One sound is burned into my memory having grown up in Oklahoma City: tornado alarms.
They were, and still are, tested every Saturday at noon. Dozens of sirens scattered throughout the city moan their alarms designed to give people precious minutes to pile into their storm shelters, huddle in their bathtubs or otherwise seek more fortified shelter.
Like many residents of the state located in the heart of Tornado Alley, I had my share of close encounters. Tornadoes in the spring, and the chance of having everything you own wiped away, are part of the reality of life on the Southern Plains.
In high school, I remember a twister passing almost directly overhead our home -- still too high to inflict damage, but low enough to vacuum leaves and small branches off a neighbor’s pecan tree, sending them skyward.
My second close encounter occurred on my graduation day at the University of Oklahoma in the city of Norman in 1993, located just a few miles from where Monday’s massive twister ripped through the city of Moore, killing 24 people and leveling entire neighborhoods. I remember watching from a distance while that tornado carved a trench through an uninhabited forested area less than a mile south of the university campus.
The fact that tornadoes are such a common seasonal fixture of the state should make its lawmakers a little more wary of attacking federal disaster aid aimed at helping people like tornado victims Barbara Garcia and Rebecca Vitsmun rebuild their lives from nature’s fury.
Take for example what Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said recently after being attacked by the media for voting against the $51 billion Hurricane Sandy aid package, aimed at helping victims of the last fall’s East coast superstorm.
He said the Sandy aid bill was not the same thing as the federal disaster aid heading to central Oklahoma, calling the Sandy bill laden with pork.
“They were getting things, for instance, that was supposed to be in New Jersey,” Inhofe said on MSNBC. “They had things in the Virgin Islands. They were fixing roads there, they were putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C. Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place. That won’t happen in Oklahoma.”
Let's read that sentence again: "That won’t happen in Oklahoma."
Of course it won’t happen, because the damage inflicted in Oklahoma is negligible compared to the damange inflicted to the eastern seaboard of the country by Hurricane Sandy.
Unlike Sandy, which was a massive storm, this disaster in Oklahoma is exactly the type of thing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, can and does handle well. Oklahoma will get FEMA money that has already been allocated by Congress, no thanks to Oklahoma’s own elected representatives.
Inhofe and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn both opposed a bill last year to provide $7 billion to finance FEMA, a program that -- regardless of one’s views about pork-barrel politics -- should not be held hostage by senators who aren’t getting their way in other aspects of the federal budget, especially not senators from a state whose constituency every spring faces the possibility of a natural disaster.
People without consciences would say that the people of Moore should be left to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps the way their elected leaders want everyone else to do, that they should be left to fend for themselves. Perhaps the state should raise its own local taxes to pay for reconstruction. Maybe they can hold church bake sales to clean up their own messes. You know, like true rugged individualists.
But people without consciences are rarely corrent.
It would be collective punishment to all Oklahomans to deny FEMA support. For one thing, not everyone in Oklahoma is a rabid social conservatives seeking to replace the government of “we the people” with the kind of radical self-interest of the private sector that would make Ayn Rand proud.
Regardless of the fact that the majority of Oklahoma’s voters continue to send men like Inhofe and Coburn to Washington, it doesn’t diminish the importance of helping them as fellow Americans, even if it means redistributing income from wealthier states such as elitist liberal New York and sending it down south to states dominated by conservatives.
And perhaps someday, Oklahoma voters will see the error of sending elected representatives who bite this feeding hand and return the favor to the nation by voting these men out of office.