The sustainability community and the post-tornado disaster conversation.

Does the sustainability community have anything to contribute in this latest tornado disaster recovery?  Beyond, of course, donations of time and money to organizations working to alleviate immediate pain and suffering for those involved?

I think we do and now is the time for us to start that conversation.

The Urban Heat Island Effect.
Oklahoma City  has an enormous footprint and that creates an urban heat island effect.  This may be influencing the weather south and east of the city, an area that includes Moore. Is there a connection between tornadoes and the urban heat island effect? There isn’t enough research to say one way or another, but there is preliminary data which suggests the answer may be “yes.”   Study links tornadoes to urban heat island effect.

We need public and private investments in research so that we know whether the urban heat island is a factor in formation, intensity, and path of storms in this area. In the meantime, anything we can do to mitigate the urban heat island effect will save us money in the long run. The primary mitigations?  Planting trees, shading pavement, and white (or other light colored) or green (planted with vegetation) roofs.  If it turns out that our urban heat island is a major influence on storm formation, intensity, and path, then those mitigations take on a greater urgency.

Three ecological concepts: constancy, persistence, resilience.
In my iPermie book, I have a long discussion on the ecological concepts of constancy, persistence, and resilience. These days, the  three concepts are typically combined into the single term resilience, but I’m not sure that’s a good idea.

Resilience is about how a system recovers from damage. We do pretty good with that, at least, “so far so good”.  On May 20th, public and private resources mobilized instantly to respond to the grave damage of the latest Moore tornado.  That response is on-going and will continue for years.

It’s not a perfect system though. If the disaster is really big, and/or if there are multiple disasters at the same time, the resources of both public and private agencies can be stretched to the breaking point.  During the Katrina disaster, the local government cut and ran, abandoning thousands of the poorest of the poor to their fate in the face of the on-rushing hurricane.  Police killed unarmed citizens fleeing for their lives. Nursing home residents were abandoned to drown and some may even have been euthanized.

Oklahoma’s Republican congressional delegation helped delay disaster relief money for the victims of the Sandy disaster, which happened in “blue states”.  After the Moore tornado, there were calls in New York and New Jersey for their congressional delegations to oppose aid to Oklahoma as political revenge for the opposition of Oklahoma Republicans to aid for Sandy victims.

In the future, disaster relief may not be as available as it is today.  Politics, austerity, and compassion fatigue may get in the way. Which is why we can no longer afford to ignore  ecological concepts of constancy and persistence.

Constancy is the ability of a system to support itself. As with resilience, we do reasonably well with constancy ( “so far so good”), but many of our systems are brittle.  We depend upon long supply chains. Our communications and energy systems are at risk of weather, terrorism, human error, and “deferred maintenance” of normal wear and tear.   The sustainability community is already busy working on these problems with our programs to  grow local food systems, promote energy conservation and alternative energy, boost the local economy, etc. That work needs to continue.

While resilience and constancy are both necessary, it is better to not need so much resilience in the first place. Persistence is the ability of a system to defend itself against grave threats.

Because of our political and economic structures, which drive our personal decisions, we have very little community persistence. We are almost totally defenseless before the primary threats and hazards of life along the Great Plains of North America.

  • Much of our critical power and communications infrastructure is above ground, vulnerable not only to tornadoes and straight line winds, thunderstorms and hail, but also to snow, sleet, and ice storms, terrorism.  Water and fuel systems have vital above-ground technology that if damaged or destroyed render the systems inoperable.
  • Our residential and commercial housing and buildings have no defenses to speak of against severe weather damage.  Oklahoma building codes are weak and mandate little in the way of weather-resistant construction.  Oklahoma’s building industry is firmly against strengthening those building codes and is even opposed to a proposal to make tornado shelters mandatory in new construction. Our assessment systems and standards do not value storm resistant construction or life-saving structures like cellars, basements, and safe rooms.
  • Less than 10% of Oklahomans have access to a cellar.
  • There are few public shelters and  the trend in recent years is for cities to close the few existing public shelters due to a bureaucratic decision to encourage people to “shelter in place.”
  • No one knows how many schools in Oklahoma have tornado shelters or safe rooms. There is no state mandate for cellars or safe rooms for schools.

On May 20, 2013, the tragic result of this political irresponsibility was manifested before the world, as children died while “sheltering in place” in schools without adequate tornado protection, betrayed and abandoned to their fate by the politicians in the state legislature and the Moore school board.

Our pioneer ancestors with their sod huts were right.
Underground and earth-sheltered housing is the most appropriate vernacular architecture for residential properties in Tornado Alley.  If my house gets blown away by the wind or burned by fire, my intention is to replace it with a hobbit house — partially underground, earth-sheltered, storm shutters for windows and doors.  This type of construction is, I think, the natural vernacular construction for the Great Plains.  It protects against all of the extremes of Tornado Alley weather.

