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.
Blaming the victim is one of those things I don't think people think through. Blaming the victim is bad when used to shift blame off the perpetrator. It's inhumane as a means of avoiding sympathy for and, more importantly, empathy with the victim. It is not the same thing as paying attention to elements in the common culture that increase risk.
Part of the "blame the victim" logic is that people should not live in areas known to host certain hazards: Tornadoes can happen anywhere, but do occur ore frequently in some places than others. Floods happen near creeks and rivers. Earthquakes happen in California.
The people of at least one town all pulled up stakes and moved after the Mississippi flood of 1993. But Limon, Colorado, which was devastated by a tornado in 1990 ago, got rebuilt in the same place.
And the SF Bay Area? We're expecting a devastating earthquake in the next thirty to sixty years. There are ways to strengthen a house and to prepare for survival until FEMA gets its act together. The SFFD teaches classes in earthquake survival and how to assist afterward. Move? Maybe. After the Big One hits, people will say to me, "You should have moved." Yep â¦ and so should everyone in New Orleans, and they should not move back.
We live on an active planet. The best we can do is learn how it works and prepare for likely events.
Timberwolf: That is the largest scale of the different levels I discussed, and i had planned to mention it but ended up wanting to keep the post shorter. It s also a hard topic.
In Massachusetts after the great storm of 1970-whatever washed away 200 houses, they made a new rule: This (pointing at a line on the map) is the sea shore. You can't live there. If you live there now, fine, but the moment the storm damaged your home past a certain point, it comes down and we buy the land from you (or whatever).
Buyouts in floodplains are getting more common.
But as you point out, there are limits, and tornadoes are one of those things I don't think we can avoid this way.
No matter where you live, there are certain risks that you have to live with. While some spots are riskier than others, no place is entirely immune.
San Francisco, for instance, is one of two or three places on the west coast of North America (Vancouver is the other definite; Portland is debatable) to have both a good natural harbor and reasonably good access to a portion of the interior. So it makes some sense to put a city there (and at Vancouver and Portland, which have risk from being in the Cascadia subduction zone), as long as you make sure that the buildings can withstand a strong earthquake. You could put it on the east side of the bay if you want to move away from the San Andreas fault, but that puts you closer to the Hayward fault.
Similarly with New Orleans. You can argue that the ocean to river port ought to be further upstream (like, say, Baton Rouge), but the need to ship grain from the Midwestern US to the rest of the world implies that you have to have such a port in that general area. In doing business there, you accept the risk that an occasional hurricane will flood you out.
In those two cases, you can argue that people who are not willing to take those risks should not live there, and in other cases like river flood plains, you can argue that there is no economic benefit that justifies anybody taking that risk. With tornadoes, pretty much everybody has to assume some risk (tornadoes have been reported in all 50 states, and the top ten deadliest tornado list includes one that hit Worcester, MA). All you can do about tornadoes is (1) try to be somewhere else when it goes through and (2) have a backup plan in case (1) fails.
Historic tornado map of the US:
The above details every tornado in the US between January 1, 1950 and December 31, 2010 - nearly 60,000 touchdowns. Basically, most of the eastern two-thirds of the United States gets hit on a regular basis. So that's one hazard that's difficult to avoid, unless you move west, where instead of tornados the more common risks are earthquakes, mudslides, and wildfires.
What a fun mapâI mean as displays of information go. I noticed right away the clumping of data on integer boundaries. There are other interesting clumps that are harder to explain. For instance, is the concentration of tornadoes in the Denver area an observational bias? If so, then why is similar clumping not seen in other metropolitan areas? Do mountains make tornadoes not happen? Look at western Colorado, east Tennessee, and West Virginia: These places are inhabited, yet relatively tornado-free.
"You could put [a port or city] on the east side of the bay if you want to move away from the San Andreas fault, but that puts you closer to the Hayward fault."
That would not make much of a difference. The Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 occurred roughly 100 km south of San Francisco and Oakland. If either the San Andreas or the Hayward fault ruptures, the whole area will shake. Maps of predicted shaking intensity don't suggest that anything within a hundred miles is particularly safe. And I don't want to commute that far, whether by car or by tcp/ip.
I don't think the concentration around Denver is that much of a bias in observation, and yes, mountains totally mess up tornadoes.
I agree with this post. If we would all just learn and listen to the warnings not as many people would die. Most people just ignore the warnings so when it hits they are unprepared. On the other hand some people will die even if they do hide the tornado still can kill people, but not as many.
This post is very true. People need to pay attention to the tornado warnings and make sure they have a safe place to go to. If more people would take caution of the dangers tornados bring, there would be less deaths. No matter where you live, you could at least try to be safe no matter what because you never know.