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.
I’m not sure why I’m choosing this blog to finally comment, but it’s lengthy one.
Maybe it’s because since I found your blog, Bill, I’ve been waiting for you to make a comment on what has happened to the social fabric in this country. To me and likely to others, it is not something that has just happened, but has been developing slowly in this country over at least the past 25 years, most blatantly exemplified in the “me” decade of the 1990s, amplified by public and social media, and until recently largely ignored by the intelligentsia which has often insulated itself in its academic and government institutions. 9/11 didn’t help either, as it engendered a sense that we aren’t safe and have to protect ourselves, not only as a nation but in terms of our individual communities and households. That sense further heightened the “me first” mentality that has translated into “don’t spend my money on someone or something else” and has given rise to the Tea Party.
We now have an entire generation emerging on the world stage who had their formative years during the “me” decade and I can’t think that the social fabric problem will get a lot worse before it gets better, based upon what I’ve observed in college students during the last 5-10 years, even at the doctoral level. Discussions with colleagues at various institutions confirms this is not an isolated trend. Although there are always welcome exceptions (and I most enjoy working with those students) the up-and-coming leaders of this country often bear the marks of the “me decade”, summarily generalized as “what’s in it for me?”
Is there hope? Of course, but it falls to those of us who see the problem to lead by example. I’ve found that trying to talk about values with students, for example, often has little more than superficial impact, and I admit I have not always done the best job of leading by example. But I think it behooves all of us who see the problem, no matter what our walk of life, to do more to lead by example. Those of us in academia and public policy have a special responsibility to do so given the numbers of future leaders we may encounter on an annual basis. We will not have the luxury forever of sitting on the sidelines and commenting without engaging. If we do nothing, the country will fall apart either by civil war or a fundamental collapse in government, for which public confidence in has been steady slipping for most of the past decade.
Always good to hear from you, but especially on this topic. Thanks for such a thoughtful and extensive comment. i hope it prompts others to respond.
While the NHMA site is a good one, an even better one might be the National Storm Shelter Association. And we should pay special tribute to Dr. Ernst Kiesling of Texas Tech – the father of the Safe Room concept. The rest of us may talk about extreme events, but he has actually saved lives with his research and his advocacy.
I’d also like to clear up a mistake in Dionne’s article. Senator Coburn may or may not be your cup of tea, but give him his due for consistency. After both Sandy and the Moore tragedy, he did not oppose aid so much as call for corresponding cuts in other expenditures. To paraphrase John Mauldin, the federal deficit is turning our economy into a bug in search of a windshield.
Further, unlike Jeff, I believe we are starting to see a bipartisan consensus forming; for example, around actually putting adequate funds for disasters in the federal budget. We have already seen Biggers-Waters pass Congress forcing those receiving disaster funds to build back better. The National Flood Insurance Program has been reformed so that risk and premiums are better aligned. On the other hand, the press (and Dionne is one of the prime offenders) doesn’t just report the partisan divide but feeds it, because it makes good copy. During much of the 19th century, the partisan splits in Congress were much more vicious than today, even after the Civil War.
for these comments and for setting the record straight on a couple of important points, starting with Senator Coburn’s willingness to accept corresponding cuts to balance aid to Moore.
Thanks as well for the reference to the National Storm Shelter Association. For interested readers, here is the link:http://www.nssa.cc
Your tribute to Ernst Kiesling is especially well deserved; he serves on the NHMA advisory committee.