Dozens of people died in tornadoes in the US over the last couple of days, and most of those deaths were preventable. The truth is, most of those killed died because of a decision they made, so their death is to some extent their fault. But, for good reason, no one wants to blame the victim, so we see very little discussion about how a death spree like this happened over the weekend could have bee avoided. Also, almost every single feature of avoiding similar deaths in the future touches on a difficult political issue or points to a costly solution. Therefore, those involved and those reporting on the issue tend to avoid talking about the obvious. Finally, there is a small set of commonly used explanations, which are either totally incorrect or partly incorrect, that are easy for loved ones of the dead, reporters, local and state officials, and others to pull out of their nether regions. The main explanations are, of course, “God’s Will” and “Random Chance.”
Either way, someone’s gonna lose themselves a trailer, which brings us to the real reasons people die in tornadoes. They are:
But before we start I do want to touch quickly on the “blame the victim” problem. People will likely yell at me for suggesting that those who died did something wrong. It is, indeed, an obnoxious thing to say. But, if there is a pattern of behavior that leads to people getting killed, and no one acknowledges, recognizes, describes, and suggests ways to avoid this, then things will not improve. The truth is, civil defense and other officials and educators do address some (but not all) of these issues, but rarely in context of the deadly events. Or if so, only directly.
But it is also true that people die in tornadoes and it is not their fault. I’ll give you two quick examples that happened around the same time in Minnesota a few years back, that illustrate the difference. Both were young boys killed by a massive tornado. In one case the boy was driving in the passenger seat of a pickup truck, not wearing a seatbelt, with dad trying to drive through or away from the tornado. The boy was sucked out of the car and killed. That was the fault of the dad (and by extension it was preventable) because one is not supposed to drive in or through a tornado. You are supposed to get out of the vehicle and lay in the nearest ditch (in the Upper Midwest we have ditches everywhere). The second case was a young boy killed when a water heater broke loose from its moorings and careened across the basement in which he and his family were hiding. He was struck by the appliance. I this case, everyone was doing what they were supposed to do. Quite possibly, had they all been topside in the home things would have been worse.
The following discussion of how to avoid tornado death or implement improved tornado safety is organized in a kind of hierarchy from small to large and individuals to societal.
Individuals must recognize that tornadoes are a) dangerous in their own right and b) associated with heavy storms, lightning, and so on which are also dangerous. Own a Weather Radio, learn how to use it, and when there are severe storms approaching do the correct thing. This means knowing what the correct thing is. A LOT of the people who are killed in a tornado either did not know it was coming or did know but chose to not take shelter. The vast majority of those deaths were preventable.
If you do not have appropriate shelter you must arrange for it. At the domestic level, this can be rather difficult if you don’t have a basement or appropriate interior space. If you live in a trailer park with no shelter, get together with your neighbors and fix that problem.
At a somewhat larger scale is the issue of schools. All schools seem to have a “tornado shelter” zone where kids are moved when a tornado is threatening. However, over the last few years, several schools have been totally flattened. Looking at these flattened schools it is difficult to imagine that anyone was ever serious about a designated safety area. If you have kids in school, organize with the other parents and find out who is responsible for designating the safe area. Make sure that everyone knows what name or position (fire chief, school board, whatever) goes with that designation. Then publicly ask them to explain why this is the safety area and to produce the engineering documents demonstrating that this decision is made with due consideration. Ask if the school building really is safe enough. Ask if your students should really leave the building during tornadoes, or if the school building should be reinforced.
Also at a large scale, it is often a part of jokes (see above) but also sadly and significantly true that trailer parks are not safe in tornadoes. No, tornadoes are not attracted to trailer parks, but some trailers are so flimsily that small tornadoes that might not even be noticed can damage them. Just over 6 percent of the US population lives in trailers. In North Carolina, where many people died over the weekend, more people live in trailers than any other state (14.7%, according to NPR).
What is the fix for this? Well, there are two. One is making sure that there are sufficient regulations, that they are enforced, and that the enforcement is somehow funded, for shelters in trailer parks. At the same time, we must go back to the individual level. Individuals must respond correctly to tornado warnings. Bravado has no effect on tornadoes. Ignorance has no effect on tornadoes. Know about the shelters, know about the tornadoes, and when there is a threat, go to the shelter. Period.
The second fix is, of course, to reverse the current trend of increased poverty and increased disparity between wealth and poverty in the US.
Not too far from where I live (but in a very different neighborhood!) a young girl from an upper class family was killed by a tornado. There was an outcry. There was legislation. Money was spent. Heads rolled. The reason she died is that she was visiting a family that chose to ignore the warnings. But since she was nice and white and blond and rich, it mattered that she died. Most people who are killed in tornadoes don’t get legislation introduced on their behalf. No legislator ever did anything about anyone living in a trailer.
At an even larger level: Recognize the increasingly apparent fact that global warming equals more tornadoes. And fix that problem. Details on that are a bit beyond the scope of this blog post, however.