Huh?! Tornado alley doesn’t require shelters?!


    How is it possible that a small city situated smack in the middle of Oklahoma’s tornado alley, a community that had already been devastated by a tornado in 1999, does not require its schools and citizens to have safe-room shelters?

    If you don’t know the answer already, here’s a hint: It’s all about Freedom.

    Thus far, there’s not much coverage of that issue – because it doesn’t fit the formula for Inspirational Stories, because the cable news shows are primarly focused on (1) Miracle Survival Tales, (2) The Resilience of the Human Spirit, 3) Home-Grown Heroes, and (4) All The Heart-Warming Ways That The Community Is Coming Together.

    There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, of course. But I’d argue that these bizarre truths warrant equal time:

    The newly devastated city of Moore doesn’t require storm shelters in its public buildings or private homes. The city building code is silent on this matter, and there is no city ordinance compelling anyone to do anything. There are no storm shelters in the schools – including the now-flattened schools where kids died on Monday – and there is no public community shelter. Except for the homeowners who have built their own shelters (only 10 percent of the citizenry), everybody is basically on their own.

    But Moore is hardly unique in Oklahoma; it takes its cues from state government, which doesn’t require storm shelters, either – all this, in a region that gets hit by tornadoes more times than anywhere else in America.

    Maybe I’m just a blue-state guy posing a blue-state question, but I have to ask: Isn’t it the prime responsibility of government to protect its citizens, and provide for the common good?

    Apparently not in red-state alley, because this is where Freedom comes in.

    Moore mayor Glen Lewis remarked yesterday, “it’s been a free market society” in a community that loaths the idea of regulation. The ’99 killer tornado was dismissed as an aberration (“an extremely unique event weatherwise,” according to the city’s website), and that was good enough for everybody. Plus, the powerful Oklahoma home-builders lobby doesn’t want a shelter mandate; as a former lobby president said the other day, “we think the market ought to drive what people are putting in their homes, not the government.”

    But finally, some Oklahomans appear to realize that Freedom requires caveats. Joe Dorman, a state lawmaker, is proposing that Oklahoma spend $500 million to build shelter rooms in schools and other public facilities; his logic would seem to unassailable: “If we are going to mandate that our kids must be in school, then we need to mandate that they have somewhere safe to go when there’s a tornado.”

    Problem is, that logic gets trumped by the red-state ethos; in Dorman’s words, “There is that Big Brother mentality that says, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.'”

    Actually, even Mayor Lewis concedes that maybe people need to be told something. He said yesterday that he wants to revise the building code (assuming he can get enough votes on city council), to require the construction of shelters in every new home. Until now, the city has only tried to goad and persuade.

    A small minority of existing homeowners – the aforementioned 10 percent, chastened by the ’99 tornado – allowed themselves to be persuaded. They built shelters, and there was a financial carrot in doing so. Turns out, much of their costs were reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Yes, FEMA has a program for such things. Indeed, the town of Tushka (a few hours by car from Moore) built a shelter at its pre-school facility a few years ago (which saved lives when a tornado hit in 2011), and most of Tushka’s costs were picked up by FEMA.

    You know, “Big Brother.”

    But the Freedom to forego shelters is not just about ideology; apparently, it’s also about money. Albert Ashwood, the state’s director of emergency management, says it’s very expensive to build a school shelter – “between $600,000 to $1 million….You have a limited number of funds. You set priorities.” In rebuttal, I’ll simply quote Helen Grant, a Moore parent: “I don’t think you can put a price on human life.”

    Grant was basically suggesting that government should invest for the common good. But she was trumped this week by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, who said that, despite the latest killer tornado, the state “isn’t going to require people to do anything.”

    Yo, red state: What’s more important – saving lives, or hewing to ideology?

    Don’t answer that.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



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