A conversation from The Diane Rehm Show archives with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In 2007, he talked to Diane about his belief in the power of music to cross borders and bridge backgrounds.
President Obama called the tornado that tore through Oklahoma on Monday one of the most destructive in history. Dozens were killed, hundreds injured and neighborhoods flattened. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was immediately dispatched to the scene to provide relief and resources, as they frequently do in these kinds of disasters. But despite the calls for help from local officials, back in D.C., the politics surrounding federal assistance has already heated up. The role of the government in disaster relief and the effectiveness of federal aid.
- Harold Brooks Research meteorologist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Lab.
- Steve Ellis Vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
- Mark Merritt Senior vice president of recovery services at Witt O'Brien's, a crisis management and disaster response group. He was a FEMA official in the Clinton Administration.
- Saundra Schneider Professor and director of the master's of public policy program at Michigan State University.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts of the George Washington University, sitting in today for Diane. She's away on a station visit at WVXU in Cincinnati. At least 24 people were killed from a tornado that ripped through Oklahoma on Monday. It is the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, to now assist with relief and rebuilding.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSTo look at how the federal government responds to disasters and what could be done to prevent such damage, I'm joined in the studio by Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Joining us by phone from Atlanta, Mark Merritt of Witt O'Brien, a crisis management firm. Mark also was a former official of FEMA. And joining us from the studios of KGOU in Norman, Okla.: Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSGentlemen, thanks for joining us, nice to have you with us this morning. Our phone number -- please join our conversation -- 1-800-433-8850, and firstname.lastname@example.org is our email address. And we're anxious to have you as part of our conversation this morning with your comments and your questions. And, Harold, I want to start with you. You're on the ground there in Oklahoma. Was this a, you know, we hear -- talk about the storm of the century. We heard it with Katrina. We heard it with Sandy. Was this an unusually strong tornado? Describe it to us.
MR. HAROLD BROOKSWell, not particularly. I mean it was -- in terms of violent tornadoes, it was, in some sense, a relatively ordinary, violent tornado. We get things that are close to this, you know, a few times a year. There was -- it was a low-end EF5 according to the rating system, but the fact that it was in a heavily populated area...
ROBERTSEF5 is the strongest, though, right? Yeah.
BROOKSEF5 is the strongest. So to the extent that a violent tornado can be a common event, this was about as common of a violent tornado as you could have.
BROOKSBut it's still something that only happens a few times a year.
ROBERTSNow, one of the things that was so striking to those of us who are not familiar with tornadoes, some of the pictures we saw, you had one side of the street, total devastation, and across the street, homes still standing. Explain to us who are not familiar with tornadoes how that could happen.
BROOKSWell, in general, you got very strong gradients in the wind. And so if there's -- if you're right in the right spot, you can have that happen. There's also, at times, gradients in construction practices that can also emphasize that, as well as the fact that, in many cases, when a single home fails, the debris associated with that home failing can take down neighbor's houses as well. And so you sometimes get these very strong gradients associated with either the edge of the tornado or construction practices or simple bad luck.
ROBERTSNow, of course, Harold Brooks from NOAA, so much of the attention of the news media and those of us just watching from afar focused on the children and the schools. One of them, Briarwood, I guess, survived pretty well. Plaza Towers has been the focus of a lot of media attention and where a number of children were killed. And one of the common themes of the coverage has been that there were no safe rooms in Plaza Towers. Explain the whole concept of a safe room and why that didn't exist in that elementary school.
BROOKSWell, safe rooms exist as a hardened construction practice, the interior to a building that is intended to withstand extremely high winds. The reason they don't exist, in fact, at places like Plaza Towers and at Briarwood are -- is the fact that, when those were constructed, there really wasn't the idea of a safe room. After May 3, 1999 tornado at Kelly Elementary School in Moore, when that rebuilt...
ROBERTSWhich that tornado was in Moore, Okla. and killed more than 30 people, right.
BROOKSRight, it was in Moore also, yes. It was very close -- right, right. Yeah. It -- that tornado was very close to the path of this one. And at Kelly Elementary, when it was rebuilt, actually, there is -- their media center in -- which is in the basement, is actually a hardened shelter. And so that's -- I'm sure when these two schools are rebuilt, they will be -- they will have those included. Briarwood was the piece of damage that was -- that got the EF5 rating for it.
BROOKSIt's not completely clear what happened and what went wrong at Plaza Towers. I haven't had a -- we haven't really gotten the stories out of there to know what exactly went wrong.
ROBERTSNow, let me ask you this, too, Harold and our other guests here. Now, as I read it, there was about a 16-minute notice which, for tornadoes, is a fairly long amount of time. And yet I'm sure, again, people not familiar with the nature of a tornado would say, why wasn't there more warning? What is it about the nature of tornadoes where the warning span is so short?
