The decision by the Norman City Council to no longer allow the use of its designated public shelters raises, again, the issue of severe weather preparedness in an area known throughout the world as “Tornado Alley.”
It might seem counter intuitive to close shelters given the massive tornado last May that destroyed entire neighborhoods and killed 25 people right next to Norman in Moore, but there is logic to it.
According to the Norman fire chief, the shelters only give residents a false sense of security and that it’s much better to “shelter in place,” not risking traveling during severe weather. In other words, the odds are people are just as safe in their homes, with or without a storm shelter.
I’m not going to try to dispute that logic. It’s pretty much an accepted concept around this area. I do think the idea of eliminating public shelters would seem odd to many people who live outside the state.
But the council’s decision should open more conversation on the role, if any, of government to protect its citizens from severe weather.
For example, why doesn’t Norman, or any local city, simply build sturdy, underground shelters for its residents that WILL protect them from tornadoes? Is it a matter of cost? Why doesn’t Norman, or any local city, require new homes to include storm shelters? Why don’t local cities launch better incentive programs so residents can get a storm shelter in their home? Why don’t cities require storm shelters in apartment complexes?
I’m not picking on Norman, but the official answer to all these questions in this area has always seemed to be: it’s not our problem. You’re on your own.
This is what baffles many people from outside our state after a major tornado strikes here and the federal government comes to our rescue. They wonder why there aren’t more shelters here, in homes, schools, everywhere. Why don’t Oklahomans prepare better for tornadoes?
Oklahoma has had many image problems on the national level for a long, long time. I think the lack of ongoing comprehensive tornado safety initiatives is one of those problems. This particular image issue always emerges when the state dominates worldwide news headlines after a massive tornado strikes.
As I wrote earlier, one effort to raise the safety level here by helping schools build storms shelters is even getting shot down by the governor and one of the state’s largest newspapers.
The decision by the Norman City Council does make sense in its particular way, for sure, but it really doesn’t address the larger issue of making Oklahoma a safer place to live.
U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s current campaign to expose fraud in the nation’s disability program is a case of misplaced priorities.
Why not go after wasteful military spending or audit and investigate defense contractors? The U.S. spends more than $700 billion a year on defense. Surely, there’s some fraud or at least some bad practices in how that money gets spent.
Instead, Coburn targets a program that actually pays extremely little to its truly disabled participants, who now may end up suffering even more.
Of course, all government fraud and waste is bad. Let’s end it. But why pick on a program for the disabled? That’s just cruel.
Coburn is leading a government investigation into the Social Security Disability Insurance program. On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a segment that purported to show abuse of the system in West Virginia. The segment alleges that an attorney and some doctors in West Virginia colluded to help people receive disability payments even though they weren’t actually disabled.
According to Coburn, who was quoted extensively on the segment, such abuse is widespread. He told a 60 Minutes reporter, “Probably a third of everybody on disability, there's no way that they're disabled.” It makes for good television.
But many of those organizations who help the disabled pointed out the segment for what it was: Sensationalism. The General Accounting Office, according to a Media Matters critique of the segment, has pointed out that fraud accounts for only one percent of disability payments.
The Media Matters report on the segment cited people who work for organizations that support the disabled. One of those people, Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, said, “The recent 60 Minutes broadcast is just the latest in an array of sensational and misleading media reports that have perpetuated myths and stereotypes about the Social Security disability programs and the people they help. These media reports do a tremendous disservice to viewers as well as to people with disabilities.”
It should be clear that Coburn’s agenda is purely political. He has often agitated for cuts in so-called entitlement programs, such as Social Security, and this is a way for him to further that GOP cause. Unfortunately, as those in the disabled community argue, he’s hurting vulnerable people who desperately need government assistance to survive. Even those who are supposedly scamming the system, and most are presumably unemployed, are only getting around an average of $700 a month.
I realize there are a lot of people in Oklahoma who view Coburn as bipartisan and fiscally responsible. I’ve never been one those people. Appearing on 60 Minutes is just another one of his political stunts to further the radical GOP agenda.
I appreciate the de-politicized nature of the ongoing campaign to get storm shelters in schools. It should be a nonpartisan issue. Everyone should want to save children’s lives.
But the right-wing is slowly but surely starting to respond negatively to the initiative petition drive that would give voters a chance to approve a $500 million bond issue that would help get shelters in schools.
Last May, a major tornado destroyed two schools in Moore, killing seven children. The schools didn’t have storm shelters. Since the tragedy, people have stepped forward with ideas to get students more protection from our violent weather.
State Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat from Rush Springs, helped organize a petition drive to put the bond issue to a vote of the people. The money for the bond issue would come from the state’s franchise tax. The organization created to garner the signatures, Oklahoma Alliance for Shelters in Schools (OASIS), explains it this way:
The Take Shelter Oklahoma petition would allow voters to decide whether or not a bond should be issued to set up a state-wide fund for school storm shelters and improved school security. The debt from the bond would be paid by the franchise tax, which already exists. No taxes would be raised. Local districts would decide whether or not to use the funds; nothing mandated by the state so local control would not be lost. If instead local districts have to issue bonds for storm shelters, those would have to be paid for by increasing property taxes. There is a move in the legislature to eliminate the franchise tax rather than use its revenue for the general fund. Proponents of the petition drive argue that it would be best to keep the franchise tax in place and use the funds to pay the debt service on the storm shelter bond.
Since the petition drive began, Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has come out against the proposal, and the Tulsa World has now editorialized against it as well.
According to news reports, Fallin said, “I am not sure that is the best way of doing it.” A Fallin spokesperson said, if approved, the ballot question would mean fewer dollars for other areas in education. The franchise tax on businesses is actually suspended right now, but it will start again in 2014. Some Republicans want to end the tax outright.
The Tulsa World then weighed in on the issue with an editorial supporting Fallin’s decision with this argument: “Aren't there more pressing and clearly more urgent education funding needs in the state than storm shelters? We believe there are.”
The point is that the right-wing here is signaling it plans to oppose the measure if it gets to a vote of the people. The question is whether conservatives here can rally the same widespread support they had in opposing State Question 744 in 2010. That question, if approved, would have provided average funding for schools based on a regional average. It was defeated by a wide margin.
Surely, it has to be difficult to be against anything that provides for children’s safety in public schools. The bond issue will be a one-time expense paid for by an existing tax that has been suspended temporarily and not part of the current budget process. Thus, no new cuts in education will go to pay for the shelters.
I’m a strong advocate of getting storm shelters in every school, building, and house in the state, one way or another. I also think we need to approach storm safety here in a multitude of ways, including enhancing our early warning systems and reactions.
A bond issue to help protect kids is a step in the right direction.