At the end of a hot, muggy southern Michigan May day, I pulled my truck into the Coca Cola warehouse lot and glanced up at sky blue everywhere but over downtown Kalamazoo where a black thunderhead passed over as they tended to do on hot, muggy spring afternoons. The only thought I had concerned turning in my paperwork at the front office, and then getting in my little red VW to drive home to the half a Queen Anne we rented on Elm Street just to the west of downtown. I could not get the car onto Elm and had to park a couple of blocks from the house because of the downed trees and wires. Being then a former firefighter, I clicked into search and rescue mode and hiked over and around debris to the house; Lauren wasn’t there and the house stood intact, so I drove to Bronson Hospital by a roundabout route because downtown looked impassable. The tornado had jumped Elm Street leaving little damage other than trees, then tore through downtown, taking the roof off a school (the kids were gone for the day), tearing up more trees in the downtown park, blowing the side out of one five story building, and missing the hospital by one block.
Lauren grew up in southern Michigan and had that sixth sense people have who live in tornado country. She jumped up from the nurses’ station and started yelling at staff to get the kids in the pediatrics ward into the hallway. Other staff thought she was crazy, but she’d detected the pressure change a few seconds before the tornado siren sounded, and then she didn’t seen so crazy. They moved the kids into the hallway and, as mentioned, the hospital dodged a direct hit by a block, and staff and kids were okay. But they took the correct action, just as the Moore, Oklahoma teachers did, to minimize the risk of kids being hurt if they’d stayed in hospital rooms where glass could have blown out of windows because of the pressure drop or because of flying debris.
The NOAA report read: “Five people were killed and 79 were injured when a F3 tornado struck Kalamazoo, Michigan on May 13, 1980. F3 tornadoes are characterized by wind speeds of 158 to 206 m.p.h. Two churches, 47 homes, two factories and 22 other buildings were destroyed. Another 253 homes, 156 businesses, and 4 factories were damaged. Thousands of windows were shattered. About 1,200 people were left homeless . . . . President Jimmy Carter declared Kalamazoo County a federal disaster area. The Kalamazoo Gazette published its first extra edition since the August of 1945, marking the end of World War II.”
The rest of the summer I drove my route with one eye on the sky and remembered one other nasty, black, menacing thunderhead one afternoon that shoved gale force winds ahead of it but produced no funnel cloud, for which I was thankful. According to the Tornado History Project, from May 3, 1951 when tornado data collection started, to June 2012, Michigan experienced 974 tornadoes that killed 259 people and injured another 844.
At the end of the summer, Lauren and I packed the VW and drove to Oregon, a state with 102 recorded tornadoes during the same period that killed six people. But we didn’t make the move to avoid risk, and one hot summer day I stood on top of Cartwheel Ridge in the Wallowa Mountains on the last day of a week-long solo hike through Eagle Cap Wilderness. I arrived in mid-afternoon, lowered and then propped my big frame pack against a snag, then put the empty water bottles into the small, lifeboat pack I carried to use if I had to hike out light and fast in an emergency. The pack also came in handy if I had to walk a ways from a campsite to a water source, so down the trail I went to the creek, filled the bottles, and noticed that a breeze had kicked up, not unusual in the late afternoon in the mountains when valley air heats and rises over ridges. Evening thermals. Usually harmless.
But by the time I had climbed back up to my big pack, I noticed that the warm air that rushed up the mountain side below my feet shot straight up overhead, and, as I stood there looking up into a clear blue sky, a cloud formed violently and rapidly as the warn air cooled. Fascinated, I sat down to get a snack and drink water while I watched the cloud expand while the wind never let up. I chickened out when what looked like a cumulus developed a dark gray belly. So much for my plan to sleep out in the open that night on top of a 7600 foot ridge under a sky with infinite stars. With the water and the small pack stowed, I hoisted the big pack for a hike down off the ridge, keeping an eye on the sky and listening for the first boom of thunder that followed a nasty flash of lightning. From high in the Cascades, I’d seen the boomers form out over the afternoon desert in central Oregon. I’d seen them form over the Cascade crest from the safe distance of the Willamette Valley, and I’d even hiked out through one and had to get up at 5 am to move a tent to a safer anchor when a line of storms rolled up the mountains, but that was the only time I’d stood right in the middle of a boomer as it formed right over my head.
And the difference? Between Michigan weather and Oregon weather? Nothing. Weather poses risks to human life everywhere. The difference is accepted risk. In the built environment like Kalamazoo or any other city large or small, residents want the risk mitigated, or at least they do after a disaster when the insurance companies pressure governments to require better construction to reduce loss due to natural disaster. Hence, the impetus to improve building codes after the great urban conflagrations of the 19th Century, and the impetus to improve fire and other emergency services to limit the extent of damage due to a natural disaster. To some extent, anyway. The insurance companies still apparently have no problem with people building homes on sand bars on the Jersey shore or building houses on concrete slabs without a safe room in Oklahoma’s tornado alley. And the Pennsylvania state legislature defeated a bill recently that would have required sprinklers in all new residential construction. The legislators are okay with letting Philly residents, for instance, accept the daily risk of rowhouses burning.
It’s always the same reason. Adding a safe room or building Jersey shore homes on pilings or adding sprinklers would cost too much, make homes too expensive. Ergo, people would not buy them. In other words, the buyer assumes the risk of loss due to flood, fire, tornado, and therefore building a home that will, with its occupants, survive a disaster, is an individual choice, a market driven rather than a government driven choice. Or so goes the logic. So the risk is reduced to a financial formula and shared by all those who are required by their mortgage company to carry insurance.
That would be Republican logic. People choose to accept the risk of living where they build be it the Jersey Shore or Oklahoma. Acceptable risk, for the radical Republicans who now control the House of Representatives, is equal to the risk I took standing on top of the mountain ridge watching the thunderhead form. I chose to be there, and I had a plan to remove myself from the risk. The government could not help me. But the radical Republicans forget a few things when they try to reify, when they try to pretend their ideology is reality, that life is a simple matter of survival of the best prepared.
The radical Republicans forget that the government does respond through local search and rescue when hikers or climbers are lost or injured–even though wilderness hikers assume most of the risk of travel far from emergency services. The government does respond through police, fire, and EMS when a natural disaster occurs anywhere in the built environment. Taxpayers are not expected to provide their own, individual policing and fire protection. When the sick or injured dial 9-1-1, the dispatcher’s response is not: “Drive yourself.” Or “Use your garden hose.” A community exists only because of a written and unspoken compact that all members share risk and responsibility, and share it to an extent greater than a solo hiker in the mountains. The compact includes willingness to build roads, to follow the rules of the road, willingness to build schools to teach children, willingness to build hospitals to care for the ill and injured, and willingness to dial 9-1-1 when a neighbor’s house is on fire or when an accident is witnessed. If it weren’t for that community compact, no one would have an incentive to join volunteer fire departments. No need for fire departments would exist.
Of course life is more complicated than that because everyone wants the benefits of public services even though nobody wants to pay the taxes to support those services, but that’s another story.