The Cost of Preparing for Disasters

June 12th, 2013

After the explosion in West, Texas, the Times ran an article that highlighted the “antipathy” towards regulation, and how Texans did not react to the disaster by clamoring for more safety laws. Following the recent tornados in Oklahoma, the Times published a similar piece, advancing the position that local governments failed to enact safety codes that could have minimized damage, and even given that lack of preparedness, the people there seem to be okay with maintaining the status quo.

The Web site for the City of Moore, Okla., recommends “that every residence have a storm safe room or an underground cellar.” It says below-ground shelters are the best protection against tornadoes.

But no local ordinance or building code requires such shelters, either in houses, schools or businesses, and only about 10 percent of homes in Moore have them.

Nor does the rest of Oklahoma, one of the states in the storm belt called Tornado Alley, require them — despite the annual onslaught of deadly and destructive twisters like the one on Monday, which killed at least 24 people, injured hundreds and eliminated entire neighborhoods.

It is a familiar story, as well, in places like Joplin, Mo., and across the Great Plains and in the Deep South, where tornadoes are a seasonal threat but government regulation rankles.

The article proceeds to discuss some of the technical reasons why more shelters are not built, but then gets to the cultural limitations:

Beyond expense and construction standards, there is a local attitude about tornadoes that borders on temerity. There is a joke among Oklahomans that when the storm sirens sound, instead of taking cover, everyone goes outside and looks for the storm.

That was what Leon and Larry Harjo did Monday. The 45-year-old twins sat outside their brick home to see what was going on as the sirens blared and hailstones pelted. Only when they glimpsed the enormous funnel cloud barreling their way did they run to a medical center across the street to take cover in a hallway.

Even that was a harrowing experience; Larry Harjo said the wind had blown him and his wife around as they clutched each other on the ground. A door was ripped off its hinges, ceiling tiles fell, and they heard cars crashing against the building.

Would surviving the tornado make them think twice about waiting so long to hunker down the next time?

Larry Harjo said: “You can’t run every time you hear a warning. You’ll be scared your whole life.”

His brother added: “Might as well just sit back. If it gets you, it gets you. If not, another day.”