May 23, 2013

Kurt Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. He blogs at OkieFunk.com.

When disaster hits, Oklahomans bask in helping others. We’re good at it. Some call it the “Oklahoma spirit.” But even as we’re cleaning up the debris and mourning those killed by the mile-wide tornado that devastated Moore and other parts of the Oklahoma City suburbs on Monday, too many aren’t addressing what we can do to reduce potential damage in the future.

The fact that our state is in an area nicknamed Tornado Alley underscores how likely it is that violent weather will occur here. So why doesn’t every structure regularly used in this state have an underground storm shelter? Underground shelters save lives. Let’s build them under or at least near our homes, offices and, of course, our schools. Let’s have more public and community shelters, and put up signs so residents know where to find them.

The benefits of shelters are established. Last year, Oklahoma launched a program in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to reimburse homeowners a share of the costs of building a shelter on their property. Within three months of SoonerSafe registration opening, about 16,000 people signed up. But only 500 won a lottery to receive federal funds when the program began operating. This week the mayor of Moore has called for requiring shelters in all new construction. But what about the thousands of buildings that are already here?

Communities in earthquake-prone areas build with the understanding that their structures have to withstand violent acts of nature. Why don’t we construct more of our buildings, especially our schools, with stronger materials?

The answer is that we can but we choose not to. Such ideas have been put forth and dismissed by those in power here for many years. State leaders are too busy cutting taxes for the wealthiest — who can afford underground shelters — to consider allocating funds for those who would pay for safety if they could.

While the costs are too high for many individuals to bear, the expenses are not necessarily that great. FEMA estimates that construction of an 8-foot-by-8-foot safe room ranges from $6,600 to $8,700. Is that too high a price to save lives?

This discussion shouldn’t be limited to Oklahomans. For one thing, local leaders haven’t been getting enough done. And taxpayers outside our state provide funds that contribute to our recovery efforts and our safe-room program. It’s also possible that those studying our situation from a distance can home in on answers.

National media outlets surveying the damage this week have posed a lot of tough questions: Why don’t all Oklahoma schools have underground shelters? Would improvements to our warning systems have given people more time to escape the storm? Was the tornado’s strength related to climate change? And why have so many homes been rebuilt in an area known for destructive tornadoes? Such questions need to keep coming.

Left alone, we haven’t been addressing these issues in ways that will keep Oklahomans safe. Too many here refuse to look seriously at the extreme weather events the Midwest has experienced in recent years and what role climate change might have played.

Ultimately, this is a question of values: Will our state and local leaders value their constituents’ lives enough to allocate funds to build better, stronger buildings and underground shelters?

Students died Monday in a school that lacked an appropriate shelter. Future pain and suffering will be minimized only if we look realistically at our budgets and our climate. Far too often our weather is deadly violent. While we cannot control that, we can act to prevent or reduce death, injuries and destruction when such violence strikes.