BROOKSWell, for one thing, warnings are very precisely defined events from the National Weather Service, saying that this particular thunderstorm is making -- is either making a tornado now or is about to. There were 16 minutes lead time from that warning on Monday and 35 minutes before the tornado got to Moore. But prior to that over the ensuing few -- or previous few days, there had been increasing messages of saying that there's a big threat.
BROOKSAnd in fact, in the National Weather Service forecast video -- discussion with their forecast on Monday morning at 11 a.m., they mentioned the fact that if a storm forms this afternoon, it will likely produce tornadoes very quickly after its formation. So there was -- if people were paying attention, they had a little more notices that something bad could potentially happen and that they should be paying attention if a storm actually formed that afternoon.
ROBERTSNow let me ask you to step back slightly. They're about longer range patterns, and there seems to be mixed reports or observations here because from one point of view, people say, well, there were not more tornadoes that -- maybe there were more tornadoes being reported. And there are more populated areas that might be affected by these extraordinary storms.
ROBERTSBut The New York Times quoted an insurance agency official this morning as saying, actually, if you look at this situation from the point of view of damage, there is an escalating pattern of severe weather. What's your best view from the perspective of NOAA?
BROOKSWell, from tornadoes, we really can't see much of a change over the years. There perhaps is a hint that there's been increased variability in the occurrence of tornadoes, that we've had more really big years and more really small years for tornadoes. And that may even go down to the day scale as well. But then in terms of the long-term damage associated with tornadoes, we really don't see any physical signals there.
BROOKSWe see perhaps -- we see a lot of signal associated with growing population and growing wealth in particular, that if you think back to, you know, if my house gets hit now, we've got, you know, TVs and microwaves and everything, computers in there. If my grandparents' house would have been hit, you know, 60 years ago, you know, they wouldn't have had any of that stuff. And so just the amount of things I have in my house would cause -- there'd be more damage right now if a tornado hit it.
ROBERTSAnd also more areas that were perhaps rural and under-populated now being affected as well.
BROOKSRight. There's a lot of -- I mean, yeah, the effect -- the tornado on Monday -- probably 30 years ago, there would have been, you know, 150 or 200 houses total in the path.
ROBERTSInteresting. Let me bring in Mark Merritt, who's on the phone with us from Atlanta, and Mark, as I mentioned, a former official of FEMA. And in fact, as if I read correctly, Mark, you were involved in the aftermath of that Moore tornado that Harold Brooks mentioned in 1999. What's your read about how FEMA and the federal government has responded to this disaster?
MR. MARK MERRITTWell, good morning. And I think, so far, it appears that, you know, FEMA has really learned its lessons from years past. And they have become a much more leaning-forward organization back -- very much like it was when we were there during the Clinton administration. And they are able to forward-project resources. A lot of people don't understand FEMA is a support agency.
MR. MARK MERRITTAnd even though you see them on TV a lot and everybody focuses on FEMA and they believe FEMA is in the lead, that's really not the case. And recovering and -- responding to and recovering from disasters, FEMA is a support agency and is there to step in when the capacity of the local governments as well as the state governments are exceeded. And that's when they need the federal support. That's when FEMA steps in.
ROBERTSNow, Steve Ellis from Taxpayers for Common Sense, what's your read? As a budget watchdog group evaluating the performance of government agencies all the time, what's your read?
MR. STEVE ELLISWell, I mean, FEMA -- I would say that you could look at the 1990s, and the Clinton administration is maybe the glory years of FEMA. Some of it is because they were tested very early on with the Great Midwest Flood of 1993 and then also that James Lee Witt, the FEMA director, stayed on office for the full eight years. But, you know, we'll have to see exactly how it all plays out.
MR. STEVE ELLISI mean, there's always -- I would call it -- just like they talk about the fog of war, there's the fog of disaster, and that is that you don't really know exactly how things are performing, how things are working immediately. It takes time to play out. And so for instance, we had, you know, Sandy happened back in October, but we're still -- there's a lot of money that hasn't been spent. We haven't seen how the Army Corps or FEMA has rebuilt and what's actually going to turn out there, and we won't still for months to come.
ROBERTSNow, Mark Merritt, it was mentioned that FEMA's kind of glory years were under Clinton and James Lee Witt, a very well-known and visible figure and the face of FEMA. But if that's true, probably the nadir of FEMA was exactly the opposite, which was during Katrina and the face of FEMA then, the director who came in for so much criticism. Talk about...
ELLISHeck of a job, Brownie.
ROBERTSHeck of a job, Brownie. I mean, that, you know, goes down as one of the most famous quotes of the whole Bush era. Were there lessons learned from Katrina, Mark?
MERRITTAbsolutely. I think one of the biggest lessons learned that goes along with the theme that you talked about during the Clinton years with James Lee Witt as the director of FEMA is they put a career emergency manager in charge of the agency. You know, Craig Fugate, coming from the state of Florida as the state director and then beginning, at the very early part of his career, as an EMS representative, you know, understands what the needs are at the local and state level.
