Personal tools

Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

You are here: Home Newsroom Our Ideas Themes in the News Archive May 2013 The Tornado and Public Policy

The Tornado and Public Policy

  • 05-24-2013
  • Bookmark and Share


Week of May 20-24, 2013


Tragedy struck Moore, Okla., earlier this week. Twenty-four people died, including nine children, when a massive tornado struck. Seven of the children were students at Plaza Towers Elementary School, which was leveled to a pile of debris.

There’s a good chance that a safe room could have saved lives. Teachers and adults did what they could to keep students safe. They squeezed inside closets and bathroom stalls, with teachers shielding students as the roof caved in and walls fell (New York Times, Education Week). When the tornado passed, the children had to navigate the obstacle course of wreckage. “It’s like you’re in a war zone. You know what happened, and it doesn’t seem real,” said Kelly Law, a teacher’s assistant at Plaza Towers (Wall Street Journal).

The tragedy must be mourned, but at the same time Oklahomans, Californians, and the rest of the nation should reflect on the public policy implications of how states can keep children safe. Lately, much of that attention has been focused on difficult-to-prevent acts of violence against people in public spaces; and in particular, children in schools. By comparison, protecting schoolchildren from tornados, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can be a straightforward matter of acting on appropriate building codes.

For example, after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake destroyed or ruined more than 230 school buildings (thankfully, outside of regular school hours,) the Field Act set construction standards for new schools to help withstand earthquake damage. Subsequent acts extended the same standards for existing buildings and provided funds for retrofitting. Since 1940, no student has died in a Field Act-compliant building. 

Moore does not have an ordinance requiring safe rooms (reinforced concrete rooms to withstand tornado winds) for its public or private buildings. Neither does Oklahoma, which is set in the heart of “Tornado Alley,” and where it can be predicted that destruction may happen again this year or next or the next. Of course, many communities will try to act on behalf of safety for their children. “It’s unconscionable that we don’t have a place where the parents feel that it’s safe for their kids during the day. If those kids are going to be there from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., they need to have that sense of security, and the structure needs to be safer. It’s a no-brainer,” said state Rep. Joe Dorman (Huffington Post).

But other states and towns will remain mired in disputes over the expense of public safety and what they see as the intrusion of government mandates on local jurisdictions (New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, Discovery News). Whatever the excuse, even California’s gold-standard Field Act can be set aside. A 2011 investigative report found that “tens of thousands of children attend schools without the required Field Act certification” (California Watch). 

Sometimes public safety feels like a matter of chance—an act of nature or the violent determination of crazed individuals. But sometimes children can be made safer by marshaling the community’s will and the requisite number of public officials who think safety is a priority.

Document Actions
Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.