Thursday, April 28, 2011

Life and Death in Tornado Alley

I remember when I was an undergraduate, I was working on a computer project in an evening class during a wind storm. All of a sudden, the TA started yelling "Save, save! Everybody save!" About two minutes later, the lights went out. From the main computer lab across the courtyard, we could hear people screaming -- they hadn't saved. The TA was from Oklahoma. He said, "I just knew."

There are places in this country where tornadoes are a fact of life. Oklahoma is one of them, as are many places in the south. Last night, those facts hit hard. A string of storms ravaged the southern U.S., killing at least 214 people including 131 in Alabama alone.

Remember, these are places that are prepared for tornadoes. They know they get tornadoes -- perhaps not as many as last night in a typical night, but some. They practice for tornadoes. They have a plan. And 214 people still died.

This brings up a difficult issue for me, and perhaps for you as well. Preparedness for likely threats is important, and some of us like to think we're pretty good at it. My family has a tornado plan and an automatic weather radio. We know where to go and what to do when a storm is coming, and we have done it several times. Luckily, the storms have never hit us directly.

What we don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about is the simple truth that if a tornado actually hit our house dead on, there's no guarantee that we'd survive it. We have a better chance in our little basement room, certainly. But if a twister flattens the house, we pretty much have to hope that the first floor doesn't fall on us in the basement. Our safe room is useful for a storm that goes nearby, breaks the windows, picks up the cars and throws them, and generally wreaks havoc, as long as it doesn't actually hit our house.

Most of the time, however, we choose to ignore that fact. This is largely because we can't do anything about it. We know where the safest place to be during a tornado is, and we make sure our kids know it too. But "safest" and "safe" isn't the same thing. Sometimes, your TA doesn't have time to yell "save!" or they do but you don't have time to hit the right keys.

They're cleaning up across the south today. A lot of people are digging through a lot of rubble. And a lot of folks are facing up to what they already knew in the back of their minds -- you won't know if you're safe from the next storm until it comes.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Anniversaries: Bombs in Littleton, Colorado

Wednesday was the 12th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. For those of you much younger than I or living under a rock, on April 20, 1999 two students went through the school shooting, killing 12 students, one teacher and, eventually themselves. The original plot was for propane bombs to explode outside the cafeteria, sending people running directly into the line of fire. The bombs failed to go off.

On Wednesday, April 20 this year, a fire broke out near the food court of a mall in Littleton, Colorado. When it was extinguished, firefighters found two explosive devices nearby. They had not, thankfully, detonated. The mall was evacuated and the schools placed on lockdown.

Anniversaries of traumatic events are tricky things. From a distance, there is no particular reason that the anniversary of an event is any better or worse or more or less related to the event than any other day. But we don't live at a distance. Our culture tells us that one rotation of the earth around the sun is an important length of time, and each successive rotation is also important. If we had no concept of a calendar, we might not care that this week's incident coincided with the anniversary of the massacre at Columbine. Most of the time we're glad we have that concept. This week, perhaps not so much.

I first learned about the mall incident on Thursday morning from a friend's Facebook post. She noted that she has family who love to shop near there, and another friend commented that she has family there too. This is the sort of personal connection we all tend to make at moments like this. The thing is, it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense. On Wednesday two bombs did not go off at a mall near where bombs were placed and shootings occurred 12 years ago. Why, on Thursday, do I care that I have family that was in the area but not at that mall on Wednesday?

We notice these connections, as distant as they may seem, because of a very natural and automatic response we have to danger. When a threat is detected -- whether because we see or hear it ourselves or we simply hear about it -- our automatic response is to ask whether it affects in any way. I imagine us sending little office workers into the files in our mind to find out if we have anything filed where the danger is. If the threat is near us -- say an oncoming car -- those little people come back pretty fast with "yes!!" and we try to get out of the way. Most of the time, they come back with "no."

Once in a while, however, they come back with the news that we have stuff in a related file but it's not clear how important the relationship was. They looked under "Littleton, Colorado" and found the "Columbine" file. For my friends, they found the "shopping" and "family" files. Even though the answer to whether the threat affects us is still "no," it takes us a little longer to decide that. Even though we know we and everyone we love are OK, we are left with that nagging feeling that "no" isn't the whole answer. And so we post on Facebook and say, "This could have affected someone I care about but it didn't."

The interesting thing about such loose and tangential connections is that, when we post them, our friends all know how we feel. We've all been there, and the little office workers are just doing their job.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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