Getting Out of Danger’s Way: Why We’re Not Prepared for Twisters

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The Midwest has every reason in the world to be sick of tornadoes by now. In April alone, there were a shocking 600 of them, and in the past two months more than 400 Americans have been killed by the storms. At least 116 more were added on May 22 in the massive twister that cut a 6-mile (9.6 km) swath across Joplin, Mo., generating winds of up to 165 m.p.h. (265 k.p.h.). You’d think the locals would be spring-loaded to get out of the storms’ way by now, and yet many aren’t — at least not in high enough numbers to bring down the death toll. In situations like this, it’s rarely fair to blame the victims, but it does pay to consider why even in the most dangerous times, we seem to do so poor a job of looking after ourselves.

One reason tornadoes tend to catch us napping is that the earliest warning meteorologists can give that a storm is approaching is about 20 minutes before it hits. That’s not always enough time for people who are out and about to make it to a shelter. With hurricanes, at least, you know days in advance just when landfall will happen; with tornadoes, you barely have time to turn off the highway.

But that’s not to say it’s at all certain survival rates would improve even if forecasters could dramatically better their tornado-warning skills. On those occasions when they have been able to add precious minutes to their lead time, the share of people who made it into shelters and the share who remained exposed didn’t change much. Beyond the golden 20-min. mark, there is what investigators call a “flattening out” of response.

Part of the reason for that is the powerful role human nature — particularly denial — plays in making us heedless. No one wants a bad thing to happen, so we simply convince ourselves that it won’t. (Did you have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked this year? What about your colonoscopy and annual EKG? Nah, you’re strong as a bull.) The extreme randomness of tornadoes — the capricious way they touch down here and don’t touch down there, blast one home to splinters and barely disturb the flower beds next door — only makes it easier for us to convince ourselves that it’ll be the other guy who gets slammed, not us.

But even when disasters strike entire cities more or less uniformly, we still find ways to deny the danger. A massive heat wave in Chicago in 1995 killed 521 people. The scorcher across Europe in 2003 claimed a stunning 35,000. Older people are far more susceptible to heat than younger folks, and they usually represent a disproportionate share of the death toll. Yet in a 2006 survey by Kent State University professor Scott Sheridan of heat-related safety protocols in four cities — Phoenix, Philadelphia, Toronto and Dayton, Ohio — those same seniors turned out to be the most blithe of all when it came to heeding the heat-safety warnings.

Some just denied the numbers on the calendar: “For older people, it’s necessary,” said one 65-plus respondent, who clearly fell within the epidemiologists’ definition of senior. “Heat doesn’t bother me much, but I worry about my neighbors,” added another. One older respondent in Phoenix — the city with the highest temperatures and lowest safety-compliance rates of all — simply said, “This isn’t hot to me; 122 degrees is hot.”

But paradoxically, what may be the true undoing of good tornado preparedness is the sheer number of the storms themselves. When twisters are touching down by the dozens per day (a whopping 68 were reported in the Midwest this past weekend), being more rather than less prepared would seem the way to go. But familiarity breeds habituation, and habituation, in turn, breeds insouciance. Of the many reasons the Department of Homeland Security recently scrapped its much-mocked color-coded terrorism alert system, one of the greatest was the arbitrary — and often politically cynical — way it was overused. The first time the alert went from yellow to orange, Americans jumped out of their skins. The 51st time, they simply rolled their eyes.

In the case of the terrorism alert system, the reaction made sense. In the case of tornadoes, tragically, it doesn’t. Midwesterners can surely be forgiven their twister fatigue. But it nonetheless pays to have an emergency plan rehearsed and always know where the nearest shelter is. Tornadoes play rough, and as the past few months have shown, they also play for keeps.