Whenever Oklahoma makes the news, my first thought is always, “this can’t be good.” As a native Oklahoman and a life-long student of Okie culture, I am qualified to make that judgment — and I am usually right.
Not long after moving to Seattle in the fall of 1994, I was lying in bed one morning when NPR broke into normal programming to say a bomb had been reported in downtown Oklahoma City. Details were to follow, but I knew it had to be worse than the very clinical news intrusion indicated.
And so it was Monday morning when someone asked if I had seen the news out of Oklahoma. I knew instantly the news could not be good. It wasn’t.
Through cable television, online news, phone calls and Facebook reports I have followed this week's terrible tornado news out of Oklahoma closely. The facts are mostly known at this point: On Monday morning (May 20th) an F5 tornado with peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour hit Moore, Oklahoma, killing at least 24 people, including 10 children, and injuring some 353 others.
Though geographically distant, the connection between Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest is deeper than you might think. Dust Bowl refugees settled the agricultural Yakima Valley in the 1930s. In the 1970s, linebacker Brian Bosworth made a colorful splash as the Sooner turned Seahawk. In the early 1980s, Seafirst Bank was nearly seized by the federal government due to its losses stemming from investments in the energy debt of Oklahoma City’s Penn Square Bank. Most recently, Oklahoma energy tycoon Clay Bennett played the villain by taking the Sonics to Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma is what country singer Jason Aldean croons about as one of “those flyover states.” Who’d want to live down there, in the middle of nowhere?
I spent part of my 5th grade year in Moore at Kelly Elementary, just three miles from the Plaza Towers Elementary School where a number of students died this week. A few years later, my family moved to Wichita Falls, TX, where on April 10, 1979 one of the worst tornadoes in U.S, history cut an eerily similar swath through town. After the storm cleared, we all strapped on Red Cross volunteer arm-bands and began helping the victims.
“I don’t remember tornadoes as big as this one when I was growing up,” said Vivek Varma, an Okie and executive vice president at Starbucks here in Seattle. “I do recall how terrifying it was. I’ll always remember pitching a Little League game in Chickasha [Okla.] and seeing a funnel cloud appear high in the sky. We hightailed it back to the house. Over the years Chickasha skirted disasters like this for some reason. Moore always seems to get pummeled."
“Oklahoma City has been tested many times with natural and man-made disasters,” said Jay Porter, another Oklahoman who works as an executive at Seattle’s Edelman Public Relations. “Whatever opinions people here might have, I don’t think there’s any way in the world Seattle is as well prepared for a major disaster as Oklahoma City is. Here’s hoping we don’t get a chance to find out.”
On Sunday President Obama visits Oklahoma, a politically conservative state where just under one-third of the ballots went his way last fall. Obama carried more than 55 percent of Washington State. On Monday night, after the storm passed, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin went on national television to thank the churches, nonprofits and neighboring governors who were lending support. Only after a long list of thank yous did she finally get say, “I even received a call from President Obama.”
Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (R) voted against Hurricane Sandy relief, and has adamantly rejected the idea that a new tornado relief package is necessary. He said the funds are already available.
When he visits Oklahoma on Sunday, the president will find a resilient, self-reliant people. Seattle — if it looks carefully enough — might learn a few lessons that are sure to help if and when the next big earthquake strikes.
Turns out, the tradition of spring tornados has made Oklahomans not only among the best prepared to survive and move on from disasters, but also among the most generous in supporting nongovernmental relief agencies.
David Meltzer leads the American Red Cross’s international disaster relief efforts in Washington, D.C. He told me that a disproportionate number of dollars come from Oklahomans and their neighbors who, he added, are among the most disaster-prepared.
“People are more resilient when they are hit with disaster more frequently," he explained. "Look at Haiti. Fortunately for Seattle, you’ve not been subjected to disaster. But when you are, you become more resilient and you know what to do.”
This month's parent magazine, Seattle Child, screams "Ready for an Earthquake?" on its blood red cover, and focuses on a local mom who survived an earthquake. On Sunday the Seattle Times reported on new analyses that show the potential for extensive damage and loss of life across the state in the wake of a major quake.
Meltzer said he has visited the Northwest and often hears companies brag about how prepared they are because they have redundant computer systems.
“What makes them think people are coming to work?” he asks. “Roads will be out, and people will want to take care of their families. What we preach is that at the community level you need to prepare. You need infrastructure preparedness, better building codes, education for community members about what to do when the disaster comes.”
Unfortunately, preparedness is a tough sell. Experts estimate that tsunami preparedness saved 300,000 lives in Japan in 2011, but that was not a story the media covered.
Sonics-turned-Thunder star Kevin Durant generously donated $1 million to support victims of the Oklahoma tornado after seeing all the devastation. Imagine if heart-felt donations like his went to preparedness before a disaster.
One question on everyone's mind this past week was climate change. Did it play a role? Sure, tornado alley earned its name from the frequency of tornadoes over the generations. But there is a sense that they are coming bigger and harder these days.
One website ranks the top 10 tornadoes of all time (there was a tie for 10th). Eight of the 10 occurred between 1896 and 1979. Three were added to the list in 2011. The one that struck Moore on Monday is likely bound for that Top Ten list too.