When it comes to tornadoes and other hazards…

What kind of world do we want?

The Declaration of Independence pretty much spells it out, doesn’t it…at least for Americans?

Well worth a (re)read in its entirety. [But you already knew that.] For present purposes, let’s focus on this one piece:

“…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

We claim our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – even in the face of a world of hazardous extremes. And we expect our governments to provide no less.

Given that extremes of nature (not just tornadoes but also hurricanes, cycles of flood and drought, winter storms, earthquakes volcanic eruptions, and so much more) are recurrent, inescapable realities, what do we realistically seek? Here are some notional suggestions. The hope is they’ll inspire you to develop your improved or perhaps entirely different, better list.

The right to life in the face of hazards? This might translate to:

A warning. For weather extremes, since forecasts show skill, this would include forecasts of major hazards such as floods, drought, winter storms, hurricanes, hail storms, lightning…and those tornadoes. Watches for places and times of special risk several hours ahead of time. Pinpoint warnings inside a half hour. Warnings that reach those in harm’s way, in time for them to take life-saving action.   For hazards such as earthquakes for which forecasts are not yet in prospect, this means good mapping of seismic zones, extending to the smallest possible scales. Along coastlines – vulnerable to winter storms, hurricanes, and seismically triggered tsunamis – this requires special monitoring technologies and an extra measure of vigilance.

Note that all this can give the public no more than a fighting chance. It’s up to each of us to be knowledgeable about the hazards around us and those actions that give us and those we care about the best chance of survival.

The pursuit of happiness in the face of hazards? Among other things, perhaps this implies that

Home ought to be the safest place to be…not just a point of embarkation for the family evacuation. This means effective land use and building codes. And given the dependence of every home today on critical infrastructure – hard infrastructure such as electricity, communications, natural gas, water, transportation, sewage disposal, and soft infrastructure such as health care, financial institutions, schools, and much more – that critical infrastructure should survive as well.

A job to return to after the hazard has come and gone. Many families and individuals survive disasters only to find that their community economy has been disrupted in a lasting way. Many small businesses are destroyed by such events. Others survive initially only to fail over time because their customer base has been hard hit. Very few small businesses which close their doors as a result of disasters ever reopen. Many disaster survivors escape injury entirely only to find that this lack of a job, a sine qua non for normalcy – rather than the immediate disaster as such – is a major contributor to the pain and suffering  that survivors experience.

Natural disasters stay natural. All too often, flood waters pass through a town or city only to be transformed into a slurry of animal carcasses, toxic chemicals, and waste. As earthquakes, high winds, and flooding cause structural failure they rupture gas lines and down electrical wiring, starting fires which are often more dangerous than the original events themselves. In the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the ground shook for 45 seconds; the fires burned for three days and caused most of the death toll. The same would be true of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, nearly a century later. Last year’s Great Tohoku earthquake and the resulting tsunami did tremendous damage to Japan in the first hour, but the damage to the Fukushima nuclear reactors threatens to be more costly and enduring. Often, even after small-scale events such as tornadoes, the simple task of waste removal from the site goes on for a year or more.

Again – a chance to survive the immediate danger, a home we can defend, a job that’s still there even in the aftermath, and an environment that’s whole and unpolluted – this is the happiness we pursue on this hazardous Earth. And these are some of the reasons we institute our federal, state, and local governments.

It’s part of the reason we fund NOAA and other Commerce agencies, USGS and other agencies from Interior, the Department of Homeland Security, independent agencies such as NASA, NSF, and yes…EPA. And it’s part of the reason why

“…for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

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3 Responses to When it comes to tornadoes and other hazards…

  1. At the risk of sounding political, let me take issue with one of your points. To me [being proactive here!], the intent of the Founding Fathers was that government would ensure a job after bad things happened, but that government would ensure opportunities in good times and bad.

    Let me try to take this out of the ethereal and into the concrete. Ten days after Katrina struck, Oreck Corp (makers of vacuum cleaners) reopened their Long Beach, MS, plant. Sixteen months later, they moved their operations to TN because they could not get affordable insurance coverage, and too many skilled workers had not come back. What could government have done? The state had done everything they could do to get people working again – job fairs, helping businesses get back on their feet quickly, fixing the infrastructure …

    The biggest winner (and yes there were some) after Katrina was Baldwin County, AL. Their economy jumped by almost 20%. Why? Because companies left New Orleans and relocated to Mobile, and the executives and their families moved into Baldwin County (For those of you who haven’t been to Fair Hope, it’s a delightful little “artsy” town.). Government didn’t do much for these new jobs.

    This implies – to me – that government (at all levels) shouldn’t be as concerned about jobs as about careers; providing the opportunities for each of us to gain the skills and the abilities not only to get some specific job but to be able to adapt to the inevitable changes in the economy that will occur over each of our lives. This is why public education is so important; yes, it must provide the workforce our country needs to compete in today’s world, but more importantly, it prepares each of us to go forth on our own pursuit of happiness.

    The Declaration says that government should prepare us for the journey, not that it must magically transport us to the destination. It is up to each of us to find our own direction, to follow our own paths, to what we believe is happiness. Government can provide us the shoes – we must still take the steps.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, John…

      Before I wrote this post, I went back over the history of the blog, because I was surprised I hadn’t already gone down this (admittedly somewhat whimsical) path. In the course of realizing that I hadn’t in fact covered this ground earlier, I also remembered why…and it had to do pretty much with your line of reasoning here. There’s a difference between rights… and aspirational goals, and between rights… and responsibilities.

      Both your comment and mine call to mind some of what experts have been saying about the economic downturn we’ve been in since 2008. They point out that the economy has been slow to recover in part because American workers aren’t so mobile in the aftermath of the financial meltdown as they had been in previous recessions, or after disasters such as Katrina, because so many are underwater with respect to their mortgages. They can’t so readily pick up stakes and move. The reasons behind this state of affairs are a blend of individual responsibility and government policy.

  2. My thought got in front of my fingers – I meant to say that the intent was NOT to ensure a job, but …

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