Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Death by ignorance

My career in meteorology began with the apparently simple goal of becoming a severe storms meteorologist. Along the way, I began to study not just the meteorology of severe storms but also the statistics of specific severe storm events, including the fatalities associated with each storm. I’ve learned that understanding why fatalities occur isn’t just about the storms and the forecast. We meteorologists could issue pretty much perfect forecasts and yet people still will die as a result of storms when they hit populated areas. Why is that?

It’s fatalities that justify the cost associated with studying severe storms. Society invests its resources in our research with the hope that increasing our understanding of storms will result in improved forecasts, in turn resulting in reductions of fatalities associated with storms. Perhaps there’s even some hope of mitigating the damage such storms produce, as well. In my examination of storms and the fatalities they produce, I’ve discovered that a significant fraction of storm fatalities arise from ignorance! Not all fatalities, to be sure – there are other factors that cause fatalities: poverty, physical handicaps, age, etc. But I believe the majority of deaths are directly or indirectly related to ignorance. People drive into tornadoes. People drive into rising flood waters. People ignore severe weather warnings. Why? In part, the answer seems to be ignorance, in one way or another.

There are two types of ignorance: the first is simply a lack of knowledge. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge for the simple reason that no one knows everything. But there’s another type of ignorance: willful ignorance. This is when someone has a good reason to know something, because that knowledge could save their lives, but they simply choose not to learn. This willful ignorance has a synonym: stupidity.

If you live in a mobile home in central Oklahoma, you surely must also know two things. First, violent tornadoes occur regularly in central Oklahoma. Second, your chances of surviving a violent tornado in a mobile home are about one-twentieth as high as if you live in an ordinary frame home. You may not know point #2, but if you live in a mobile home, this is information you certainly should know. Your mobile home is a death trap in a tornado and your ignorance of the facts could cost you and your loved ones your lives! Should you choose not to learn these facts, you could wind up as a statistic. The mobile home manufacturing industry has been successful in blocking state legislation requiring mobile home park operators to provide shelters – this means they’re putting the lives of mobile homeowners at risk for the sake of their profits!

If you live in Massachusetts, which has a much lower frequency of violent tornadoes than central Oklahoma, you might feel justified in not learning about tornado hazards. Unfortunately, 90 people died on 09 June 1953 when a violent tornado hit Worcester, Massachusetts – likely many of them died as a result of this willful ignorance: low frequency is simply not the same as a zero frequency. Why be prepared to take precautions if the chances of being hit by a violent tornado are so low? Because you still might wind up in the path of a violent tornado! This complacency in the face of reality is another example of ignorance that can be (and has been) fatal!

On 03 May 1999, a violent tornado hit central Oklahoma. In a FEMA study, it was found that many of the homes in the path of the tornado were poorly-constructed, thereby sustaining much more damage than had they been built soundly. Equivalent findings have emerged from similar studies of the 2011 tornadoes - the assessment of homes in the path of the 27 April 2011 tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, AL showed that many of them were flimsy and not much more protection than a mobile home. How many of those homeowners had thought to check the structural integrity of their homes when they bought them? Most homeowners don't know anything (i.e., they're ignorant) of the issues associated with structural integrity of their homes. Chances are they're far more concerned about the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen cabinets than they are about the attachment of the walls to the foundation or the connection between the roof and the walls. But in a tornado, those structural issues can be the difference between life and death in that home. Can you really be uncaring about your home's structural integrity when your life and those of your loved ones are at risk? This recent study is not the first to point out the flimsiness of most frame homes in America. The way to change this is via changes to the building codes in our communities, but the homebuilders have been effective at blocking any changes to the very lax building codes that exist throughout the tornado-prone parts of the US. We learned in 1999 on 03 May that poorly-constructed (but not necessarily low-priced!) homes in central Oklahoma likely resulted in fatalities. This begs the question: are we learning nothing from these studies? Can we not implement policies to do something about this shoddy construction that is so pervasive in the tornado-prone areas of the US? Flimsy homes mean an increased amount of flying debris in a tornado, which increases the degree of damage caused by that tornado. It also magnifies the risk to human life from flying debris (one of the biggest causes of death and injury in tornadoes).

If meteorologists choose to accept the challenge to put their understanding to use in saving lives, it’s not just about putting out an accurate forecast with useful lead time. It’s also about encouraging our society to take advantage of what we’ve learned about how people are killed in severe storms. And our society can’t just ignore what they’re being told. People in our society need to accept their personal responsibility to choose to do something about their ignorance, at the very least in matters where their lives can be at risk!

It’s frustrating to be able to anticipate tragic events in the future and yet be powerless to prevent those tragedies. History is the key to the future, and the history of severe storms makes it clear that there will be an increasing risk from severe weather as a result of urban sprawl and more recreational use of areas prone to such storms. The tornadoes of 2011 have inflicted horrific fatality counts, far beyond those of recent history. Unfortunately, some of us realized well before the events of April and May of 2011 that there was no reason to believe that our good luck would continue forever. Events of 2011 have proven us to be correct in our forecasts, but that's small consolation for the disasters we’ve seen. More of the same is in our future if we choose to continue our ignorance.

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