MERRITTSo they better understand where the federal government can provide assistance and not step in and take charge. And I think -- to follow up on a comment that was made just before, I think when you look at progress of disasters, there's a lot of things that are similar disasters, but there are a lot of things that are very different.
MERRITTA tornado, from a recovery aspect, is much easier to deal with than a hurricane like Sandy -- or a super storm like Sandy because of the fact that a tornado is very concentrated. It's a very small geographic area. The state is not dysfunctional like you have in a catastrophic event when you have large-scale systems that are out of service.
MERRITTSo I think what you're going to see in tornado recovery is you have the opportunity to respond much quicker with the programs that are available.
ROBERTSAnd very quickly, Mark. You mentioned that Craig Fugate came from a state agency, and you made the point that FEMA's a back-up agency and that it's state and local officials who are on the ground with the first responsibility. And you think he understands that well because he comes from a state background.
MERRITTHe does. And I think his biggest strength is in response. And you can see in every disaster that has occurred in the Obama administration, you've seen that FEMA has been very proactive and very upfront in providing those resources that are necessary for the communities...
ROBERTSWe're going to come back with your comments and your calls. Please, some lines are open. Give us a call and we'll talk more about FEMA in just a second.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. And subject this hour, the tornado in Oklahoma, the disaster that we're all watching on TV, listening to on radio. And our subject is the federal response and exactly how is it going and questions of the role of government in the case of a disaster like this.
ROBERTSI'm joined in the studio by Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group. Mark Merritt of Witt O'Brien, a crisis management firm, is on the phone from Atlanta. He's also a former official of Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. And also joining us from Norman, Okla. is Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
ROBERTSAnd you can join our conversation. Give us a call. We got a couple of lines open, 1-800-433-8850. Drshow@wamu.org is our email address. And, Steve, just before the break, you were saying that some of the lessons you've seen learned from Katrina.
ELLISWell, I think that, you know, we mentioned FEMA Director Brown and kind of being the nadir of FEMA. I think that one his legacy is actually -- it's a positive legacy is that FEMA is no longer seen as a place where you could just cast off some sort of political hack and that, actually, there have been professionals, not just Craig Fugate in the Obama administration but David Maurstad, who took over later in the Bush administration.
ELLISAnd that's at least a positive step forward for FEMA and for its response and that these are people who understand the disasters. And you were mentioning earlier about how, you know, FEMA is a responsive agency and responds to the states. And that's actually the way the whole disaster system works. You know, essentially, community is overwhelmed, can't handle it. They ask the state for assistance. The state is overwhelmed. They ask the federal government for assistance.
ELLISThe president, as the president did yesterday, declares a major disaster, and that's what then starts the flow of federal aid to the community. And one thing that -- also when you were talking to, I think, Harold with NOAA, is that how it seems that at least anecdotally, disasters have been increasing. But even looking at the numbers, on average in the 1990s, each year, there were 46 declared major disasters.
ELLISSince 2000, on average, there has been more than 60 major declared disasters each year, which is an increase of more than 30 percent. And so that has two reasons. One is that maybe it is about weather, but it's also that we've -- what becomes a major disaster has kind of inched down a little bit as far as the per capita losses and things like that. And so it's just that something that we have to look at.
ROBERTSWell, and also the point that Mark was making that you have more areas that are populated, you have greater wealth. And so the damage in each case is greater.
ROBERTSMark, I want to -- Steve has brought up the question of federal funding. And right now, as I read it, the actual funds available for FEMA are fairly healthy, over $11 billion. It's early in the budget season. Perhaps that's one of the reasons. But at this point, how -- given the fact that there are budget crunches in Washington. The sequester, I know, has also affected FEMA. What's your assessment of the financial ability of FEMA to step in and provide the aid that's needed right now?
MERRITTWell, I -- well, first of all, I'm very concerned. You know, I've always believed that -- at the end of the day, that Congress and the federal government will do the right thing and support the communities with the funding they need to respond and recover from these significant events.
MERRITTHowever, as you saw in the Hurricane Sandy funding process, the supplemental process going through Congress -- you get additional funds for the disaster relief fund to respond to that specific disaster -- went on many, many weeks after the event, which is very problematic because it impacts the community's ability to plan for the recovery if they don't have any idea where the fund is going to come from and then, actually, how long it's going to take those funds to be put in place, which I think is the biggest reason why you see such -- what appears to be a slower recovery cycle from Hurricane Sandy.
ROBERTSBut, Steve Ellis, one of the interesting dimensions here is that several members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation actually voted against the Sandy aid package. And they say, we're not against aid. We're against not finding comparable savings elsewhere in the budget. Also, they had some complaints that the Sandy bill was larded down with some extra spending.
