For the second time in less than 15 years, the citizens of Moore, Okla., face the prospect of rebuilding their shattered community after a tragic and devastating tornado.
It is a sad but familiar fact of life in “Tornado Alley,” the stretch of the southern Plains where twisters are more common and, too often, more powerful than anywhere else on Earth. The old saying goes that there nothing stands between the Gulf of Mexico and the North Pole but a barbed-wire fence. Tornadoes are fueled by the clash of warm, moist, light air masses from the Gulf and cold, dry, dense air masses from the Arctic. May is the peak of the tornado season in the region, and May - in 1999 and 2013 - is when massive storms struck in Moore, a suburb on the southern outskirts of Okalahoma City.
There is nobody to blame for Monday’s death toll: 51 in early reports that said 20 children were among the dead, though later the total fatality count was lowered, at least temporarily, to 24. Two elementary schools were struck by the storm.
Weather forecasters issued warnings even before the twister hit the ground, and the region’s battle-hardened residents had anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes to take cover, as most surely did. I have absolutely no doubt, in particular, that the teachers and staff at those elementary schools did everything in their power to protect their charges, just as teachers and administrators did in the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., that killed 20 children just five months ago.
We are conditioned to blame Mother Nature and bad luck for tornado deaths. Unlike hurricanes, which form far out at sea and can be forecast days in advance, tornadoes are highly local and both short-lived and capricious. A tornado might level a house and leave the one next door unscathed. Hurricanes don’t do that.
Most tornadoes land in open areas, and thus do little damage, for the simple reason that most of the nation’s midsection and the deep South, where tornadoes are most common, consists of fields, farms and forest. Occasionally and purely by chance, a strong tornado hits a developed area, and mayhem results.
But blaming only nature and bad luck is fast becoming outmoded. As recently as 1999, when the last devastating storm struck Moore, a tornado warning could seldom be issued until a funnel cloud had been sighted. More often, the warnings would not come until the twister had touched the ground. People relied on community sirens and special radios tuned to National Weather Service broadcasts. At best, there was only time to run to a storm cellar or an interior room and hope for the best.
Today, we have longer lead times and more precise warnings about the locations at which a storm is likely to strike. If we build shelters in places where large crowds gather - places like schools, hospitals, shopping malls, office buildings and sports stadiums - there is now time to move people to those secure areas until danger has passed.
Imagine, for example, if an elementary school is built on and into a hillside, with the auditorium (nearly all schools have one) dug into the hill. A storm might level the exposed part of the structure while harmlessly passing over the room in which students and staff take shelter. Hillsides are scarce in some parts of the plains, but they aren’t unknown - and we can certainly build one alongside a school using earth-moving equipment. We do it for highway overpasses.
Shopping malls might be equipped with emergency lighting and electronic signs to guide patrons to the secure area. Store personnel can be trained to assist. A flight crew can evacuate everyone from a smoke-filled aircraft in 90 seconds with the aid of emergency lighting and those annoying pre-flight safety briefings. We ought to be able to move everyone in every mall and big-box store to safety in no more than five minutes. These days, with warnings “pushed” directly to cell phones via text messages, five minutes is enough time to save many lives.
There were reports of gas leaks in the aftermath of this week’s tornado in Moore. When new neighborhoods are built, officials should consider whether it makes sense to use gas for heating and cooking in this region, or whether to instead rely on electricity (produced at safer locations with gas-fired turbines), which can be more easily turned off. Officials also should consider whether to require new utility lines to be buried, which will reduce future storm damage and facilitate faster recoveries.
Should every new home and apartment building in Tornado Alley be required, as a piece of basic safety equipment, to have an adequate storm shelter for the expected number of residents? Should every office building be required to have protection for the anticipated number of workers and visitors? We require modern buildings to have smoke alarms and fire-suppression systems. As a result, fatalities from fires have plunged over the past several decades.
Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Andrew (1992) triggered major changes in building codes in parts of the Southeast, and especially in Florida. Similar lessons should be drawn from major tornadoes in populated areas. We can probably never achieve perfect protection, but we surely can do better in the future than we have done in the past.
These issues are best addressed on the state and local levels, rather than nationally. Safety standards that might be essential in Tulsa, Okla., could be irrelevant in Tacoma, Wash. (which has its own natural disasters to think about, including earthquakes and nearby volcanoes). Ideally, states would help one another, sharing and applying lessons learned and harmonizing building codes to achieve economies of scale. Also, while hurricanes and tornadoes are very different storms with different effects, some of the measures used to fight one are applicable to the other. My home state of Florida has a lot of experience with both types. I hope Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida officials extend every possible form of assistance to our Oklahoma friends, including sharing the lessons we have learned in many episodes of rebuilding.
The people who live in Tornado Alley, and everywhere else tornadoes strike (they have been known to occur in every state), are going to keep rebuilding after every storm. That’s as it should be. But we don’t have to keep rebuilding the same way. Every tragedy offers lessons to be learned, and each lesson learned helps lessen the death toll in the future.