When my eyes caught the words “thoughts are with Oklahoma” in a friend’s Facebook status update, my heart skipped a beat. As I hurriedly scanned the first article I found, I saw the words ‘devastation’ and ‘Moore’, and my stomach tightened. I dialed my father’s house and got that line-disconnected signal. The tears followed. I was pretty sure that the Moore Medical Center, which the article had described as ‘destroyed’, was where my father works… or, worked. Reports were coming in that an elementary school had been completely destroyed, with many children dead. But I couldn’t remember then name of the school my niece and twin nephews go to.
As I write this the day after the storm, the National Weather Service has just upgraded the tornado to a rare F5, the deadliest and most powerful rating. With wind speeds over 200 mph, this 1.3 mile-wide twister churned whole city blocks into rubble. Also rare in this city, apparently, are adequate storm shelters–even in schools. “Most of the schools in Oklahoma don’t have one” because of the cost, Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told CNN. For those cost savings, we paid with the lives of 9 children, some of whom drowned in the school’s basement.
This is horrendous. It’s unconscionable. It’s insane. But it’s the way a market society prepares for disasters — it doesn’t. We saw after Katrina that the government had done nothing to prepare for what was later revealed to be an avoidable, human-made disaster. The entities most ready and able to provide material assistance were Home Depot and Wal-Mart, out of the goodness of their credit card swiping machines. We saw after Sandy that makeshift Occupy relief did a better job than the establishment Red Cross, and that the cost for preventative infrastructure would have been a fraction of the cost to rebuild. But you can’t rebuild dead children. There should have been a shelter inside that school, and there should be a shelter in every school that is at risk for devastating storms like this. The warning came 15 minutes before the tornado touched down and a half hour before it hit the school. No one had to die.
Oh, but it will be so expensive! they complain. Do you mean expensive like tax breaks for the rich and corporations? If a shelter were built in every one of the 1.4 million households in the state of Oklahoma, it would cost about $9 billion, which, funny enough, is about as much as Apple avoided paying in taxes in 2012. Better yet, we could tax all the money being hidden in overseas tax havens for one year, and with that money we could outfit all 5 million households in Tornado Alley with brand new shelters–twice. Is it, as the establishment claims, that everyone has just gotten used to tornadoes? That poor and working people just don’t care enough to shell out $4,000 to $10,000 for an adequate shelter? Or is it that we’re all just barely getting by while the 1% hoard all the wealth and watch as our lives are literally blown apart?
Here is how a rational society would prepare for disasters:
1) Disaster Planning: in most places, we know the potential hazards. We know the best ways to preserve life and limb during the catastrophe. Tornado Alley would be covered with storm shelters. All buildings in California would be retrofitted for earthquakes. We’d create evacuation systems that actually get people out in time before hurricanes, and people wouldn’t be so poor and desperate to work that they choose not to evacuate.
2) Material Needs: water, food, rescue equipment, medical supplies, temporary shelter, clothes etc… would be held in reserve, ready to be deployed. Warehouses in and around Tornado Alley would be stocked in advance of tornado season and resources shifted elsewhere when the season is over, as needed. Our current capitalist economy is structured for ‘just-in-time delivery’, so there’s no reserve anywhere–let alone a free, public reserve.
3) Critical Infrastructure: we all know the power and the internet are going to go out. We can plan ahead to deploy backup generators, satellite phones and mobile hot spots to make sure critical communications come back online while workers come from far and wide to help reconnect power lines. As of now, local utilities are taxed beyond their limits with the slightest crisis, and we simply don’t keep backup systems on hand… too ‘expensive’.
4) Volunteer Army: a system would be set up in advance to quickly organize a volunteer workforce that could be transported, fed and housed to do the vital work of search & rescue, triage, distribution of vital aid, crisis counseling, cleanup, and giving of hugs. Workers could volunteer their time for the relief effort, or take over essential duties in their workplaces, so their fellow workers could volunteer or be with their loved ones in the disaster zone. Since this is a rational society, the workers’ basic needs are already met, so volunteerism would not be limited to privileged people that have free time, generous bank accounts and liberal guilt.
5) Rebuilding: well, we would actually rebuild, using the same material reserve and labor system we used to manage the crisis. Disaster victims would have time to adjust before having to return to work, and disaster refugees would have the right to return, neither of which can be said for disaster victims under capitalism… at least for those without money.
I did eventually, by sheer luck, reach my father on his cell. It turns out that all my family were lucky enough to escape unharmed and with little damage to their homes. But for families less than a mile away in a neighborhood that was leveled–families who will face unimaginable financial stress–and for the 24 and counting who lost their lives, our rotten system has nothing to offer but the vague possibility of charity, callous victim blaming, and a litany of excuses. We should have been prepared. The disaster plan above is possible with just the technology we have today, but it requires massive coordination and deliberate central planning. Our government could physically do these things, but it won’t, because it is a government of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%. And spending money on reserve blankets for the unwashed masses or paid time off for volunteers would cut into their bottom line, or the defense budget. We who make the food, the medical supplies and the building materials, we who raise the children and build the storm shelters–WE should have control over the economy so that WE can plan for disasters and execute disaster relief, democratically, in the interests of all. That’s how a rational society–a socialist society–would handle an F5 tornado. And no one would have to die.
Update: CNN now reporting that the 7 children who died at Plaza Towers Elementary did not die from drowning, and were in a classroom, not the basement.