ROBERTSBut still, there's a certain awkwardness here, starting with Sen. Coburn of Oklahoma. It's now his state. And one of the Oklahoma representatives at the time, Tom Cole, who represents Moore and voted for the Sandy aid said, hey, let's remember, someday it's going to be your district that might need this. So there is an interesting conflict right here on this question.
ELLISRight. Well, whether it's fires, floods or killer bees, every congressional district is vulnerable to some sort of disaster. And so it can always come around. But certainly, Sen. Coburn has been consistent in demanding that there be offsets for disaster spending. Now, he hasn't really been that successful. At least according to congressional research service, the only time since 1990 that disaster spending has been offset was actually in 1995 with Oklahoma City.
ELLISBut every other time, it's at least been only partially offset or not offset at all. And, you know, there has been some wiggling around this, and we're going to have to see when the bill comes out because, unfortunately, the Sandy bill was -- contained a lot of non-emergency, non-Sandy-related spending, which was unfortunate.
ELLISAnd, you know, but the beauty of at least having a robust disaster relief fund, which is what you're referring to earlier with more than $11 billion, is that there is room for FEMA to react and Congress to deliberate. And it's important for Congress to deliberate and be very strong on how they decide about the funding levels. And just on the delay of Sandy because people miss this, Sandy happened at the end of October.
ELLISThe president didn't actually request any money for FEMA or the Corps of Engineers or any of the other agencies until Dec. 8. So part of the delay was just basically taking a step back and trying to assess what we actually needed. And that is what we have to do, especially when we're in tight budget environment and especially when we have $16.5 trillion debt.
ROBERTSNow, I want to also get into the whole question of building codes because several of you mentioned earlier that the new codes do require, in a place like Plaza Towers, to have safe rooms. But as I read it, in Moore, Okla., only 10 percent of the homes have these kinds of, say, facilities. It's partly because the tradition on the Plains is not to dig basements or foundations for homes at all.
ROBERTSBut given the fact, Harold Brooks, that there was a similar storm in this very town of Moore, Okla. in 1999, when you read these figures about the lack of the safe rooms not just in the elementary school, but in many of the residential areas, what's your reaction?
BROOKSWell, in fact, I think that the safe room is actually a spectacular success of FEMA in Moore that over 100 people were taken out of mostly FEMA-funded shelters based upon the 1999 storm on Monday evening. So the death toll might have been much higher without what FEMA had done before.
BROOKSIn reality, I'm somewhat sympathetic that there are not being shelters in places that -- when Plaza Towers and Briarwood were built, there wasn't really a concept of a safe room. And retrofitting structures is very expensive. When my wife and I -- in our house, we decided that -- when we did an addition onto the house...
ROBERTSYour house where?
BROOKS...adding a couple of thousand -- in Norman.
BROOKSI'm 10 miles from the damage path. When we did an addition onto our house, we included a safe room as part of the addition. It's our walk-in closet off of our bedroom 'cause there was only a couple $1,000 added on to an $80,000 addition. Would I have done it if I was retrofitting the house? No. You know, the expense involved in that was several thousand dollars.
BROOKSAnd that was just more than we wanted to spend at that time. And the chances actually of getting hit are relatively small. It's the kind of thing I recommend people do, that when they put in a -- when they do new construction or when they do additional construction. But then it's kind of hard to justify, retrofitting structures, to do that.
ROBERTSAnd, Mark Merritt, one of the interesting dimensions here is a story in The New York Times on this very subject this morning, saying it's also a cultural question, it's not just economic, that there's almost a culture of bravery or casualness in the plains in the face of these weather events, and told the story of two twins, who, you know, decided to sit out this tornado watching it from their porch. They eventually did take cover. But is this part true, too? Is there a cultural dimension here that impedes the willingness or ability of people to spend the money to create these kind of safe places in their homes?
MERRITTWell, I think we can spend a whole hour talking about the culture differences of people raised in the plains as opposed to someone in urban America. But I think, you know, the issue is when you get into building codes, it's very difficult, especially in that part of the country, for government to dictate and if they do anything. And when you add an additional expense on there, it becomes very problematic.
MERRITTI think we talked a little bit about the odds of -- the people in this part of the country have, for generations, have lived in an environment that's had tornadoes. So they have a little bit more of a tolerance to deal with the risk. And I think, you know, other things that have really added to the risk of the individuals is the ability to post videos on TV and Internet.
MERRITTIt tends to get people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do because they get their, you know, 15 minutes of fame by posting a really cool video. So there's a whole lot of things that go into the fact that folks aren't spending the amount of money and taking it serious to build these storm shelters, and it's unfortunate.
ROBERTSNow, I want to bring into our conversation here on "The Diane Rehm Show" Saundra Schneider. She's director of the master's of public policy program at Michigan State, and she studies the effectiveness of government responses to natural disasters. Welcome to the program, Prof. Schneider.
PROF. SAUNDRA SCHNEIDERThank you very much.
