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.


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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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