Oklahoma’s Katrina

Image of Mary Fallin

The problem with all this incessant “Oklahoma spirit” celebration after the tornadoes and storms that struck here recently and killed more than 40 people is that it takes us away from solutions.

We have major problems with tornado and storm safety in this state and these problems can be fixed. Sure, it will take money and a concerted effort, but they can be fixed. It can be done. It’s not complicated.

Celebrating our supposed great “spirit,” as if Texans or New Yorkers don’t have “spirit” as well, accomplishes nothing. It would be much better if people here would get angry at the lack of leadership on the tornado-safety issue before the recent storms quickly recede into the state’s collective memory hole.

I’m reminded of this once again by Gov. Mary Fallin’s recent comments that the state won’t suffer any image problems because of the tornadoes and after talking to people on the East Coast on a recent trip. There is a big disconnect between Fallin’s cheerleading and what I’ve experienced from talking to people outside of the state since the tornadoes hit.

Obviously, any governor of any state has to work the public relations angle of any given issue to present her state in a good light. I’m not faulting Fallin for that necessarily, but her comments are so rote and superficial they need to be called into question.

Here’s Fallin in a recent story about the state’s image and recent tornadoes:

“We're going to have an image of, like I think we earned and we accomplished, that we're a strong people. We're resilient. We're compassionate.”

But we’ve heard that over and over again. I hate to break the news to everyone here, but there are other people in the world, quite a few, in fact, that are every bit as resilient as Oklahomans. History is filled with subjugated people who have endured centuries of hardship only to survive and triumph. Relying on the federal government for bailout after bailout after all our severe weather events and not preparing properly is hardly going to make any real historical list of true resiliency.

The storms hit here. Uncle Sam comes in and saves the day. The storms are forgotten. No one learns anything. The storms hit again. That’s the real story.

Are we compassionate? Well, our current state government denies health insurance to poor people by rejecting federal Medicaid expansion at that same time it dismisses the idea of requiring storm shelters for schools. Is that compassion? Tell that to someone from the East Coast who has never been to Oklahoma and wonders why we don’t have more shelters in schools and why we rebuild in the same areas repeatedly devastated by previous tornadoes.

I know this. I just got back from an academic conference in Charleston, South Carolina, and I was bombarded with questions about the tornadoes. Everyone was nice about it, of course, but they had questions that only lead to the logical conclusion that Oklahomans are big takers of federal money and not intelligent enough to build more storm shelters.

I pointed them to the Op-Ed I published in The Washington Post about the lack of storm safety here after the May 20 tornado, a national commentary that not a single media outlet here would even touch because it’s the truth and not some rah-rah empty cheer about Oklahoma resiliency.

The lack of preparation for the storms has definitely tarnished the state’s image. The television images were reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina—I’m not trying to conflate the two in terms of loss of life, of course—and pretty much everyone outside of the state is thinking about those images when they even hear the word “Oklahoma.” They wonder, just like in the aftermath of Katrina, why we weren’t more prepared. In Katrina’s case, the federal government failed. In Oklahoma’s case, the issue is simpler. We lack storm shelters. We lack stronger buildings. We have rebuilt in an area that has been struck by major tornadoes repeatedly in less than 15 years.

If Fallin really thinks that the state’s low unemployment rate cancels out the lack of tornado shelters here, then nothing will get done after these storms.

There's nothing happening here. That’s not the way the song goes.