The news continues from Moore, Oklahoma, as the community begins an all-too-familiar recovery process: remembering the beloved who died, and saying farewell; healing from injury, and caring for those who need to mend; sifting through the rubble for what can be salvaged; clearing away mountains of debris, and planning the rebuilding; returning to a job or looking for new work. The people of Moore have been through this four times over just two decades. They know better than most that the road ahead is difficult and long.
In the background, emerging in the news stories, are hints of a growing trend that menaces America as much or more than anything we’ve seen so far in the natural disasters of the past few years.
Several candidate possibilities might come to your mind.
For example, some news reports reminded us that the Moore tornado wasn’t necessarily a worst-case scenario. They called to our recollection the Tri-State Tornado of Wednesday, March 18, 1925, which killed almost 700 people over its 200 mile track. They refer to its predecessor, a June 8, 1805 event that went through the same region and left an unbroken swath of downed trees two miles wide extending hundreds of miles from Missouri through southern Illinois to Indiana. Imagine a similar event occurring today, and shift its location a bit north, toward Chicago. That would be occasioning a different level of national discussion. Each and every day, we are one day closer to that future event.
Ominous…but this is not our biggest challenge.
Some have noted that population growth and urban sprawl are increasing our exposure, so that on that basis alone we can expect greater loss of property and life in future years.
Though we should keep this growing vulnerability in mind, it has to be seen in a larger context. Our population growth and urban sprawl are bigger issues, conveying opportunity as well as risk. They deserve attention on their own, broader merits.
Needn’t be our greatest concern.
Some have argued the need for more safe rooms in more homes, and more safe rooms in more public buildings. To fail to move in this direction is to condemn us to growing losses in the future. The Natural Hazard Mitigation Association website provides a good starting point for more information here. The challenge is not just safe rooms in new home construction… it’s the extension of the concept to large spaces such as schools, etc. The engineering challenge and the costs of scaling up wind-resistant structures grow quickly with the size of those structures. And that’s putting aside the problem of retrofits to existing structures, which is far more costly still. Where’s the funding to come from?
Vexing, but this isn’t our biggest challenge.
Others see a climate change footprint, although informal on-line discussion among experts suggests this topic should be explored with the caution befitting its complexity. Even the Union of Concerned Scientists has called for restraint here.
So this wouldn’t seem to be our biggest challenge either.
Here’s my candidate for the most troubling piece of what lies ahead. The polarization of our society has begun to fray our fundamental social fabric… our commitment to pull together and come alongside each other at a national level when disaster strikes. We saw this back in the New Orleans Katrina event. The country recoiled at the size of the $100B recovery bill. We saw this in Hurricane Sandy last fall, when Governor Christie was flayed by his party for thanking a Democratic president for help, and again when Congress initially balked at passage of a $50B supplemental for recovery of the area, and then more recently as the flow of that promised support to the region has proved slow. Most recently we’ve seen it in the response to the Moore tornado, with Senator Coburn arguing against Oklahoma accepting national aid, and with some Democratic legislators seeing this as an opportunity for Sandy payback.
The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne recently captured some of this, writing that Oklahoma needs help, not ideology, after Moore tornado. Here are a couple of snippets:
“except for one moment in our past, there has never been anything un-conservative or controversial about helping the victims of disasters. In fact, federal disaster relief is as old as our republic, as Brian Balogh, a University of Virginia historian, notes in his seminal book, “A Government Out of Sight.”
The practice goes back to the 1780s, Balogh wrote, and “by the mid-1820s, general relief bills were directed at entire classes of victims.” The sensible justification “was the victims’ inability to foresee or predict these sudden events, and the recipients’ innocence of any responsibility for them.”
It was only between 1840 and 1860 that disaster relief from Washington became contentious as a particularly extreme brand of states’ rights politics reared its head. Southerners, Balogh notes, began fearing that “extending federal power” in this way “might establish a precedent for national intervention in the slavery question.””
[Dionne made extensive references to Congressman Cole(R-OK), who represents Moore]
“Cole, in a very different way, is also consistent when it comes to disaster relief. He was one of just 49 House Republicans who voted in January for a $50 billion Hurricane Sandy aid package; 179 voted no. “There’s clearly a federal responsibility to act in this case,” Cole said in a speech on the House floor. “We’ve always acted after disasters.”
And then he offered this piece of prophecy:
“It’s pretty unusual in my state to go through a year without a tornado disaster, and it’s pretty unusual to go through a year without a drought disaster. Each time, we’ve come and asked for help from the federal government; each time, we received that help. Undoubtedly, we’ll be doing that again in the near future. It would be hypocritical, in my view, to fail to do for people in the affected region what I and, I know, many others have routinely asked for our own regions.”
Dionne closes with this: “Empathy, honesty and common sense: We could use more of all three. May the people of Oklahoma get the help they need. Rigid ideology is no substitute for generosity of spirit.”
Just two comments to add. First, the empathy, honesty, and common sense have to be pre-existing. They can’t be set aside during extended periods of partisanship and bickering, and worse… and then somehow magically summoned at a moment’s notice. It doesn’t work that way. Catastrophe accentuates pre-existing states and mindsets. If we’re in community, respect and value each other, and acknowledge our interdependence when things are going well… if we genuinely love one another… then catastrophe will only strengthen our resolve and commitment. If one the other hand, all we’ve known is wrangling and self-centered argument and action, then any empathy in time of crisis looks inadequate, limp, false.
Second, we’ll do better as a nation over the long haul when we all learn from community-level experience anywhere it occurs. The Moore experience shouldn’t sound a cautionary note in Moore alone, or just across Oklahoma. It should be triggering town meetings and leadership action at the community level in every city across America… an examination of risk, an inventory of community options for coping, and an identification of next steps.
The National Weather Service is struggling to get something like this underway with its Weather-Ready-Nation initiative. Programs such as these should be incubated and encouraged.
An analog to the National Transportation Safety Board for natural hazards could also foster such action.