almost a morbid joke in the United States—a way to cope with the predictable horror of seeing these vulnerable communities destroyed year after year, killing and injuring dozens of people. Mobile homes, commonly known as trailers, are so frequently destroyed in bad storms that it almost seems like these structures are targeted for destruction by tornadoes. The factoid is somewhat true, but for the wrong reasons.

A map showing the tracks of every recorded tornado in the United States between 1950 and 2015. Map: Dennis Mersereau

The United States averages about 1000 tornadoes every year. Most of those tornadoes touch down in the central and southern parts of the country, but they can and do happen in all 50 states. A huge majority of tornadoes—80 percent, in fact—don’t cause too much damage and wind up on the lower end of the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is used to estimate a tornado’s winds based on the damage it produces.

Most structures can stand up against the winds of a small tornado. Not without damage, of course, but if you’re in a well-built home or office building, you have good odds of coming out of an EF-1 tornado with four walls and most of a roof dangling above you. Mobile homes are much different.

A map showing the percentage of mobile homes in each county and parish in the United States. Map: Dennis Mersereau

A significant percentage of homes in rural parts of the United States are mobile homes. The number of residences that are mobile homes is greater than 10 percent in many parts of the South, the West, and around the Appalachian Mountains. The number of mobile homes in the South is particularly concerning when you overlay historical tornado tracks on the above map.

All recorded tornado tracks between 1950 and 2015 overlain on top of the percentage of mobile homes by county. Map: Dennis Mersereau

Here we get to the crux of the issue. Tornadoes don’t go out of their way to hit mobile homes—you’re just more likely to live in one of these homes if you live in places where tornadoes are common. Compounding the issue is the fact that mobile homes simply aren’t built to withstand the winds of a bad thunderstorm, let alone a tornado. A huge part of tornado safety relies on the sturdiness of the building that takes a direct hit. Many mobile homes are built with cheaper construction materials that aren’t rated to withstand a fraction of the winds of a sturdier structure.

Tucked away in the guidelines that the National Weather Service uses to estimate the strength of tornadoes are their estimates for how strong a tornado’s winds have to be to destroy a standard, single-wide mobile home. According to their scale, it only takes winds of about 87 mph to shift a mobile home off its blocks. Winds of 89 mph are sufficient to peel the roof off the home. The entire mobile home begins to flip over and roll downwind once a tornado’s wind speed climbs up around 98 mph. The whole building is destroyed once winds exceed 100 mph.

Those destructive 100 mph winds would make a tornado rated an EF-1, which is on average the most common rating for tornadoes in the country. But 20 percent of all tornadoes that touch down are stronger than that, and many of them occur in regions where lots of people live in mobile homes. Compare that to the damage a single-family home would sustain in the same tornado: broken windows, a busted garage door, a broken chimney, and some roof damage. It’s a far cry from losing everything (and possibly everyone) you know and love. That’s the terrifying reality that many people face each spring and summer, and it’s why mobile homes are so frequently damaged in destructive storms. 

Original image
Bess Lovejoy
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
Original image
Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Original image
The Northern Lights Won’t Be This Bright Again Until 2025
Original image

If you’ve ever camped out to see the northern lights, you know they can be elusive. They’re only visible on dark, clear nights up north when a solar flare or solar wind shoots particles toward Earth. Seeing the phenomenon live takes a bit of luck, but if spectators wish to boost their chances, now's the time. As Thrillist reports, the aurora borealis is at its peak—and won’t be this bright again until 2025.

The colorful lights that seem to bend in the sky over the Arctic Circle are the product of electrons from the Sun colliding with gases in the planet’s atmosphere. The lights are controlled by the Sun, and because solar activity goes through 11-year cycles, so does the aurora borealis.

The Sun is currently at the end of the maximum stage of its cycle. The increased solar activity makes for northern lights that are more frequent and visible farther south. As the Sun starts to move into its minimum phase of activity, the light show will be harder to see from parts of the world to the south of northern Russia, northern Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia. The next part of the cycle will last about eight years, with solar activity starting to heat up again around 2025.

On rare occasions, the northern lights can be seen from some of the lower 48 states, like Maine, Michigan, and Washington. But to make sure you catch them in peak season, U.S. residents may have to travel north. Here are a few inexpensive trips you can take to get an eyeful of the spectacle.

[h/t Thrillist]


More from mental floss studios