Disaster at Close Range

As the reports from Oklahoma got worse and worse Monday afternoon, it was increasingly hard not to take some emotional distance. “Why didn’t they leave?” I asked myself of the Moore, Oklahoma, residents as the death toll began to climb. As scenes of flattened buildings and huge gray clouds rolled across the television, I told myself we would have left—somehow. The CNN and MSNBC anchors went over and over the sheer enormity of the tornado, a mile at its base, with more than two and a half miles of debris swirling around it, until news began breaking of the little children, stuck in their elementary schools when the funnel cloud touched down. ”Would we have sent children to school if there was any chance of a tornado hitting?” I thought. “Surely not.”

It’s all stupid, of course—the things you tell yourself to feel at least a little safe. No one in Moore, the populous suburb outside Oklahoma City, could have anticipated the level of destruction this tornado, one of the most powerful on record, would bring to their town. There are many dead (numbers continue to change), including a number of children, seven at one elementary school alone. The suddenness of the devastation only makes it harder to process: Yesterday a town stood with a hospital and schools and houses. Now much of it is leveled.

Tornadoes in particular highlight the precarity we’re learning to live with, getting used to watching horrifying scenes on television—bombings, hurricanes, tornadoes, shootings. The funnel clouds appear with limited warning time and sudden bursts of destruction; families can take only so many precautions.

The tragedies are all different in nature, of course, and each call for different policy debates, but in the end, we’re left with the feeling that disaster, for us, our family or our town, could always be around the corner. It’s numbing and awful, and in the midst of sadness, the constant roll of cable news coverage can let us pretend, however briefly, that we’re somehow different from victims, or maybe emphasize that whatever the situation, it might have been worse. Whichever shell one chooses, it’s usually not rooted in a lack of empathy but rather a sense of survival. Between work, the bad economy, health care, and child care, most people already have maxed out their emotional energy. Considering the dangers we can’t predict is often just too much.

Empathy can be suddenly hard to come by. Public-policy changes that could help alleviate some suffering—whether it’s disaster relief funding, better infrastructure support, or the like—are eschewed as “politicizing tragedy.” Often, however, a policy debate drives home the risk we’re all living with, that tragedies can happen to anyone.

Up close, of course, it’s a different story. I drove to West, Texas, yesterday to see how the town, ravaged by an explosion, was recovering, and later, I watched the tornadoes ravage Moore. The images of demolished homes and lives I’d seen in person made tragedy one state over all the more immediate.

The West explosion came about a month ago, three days after a bombing at the Boston Marathon left three dead and hundreds injured, and a few weeks ago a shooting at a New Orleans Mother’s Day Parade injured 19.  Last week, a tornado hit Granbury, a town just southwest of Fort Worth, and left six people dead.

A month later, driving through West, you’re confronted by the randomness of such a disaster. Just off the highway, the town seems fine at a glance. “Mayberry operational,” a friend called it. There’s a memorial of flowers and a wooden cross up at the volunteer fire department, but that’s about it. You wouldn’t have any idea the blast from the fertilizer plant hit the small town of fewer than 3,000 people with as much force as 20,000 pounds of TNT, killing 15 and leaving 500 displaced.

But then the signs begin to come at you with unrelenting speed as you drive past. The number of boarded-up windows increases, and suddenly there are piles of rubble, houses so destroyed their owners have left messages of support spray-painted on the outside: “God Bless West!” most say.

An apartment building that faced the fertilizer plant where the blast detonated is now just a skeleton of metal balconies and wood that’s mostly collapsed. Where one room still stands, only two walls blown out, strips of 1970s-style wallpaper flutter in the wind. Wire fences have gone up around the biggest ruined buildings, so you can no longer peek into the collapsed intermediate school or see the chunks of insulation and metal littering the high school. Instead, amid the rubble and debris that many residents are trying to clear away, you can see small nuggets of what life was once like in this town—holiday decorations and wrapping paper and a high chair that stands upright, even as bricks lay scattered, torn off the front of the home.

Seeing these markers of daily life, unmediated by a computer screen or TV, the sense of connection is unmistakable between those of us left devastated and those of us who, for now, are the lucky ones.

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