We Can't Stop Disasters, But We Can Stop Building Homes and Having Kids

A few months ago, a physicist claimed that we could stop tornadoes by building a series of 150-foot wide walls that are 1,000 feet tall and cost $60 billion for every hundred miles. It's a bunch of crap, of course, but the real solution is to both stop building so many houses and stop having so many kids.

The story hit the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday and it sparked another semi-serious discussion about whether or not we'd be able to build anything that could stop the atmosphere's most violent storms.

We Can't Stop Disasters, But We Can Stop Building Homes and Having Kids

When Americans started spreading out away from the cities and into the suburbs in the 20th century, we realized that we're more susceptible to the weather than ever before. When people are bunched up in a city, there's less of a chance of getting hit by a tornado. Once we moved away from the cities and into the previously-rural areas, the chance of tornadoes hitting residential areas went up exponentially.

Washington D.C. is a great example of this phenomenon. Jordan Tessler wrote up a great piece for the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang exploring the frequency of tornadoes in the D.C. area. He found that between 2002 and 2013, tornadoes occurred with some frequency in the Washington suburbs — especially in northern Virginia and southern Maryland — but there were virtually no tornadoes in and around the city itself simply by virtue of its small size.

It's not only the immediate suburbs of major cities. Americans are spreading out everywhere. Areas that were once open fields ten or twenty years ago now have new homes for as far as the eye can see, complete with new schools, new businesses, and new everything to keep up with demand. In short, as we take up more land, we are making ourselves a bigger target for tornadoes to hit.

The population of Moore, Oklahoma grew by almost 17,000 people between the time of the first devastating F5 tornado that struck the city on May 3, 1999, and the second catastrophic EF-5 tornado that struck the city just over a year ago last May. As I wrote shortly after the second tornado:

That's a lot of growth. That's a lot of growth that wasn't there 10 years ago. That's a lot of crap for a tornado to hit and destroy.

Same with Tuscaloosa. Same with Joplin. Same with La Plata, Maryland. Same with the March 2 2012 outbreak across the Ohio Valley. As we grow and expand and pack ourselves more densely than ever before, tornadoes go from a minor tragic incident to a horrific event. It's amplified an untold amount when an EF-5 tornado tears through a populated area, like what happened in Moore.

The problem with tornadoes isn't that there aren't necessarily more of them, but that there are more of us. As we spread out into previously untouched land, we're putting up a huge bullseye and saying "hey! over here! destroy us!"

Every region on earth deals with inherent natural hazards. California faces the threat of major earthquakes. New Orleans stares down the barrel of hurricanes. Both Tokyo and Seattle sit near the base of active volcanoes. Most cities east of the Rocky Mountains deal with tornadoes. Contrary to conspiratorial belief, tornadoes are not something we can control or even prevent. As with earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, it's something we must learn to deal with and prepare for before they happen.

The biggest solution is to stop building, and this goes hand-in-hand with slowing the country's ever-growing population. More people means we need more places to live. We're already approaching the issue of space in some of the more built-up parts of the country (especially in the I-95 corridor) in that as residents run out of space, they just start building up rather than out. That's not a feasible solution in many cases, so we'll just keep spreading out until we run out of supplies or land (or both).

Telling Americans what to do never goes well. The national psyche almost seems to work on reverse psychology. The weatherman tells people not to drive through a flooded roadway, so they do it anyway. Chipotle asks gun hobbyists not to bring military-style assault rifles into their restaurants, but they do it anyway because, darn it, it's my right! The Gadsden flag ("DON'T TREAD ON ME") was a rallying cry during the revolutionary war and it set the tone for the rest of our country's history — nobody can tell us what to do.

So when we're faced with the annual prospect of at least three towns somewhere in the United States being demolished by a wall of wind, nobody wants to hear the real solution. We would rather actually entertain the thought of building comically large concrete walls from Mexico to Canada that wouldn't work rather than stop building endless housing developments or, God forbid, maybe slow down the reproductive train so the population doesn't continue to explode.

But hey, when have we ever approached a topic rationally?

[Images via AP and the NWS]

Update: A serious way to help save your family from injury/death in a tornado is to spring the money for a safe room or in-ground tornado shelter, if you can afford one. FEMA offers grants for this very purpose.