ROBERTSI want to ask you about the role -- the larger question about the role of government. It's very common in Washington today to talk about the lack of trust in government, and all polls show a decline -- sharp decline, in many ways -- in the public view of the federal government. But one gets a sense that maybe federal disasters are different, that this is one area where people do look to the federal government more than many others. What's your view on that?
SCHNEIDERI agree. I do think that when disasters strike that there's a very strong inclination for the public at large, as well as those who might be affected by the disaster, to look immediately to the government. And more and more, the attention is focused on the federal government, even though, as some of the participants in your show have already pointed out, it's not the federal government's primary role to step in and take care of things.
SCHNEIDERIt's local governments and then state governments. But I do think that the -- there is a tendency now for, especially in the American political system, for the public to look directly at government as the assister or the supporter, the arm that's going to come and help them if they -- if a disaster hits.
ROBERTSBut is there a -- but from a larger perspective, as an academic who thinks about these things, is there a certain inconsistency, even hypocrisy, that -- we mentioned the congressional delegation from Oklahoma voting against Sandy relief, and Sen. Coburn one of the strongest critics of federal spending in the entire U.S. Senate. And suddenly some of those conservative principles about smaller government seem to recede when people suddenly are in need and need the federal government to help them.
SCHNEIDERYes, that's exactly right. It's a situation where if you're immediately affected or if your friends and your family are affected, that's a very different perception about who should help and what role the government should play versus if you're talking about another community -- excuse me -- or another area in the country where a disaster might hit. But the point you raised, I think, is important that disaster relief and disaster assistance is clearly embroiled in the political process.
SCHNEIDERAnd political ideas, political ideologies have definitely been playing a role in not only the way the public is viewing what government should do, but especially the way political leaders are viewing whether the government should intervene and how much money the government should allocate. And we're seeing that play out again now, just as we saw it play out with Superstorm Sandy.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." A final question for you, Prof. Schneider. You have written that even though as we've said a number of times here that this should be a bottom-up system, local...
ROBERTS...responders first turn to the state when they're overwhelmed, turn to the federal government when they're overwhelmed. But you also have written that when it comes to certainly mega storms -- like the one in Oklahoma, like Katrina, like Sandy -- in the end, the only government agency with the resources, both financial and physical and material, to deal with a disaster this scale is the federal government, and then, in the end, they are the last resort and an essential part of this process.
SCHNEIDERThat's true. I think that we definitely saw that play out with Hurricane Katrina, and we saw it also in similar situations that occurred earlier where the attention was focused on the national government. And the expectation was it should be the federal government, and it should be the president, FEMA, Department of Homeland Security, that those agencies and those officials should be at the top, and they should be providing the leadership.
SCHNEIDERAnd that's definitely the case if you're talking about a catastrophic storm or a catastrophic hurricane like the one -- a tornado like the one that we saw yesterday.
ROBERTSNow, Mark Merritt, I want to bring you in here because you've been at FEMA, and one of the dimensions of the federal role in any disaster, beyond what we've been talking about, which is the practical delivery of services and resources -- helicopters to fly you in medical emergencies and rebuilding resources -- is also a role for presidential leadership that goes beyond that, sometimes described as the chaplain-in-chief.
ROBERTSWe saw the -- George Bush at his best at ground zero and, in some ways, people would say, at his worst when he ignored Katrina. Talk about the dimension that goes beyond simply practical aid and the role for presidential leadership that Saundra Schneider was talking about in a moment like that.
MERRITTI think the two biggest areas is confidence, leadership and managing expectations. And it's not just the president. It's that governor, and it's that local elected official, whether it be...
ROBERTSMm hmm. Mm hmm. Right.
MERRITT...a mayor or a county official. And what you see, though, is because our political system has become so extreme in the past few years, you see things like in the post-Sandy recovery when you had a Republican governor who did exactly what he is required to do because of his elected position, working closely with a Democratic president because of his elected position. Because they worked together to take care of the citizens regardless of party of New Jersey, that became political fodder of this can't work.
MERRITTIt's not supposed to work this way. It needs to be controversial. It needs to be a difficult situation, and that's not the case. And I think what you have to see in emergency management is politics needs to be set aside as much as possible. And James used to always say that disasters have no party affiliation, and I think that's what needs to happen is when we deal with disasters, the politics needs to be set aside
MERRITTWhen we deal with supplemental funding, it should be pure. It shouldn't be tied up with offsets because you see how difficult it is to get Congress to compromise on anything today. And the victims that have lost their homes and have lost their loved ones and their schools don't have time to wait for Congress to battle over, you know, whether they're going to offset disaster fund against something that will be controversial.
ROBERTSBut very quickly, it was fascinating that Gov. Christie -- a Republican, as you say, doing his job and doing it well -- was berated by people in his own party for saying nice things about the president. It was an interesting insight into this dynamic.
MERRITTAnd I hope the academics will spend a lot of time focusing on that and will bring that to national attention because I think that is a very good example of what's wrong with our political system...
