On the afternoon of May 20, a force equal to 600 times the Hiroshima atomic bomb’s power struck the city of Moore, Okla. The giant tornado, 1.3 miles wide, cut a swath over 17 miles long, killing at least 24 people, ten of them children, and injuring 327 others. Over 13,000 homes and other structures were destroyed, with property damage expected to top $2 billion.
Located just a little south of Oklahoma City, Moore lies in what has come to be called “Tornado Alley,” a region crossing several states where tornadoes occur with great frequency each year, especially during the spring.
The twister was rated by the National Weather Service as an EF5, the most powerful rating given, and produced wind speeds of 200 to 210 miles per hour. According to engineering experts, a wind speed of 160 mph or greater is sufficient to turn any unsecured object of any weight (including automobiles) into rapidly accelerating projectiles.
In winds of 190 mph or greater, a 40,000 pound container secured to a concrete slab would be turned on its side and begin to roll with the slab attached. If dirt or sand is incorporated into the wind, as is often the case in a tornado, the force measured in pounds per square inch is 40 to 100 percent higher! (pssurvival.com)
Little wonder that the tornado which swept through Moore literally flattened everything in its path.
This was not the first time that Moore has been flattened. In 1999, the most powerful windstorm in recorded history hit the city with winds which reached 302 mph and killed even more people than the most recent storm. In all, four powerful, devastating tornadoes have hit Moore since 1998.
Each time, the people of Moore were given between 10 to 30 minutes warning during which they were supposed to either flee or protect themselves from these behemoth storms.
Profits before people
If a large community were located in an area where such destructive force is unleashed on a more or less regular basis, it would seem reasonable to provide a stormproof shelter of some type for every resident.
Unfortunately, big business and its lapdog politicians have a firm grip on Oklahoma, just like they have on most places in the U.S.
When the suggestion to provide safe rooms at least for schools was broached after the 1999 tornado, the politicians called the proposal “too expensive.” The two schools in Moore where children died had no shelters because they hadn’t an adequate budget for them.
On May 22, Moore’s mayor, Glen Lewis, said he would propose an ordinance “in the next couple of days” at the Moore City Council that would modify building codes to require the construction of reinforced shelters in every new home in the town of 56,000. (AP, May 22)
But the cost of this would be borne by the residents, and, if passed, would only apply to new construction.
It may very well be that a project of this size and scope would need federal resources; resources such as a modest part of the hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on military bases and other “defense” projects which have been poured into Oklahoma since World War II, and continue to this day. Over 37 billion federal dollars were spent on the military in Oklahoma in 2009 alone. (usgovernmentspending.com)
At an average estimated price of $4,000 per shelter (AP), every one of the 13,000 homes and schools destroyed in Moore could have been equipped with a shelter for approximately $52 million, a little more than one thousandth of the amount spent on the military in Oklahoma in 2009.
The politicians in Washington, including those who represent Oklahoma, apparently would rather fund an enterprise which takes thousands of lives, rather than one which could save lives and provide good-paying jobs.
When $50 billion in disaster aid for the victims of Superstorm Sandy came before Congress this year, three of Oklahoma’s five representatives and both of its senators were among the “no” votes. With a total disregard for his “constituents,” at least one of them, Sen. Tom Coburn, still says that any “additional federal aid to help tornado victims and to rebuild devastated areas of his state should be financed with cuts to other programs” [such as food stamps]. (AP, May 21)
A federal action that will even raise the probability of future disasters, scheduled Sequester cuts will drop by 7 percent the budgets of those agencies that run weather detection programs.
Moore is in a poor area. Forty-two percent of the students of Cleveland County, where Moore is located, receive subsidized school lunches. Some 17 percent of the population has no health insurance whatsoever.
A heroic, resilient working class
Much of the mainstream media’s coverage of the events in Moore has praised the courage and resiliency of Moore’s people, who performed many heroic acts. They especially singled out elementary school teachers who covered their young students with their bodies during the storm.
But the people of Oklahoma have a long history of not only resiliency but struggle.
It started with Native people who were transported against their will to the Oklahoma region during the 19th century. At that time, the region was called “Indian Territory,” and was envisioned as a large collection of concentration camps. Thousands of Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole and other Indigenous people died while making the trek or trying to eke out an existence on the poor soils and dry climate.
In the 1890s, even this last refuge was stolen by a series of laws that turned over much of the territory to railroad and other business interests, and to white settlement.
But the working classes of Oklahoma did not simply roll over. In 1916, one quarter of the Oklahoma votes cast for president were for the Socialist Party candidate, Eugene V. Debs, who was in jail for opposing World War I. In 1917, an organization called the Working Class Union, composed of poor whites, African Americans and Indigenous people, organized an armed rebellion in southeastern Oklahoma against the recently instituted national military draft. Sam Marcy, the founder of Workers World Party documented this struggle in a book entitled “The Bolsheviks and War.” (1985)
A period of horrific repression and reaction during the 1920s was accompanied by the discovery of oil. Within a short time, the political landscape came to be dominated by big petroleum interests.
During the 1930s, in addition to the mass suffering caused by the Great Depression, Oklahoma was at the epicenter of another capitalist created disaster: the Dust Bowl. High prices for agricultural products during and after World War I encouraged overplanting and poor plowing methods. Outside business interests leased thousands of acres and introduced machinery which denuded much of the land. Combined with a drought which lasted for nearly 10 years, the land simply blew away.
The Dust Bowl was an early symptom of the effects of global warming, which has also been cited by scientists as a cause of the increasing frequency and intensity of severe weather phenomena, including tornadoes.
Thousands of Oklahomans, derisively called Okies, were forced to migrate to other areas to find work, a process documented by books like John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and the songs of Woody Guthrie.
Despite the reactionary climate which exists in Oklahoma and across the U.S. today, the working classes of Oklahoma will not only survive; they will see to it that one day the workers will be able to get rid of capitalism and have a much better chance of dealing successfully with truly natural disasters.