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‘Oh Oklahoma,’ Asking the Hard Questions After Memory Fades

I don’t remember worrying about tornadoes as a little girl growing up in Oklahoma, but they were a real threat. In May 1950, the National Weather Service recorded an F-4 about an hour and a half south of Tulsa that killed five people and injured more than 30. I do remember hearing grown-ups talk about them, about how the Sooner State had the bad luck to attract them. My clearer memories are of endless summer days of 100-plus degree heat, when all we wanted to do was find shade and an ice cream cone.

It was a form of extreme weather I’ve always associated with the place where I was born, so that when I visited Oklahoma City in 2009, to report on how young people were coping with the economic collapse, it seemed perfectly natural to find 20-something young men studying and training to operate wind turbines. Wind is so identified with the place, it was fitting that Oscar Hammerstein included it, memorably, in the 1943 lyrics for what would become a Broadway hit musical:

Oh, Oklahoma! where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain

And the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sweet

When the wind comes right behind the rain …

What is hard to reconcile is how the forces of nature that make the state so appealing and distinctive, also are responsible for the sort of catastrophe we’ve seen again this week.

Not only that, it was particularly strange for me to watch live pictures of weather radar in the hours and minutes before the tornado formed just southwest of Oklahoma City, when everyone wondered what would happen and if it did, where it would hit. That was followed immediately by stunning live video shot by “storm watchers” and others who showed the monster forming, and then in full, as it slammed through the tiny town of Moore.

As soon as I realized there had to have been casualties, I felt badly to be watching from a safe distance.

Today’s amazing technology gives people in the tornado’s path, we hope, more time to find safety. It gives the rest of us the ability to see these killers, but helpless to do anything in the short run. As soon as I realized there had to have been casualties, I felt badly to be watching from a safe distance.

All the more reason to ask authorities the hard questions we are in the aftermath: Could more have been done to get people, especially children, to safety ahead of time? Should public buildings have been built with hardened exteriors, or had tornado-safe shelters? Whose responsibility is it to decide not to spend the money to make those safety improvements?

We should keep on asking these and other questions, well after the memory of this week’s tragedy has faded.

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