ROBERTSWe're going to be -- we're going to talk more about this very issue, so give us your calls and your comments. We'll be right back.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour, the tornadoes in Oklahoma and the larger question of how the federal government responds with finances, material help, building codes, lots of questions on the table, and, with me to talk about it, Mark Merritt of Witt O'Brien, a crisis management firm. He's on the phone from Atlanta. Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense is in the studio with me.
ROBERTSHarold Brooks of NOAA is there in Norman, Okla., and Saundra Schneider, director of the master's of public policy program at Michigan State, who's written a lot about federal disaster responses, also with me on the phone. And I want to read some emails here, and we got some very good questions. So if you can give me some answers, I'd appreciate it.
ROBERTSStarts with Cameron in Denton, Texas, and this email says, "It's hard to build safe rooms underground in states like Texas and Oklahoma because the soil in these states is red clay, which is very poor. This means that when it's dry, the soil shrinks, and when it rains, the soil expands. This results in shifting foundations which, for basements, is very important." Mark Merritt, what do you think?
MERRITTI think that's what we've talked about a lot, you know, early on in the conversation. You know, safe rooms aren't a simple solution. They're expensive. They're impacted by the conditions that the homes are built in, whether it's built into an above grounds format or underground. It's very difficult to do, so it's not the single solution to the problem of tornadoes. And the gentleman who wrote the email is, you know, probably focusing on why we don't have more safe rooms than we do.
ROBERTSNow here's another question. Several emails and callers are focusing on this question. Steve Ellis, I'd like your response. This is from Greta in Arlington, Va., and she writes, "Why do we keep shoveling federal dollars into 'rebuilding', that is subsidizing homeowners who continue to build in the path of hurricanes?" And I guess you could also say tornadoes since, as we pointed out, this very town, Moore, Okla. was hit by a devastating tornado in 1999.
ELLISWell, certainly, the federal government has its hands sort of sullied by the fact that we have encouraged and incentivized people to build in harm's way, whether it's through subsidized federal flood insurance, which then encourages rebuilding in these areas. Or even if you look at Sandy, a lot of this is about we're going to rebuild the dunes and the berms, and we're going to allow people to live in harm's way even though we know that those people are vulnerable, instead of doing buyouts and approaches that are going to reduce people's risk.
ELLISAnd so it is a challenge that the federal agencies have a kind of oriented -- and Americans. We're – we don't retreat. You know, we don't -- we want to stand in the face of Mother Nature, shaking our fist and saying, we're still here, we're still strong, when in reality, in some cases, maybe we should be shaking our fist from higher ground.
ROBERTSWell, that's a good point. Saundra Schneider, I'm interested in your view on this because in addition to what Steve Ellis just said and, you know, shaking our fist to Mother Nature, there's also something very resonant about home. And people want to go back to where they were raised, where they are familiar with, and that continues to be an issue in floodplains and hurricane alleys and many other vulnerable places.
SCHNEIDERYeah, that's exactly right. The attachment that people have to where they were brought up with the same kinds of environment in which they were raised is something that oftentimes is not addressed as clearly or as directly as it should be, not only in the academic literature but also in terms of the way that governments and the way private organizations approach this because it's very difficult to convince somebody who has been raised in the Midwest, in tornado alley or in a comparable area to move from that place, because of the attachments to your family and the attachments to your culture and your background.
SCHNEIDERThose are attachments that don't go away even when a tornado or hurricane comes through.
ROBERTSI mean, I have a vacation home on the beach in South Carolina, in a place that's been inhabited by some families for six generations. Hurricane Hugo practically destroyed that island, and everybody rebuilt, you know, because my grandfather did it. My great grandfather lived there. It's a very powerful idea.
ELLISBut there's a difference...
SCHNEIDERIt is true.
ELLISBut there's a difference...
ELLISNo, no. I'm just going to say there's a difference between the private person making this decision to rebuild and the federal government enabling that decision to happen. And so, that is where I feel like Uncle Sam sometimes is encouraging this rebuilding, and actually we're spending money and then spending money again and then again.
ROBERTSLet me read another...
MERRITTLet me answer real quick. Let me answer real quick. You know, the federal government has made changes in the last few years. The flood insurance is no longer to be subsidized starting this year. They're starting to phase it in where you'll be paying premiums based on risk. So that is going to be some level of discouragement.
MERRITTBut we can't overlook the fact of the economic impact of just depopulating these areas that are so-called in high risk zones. If you were to depopulate the Gulf Coast because you're in -- Hurricane Katrina, what would happen to the petrol chemical industry? What would happen to the port that the majority of the commodities that come up and down the Mississippi River go down?
ROBERTSMm hmm. Sure.
MERRITTSo it is not just an easy solution of folks that have beach houses. There's a lot more to it than that.
