TORNADO ALLEY

Moore, Oklahoma. By all accounts, a nice little suburb of OKC. Residents will tell you that it is a nice place to live, to raise a family. Except for one small problem: It lies in the middle of “tornado alley,” and it may have the dubious distinction of being the “tornado capital” of the US, if not the world. On what basis? According to Wikipedia, Moore has suffered through approximately 20 tornadoes since 1890, five of which were “significant,” and all five have occurred in the last 15 years.

The latest occurred on May 20, 2013. It was designated a Category EF5, which means it had winds in excess of 200 mph. It left an estimated 24 dead, including ten children, injured nearly 100, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and caused approximately $2 billion in property damage. Many of those deaths resulted from mechanical asphyxia, which means the people (in some cases, kids) were trapped under heavy rubble and suffocated to death – a slow, painful, lonely and frightening way to die. Words cannot adequately describe the torment of a parent who loses a child in that manner. The children were in school. Schools are supposed to be safe. When you send your child to school, you expect him or her to return safely.

Furthermore, it turns out that despite the frequency and severity of tornadoes striking the area, many homes and buildings (even schools) lacked either a shelter or a “safe” room. (A “safe” room is merely a concrete structure, like a bunker, built above ground that is designed to withstand winds of over 250 mph. It costs approximately $5,000 to build.) This omission seems inexplicable and foolish, particularly in the case of schools, but supposedly many people could not afford the cost and decided to take a calculated risk, with tragic results. Unlike the Boston Marathon bombing, which some politicians falsely labeled a “tragedy” instead of a terrorist attack, this was truly a tragedy.

Unlike floods, blizzards and hurricanes, which the public generally is cognizant of in advance and can plan for, tornadoes strike with little or no warning. Tornado “watches” and “warnings” are so common and cover such a wide area as to be largely ignored. People hear about them on the news, file them away in the back of their minds, and continue to go about their daily lives. It is simply not practical to seek shelter in response to every “watch” or “warning.” Consequently, when the real thing occurs, people have just minutes to get to a shelter or “safe” room. This tornado was so large (estimates ranged up to a mile wide) and was moving so fast that many people did not reach shelter in time. In addition, it struck at 5 pm, the height of rush hour. Many parents were at work or on the road; their children were elsewhere. It dropped debris across two interstates. Picture yourself driving along on the LIE and seeing part of a house or an entire car flying at you from the other direction at 200 mph.

Through it all, the people of Moore exhibited a strong spirit and a positive attitude. Most of them have been through this before, and they know the drill. For example, the current mayor, who used to own a jewelry store, related to a reporter how he rode out the 1999 tornado in the company of employees and customers in his store’s vault. They know that the main thing is the safety of loved ones. Damaged property can be replaced; people cannot.

Also, it was heartening to see people who were not affected helping those who were. Acts of heroism by ordinary people abounded. One could see volunteers with shovels, rakes and trash bags helping others clean up damaged property with their bare hands. In addition, military personnel from Tinker Air Force base were on the scene, and “Good Samaritans” poured in from all over the country to lend a hand wherever they could.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

People are resilient. Like people who live in other high-risk natural disaster areas, such as flood plains and coastal areas, the overwhelming percentage of people who live in and around Moore have vowed to rebuild and stay. I predict they will, although the State and Federal governments should require rebuilt property to have a shelter or safe room, and should subsidize older structures that were undamaged to add them.

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