If we always do what we always do, we will always get what we always get.
If  we let this disaster and its recovery pass, without making some changes in the way we do things here on the Great Plains, we will compound this disaster and make the next one even worse.

  • We need to stop building brittle infrastructure and start investing in weather-proof energy and communications infrastructure.  Meme: No more brittle infrastructure!
  • We need investments in public shelters at schools. These shelters could also provide neighborhood refuges when the area is threatened with severe weather. Meme:  Protect our children from life-threatening storms!
  • We can offer housing alternatives that will resist the weather extremes of the Great Plains.  Meme: Underground and earth sheltered housing can protect your family from the extremes of Tornado Alley weather.
  • We need research into the Urban Heat Island Effect, and if it turns out to be true that the OKC urban heat island is causing  more intense storms to form and track to the south and east of the metro, then we need to do things that will mitigate our urban heat island, such as shading pavement and white and green roofs.  Meme: Study the urban heat island effect. Plant trees, shade pavement, whitewash our roofs.

Many of us are rightly concerned about what is happening with the climate. The future is likely to bring more severe and more frequent storms.  We can’t afford to simply be fatalistic and blasé about the risks of life on the Great Plains. This climate issue has consequences that may impact our resilience — the ability to recover — as well as our persistence — in the event of future disasters!

  • How many multi-billion dollar disasters can we afford?  The answer is not “As many as may happen.” Someone I know has had to replace her roof three times in the past ten years due to hail. All of the money spent on recovery is money that can’t be spent on other things, situations, opportunities.
  • After the last few mega-disasters along the Gulf Coast,  sine casualty insurance corporations stopped selling insurance along the Gulf Coast and in parts of Florida. What happens if insurers stop selling insurance for tornadoes and hail storms in Oklahoma?
  • Insurance companies will certainly raise their rates in Oklahoma to recoup all of the multiple billions of dollars that this latest disaster will cost.  My house insurance nearly doubled over the past decade.  What happens if it doubles again in the next decade? The money I spend on insurance premiums I can’t spend for other things. What will the economic impacts of soaring casualty insurance payments be to the Oklahoma economy?
  • How many people are we willing to kill by our foolish and imprudent lack of community preparations for the known hazards of the area?
  • Why do we elect politicians to school boards who build schools without proper tornado protection?  I am inclined to vote against all incumbents in future school board elections absent some rather fast action to solve this problem.

Right now, politicians are crawling all over Moore, Shawnee, and the other damaged areas, emoting public sympathy for the victims.  Totally absent from their commentaries is anything that approaches a constructive effort to reduce the damage that these grave storms can do.  None are acknowledging any responsibility for the political and economic structures that make this disaster worse than it needed to be. They won’t discuss a state mandate for storm cellars in schools and even the City of Moore is backing away from a proposal to require storm shelters in all new construction, due to opposition by home builder associations. 

That kind of do-nothing, “it’s not raining, the roof isn’t leaking, so we don’t have to fix it” attitude has killed people again and again and again in our history.    Here’s another meme:  Vote against all politicians who don’t protect children and neighborhoods with school and public shelters. No exceptions! No political commitment to school and public shelters, no vote!

Got a plan?
The final thing the sustainability community can do is get busy doing for ourselves, so that our households and neighborhood communities are characterized by constancy, persistence, and resilience.  As we create a community of safety and security at the grassroots level, we will see change in our politics.  There are things that we as individuals and families need to do, and there are things the government needs to do, and civil society is part of this too.  We should all get busy.  Do what you can, with what you have, where you are to create a community that is persistent, constant, and resilient.

You can work on this on your own, but it’s more fun if you get others involved as a community project.

My ebook  iPermie! How to permaculture your urban lifestyle, has 399,000 words on the subject of creating a life that is persistent, constant, and resilient.  It is only $1.99 at If you can’t afford two dollars, email me and I will send you one for free.  It’s an ebook, available as a pdf or any of the other major formats (Kindle, Nook, Android, Apple, Kobo, etc.).

Summary of suggested talking points/memes:

  • No more brittle infrastructure!
  • Protect our children from life-threatening storms!
  • Underground and earth sheltered housing can protect your family from the extremes of Tornado Alley weather.
  • Study the urban heat island effect. Plant trees, shade pavement, whitewash our roofs.
  • Vote against all politicians who don’t protect children and neighborhoods with school and public shelters. No exceptions! No political commitment to school and public shelters, no vote!
  • Do what you can, with what you have, where you are to create a community that is persistent, constant, and resilient.
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