ROBERTSFair point. Thank you. Let's turn to one of our callers from Oklahoma. Jay in Tulsa, welcome. Thanks for calling us this morning. What's on your mind?
JAYYeah. I actually called you from Oklahoma City, but I'm in Tulsa now. I've been on the road. But I live about eight or nine miles from the area that was hit in Moore and, you know, I've lived in Oklahoma my whole life. And one thing I've noticed just throughout the years is, you know, these disasters seem to happen again and again. But they're, you know, it seems like there's some preparation done, but at the same time, you know, it's 2013. We can understand and foresee a lot of this, like, potential damage.
JAYI just wonder why we're so worried about offsetting costs after the storm, you know, making sure people are able to rebuild homes, businesses, et cetera, but we're not doing enough about (unintelligible), you know, and the issue with underground storm shelters. But there are other ways you can, you know, avoid a tornado. If you literally just have enough warning, you can just get out of the way because usually they're, you know, not a mile wide.
ROBERTSWell, of course, you can't move a school, though. But, Jay...
ROBERTS...thanks for your call. We appreciate it very much. You're on the ground there in Norman, Harold Brooks. What's your response?
BROOKSWell, one of the issues is we really prefer, from the emergency management standpoint, to have people shelter in place because, for instance, if people would have started trying to leave Moore 10 minutes, 15 minutes before the tornado got there, we would have a lot of traffic and a lot of people in vehicles. And that could be a really, really bad situation. And so the -- in general, we prefer people to have, you know, shelter.
BROOKSWe know that if -- even in not incredibly well-built structures, if you go to the lowest floor interior room of your house, your chances of survival are much, much higher. People survive in F5 damage. It may not be a very pretty thing, but they can -- they survive. And we know that if you do the right things, your chances of survival are much, much higher.
ROBERTSNow, Harold, we also have an email from Roberta, who asks a question several other callers have asked as well, "Why wouldn't the officials call a no-school day as they do when a snow storm occurs? I know that many houses are destroyed, but at least the children would be home with their parents. Also, the places that did have so-called storm shelters and/or basements, I feel like the citizens surely should have got together and prepared to have people gather in those shelters." Why -- what's your response to this email?
BROOKSWell, the second point, in fact, people do come from other houses frequently when they know that someone in the neighborhood has a shelter. In terms of calling off schools, the question of if I'm a parent and my kid gets out of school, I have to go home for him. That means I'm leaving my work. It's not clear that the -- that having people at school is more dangerous than having them at their homes.
BROOKSThat's a real difficult question to come up with. And if we start calling off schools just because there's a threat of tornadoes, then you have to do it hours before the event occurs to actually get people out of the way. We're talking about calling off school many days a year, and I prefer my kids to get educated.
ROBERTSVery good point. Let's turn to Catherine in Cincinnati, Ohio. Catherine, welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CATHERINEYes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'm originally from Wichita Falls, Texas, which is on the border of Texas and Oklahoma and so right in the middle of Tornado Valley.
CATHERINESo I'm very used to, you know, hearing the sirens. And actually, my home there in Wichita Falls, we have an underground cellar. And our neighbors would come when the sirens would go off, and we would hunker down and have bottled water and whatnot. And most of the time, there was actually no real threat, and sometimes we would, you know, stand outside until we, you know, we couldn't stand out anymore and went downstairs.
CATHERINEBut, really, my question has been prompted by the local response and preparedness that they did have in Moore, Okla. And as rescue efforts are coming to an end, I'm wondering if the local government keeps records of each house with underground shelters. And so that way, you know, if something like this did happen again, as it has happened before in my mom's hometown, that they would know that my mother and her neighbors were down there.
ROBERTSInteresting question. Mark Merritt, what's your response?
MERRITTI don't know if that community did that. I don't -- it does -- it's not normal for that type of inventory unless it was federally funded. If those shelters were federally funded, that would be the case. Now, you do have some communities that have local emergency response plans, and that could be a component of that. I'm not sure what they've done in Moore, but that's not a bad idea.
ROBERTSBut it sounds like there would be two benefits here, one, as Catherine implies, knowing where to search for survivors. But also, as she pointed out and you pointed out, if you know that a neighbor has a more secure shelter than you do, this also would be a benefit if this was well known.
MERRITTIt would be. And actually, I have a storm safe room in my house. I did the same thing when I had an addition, and my neighbors know to come here. Now, communities do have for the vulnerable populations and special needs populations. Most communities that have a pretty good emergency response plan have identified those with special needs, and they are those -- they have the ability to respond to them much more quickly than they do with the regular population.
BROOKSI'd like to point that in Norman and in Moore, if you have a shelter, you are supposed to register it with the city. And in fact, when we built our shelter, that was -- one of the first things we did was we told the city of Norman whether it's above ground or below ground so they'll know to come by and look at my house to make sure if I'm there. And that same thing has been happening in Moore. That's how they were able to identify where to get the people out of the shelters on Monday night.
