Feature

A devastating tornado in Oklahoma

Recovery efforts continued after a huge tornado tore through the Oklahoma City region, obliterating buildings and killing dozens of people.

What happened
Recovery efforts continued this week after a huge tornado tore through the Oklahoma City region, obliterating buildings and killing dozens of people. As the search for survivors wound down, 24 people were confirmed dead, including nine children, and at least 237 people were injured. The massive twister, which inflicted the brunt of its damage on the town of Moore, touched down at 2:56 p.m. local time—16 minutes after the first warning went out—and churned a 2-mile-wide path of destruction across 17 miles in 40 minutes, leveling 2,400 homes with wind speeds of up to 210 mph. President Obama declared a federal disaster in five Oklahoma counties, calling the tornado “one of the most destructive in history.”

Surviving Oklahomans described frantically rushing for any shelter as the sirens wailed out. At Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven of the children died, teachers hustled confused and weeping third- and fourth-graders to the center of the building, lying on top of them as protection against the twister and its accompanying debris. Across town, a teacher’s leg was impaled by a metal pole as she covered students at Briarwood Elementary School, while at the Agapeland day-care center, as the roof of their building was torn off by winds, children and staff sang chorus after chorus of “You Are My Sunshine.” Less than an hour later, survivors emerged to find piles of bricks, steel beams, and upended cars where roads and buildings once stood.

What the editorials said
Here on the plains we’re so accustomed to severe weather warnings that this week’s tornado alert “took a while to get our attention,” said The Oklahoman. But then came the twister, and soon afterward the haunting image of “a row of backpacks on hooks in a roofless grade school corridor.” We’ve been here before: On May 3, 1999, Moore was decimated by a tornado that killed 36 people. “‘May Third’ became a part of our vocabulary.” Now, so too will May 20.

The death toll was remarkably low “given the extent and power of the storm,” said USAToday.com. Still, more should have been done to protect the city’s children and adults in the path of the killer twister. Moore lies at the heart of Tornado Alley, which experiences hundreds of tornadoes a year, yet neither of the two schools hit had reinforced tornado shelters. Forecasts and sirens helped to save countless lives this week. School shelters could have saved even more.

What the columnists said
There’s a good reason why so few buildings in Oklahoma have storm cellars, said Megan Garber in TheAtlantic.com: “the fickleness of the ground.” The soil in much of the state is largely clay, a substance that’s particularly challenging for construction because it shrinks when dry and expands when wet. Building homes on such a shaky foundation is hard enough, but adding a basement without the building eventually toppling into itself is “a nearly impossible feat of engineering.”

Still, Oklahomans seem to be suffering from a certain “disaster amnesia,” said Ben Berkowitz and Julie Steenhuysen in Reuters.com. The May 1999 storm cost the town of Moore around $1 billion in insured losses, but unfazed Oklahomans continued to build there; the town’s population grew 34 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with a state population growth of 9 percent. If locals want to stay in the area, said John Schwartz in The New York Times, there should be a “local ordinance or building code” requiring steel-enforced shelters that mitigate clay’s weakness. Yet even amid the seasonal threat of widespread devastation, this is a place where “government regulation rankles.”

The recovery effort will cost billions of dollars, said Christina Wilkie in HuffingtonPost.com, making it inevitable that affected residents will look to the federal government for disaster relief. Oklahoma’s Republican senators, Jim Inhofe and Tom Coburn, have resolutely opposed such aid, and voted last year to slash funds for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Coburn said this week he would demand that any money that flows to the tornado’s victims be offset by cuts in federal spending elsewhere. In light of Oklahoma’s dire needs, such caveats could put him and Inhofe in “an awkward position.”

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