Tuesday, May 21, 2013

In the Wake of the Storm

Yesterday, this horrific tornado ripped through Moore, Oklahoma. As you can see below, it truly was as frightening as we were hearing from survivors yesterday.

Fortunately, we've seen some good news since last night. For one, the death toll has actually been revised downward. It now stands at 24, as some lost victims were counted twice amidst all the chaos of the first few hours after the storm.

Also, charities have been quick to begin delivering aid where it's most needed in Oklahoma. And with continued support, they should be able to continue helping there.

And now, federal assistance should be coming soon... Or will it? Earlier this morning, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) actually demanded "offsets" for any and all federal disaster aid for his own state. No really, he went there.

I've seen many note overnight that Coburn is at least consistent -- there are plenty of politicians who've balked at disaster-relief funds when there's a devastating storm, only to change their minds when their constituents are among the casualties. Coburn, however, has routinely questioned emergency funding for everyone, and apparently wants to apply the same standards to his own home state.

But while consistently is welcome, it doesn't change the questions about unnecessary callousness.

For many years, federal disaster relief was effectively automatic -- there was bipartisan support for quickly responding to American communities in their time of need. It was a reflection of who we are as a people -- when disaster strikes, we're there for the people in affected areas, regardless of politics.

But in recent years, many Republican lawmakers have decided to change the standards. Under the new approach, they'll consider emergency resources, but only if Democrats agree to cut a comparable amount from the budget elsewhere. There's no real economic rationale for this, but for much of the right, the ideological rationale is sufficient.

However since then, Senator Coburn has been quieter about it. His office pledged earlier to work with Congressional colleagues and President Obama to send help without delay. So we'll have to wait and see if Oklahoma Tornado aid becomes as politically thorny as efforts earlier this year to secure aid for Hurricane Sandy victims.

Already, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has promised speedy delivery of federal assistance to Oklahoma...

"While we may not know the extent of the damage for some time, we will continue to do everything in our power to help the people of Oklahoma as they recover from these terrible tornadoes," Reid said. "And we will stand vigilant today, ready to send additional assistance as more storms threaten the region."

"Whenever tragedy strikes one part of our nation, it strikes us all. And so I pledge the people of Oklahoma our continued support as they begin to rebuild."

And so has President Obama.

As we discussed last night, austerity has harmed our efforts to both prepare for disasters like this beforehand one and respond to them afterward. And now, some in the "tea party" (including one of Oklahoma's own US Senators?!) want to (mis)use this disaster to force more austerity upon the country? Why? Why must we worsen the toll of this disaster by demanding unnecessary suffering on top of the pain that many in The Midwest are already enduring? Joan Walsh nails the nonsensical insanity of this ideological rigidity.

Especially in the wake of the sequester cuts, the notion that the federal budget is larded with easily eliminated spending is ludicrous. Would Coburn like to see more kids thrown out of Head Start? More seniors losing Meals on Wheels? The federal deficit is shrinking faster than at any time since just after World War II, but Coburn is going to insist that someone, somewhere must lose their federal help so Oklahoma can get it instead.

There’s something so typical about today’s GOP in the way Inhofe can dismiss comparisons between tornado aid and Sandy aid, while Coburn grandstands for his long-term demand that new spending, even on disaster relief, must be “offset” by cuts elsewhere. Meanwhile, the notion that a new disaster relief bill should include funding to cope with future disasters isn’t lauded as common sense, it’s derided as pork. Like Inhofe, Coburn objected to the Sandy bill’s including funding for future disaster relief. (It should be noted that Moore, Okla. Rep. Tom Cole, also a Republican, voted for the Sandy aid bill.)

Just as modern conservatism helped create categories of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, we now apparently have deserving and undeserving disasters. When tragedy strikes, most Americans tend to want to pull together, but many Republicans look to pull us apart, placing their own constituents’ needs above everyone else’s.

And as we were discussing last night, this likely won't be the last time we see this kind of horror. New research strongly suggests we're in for even more mega-disasters as the climate crisis continues to worsen. No really, think about it. While we don't know how climate change was involved in this specific storm, it's been affecting the overall landscape of Tornado Alley.

Climate change is supposed, among other things, to bring warmer and moister air to earth. That, of course, would lead to more severe thunderstorms and probably more tornadoes. The issue is that global warming is also forecast to bring about less wind shear. This would allow hurricanes to form more easily, but it also would make it much harder for tornadoes to get the full about lift and instability that allow for your usual thunderstorm to grow in height and become a fully-fledged tornado. Statistics over the past 50 years bear this out, as we've seen warmer and more moist air as well as less wind shear.

Meteorological studies differ on whether or not the warmer and moister air can overcome a lack of wind shear in creating more tornadoes in the far future. In the immediate past, the jet stream, possibly because of climate change, has been quite volatile. Some years it has dug south to allow maximum tornado activity in the middle of the country, while other years it has stayed to the north.

Although tornado reporting has in prior decades been not as reliable as today because of a lack of equipment and manpower, it's still not by accident that the six least active and four most active tornado seasons have been felt over the past decade. Another statistic that points to the irregular patterns is that the three earliest and four latest starts to the tornado season have all occurred in the past 15 years.

Basically, we've had this push and pull in recent history. Some years the number of tornadoes is quite high, and some years it is quite low. We're not seeing "average" seasons as much any more, though the average of the extremes has led to no meaningful change to the average number of tornadoes per year. Expect this variation to continue into the future as less wind shear and warmer moister air fight it out.

The overall result could very well be fewer days of tornadoes per Harold Brooks of the National Storm Center, but more and stronger tornadoes when they do occur. Nothing about the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, or tornadoes over the past few decades break with this theory.

Over 30 million people worldwide were displaced last year due to climate change related natural disasters. How much more evidence do we need here? How much more disaster must we endure before we act to save ourselves and each other?

In the wake of the storm, we face some difficult questions to answer. How will we answer them? Will we give the people of Oklahoma the helping hand up that they so desperately need? And will we be proactive in preparing for a dangerous future?

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