ROBERTSGood. Thanks. Let's turn to Roger in Miami Beach, Fla. Welcome. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show," Roger.
ROGERYes. Thank you. We are, of course, right in Hurricane Alley here in Miami Beach, and we love FEMA. We are amazed at the actions of the people like Sen. Coburn who restrict FEMA funds. I think the gentleman from NOAA can probably attest to the fact that they would love to have a few more jet. Hurricane hunter airplanes are relatively inexpensive item compared to the damage that hurricanes cause. But I think we should certainly put a lot of the blame on the shortsightedness of government at all levels, reluctance to spend the money on the federal level, even on the state level.
ROGERWe had here in Dade County a much stronger building code for hurricane resistance. And Jeb Bush, when he was governor, had a state law passed, which he signed, which put a limit on the strength of our building code and actually reduced the hurricane resistance of our building code because of the support he got from the South Florida Builders Association. And we were just flabbergasted down here in Miami-Dade County. He lives here, and we wondered how he could restrict it. The...
ROBERTSOK. Roger, thanks very much for your call. I appreciate it. I'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Steve Ellis, your response to Roger.
ELLISSure. Well, we know that there've been studies that have been done that demonstrate that a dollar's worth of mitigation is equal to $4 and even up to $10 worth of response. And so it certainly is this case of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. And so certainly I would agree with the caller that we should be investing in that area and presponding (sic) to disaster rather than always responding. And then whatever funding we provide in response should be making us less vulnerable in the future.
ELLISBut I have to point out that in the case of Florida, for instance, the state has actually -- has subsidized homeowner's insurance. That has actually become -- they've become the homeowner -- the insurer of first resort for the state. More than half of the policies in vulnerable coastal areas are subsidized through the state. So there's a real problem in Florida where, again, the government is encouraging people to be in harm's way.
ROBERTSI want to make sure that I get to Mandy 'cause she is calling from Moore, Okla. And, Mandy, we really appreciate your call. Tell us what it's like in Moore today.
MANDYPretty chaotic. The traffic is still backed up on the interstate. They're miles, miles long. I live about a mile away from -- a mile north of where this tornado hit. I got the chance to walk through the damaged area, and it's really -- it's indescribable. You can't believe what you see when you go down there. But I just wanted to comment on how people are saying, you know, why don't we call off school days?
MANDYThere's -- after all the storm -- two days before, I was in Tulsa. My family lives in Tulsa. And it was dark, windy, stormy all day long. We thought we were going to get hit by a tornado. We didn't see a drop of rain. The other day they had 15 minutes notice literally. It was sunny before, and out of nowhere, this tornado dropped down. There is no telling. So I just -- I wanted to make that comment. You live in Oklahoma. You understand these things can pop up out of nowhere.
ROBERTSMandy, take care, and we really appreciate your call. All the best...
MANDYThank you for...
ROBERTSAll the best to you and your community, Mandy.
MANDYThank you for taking my call.
ROBERTSSure. Harold, your response to Mandy's comment.
BROOKSWell, sure. I mean, I'm a, you know, my wife's a school teacher. And they had -- they almost -- their school almost got hit by a tornado last year. It was across the street from them. And really the notion to me of calling school off is just, in many sense, a bad idea. You would have to -- they would -- if they would want to call off to get people actually out of the way, they would had to call off on the forecast in the morning.
BROOKSAnd at that point, you know, the forecast for Norman where I live would have been exactly the same thing, and we weren't impacted at all. And if had taken a day off, you know, it would've just been, I think, a really bad idea 'cause it would be several times a year. There's already enough time taken out of the schools for all the other stuff they have to do.
BROOKSThat just -- I think -- I don't think that's a very good idea to do based -- 'cause you have to do it so early in the day that the chances of actually anything getting hit are very small, as well as the fact we don't really know whether it's worse to have people in the small area of the school or at home.
ROBERTSVery quickly, I want to get a chance to talk to Marcus from Oklahoma City. I only have a minute here, Marcus, but what's on your mind? I know you're from Oklahoma City.
MARCUSYes. I saw the damage extensively firsthand. And what you see on television has no comparison to what we see right here on the actual ground. And the thing that they were saying was that it was very expensive to go in retrofit building to put in these shelters and things like that. And I have a pretty cost-efficient way, I think, that will solve that for these fools. I think that we should get it backhoe, go in there and dig up a nice-sized hole and just bury some of those old school buses because when these things come through, if you're not underground, you are not safe. You're definitely not safe.
ROBERTSOK. Marcus, thank you so much for sharing that with us, and you take care, and Oklahoma City as well. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. I want to thank Steve Ellis, Mark Merritt, Harold Brooks and Saundra Schneider for being with us on this program. And thank you, our audience, for some very good calls. And particularly the -- you listeners out there in Oklahoma, do the very best and take care. And thanks for spending an hour with us. We'll see you.
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