No More Shelters In Norman

Image of tornado and flying words

The decision by the Norman City Council to no longer allow the use of its designated public shelters raises, again, the issue of severe weather preparedness in an area known throughout the world as “Tornado Alley.”

It might seem counter intuitive to close shelters given the massive tornado last May that destroyed entire neighborhoods and killed 25 people right next to Norman in Moore, but there is logic to it.

According to the Norman fire chief, the shelters only give residents a false sense of security and that it’s much better to “shelter in place,” not risking traveling during severe weather. In other words, the odds are people are just as safe in their homes, with or without a storm shelter.

I’m not going to try to dispute that logic. It’s pretty much an accepted concept around this area. I do think the idea of eliminating public shelters would seem odd to many people who live outside the state.

But the council’s decision should open more conversation on the role, if any, of government to protect its citizens from severe weather.

For example, why doesn’t Norman, or any local city, simply build sturdy, underground shelters for its residents that WILL protect them from tornadoes? Is it a matter of cost? Why doesn’t Norman, or any local city, require new homes to include storm shelters? Why don’t local cities launch better incentive programs so residents can get a storm shelter in their home? Why don’t cities require storm shelters in apartment complexes?

I’m not picking on Norman, but the official answer to all these questions in this area has always seemed to be: it’s not our problem. You’re on your own.

This is what baffles many people from outside our state after a major tornado strikes here and the federal government comes to our rescue. They wonder why there aren’t more shelters here, in homes, schools, everywhere. Why don’t Oklahomans prepare better for tornadoes?

Oklahoma has had many image problems on the national level for a long, long time. I think the lack of ongoing comprehensive tornado safety initiatives is one of those problems. This particular image issue always emerges when the state dominates worldwide news headlines after a massive tornado strikes.

As I wrote earlier, one effort to raise the safety level here by helping schools build storms shelters is even getting shot down by the governor and one of the state’s largest newspapers.

The decision by the Norman City Council does make sense in its particular way, for sure, but it really doesn’t address the larger issue of making Oklahoma a safer place to live.


Oklahoma Schools Need Shelters

Image of flying debris

The progressive response here to the idea of creating a bond issue to pay for storm shelters in schools seems somewhat tepid to me so far, but I think it’s a worthy proposal that deserves support.

At the very least, it’s a proactive approach to an extremely important issue, especially following the tornadoes last spring that destroyed two Moore schools and leveled hundreds of homes. A tornado on May 20 killed seven children at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which didn’t have a storm shelter.

What other large-scale plan to protect school children from the dangerous weather here is seriously under consideration right now?

The plan to get shelters in schools, announced by state Rep. Joe Dorman, a Rush Springs Democrat, involves taking the issue straight to the voters through an initiative petition drive to “create a funding program for the project via a $500 million bond issue that would be paid for by the state’s franchise tax,” according to a media release.

The franchise tax, a tax companies pay to do business in the state, has been suspended in recent years for legal reasons, and there were efforts to outright repeal it in the last legislative session. According to the media release, the tax generates $40.1 million annually.

While the funding mechanism for the bond issue might seem problematic to some people, especially conservatives who favor tax cuts for businesses, the basic idea of doing something to save children’s lives is as straightforward as it gets.

“Dedicating this tax to help fund the construction of school shelters would be a great way to kick-start the process of protecting our kids from Oklahoma’s severe weather,” Dorman said.

Schools will be surveyed to determined their storm shelter needs, and informational sessions are planned, according to the release.

Oklahoma desperately needs large-scale initiatives to get storm shelters not just in schools but in virtually every structure in the state. Tornado season might be over right now, but it will return, and many Oklahomans will not have adequate protection when disaster strikes again. At the very least, Dorman’s plan keeps the conversation about tornado safety alive.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, I’ve not seen a great deal of support from Oklahoma’s progressive community for the proposal. Perhaps, there’s more than I suspect, or I’ve just missed it. It might be a timing issue as well, and support will emerge in coming weeks. I do think the proposal has merit and deserves consideration. It seems to me the alternative is what this state does after all its numerous weather disasters: nothing.


Feds Rescue Oklahoma Again

Image of Mary Fallin

The federal government has rescued Oklahoma once again after a string of weather disasters, but don’t think Republicans here will tone down their anti-federal government rhetoric anytime soon.

On Friday, government leaders announced the federal government was giving nearly $37 million to the city of Moore and the state of Oklahoma for recovery efforts after the tornadoes and storms that struck from May 18 to June 2. The time period includes the May 20 tornado that struck Moore, killing 23 people. The money is coming from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Community Block Grant Program. Moore will receive $26.3 million; the state will receive $10.6 million.

There’s no question that the money is desperately needed, and Republican leaders, including Gov. Mary Fallin, expressed their gratitude, but the state’s continued dependence on the federal government and taxpayers from other states undercuts their states’ rights and anti-government stances. What kind of place would Oklahoma be if the federal government didn’t bail it out time and time again?

I’ve written about this issue for years. Even as Republicans file lawsuits against the federal government and wave “Don’t Tread On Me” flags honoring the ideology of the Tea Party—Fallin did so at least once—they’re sticking out their hands for government money. They don’t even see the contradiction.

Here’s what Fallin said about the money:

The May storms cost the lives of dozens of Oklahomans and over $1 billion in property damage. We are steadily rebuilding, but many families are still struggling to get back on their feet. The disaster relief grants provided by HUD – along with continued work from state and local governments and non-profits – will make a big difference in the lives of those affected by this year’s tornadoes.

Of course, Fallin would also want you to know she continues to “fight federal overreach” and “protect constitutional liberties.” She also thinks Washington can learn a lot from Oklahoma? What exactly? How to beg for money after a weather disaster?

U.S Rep. Tom Cole said this about the money:

While there were numerous communities affected, my hometown of Moore saw the most widespread damage and the rebuilding efforts ahead are understandably more challenging there. I am pleased by the generous grant provided by HUD to help our city restore lost homes and businesses but also repair broken infrastructure.

Of course, this comes from the same person who proudly says he has voted against Obamacare 40 times. That’s a badge of honor to him, not a sign of futile desperation.

The point here is that most Oklahoma Republican leaders manipulate people here into thinking there’s vast federal intrusion when, in fact, the state relies heavily on the federal government for its own viability, from employment at military bases to direct health care funding to disaster relief. It might be fun to bite the hand that feeds you, but it’s also a contradiction and blatant hypocrisy.

I quoted Fallin’s statement that the money “will make a big difference” and Cole’s statement that the money is a “generous grant” because the language can be seen as normal gratitude. Let’s hope they remind themselves of this reasonableness before they go on their next anti-federal government tirade.