The BBC featured a story about the dearth of storm shelters in the area hit last week by tornadoes.
The story goes on to discuss the fact that Americans, especially in red states like Oklahoma, strongly prefer keeping the government out of the business of providing things like storm shelters, allowing that to be an individual option. Then reports that few individuals opt to spend their money on shelters.
The answer might well be in the numbers…
Below, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a list of the 25 deadliest tornadoes in US history:
1. Tri-State (MO, IL, IN) – March 18, 1925 – 695 deaths
2. Natchez, MS – May 6, 1840 – 317 deaths
3. St. Louis, MO – May 27, 1896 – 255 deaths
4. Tupelo, MS – April 5, 1936 – 216 deaths
5. Gainesville, GA – April 6, 1936 – 203 deaths
6. Woodward, OK – April 9, 1947 – 181 deaths
7. Joplin, MO – May 22, 2011 – 158 deaths
8. Amite, LA, Purvis, MS – April 24, 1908 – 143 deaths
9. New Richmond, WI – June 12, 1899 – 117 deaths
10. Flint, MI – June 8, 1953 – 116 deaths
11. Waco, TX – May 11, 1953 – 114 deaths
12. Goliad, TX – May 18, 1902 – 114 deaths
13. Omaha, NE – March 23, 1913 – 103 deaths
14. Mattoon, IL – May 26, 1917 – 101 deaths
15. Shinnston, WV – June 23, 1944 – 100 deaths
16. Marshfield, MO – April 18, 1880 – 99 deaths
17. Gainesville, GA – June 1, 1903 – 98 deaths
18. Poplar Bluff, MO – May 9, 1927 – 98 deaths
19. Snyder, OK – May 10, 1905 – 97 deaths
20. Comanche, IA & Albany, IL – June 3, 1860 – 92 deaths
21. Natchez, MS – April 24, 1908 – 91 deaths
22. Worcester, MA – June 9, 1953 – 90 deaths
23. Starkville, MS to Waco, AL -April 20, 1920 – 88 deaths
24. Lorain & Sandusky, OH – June 28, 1924 – 85 deaths
25. Udall, KS – May 25, 1955 – 80 deaths
Looks scary and impressively dangerous. Until you look more carefully at the dates. Most of those events are OLD. In fact, if you look at this as a histogram, you see something interesting…
You see from this chart, why there are few storm shelters. Between the 1890′s and 1950′s, there were at least two very deadly tornadoes per decade. Enough to keep people scared. But before the last week, there had not been a decade in over 50 years with any major events. 50 years is a long time to go between times when someone somewhere in the US needed a storm shelter to protect them from a very deadly storm.
This is not to say that there have not been storms in the past 50 years. The chart below from the Washington Post, shows the losses from tornadoes for that same 50 year period and the numbers are not small.
It is RISKVIEWS’ guess that in the face of smaller, less deadly but destructive storms, people are much more likely to attribute their own outcome to some innate talent that they have and the losers do not have. Sort of like the folks who have had one or several good experiences at the slot machines who believe that they have a talent for gambling.
Another reason is that almost 45% of storm fatalities are folks who live in trailers. They often will not even have an option to build their own storm shelter. There it is probably something that could be addressed by regulations regarding zoning of trailer parks.
Proper risk management can only be done in advance. The risk management second guessing that is done after the fact helps to create a tremendous drag on society. We are forced into spending money to prevent recurrence of the last disaster, regardless of whether that expenditure makes any sense at all on the basis of frequency and severity of the potential adverse events or not.
We cannot see the future as clearly as we can see the past. We can only prepare for some of the possible futures.
The BBC article stands on the side of that discussion that looks back after the fact and finds fault with whoever did not properly see the future exactly as clearly as they are now able to see the past.
A simple recent example of this is the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombers. Much has been made of the fact that there were warnings about one or more members of the family before the event. But no one has chosen to mention how many others who did not commit bombings were there similar or even much more dire warnings about. It seems quite likely, that the warnings about these people were dots in a stream of hundreds of thousands of similar warnings.