The deaths of seven children Monday after a mile-wide tornado demolished an Oklahoma public school raises anew questions about America’s infrastructure and whether we can do a better job of guarding against the threat of tornadoes and dangerous winds. The short answer is yes: we can indeed save lives and maybe even reduce property damage. But how we go about doing this will make all the difference.
What we do not need, at least for tornado protection, are costly specialized storm shelters—big public structures that would be used only every few years or even every few decades. Nor do we need lotteries—which currently exist in a number of states, including Oklahoma—that give rebates to a few people who build a tornado shelter. This favors the haves who can afford to build a safe room without systematically addressing the problem of saving lives when tornadoes touch down.
To understand the drawbacks of relying mainly on specialized shelters, consider the experience of two towns in Missouri. Two years ago, a tornado leveled a large part of Joplin, Missouri, including the local high school. A $62 million bond issue to replace Joplin High, build three other schools, and create more than 60 temporary tornado shelters recently passed narrowly. Under local laws, it needed 57.14 percent of the votes, and got just 57.64 percent. The narrow margin in a town only recently ravaged by a tornado suggests that it is always going to be politically difficult to amass local support for these kinds of expensive projects.
But while local voters may be reluctant to spend on shelters, the same is not true of Washington. In Webb City, next door to Joplin, the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave $3 million last year to build a safe room at the local high school. It can shelter 3,000 people, if they can get there before a twister strikes. (And that’s a big if, given the short time between a tornado warning and the moment when the doors need to close; just picture how tough it is to get 250 people into a jumbo jet in 40 minutes.) The shelter cost $1,000 per person it can protect from a tornado; building shelters for everyone in Missouri at this rate would cost $6 billion. Based on Missouri’s average of two deaths per year from tornadoes, this measure would save 100 lives over 50 years at a cost of $60 million per life. Even if the shelters last 200 years, the cost would be $15 million for each life saved
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