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Thursday, May 30, 2013 11:41 am

Watching out for fools

Who ought to pay for preventable storm damage?


The aftermath in Moore, Okla.

Oklahoma’s governor said what they always say. “We will rebuild.”

Sigh. Again? There? That way? Really?

Tornadoes, we have all been reminded yet again, are nature’s most violent storms. (Not the most destructive; earthquakes and hurricanes, which affect vastly more area, wreak the widest devastation.) The Moore twister was one of the worst of the lot, with 200-mph winds.

The building codes used in most of the U.S. require that new houses be built to withstand 90-mph winds. But widespread shoddy construction means that most can’t withstand even those barely-a-tornado winds. The tricky bit is not making the structure resistant to winds but to the junk that tornadic winds throw at your house. If you’re old enough to drive you’ve probaby seen the “tornado trees” exhibit at the Illinois State Museum. These are segments of two tree trunks pierced by boards hurled at them by the Tri-State tornado that pummeled southern Illinois in 1925, killing more than 600 people in Illinois alone. The trees – now, alas, no longer on permanent display – were among the most popular of the museums’ exhibits, in part because one didn’t need to read or think or know anything to grasp the lesson they conveyed about the awful power of these storms.

The roof is the structural weak point in most houses. It prevents the walls from falling over sideways; if a twister sucks the roof off the walls, the walls collapse faster than the Afghan government after we stop aid. On many newer houses, the roof members rely on not much more than gravity to stay in place. Simple and cheap steps such as installing hurricane straps and toe-nailing roof rafters to top plates will keep a roof in place so the house can stay standing in winds as high as 140 or 150 mph. (Standing up to a tornado that ranks five on the Enhanced Fujita Scale – an EF5, like the one that hit Moore – needs a concrete bunker; no one would want to live in one, but you can build a small one, as a safe room.)     

Storm-safe houses cost more to build than conventional houses. Houses with indoor toilets cost more than houses with outhouses. Houses built with furnaces and stoves cost more than houses with open hearths. People have to build them anyway because the cheaper houses in such cases pose risks to their neighbors. True, the risk posed to Oklahoma’s tax-paying neighbors when they are asked to pay to rebuild houses that are too flimsy to withstand tornadoes is fiscal rather than physical, but it’s real.

Ultimately, houses in disaster-prone areas are not built better because no one who might build them better loses money when they don’t. If a house-owner is underinsured, the feds pick up some of the loss. If half the town ends up in the streets, the feds pay city hall to clean it up.

A National Institute of Building Sciences study found that every $1 spent to strengthen buildings reduced the need for federal disaster spending by $4. But the feds don’t care either. They’re expected to spend money fast, not well. Besides, it’s considered bad manners to think about dollars after every “national tragedy,” which are indeed tragic to the extent that they are 1) largely preventable and 2) aren’t prevented because we are a Freedom-Loving People who would rather see towns leveled and children die than to submit to sensible rules.

Yes, of course we need emergency aid. Emergencies are by definition catastrophic events that, because they are unpredictable, cannot be planned for. But you can, and should plan for, say, hurricanes on the Florida coast or floods along the Illinois River. As for twisters, Moore sits smack in the middle of Tornado Alley. In the recent past alone, Moore has been visited by three tornadoes before this recent one – in 2003 and 2010, and on May 3, 1999, an EF5 tornado whose speeds topped 300 mph, which the National Weather Service said made them the highest winds ever recorded near the earth’s surface.

Yes, the chances of a tornado landing atop a particular house are very small. But the odds of one landing somewhere in a town like Moore are pretty good. So the town, not the individual property owner, properly bears the responsibility for taking steps to reduce the costs of the resulting damage. Insurance companies are pressing Congress to require up-to-date building codes nationwide. That would improve building practices in places like Oklahoma, which resist such measures as unpardonable affronts to liberty.

Fine. Like I said, it’s a free country. But if state and local governments can be free to ignore sensible building regulation, the national government ought to be free to refuse to pay its costs. Simple: No local effort to protect yourselves from loss, no national money to clean up the resulting mess. Leave it to charity, and to the god that supposedly watches out for fools.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at krojr@comcast.net

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