Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tornado Warnings

Yesterday at the start of our FIA board retreat, Tyler, our Executive Director, checked his cell phone for the latest death toll from Oklahoma.  One of the other board members shook his head.  "We're going to have to do something to make sure that never happens again," he said.

Do what? I wanted to ask.  At the risk of sounding insensitive, it's probably not possible and certainly not cost-effective, to make a school or any other building capable of withstanding a direct hit from an F5 tornado.  I grieve for those children, for all the tornado victims; we all do.  But, I think in part thanks to the internet, we're ending up with a skewed sense of risk these days.  Right now--this according to NOAA Weather Partners--the average number of deaths caused by tornadoes in the U.S. is around 0.1 per million of population.  That equates to roughly 31 a year.  It's a lot, but it pales in comparison to the rate for homicides among young black males (ages 10-24), of 558 per million.  Or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, 30 per million.  Or deaths by asthma, 11 per million.  You're one hundred times more likely to die from asthma than be killed by a tornado.  You're over a thousand times more likely to die from a car accident--and driving a car is two and a half times safer than it was back in the early 1970s, when I was rattling around loose in the back of a station wagon with my baby brother, the two of us happily unencumbered by seat belts or car seats.

The other day--before the Oklahoma tornadoes, for which he expressed profound sympathy--Pope Francis noted in a homily that in our media-driven world, the collapse of a bank is seen as a national tragedy, while the death of a homeless person too insignificant to mention.  That's not so much a skewed sense of risk as a skewed sense of priorities. 

I've been reading a lot about Haiti lately, in part deliberately, because my dear friend Sarah lives there, and in part because Haiti seems to keep popping up wherever I happen to read.  I follow a blog of a woman whose younger son was adopted from Haiti.  I sponsor two Haitian girls through Help One Now.  I know there are a ton of orphans in Haiti, due to the earthquake, the HIV epidemic, and parental abandonment from extreme poverty.  The most recent statistics say 440,000.  Five percent of Haiti's population: orphaned children.  I figured adoption was a pretty common solution, but I was wrong.  How many orphans adopted from Haiti per year?  About 200.  Which is to say, 439,800 weren't. 

If you want to get rid of the risk of tornadoes, you might be able to build a stronger school.  You might be able to build a school that was better designed.  You might be able to get better warning systems or a more efficient way of responding to them.  You probably can't eliminate the risk entirely, but, especially in an area prone to tornadoes, you might be able to substantially mitigate it, just the way that seat belts and air bags and antilock brakes have improved automobile safety.

What about the homeless?  Better mental health care--not nearly as easy as building a stronger building.  The orphans?  Better orphanages?  Maybe more adoption--but that becomes a slippery slope fast.  Orphan prevention, by addressing the causes of parental death and extreme poverty?  That's a very hard problem to solve.

I still think we should try.  You?